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The Decline of Popcorn Movies Part I

The text below the break is part one of an opinion piece originally published on June 5th, 2000.

Here are some updated thoughts:  Some of the words ring very true in this article.  Specifically about how popcorn flicks have morphed into the most mindless and bland drivel even to grace theaters.  I only have to point as far as the Transformers franchise for proof.  That series has cornered the market on what defines a truly bad popcorn movie.  Michael Bay is the Master.  But if you want more evidence how about Battleship, Fast and Furious franchise (I know, heretic!!!), Godzilla, R.I.P.D., Pearl Harbor, etc, etc?  Hollywood continues to disguise what was formerly a legitimate sub-genre with non-stop action, lifeless CGI, and predictable plots.  But why should they stop?  We keep throwing money at them.

PopcornKernelRecently, I had the pleasure of watching (and reviewing) the Warner Brothers movie Three Kings. With its refreshing plot, reasonably likable characters and interesting action, when it was over, I thought, “Now that was a good popcorn movie.” In Talkback, I was accused of being far too harsh on “the best movie of 1999.” Is that possible? 1999 was overall a pretty strong year for movies (not 1997, but still far better than 1996). We had American Beauty, The Green Mile, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Pie, and Being John Malkovich; all of those would far outrank Three Kings for my viewing choice if I had discs in front of me. The root cause of this misconception is this: the term ‘popcorn movie’ has transmogrified over the past five years. The connotation that the term formerly encompassed has completely disappeared. It’s this mutation of meaning that leads to Three Kings and movies of its ilk (as rare as they are nowadays) to complete overrating. Movie fans were crying foul because it wasn’t recognized by the prestigious Academy for any significant awards. Did they have a case? No. Can one blame a lot of them for their confusion? Not really, because Hollywood has decided that instead of making great movies more often, they can make money by confusing the audience through any number of tactics, like deceptive editing in their trailers or TV commercials (think Darth Maul!), most of which, while not implicitly nefarious, are at least on the wrong side of honesty.

As a public service to fellow movie fans, I offer you the following group of warning signs that point to a modern ‘popcorn’ movie. Does having one or two of them mean the movie you rented or went to see is south of cheese? Not necessarily, but having more than three should raise immediate suspicion.

PopcornKernel ABBREVIATIONS:  ID4, M:I-2, WWW, MIB, MIB2 (Shudder, because it’s on the way)

PopcornKernel RELEASE DATE: Generally popcorn movies are released between Memorial Day and Fourth of July, but if Hollywood really wants to stink out the place, it can be January or early February when absolutely nothing comes out. Remember Supernova? Less often, they are released in August to capitalize on the dog days of summer, the boring afternoons.

PopcornKernel SEQUELS IN DEVELOPMENT: Yes folks, you can all look forward to Battlefield Earth 2, Blair Witch 3, X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, regardless of how stupid the originals are (or were).

PopcornKernel WILL SMITH: Sorry Fresh Prince, but I am rooting for you to prove me wrong.

PopcornKernel EXPLOSIONS:  More in the commercials or trailer than DIALOGUE is always a bad sign.

PopcornKernel A TAGLINE: Featuring the words “We Fight Back,” “This Time, we…” or any double entendre (Size DOES Matter!) in it should send up the red flag.

PopcornKernel JOHN WOO-ISMS: Someone shooting, possibly double pistols, possibly falling or diving sideways, possibly in slow-motion, possibly with doves fluttering in the foreground/background. 

PopcornKernel PROMOTIONAL TIE INS: Everyone will need the Wolverine head collector’s cup, available only at Taco Bell! See the movie! Drink out of someone’s plastic face!

“Popcorn movie” used to mean several things. First and foremost, it meant the movie was generally an action movie. If you were going to a popcorn movie, you could count on at least three or four good explosions, some loud sound effects, probably some gunfire, and possibly some martial arts action. The characters that populate popcorn movies of old are not entirely one dimensional, but they have very few character traits that have any significant bearing on the plot or action of the movie. The characters are believable if not entirely authentic. A popcorn movie’s most significant defining trait is this: the viewer was willing to suspend disbelief for a few moments to allow a few judiciously placed and reasonably thought out, if not entirely accurate, sequences to take place. Three Kings, for example, had three of these moments. Observe:

PopcornKernel POPCORN MOMENT #1: Somehow Barlow is able to get cellular service (international at that!) from a stolen phone in an underground Iraqi bunker in a town in the middle of a desert, after a war. Must be on the Mulder/Scully call plan! Forget the fact that any sort of communication hardware is among the first targeted by an advancing army.

PopcornKernel POPCORN MOMENT #2: Can a nerf football fly true near the chaotic tumult of a helicopter’s rotor blades? (If you answer unequivocally ‘yes’, I submit that you need to watch a football game at Giants Stadium in December and re-evaluate your answer) For that split second, however, we are willing at the very least to acknowledge that it was a good, if not entirely realistic, idea.

PopcornKernel POPCORN MOMENT #3: Wouldn’t the army have classified any and all material (i.e. film) and gag ordered all personnel (i.e. reporters) involved in this incident? Again, the satisfaction at the end of the film keeps you from scrutinizing it too much.

These are three fairly isolated moments in a two-hour movie, which is acceptable for a popcorn movie. These inconsistencies don’t prevent you from enjoying a movie. They bend the rules of reality a little in an effort to keep the film moving, so that it doesn’t get bogged down in procedural or trivial detail. It is absolutely acceptable to take one or two creative liberties, to take a little cinematic license so to speak, from time to time.

The recent problem with this evolution (or de-evolution, depending on how you look at it) of film is that instead of meaning “entertaining action film with a few plot holes,” a popcorn movie now means “predictable, mindless, characterless, budget larger than most countries’ gross national product explosion fest.” It’s insulting and boring! The steady decline that popcorn flicks have recently been on (and show no signs of consistently returning from) can be traced back to Speed. The beginnings of a disturbing trend are found here.  Start with a decent premise. Add a young, attractive, athletic but under-talented actor (Keanu Reeves). Add another young, cute faced and attractive female for love interest (Sandra Bullock). Keep any meaningful dialogue to a minimum, mix in several high cost special effects shots (bus jumping over bridge); a cartoony villain (Dennis Hopper), explosions and a VERY predictable plot (Are they going to escape the bus? Will Dennis Hopper get what’s coming to him? Gosh, I just don’t know!!!!) and voila, a bad popcorn movie is born. Speed is by far not the be all, end all of bad popcorn movies; it’s their progenitor.

Read Part II . . .

Note:   I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant.  These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.

About Neal Ulen

Neal Ulen
Editor/Webmaster - Engineer by training, nerd by passion. Speculative fiction has influenced me since I was a kid, guiding me to the career I have now, and likely saving me from myself during times in my young life when the path was fraught with a minefield of choices. I dabble in tech, game, film, fiction, and writing. These are my true passions, and have been since the summer of '77.