With the summer movie schedule well underway with the release of yet another post-apocalyptic film, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, the discussion about the impact of modern cinema has already kicked off as well. Simon Pegg, who you may know from comedy satire films such as ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’, and even more recently the Mission Impossible Series and Star Trek films; has more than enough to say about the state of the motion picture industry.
Early this week he spoke with the Radio Times and discussed what he viewed as the “dumbing down” of movies, citing films specifically in the superhero and comic book genres. He went on to say that in the past, films such as ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Taxi Driver’, and ‘The Godfather’ dominated the box-office due to their powerful narratives but now have been succeeded by pure “spectacle” and big-budget blockbusters.
Now many articles and such have delved into the territory of calling Pegg’s statements “controversial”; I’m not going to do that because to do so would feed into the zeitgeist of ‘manufactured controversy’ that we as a society seem to crave these days. What I will say is that it’s about time that someone in the industry made this observation, because I for one have been commenting on this growing trend in cinema for quite some time now.
The problem that Simon Pegg refers to is of course not isolated to science fiction on its own but rather the entire industry as a whole. Cash-cows like the Marvel films and franchise films eat up a lot of the budgets in film studios nowadays because they know that there’s a monumental number of people, young and old, who will run to see anything with the word ‘superhero’ attached to it. Modern cinema has taken a dive and forsaken powerful storytelling for the tedium of CGI-driven action and vomit inducing action films.
Simon Pegg is absolutely right to cite what we now refer to as ‘Classics’, because for a great period of time films such as ‘The Godfather’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, used to rule the box-office with their zeal and ability to tell an epic story. Even today, films like ‘Gone with the Wind’ (adjusted for inflation) still hold the record for ‘highest-grossing films of all time’. If you were to do a quick ‘Google’ search of films that hold that mantle now, you’d find that almost all of them are either comic-book or fantasy/sci-fi related. Gone are the days of people crowding a theater to see character driven films with a sweeping soundtrack and thought provoking dialogue, all of which have been trumped by films that Pegg describes as “childish”.
It’s a real shame that films of this caliber have been isolated to annual festivals and limited showings due to the fact that theaters simply don’t get the audiences they used to for such movies. I can understand how someone like Simon Pegg laments that his career has amounted to being considered, “the poster child for (geekdom)”. It’s very hard I imagine, to break out of the mold you’ve been put in and get your fan base to follow you into projects that stray away from the what they’ve come to expect of you.
Even science fiction, a genre that Pegg himself attests to loving, has been diminished by the ‘dime-a-dozen’ postapocalyptic and dystopian young adult fiction that get new installments every year; none of which even compare to films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or even recent efforts like ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Predestination’. It’s true, the genre has fallen into convention, with less focus on telling an interesting story and more attention paid to casting choices and sheer extravaganza.
People don’t want to leave a movie theater and be confronted with varying interpretations of what they just saw. Audiences like to play things safe and be told exactly how and what they should feel with each scene. Movies have become overly passive forms of entertainment, where the audience isn’t forced to ask questions or left to wonder at the subtlety of a character interaction. Even worse, these films have created to some extent a movie going populace that is reliant on a steady diet of tripe and base forms of entertainment which discourage discussion of real issues by replacing them with tired cliches and quippy pop culture references. Big budget flicks are safe and do not engage an audience beyond the visual spectacle and as Pegg notes, have resulted in a “dumbing down” of what we’ve come to expect.
Films have a real ability to tell a visual and engaging story even without the use of special effects or conventional plot devices. Surrendering to mediocrity and simplicity does nothing for the genre other than to bolster ticket sales and it shouldn’t be controversial to expect more from an industry that has proven itself capable of more in the past.
So to Mr. Pegg I say, “Thank you for saying what many of us who aren’t sold on spectacle have been saying for quite some time now.”