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Opinion: How 21st century blockbusters miss the mark

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At home this past weekend, I had the pleasure of streaming “Godzilla vs. Kong,”  but the experience was far from pleasurable.

There are no spoilers here, and this is not a movie review, but an observation about this movie struck me. Aside from a rudimentary sequence of actions, the film really has no plot. In fact, that almost seems to be the point.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” seems to be a movie that is meant to be forgotten — a simple action-packed motion picture meant to drive box-office (or streams in our current age) with no real care for themes of criticism, society, philosophy, or just about anything else. It’s pure action that’s happening, we’re just observing with tangential interest. In today’s cinema, that seems to be an all-too-common post-modern archetype.

But it’s not a completely pervasive archetype. Take Zach Snyder’s cut this year of “Justice League,” a very well-made movie (again, no spoilers ahead). The film, an extended and re-organized version of the disastrous 2017  “Justice League,” was the film that Snyder intended to release when he was named the original director of the movie before being replaced by Marvel’s Joss Whedon.

What’s interesting here is that in comparing the 2017 and 2021 films. Snyder’s version is infinitely better, but is also much darker and in-depth. It was an actual film, a meaningful film, with all the complexities of a good plot and enticing characters.

In comparison, the 2017 Whedon version is almost a caricature. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake would be the film’s motto, as it makes less than hilarious puns, creates a villain who is nearly a cartoon in his appearance and importance, and has no real stakes for a happy-go-lucky squad of superheroes.

Here I believe we observe the tendencies of modern films. Whedon’s film was more fit to reach a popular audience as a movie free of high stakes and full of (attempted) humor that would be a fun time for all the family. It’s no mystery why Martin Scorsese said these movies weren’t cinema but rather something akin to theme parks. 

The 2017 Whedon cut was a textbook movie desired by today’s film production companies. It was unabrasive, inoffensive and easy to swallow.

But, in art, playing it safe is playing it boring – and one ends up with precisely the issue with “Godzilla vs. Kong” or Whedon’s “Justice League,” that is being thoroughly and intentionally uninteresting motion pictures.

In consumerism today, as the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek points out, we desire a product without its perceived costs. We desire coffee without the caffeine, sugar without the calories, or beer without the alcohol. 

With film, it’s the same. Consumerism demands blind entertainment with no meaning or moral of the story. Of course, a good tale is what we genuinely crave – an adventure of a martyr or the psychology of a thriller – but it is not what we are being advertised to admire. Rather, these films create a form of attention hedonism, providing action scene after action scene, joke after joke in an attempt to distract the audience from the price they paid for admission.

So, what is the way out of this mess? Are we bound to uninteresting sci-fi films? 

No, of course not. One must reject the notion that a monster or science fiction film must necessarily be a product of this stereotypical campy, inconclusive, and incongruous imagination of a teenage spirit. 

In fact, some of the films that we hold most dear to our heart deal in this genre of what one might call serious science fiction or movies for the young (at heart).  An example of this would be films like the Alien franchise, particularly the first two iterations, “Alien” (1979) and “Aliens” (1986), as well as the more recent “Prometheus” (2012). 

Or the Star Wars franchise, which, aside from being a thrilling adventure, is a complex commentary on government, jealousy, and tyrannical and charismatic authority. Here I’m only referring to the George Lucas films. The post-Lucas era of Star Wars is perhaps the clearest example of horrendous filmmaking that devolves something so precious into this campy unoriginal stereotype I referred to above.

Sci-fi and monster-like films like these are cinematic treasures, as are films such as “Jurassic Park” (1993), “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), or “The Host” (2006). These are films designed not only to entertain but also to explore, in a popular medium, issues such as corporatism or psychoanalysis.

Almost all of the films mentioned above were denounced during their times as too violent or scary – fitting, of course, for the sci-fi/monster genre. Nonetheless, oftentimes the critics of these films failed to recognize the immense morality, themes, or wisdom held within these plots of terror. Now we are faced with the opposite problem, violence and terror has remained, but meaning has fled. 

In years past, parents had to worry about films exposing their children to the influence of bloody violence and seductive sexuality. Today, our situation is much worse; parents must protect their children from cinema that is uninfluential, unremarkable, and meaningless. 

That’s the real threat today; sex and violence are much more desirable and benign images.

Cover illustration by Myke Simon on Unsplash.

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Ryan James Solis

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.

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