When I was a child growing up on the Gulf Coast, the best place to be on a hot summer afternoon was at the movies. They were air conditioned and usually offered a double feature, so it was comfortable and my parents or grandparents were happy to park me somewhere for three hours and get some other things done. Most of these films, of course, were what we call “B” movies—cheaply made with low production values and second-tier actors and actresses. There were exceptions, but most of these films were just an excuse to disengage in a comfortable setting and stay out of trouble.
I have been to eleven movies so far this year. Given that I have a teenage grandson and several younger grand-children (including a great-grandchild) who live locally, most of the movies that I have seen are not art house classics. What has struck me, however, is that the majority of these films are really “B” movies but with multimillion dollar budgets and performers who have box office credibility.
Although I am not a movie critic, there are several observations I can make about these films.
First, most have no clear vision of what they are trying to do. In the latest incarnation of “The Lone Ranger,” there seemed to be no clear idea of what the creators were trying to accomplish. Was this a western, a comedy, or what? The driving idea seemed to be to parody an iconic American legend, but there were pretentious sub-plots about honoring noble Native Americans and deriding capitalism. The lack of vision was covered up with explosions, action sequences on trains, and spectacular scenery. It was a mess.
Second, these movies seem to lack a moral center. There are occasional allusions to “big ideas.” The hero of “World War Z” (a zombie movie) is motivated by love of family. “Star Trek Two” is all about family, as well, although not a biological one. In “Monsters University,” Sully learns about humility and hard work. There other positive examples, but most of these are just ways to make us care about the cast who will soon be placed in mortal danger. There is no feeling that these individuals are experiencing any internal struggles and, of course, there is little time to do so because they must move on to the next action sequence or risk losing the attention of the audience.
Third, for some of these films, it was clear that no one was watching the checkbook. Movies today, especially summer “block busters”, are predicated on the idea of investing big bucks in big explosions and big computer graphics in order to generate a big box office. In a number of this year’s films, they spent the money, but the movie was a black hole that pulled in cash but not viewers. Some examples from this year are the previously mentioned “The Lone Ranger,” “Pacific Rim,” and “White House Down.” They may do well overseas, on DVD, and in video streaming, but the initial box office showings were below expectations.
An exception to all of the above is “Now You See Me,” a sleeper hit that is really a fun date movie. In fact, my wife and I saw it together. This ensemble movie about magicians who become “Robin Hoods” to exact justice is well-written with solid performances and a bit of suspense. There are some spectacular special effects but they advance the storyline and never take away from the actors.
Although I am not typically a Tom Cruise fan, I also liked his movie “Oblivion,” a post-apocalyptic science fiction tale. The hero grappled with significant personal moral issues, the premise was interesting, and the extensive effects were not distracting. Some may find it hard to follow, but the twists and turns will satisfy most viewers.