Rise of the Machines

Who took the fun out of mindless summer spectacle movies?

Ever since Jaws and Star Wars, when Hollywood discovered the power and profit to wide-release summer blockbusters, we've been trained to park our brains between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But this year's blockbuster season seems not just dumb, which can be fun, but completely joyless. Unlike Jaws and Star Wars, there aren't any big summer movies to love right now. Can't there be spectacle anymore that actually inspires affection? After the opening weekend to each successive studio tent pole, nobody's lining up around the block to catch the must-see movie two, three, or a dozen times more. That's because there's another new tent pole arriving each weekend that we grimly drag ourselves to see, like hamsters on a wheel.

Why is that? Where has the fun gone? Into the machine, that's where, the same self-perpetuating machine of which we allmoviegoers, critics, studio executives, directors, and starsare a part. It's as if the entire summer-movie apparatus itself has taken on a mind of its ownor grown "self-aware" like the Skynet system that fights back against human control in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. As you may recall, Skynet was originally designed to squash bugs in the national defense computer network; but, as Nick Stahl's hero tells the disbelieving military brass, "Skynet is the virus," and the bugs were just a ploy for the machine to take the nuclear keys out of human hands. The story is familiar from Dr. Strangelove's Doomsday Device to 2001's Hal, but I think it's actually happening in today's movie marketplace.

The odd thing is that while many of this summer's movies are specifically about humans resisting the machine, their real robot stars only echo the nefarious network that governs the entire assembly line. There's an analogue between dehumanized product and producer.

CONSIDER THE CYBORGS in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. To appearances, Cameron, Lucy, and Drew are human, yet director McG makes their exploits about as warm and cuddly as machine-gun fire. His movie, too, feels shot from a gun: an aimless fusillade of entrances, exits, musical cues, segues, and beer-commercial highlights that would make as much (or as little) sense projected in reverse order. It's incoherent, unshaped, inhumane a machine that's designed to produce pleasure yet yields none. Yes, it'll pass $100 million at the box office, but it cost about as much to make, and the film was once projected to be a mega-hit of the summer. We go, but only out of obligation; the angels were an enjoyable novelty three years ago, but today the love is gone. Our heroines have become The Stepford Angels; their maniacal grinning and high-kicking grows frightening, not endearing.

Demi Moore's fallen-angel villainess embodies the flick's mercenary chill. If I had to introduce her to T3's Kristanna Loken, I'd say, "Terminatrix, meet Terminatrix," (a conversation that would get really confusing when Lara Croft showed up). They're both lethal, humorless robots. Loken has her flesh melted away to reveal a shiny substructure; Moore has her alloy-metal cheekbones and tautly re-engineered bod, Version 2.0 ("I'll be back," indeed). In both cases, there's no soul, only skeleton.

The same is true of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, where virtually all the cast is turned to skeleton during moonlit battles. Bony buccaneers Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp, and company merrily yo-ho-ho and stab one another unendingly; dreadnoughts lob constant salvos of cannon fire; timbers are shivered and planks are walked, but none of it seems to matter in director Gore Verbinski's murky maritime bouillabaisse. The skeletons can't be killed: The curse is like Skynet, like the Matrix, meaning all the swashbuckling is for naught.

Whether it's Terminator versus Terminatrix, Moore versus angels, Keanu versus computer, or skeleton versus skeleton, there's nothing at stake. It's all happening inside a machine, between machines, with puny humans cringing and cowering on the sidelines like Stahl and poor Claire Danes in T3, like superfluous lovers Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in Pirates. These movies are all about the hardware, which is why all those clashing cutlasses and smashing cars are so fundamentally boring. It's like you're trapped inside a deafening, cacophonous factory.

WHICH IS NOT TO SAY they're unsuccessful, since the genius of the system is to get us to dutifully open our wallets, to belly up to the snack-food bar. Pirates is already north of $200 million; T3 is chasing that figure; and there may yet be a Charlie's Angels 3 (although with pay cuts likely for its three stars; while Luke Wilson will again be a cardboard cutout).

But the biggest hit of the summer is a very different sort of machine product. Having already grossed more than $300 million, Pixar's Finding Nemo will probably be the biggest moneymaker of 2003. Audiences feel warmest about a bunch of computer-spawned, cold-blooded fish. Since it took years to animate, Nemo has a clearly designed, well thought-out story to support itnot a steel skeleton. Instead of numbing, bombastic, headache-inducing spectacle, it's got the most traditional narrative shape to it: separation, quest, and a parent-and-child reunion. Human characters are only an afterthought (a few one-dimensional Aussies), but Nemo is the richest, most humanistic hit of the summer.

Is Hollywood learning anything from Pixar? I think not: It's in technophobic/ technophilic denial, like the generals in T3's bunker who can't understand how Skynet is now in charge.

At the same time, even as the industry grows more heavily tech-dependent, it hypocritically sells us these mechanistic, anti-technology fablesNeo and his whiz-bang crew of rebel programmers seeking to overthrow cybertyranny. (How do they do it? More software.) While Hollywood keeps fretting about saving us from technology, the actual, affable programmers at Pixar simply embrace it without any of the angst. And the public is closer to Pixar in its tech comfort level, while Hollywood persists in quashing the file sharing and downloading rampant among its best (young) customers. Its movies are a displacement of its own fears.

IN THE END, THERE IS NO malevolent central computer running the show, because there doesn't need to be. In its place has grown a closed feedback loop beyond anyone's control. Studios spend mightily and lose mightily if their gambles don't pay off. You can smell the fear in L.A. from 3,000 miles awayMalibu mortgages and private-school tuitions are at stake. These films aren't any more fun for Hollywood to make than they are for us to watch; it's all about fiduciary duty and shareholder value. The grosses are just adding-machine tape; there's no pleasure in reading those numbers.

So it continues: Audiences are lured, skeptically, by massive marketing blitzes. McDonald's and other corporate tie-ins abound. Stars glumly make the talk-show circuit. Critics protest ineffectually. And the crazy thing is that we all need one another, like some loveless marriage that keeps going on because, well, we can't imagine it not going on. It's just how summer iswe've grown accustomed to spending our time and money this way.

All of us march along on the same conveyor belt because we watch the same TV commercials, gather around the same office watercoolers, read the same box-office grosses on Monday, and send each other the same snarky messages via our silently buzzing cell phones before the movie is even over. (The worse the flick, the brighter the swarm of those little screens.) All of us are implicatednot like a smart mob but a dumb mob that keeps making and seeing dumb movies.

But you can't kill a machine. Whatever his future in politics, the Terminator will probably be backalong with those silicon angels and a whole new summer '04 product line. As with Skynet's hovering robots and laser-eyed, stainless-steel storm troopers, resistance seems futile, though they keep peddling the idea that John Connor will somehow eventually lead mankind to victoryprovided we pay to see that movie. The assembly line of joyless spectacle grinds on. Because, as the Terminator dismisses our human yearnings, "Desire is irrelevant."

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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