The Birdy's about to get a little wordy, but it's probably a thought that's crossed your mind as you're watching the incoming tide of summer movies rolling into theatres. You're asking yourself: Where the heck did all the fun summer movies go? And when did we all get SO obsessed with doom and gloom? I could barely remember the last movie I'd seen in a theater -- I think it was Les Miserables, yet another cheery, chippy movie, eh? I had the opportunity to see Star Trek: Into Darkness on opening night with my cousin, during a recent family visit. Big summer blockbuster time! Super sequels! Dazzling effects and even more dazzling production budgets! Lens flare! Get me that bucket of popcorn with fake butter, let's get the summer started! The movie -- which was pretty grim, hence the 'Into Darkness' bit -- hadn't even started yet, and from the previews alone, I wanted to skip the frozen Junior Mints and take a handful of Xanax.
I purposely check my watch before a movie starts in a theatre, just out of curiosity, so that I can get a sense of how many previews you see before the feature starts. It's a good 15-20 minutes' worth of film advertising, which I'm not complaining about because I actually love movie previews. When I was younger, my mom and I would play a memory game of trying to remember what previews we saw after the movie was over. Since Star Trek is part of the big summer movie roll-out, we saw trailers for all the heavily-anticipated movies, like Man of Steel, World War Z, Enders Game and Elysium. Superheroes! Action movies! Sci-fi stuff! But unlike popcorn summers of yore, it didn't leave you feeling energized for your next movie night, if anything, you felt anxious and even a little sad. It's an angst-ridden, conflicted Superman that's flying over our troubled skies. And zombies aren't just slow-moving ghouls that affect a small town in Middle America, they're a global epidemic that makes you question if even Brad Pitt and his heroic abs can save humanity. Will Smith would be saving the world (he's done it before, like, several times!), but he's too busy dealing with an already dead, annihilated planet in After Earth. The previews for Enders Game and Elysium showed dystopic futures where the human race has become soul-less and militarized, or humanity's in such shambles that survivors resort to sacrificing their humanity to become living weapons. Thankfully the trailer for The Hangover 3 was thrown in, just to lighten the mood.
Granted, these previews were marketed towards the audience based on the feature, all of whom would appreciate comic books and science fiction, but these are big-budget studio productions and they're what the public desires, even if they all have the whiff of an apocalyptic specter. I'm definitely going to see several of these movies, but seeing the previews all at once, I felt saturated in despair. Films are a reflection of our times, and it was a startling reminder of how much our world has changed. As an audience, we can no longer be content in an immersion of suspended belief without a degree of harsh reality. Movies about cute talking animals or detectives who spend all their time in car chases seem like an incredulous luxury. At the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness, there is a dedication to the families and victims of 9/11, as the movie's theme is less about exploring space and more about how fear and violence can erupt when people are terrorized. As a genre, science fiction has historically been a bellwether to contemporary social issues. Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Thing From Another World (the 1951 original version of The Thing), or The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) all reflected the sense of fear America had during the Cold War, an impending sense of doom that a Soviet invasion was imminent and a way of life would be destroyed. In Body Snatchers and The Thing, the threat was invisible, there was no monster, and the fear lie in the notion of friends and family somehow changing, that their bodies would remain the same, but their mind (and political leanings) would be corrupted.
Star Trek: Into Darkness had invisible monsters of their own -- human vengeance. Man of Steel hasn't come out yet, but it projects themes of xenophobia, a dislike and fear of foreign newcomers, even if their intentions are good. As for a world overtaken by zombies or robots, that just smacks of the glass-half-empty perspective, that somehow humanity has already been lost, and the only thing left is to save what we can, and that's as happy an ending as you'll get. And to think, just a few years ago, we were waiting for summer movies with gunfights and relishing the idea of watching a bunch of stuff blow up with Hollywood gusto. Whereas now, when a movie shows people running in fear after gunshots, or a building being destroyed, we feel ourselves clench up a little, unable to completely seal off the outside world from creeping in to two and a half hours of mindless entertainment. Even sitting in a crowded movie theater, I admit to having some anxiety. I look for where the exits are. Instead of wondering if I'll remember all the previews I saw when the movie's over, I'm wondering if I would have the sense of mind to grab whoever I was with and either duck for cover or run, if something were to happen. I realize the movies haven't changed so much as us, the viewers.
When Jurassic Park was re-released in theaters earlier this year, I really regretted not going to see it again. Even if it was a reminder of how old I felt when I heard someone say, "I can't wait to see that classic in a theater for the first time!" Grumble. I saw it when it was released, in Ye Olde Year of 1993, and I remembered thinking that this was the perfect summer movie, it's the reason Hollywood spends ridiculous amounts of money, genuinely entertaining crowds on a hot summer day. It had the perfect balance of fun storytelling and special effects that still hold up to today's standards. There were moments that delighted and scared the audience; I remember screaming in terror with the characters on the screen and everyone else in the theater during the famous T-Rex encounter on a rainy night. It was still fun to be scared. And the light-duty morality tale that science was wonderful, but should forever be kept in check, never escaped the screen. No lingering feeling of dread, that somehow our world would be usurped by giant lizards -- homosapien mindpower to the rescue, with a sweeping score by John Williams. Roll end credits. It was a wonderful, fully-contained summer movie experience, complete with a bucket of popcorn. It left you thrilled and entertained, happier for having seen it. I miss a little of that blissful ignorance, which believed that while bad things happen in the real world, the worst villains were fictional, contained safely in a film reel.
I'm not critical of this summer's movies. I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing many of them. I understand that they are what we can relate to, the new normal that can only accept its entertainment when it's mottled with the scars of war and caution towards an unknown future. And for that, it makes me a little sad. All I can hope for is for a day when we can watch dinosaur movies again and not be afraid to be dazzled.
Jaunty Fine Print: illustration by Denise Sakaki