The Decline of Popcorn Movies Part II

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.

Also, I don’t recall disliking Independence Day this much 16 years ago.  Maybe I was writing this article in a hyperbolic fugue state.

If you happened to stumble into this post without reading Part I first, make sure you do so.  Onward to Part II . . .

PopcornKernelThe movie that best represents lazy Hollywood writing and production, hitting cinematic mediocrity square in the nose, is Independence Day.  Which, by the way, checks off three criteria from Part I:  Will Smith, a corny tagline, and a nonsensical abbreviation (ID4). Was this movie wildly commercially successful? Indisputably, both in theaters and on video, with a soon to be released collector’s edition. Disturbing, because this is one of the cheesiest pieces of science fiction cinema ever perpetrated on the movie going public. If these characters were meat, not only would they be uncooked, they would be rotting, turning green and covered with flies. [Edit:  Shit, that was a bizarre analogy.] Will Smith, who I think is immensely talented and could be a spectacular actor if he’d learn to refuse junk like ID4, MIB and Wild Wild West, was absolutely cliché in Independence Day. I actually rooted against President Bill Pullman, who couldn’t act like a believable town council member, let alone the leader of the free world. The way he espoused the well-written line, “Nuke ’em,” with all the emotion of a wet paper bag, it’s amazing this guy was passed over at the Razzies ™. Jeff Goldblum, another harbinger of bad cinema (forget Jurassic Park in which he costarred, remember another blasé popcorn movie, The Lost World, in which he starred) is the guy in the i-Mac commercials. Randy Quaid (who always manages to knock a movie down half a star or more, guaranteed) is your fairly standard ‘awww shucks, village idiot’ who, of course, plays a pivotal role in the infantile final battle.

Independence Day
Independence Day

I know this movie is officially classified as ‘science fiction,’ so it doesn’t exactly play by the normal rules of physics and reality. Don’t let that fool you; writers of today’s science fiction seemingly decide that they are the arbiters of the rules in all worlds, and the defenders of said genre seem to agree. This is, in fact, wrong: unless you are creating an entirely new galaxy (i.e. Star Wars), and especially if you are working within the confines of our humble solar system and trying to get the audience to identify with your characters, you must at least adhere to minor rules and regulations to maintain credibility. If you are going to blow up the Empire State Building, put it in the RIGHT PLACE! Would a hastily written computer virus actually bring about the downfall of a race with the technology to manipulate a global satellite system, or travel across the galaxy? Realistically, would an alien race build their technology so easily compatible with our own? The spaceship that Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fly into the mothership is fifty years old. Is it realistic to think that this technologically advanced society would have made enough advances so as to make that craft easily discernible, and thereby automatically suspicious? Think of it this way: if you were on an aircraft carrier, and in the middle of a battle where all of your F-14 Tomcats are fighting, and someone tried to land a biplane on your deck, wouldn’t you be suspicious? What about the inexcusable and clumsy mishandling of relevant plot points? For example, the aliens motivation is ridiculous, not to mention completely worn out (The X-Files has used the ‘earth as a farm’ routine several times, and Battlefield Earth has reprises it), because the aliens could get here in the first place. If the alien race could in fact design a viable fleet large enough to taxi their entire civilization around the galaxy, wouldn’t you think that they would concentrate this intellect on creating synthetic natural resources? Sounds like these aliens need new leadership. Again, these aren’t necessarily questions of absolute reality, but they are legitimate questions that Hollywood thinks science fiction fans (who are notoriously forgiving in their genre) are too lemming like to ask.

What about the painful predictability of this tripe? Once we find out that the President was a former pilot, did we have any doubt that he would take part in a heroic counter attack, not to mention score some key blows for our side? If so, did they disappear when his wife died ‘tragically?’ Did anyone not know that Randy Quaid’s tragic hero, whom we are introduced to as drunk, in a plane, and maligned by his townspeople for claiming alien abduction, would die to save his children, probably in a plane, and probably accompanied by a really bad anal probing joke? Who didn’t predict that only after being turned down by NASA and losing his best friend, Will Smith would fly into space and destroy an alien mothership? Has anyone heard of ‘story’ or ‘plot twists?’ It certainly doesn’t seem so.

[Edit:  Wow, went into full on harsh mode on Independence Day!]

Finally, the last really annoying thing about certain ‘popcorn’ movies is they present you with a completely lame concept or cause to ‘get behind.’ Popcorn movies are not (and should not) be meant to change or even comment upon the way we think as a whole. The ‘unification of the human race,’ the ‘ignore all differences and band together against a common enemy’ thing is completely over wrought. Most surprising about this is that NOT ONE PERSON along the convoluted path from paper to silver screen said “Anyone think the audience is smart enough to assume that man would form unlikely alliances to combat this global threat to our species?” They assume the audience doesn’t share this believe so we are subjected to these cheesy, saccharine shots of guys with Israeli flags on their planes looking forgivingly at guys with Arab flags on their planes. It’s ham handed, oafish and just plain garbage. Writers do not need to shove down our throats that we need to work better as a species . . . we all know this already!  At least the rational among us.

The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project

This terrible decline of popcorn movies raises an even more disheartening question: were movies ever completely about movies? The answer can’t be unequivocally ‘yes.’ If it were, we wouldn’t be subjected to cinematic refuse like Eye of the Beholder (unabashedly horrible and universally torched by critics and viewers, released merely to capitalize on the commercial success of Double Jeopardy). If they were, no one in their right mind would ever have thought about making (the now filming) Blair Witch Project 2. Let’s face facts: The Blair Witch Project was a novelty act, not a great movie, not a landmark in cinema history as some misguided MTV-mindset sycophants seem to think. By the end, I was rooting for something, whether it was the Blair Witch, the Drunken Fishermen, a wild raccoon or even a vicious strain of dysentery to kill those kids. Trying to redo a refreshing idea (again, that’s all The Blair Witch Project was) is like paying money to see the Bearded Lady twice at a freak show. The first time it’s a little freaky . . . the second time, not only has it lost its charm, but also you’re looking for the glue under the fake beard. So why are they making a sequel, not to mention a sequel to the sequel? The first one grossed over $130 million domestically.  My prediction: these Blair Sequels, not to mention M:I-2, the pending Jurassic Park 3, an inevitable X-Men 2, will all be mediocre cash ins at best. They’ll all make money, probably buckets of it. That is what perpetuates this dysfunctional cycle, and it’s what makes people think Three Kings is “the best movie of 1999.”  [Edit:  but it wasn’t.]

Popcorn movies were not (and in rare cases, still are not) by default bad movies. As I mentioned, Three Kings is a decent popcorn movie. It doesn’t insult you by basing its story on absolutely ludicrous premises, it doesn’t overload you with gratuitous explosions or lame characters, and it doesn’t talk down to you. The problem is that there are far more Godzillas than there are Three Kings. When pressed, defenders of these films hide behind the weak shield of “It’s a popcorn movie! Relax!” I’ll relax, sure, when you fork back over the nine bucks I paid. Don’t take this as some pretentious call to arms; I know that these movies will be produced forever. It’s more of a public service, a redefinition for those who might be confused as to what a popcorn movie is versus what a popcorn movie was or should be. It’s also a warning: every time you plunk down your hard-earned to go see a movie like the foppish Mission to Mars or the inexplicable Battlefield Earth, you inadvertently risk having that money fall into the hands of the idiot who is peddling Titanic 2: Adventures of Rose! Are you willing to take some of the responsibility for it?

I’m not. Here’s hoping for a higher percentage of quality films . . .

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 - Neal is a writer and recovering engineer who likes pizza, the insidious power of sarcasm (and pizza), and debating science fiction (and pizza). You can also find his writing on Omni, Geeks, and other media platforms.