This summer’s movies have sucked. I realize that’s a subjective statement, and of course not every movie has been awful, but if you’ve been paying attention, you probably know what I mean. The big movies – the ones on which movie studios rely to make their budgets for the entire year work – have been uninspiring, uninteresting, and in many cases, unwatched. Which means that this summer could potentially remake the movie business altogether.
The recent evolution of the movie business has led studios to make films with bigger and bigger budgets that are supposed to offer larger and larger returns. The idea is that a movie with a budget of perhaps $150 Million can sometimes earn hundreds of millions in profits – and conceivably into the very low billions, although Hollywood studios are notorious obfuscators about their actual profits – but only if it has certain ingredients.
So what’s the key? International box office. Success still almost always begins in the United States, but bigger movies make higher profits from overseas, and the highest earning movies make the most from international markets. So profits depend on movies that people in Japan, India, and Sweden will pay to watch, hopefully over and over. Problematically, however, people in Japan, India, and Sweden have different cultural histories, value different historical heroes, and live very different lives. A smaller film – one made for ‘only’ $35M, for example – probably has more talking and less ‘blowing things up,’ which means it requires more understanding and enjoyment of one particular culture. A bigger film, as we know, probably has a movie star whose name everyone on earth knows (Will Smith, Tom Cruise, etc.), and a lot of explosions in the process of a larger struggle that doesn’t take too many words – which is to say, too much cross-cultural understanding – to explain. So blockbusters appeal to more of humanity, and generate more profit.
Which brings us to this summer. This summer, Hollywood has offered blockbuster (blockbusteds? Blockbustereds? I think we’re going with blockbustereds.) after blockbustered about the destruction of earth. Which makes sense; if you want a movie plot that should appeal to the maximum slice of humanity, the near-destruction of all of humanity seems like a safe bet. Apart from a few unhinged Muslim extremists and Buddhists who no longer want anything (including, I imagine, the survival of humanity), who objects to saving the world? So we have Oblivion, World War Z, Pacific Rim, and a host of other films in which humanity’s survival is threatened, which hypothetically appeals to everyone, and should therefore lead to mountains of Southern-California based lucre. Should. Are not.
The problem, by the way, is not that the movies are terrible. I affirm again that I think they are, but so are all of Michael Bay’s Transformer movies or most of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and terrible still sells if you get the formula right. So while there is a problem threatening to remake the movie business, it appears to be completely divorced from film quality.
The problem, surprisingly (or not), is that Americans don’t care about the destruction of humanity.
Remember, profitable films more or less always start those profits in the USA. And while it is possible for a film to lose money domestically but make money internationally and be profitable overall, it’s not possible (yet) for such a film to be profitable at a rate of return that justifies the risk to the studio. So Americans have to buy a blockbuster’s premise, and one thing that appears clear at the moment is that Americans are not interested in watching the world narrowly avert destruction this summer. Maybe on Netflix this winter, perhaps. But not now. We just don’t care about that plot, no matter how many movies offer it. If humanity’s going down, America doesn’t care.
The question is, why not?
It’s possible that America is just tired of watching the same movie over and over again, so we’re not expressing contempt for all of creation by expressing our ambivalence about its filmed destruction. But our friends overseas would probably object to this justification. For one thing, there’s the question of American intransigence on climate change. This may be (bizarrely) controversial in the U.S., but most foreign countries take human agency in climate change as an article of faith and live greener than we do. We don’t, and that looks to them like we don’t care that humanity’s going down. So our disinterest in the movies reflects our geopolitical disposition, at least from their perspective.
There’s more, too. In this post-Cold War era, we don’t worry too much about planet-wide nuclear warfare. Many other countries, however, lack our ambivalence about the dangers of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the citizens of such countries are very aware of who developed such weapons first. They’re also very aware of which is the only country to ever actually visit that horror on another people in warfare, and which country maintains the largest functional arsenal of such weapons today (Look, I’m not going to bother researching whether we or the Russians have more weapons, because I don’t believe for a second that theirs – or the Chinese for that matter – are as likely to work as ours, and if the weapons don’t work, they don’t count). In this case, it’s not necessarily that the world sees America as not caring about what happens to humanity; it’s just that the world doesn’t find much persuasive evidence in all of this that we do.
We could also mention the frequency with which the American military gets sent overseas for one reason or another, and regardless of whether or not such missions are justified (and to be clear, I often think they are), we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that fighting at least one conflict every decade is completely alien to the life experiences of nearly every other people on earth.
Add it all up, and I think it’s safe to assume that much of non-American humanity will see our disinterest in this summer’s “earth goes down” movies as America being America.
My reflections on this summer’s movies have me wondering. If Christians are supposed to be salt and light, and if America is a country filled with Christians, should the larger world that we’re supposedly salting and lighting see us as more than jerks who don’t care if they live or die? Still worse, of course, is that this summer’s movies also leave me to wonder whether or not Americans really do care if all of creation crashes and burns.
It’s not a strictly evangelical – or even religious, for that matter – issue, but it is one that I find particularly troubling. The evidence presented by this year’s movies may be entirely circumstantial, but that doesn’t disprove its veracity, which should lead to some evaluative pondering with respect to the efficacy of the American Church’s collective salting and lighting. Do Americans care about the rest of humanity? And does the presence of millions upon millions of Christians in the United States influence the answer to that question in any way? This summer’s movies may suck, but they still make me think.