Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Unified Theory of Bad Movies

When you watch as many movies as I do, you wind up seeing a lot of sub-par selections. It's just inevitable. Most movies aren't particularly good, which does make the good ones seem a bit better, but also results in a lot of wasted late Thursday evenings. At least, for me.

Normally, I can get some enjoyment from even a bad movie. Like, for example, Swordfish. Now, Swordfish is an extremely stupid movie. It's loud and obnoxious and it makes very little sense and shamelessly derivative. There really isn't a moment in the film that isn't borrowed from some similar, better movie. Also, it's one of those movies where the main character is a computer hacker. Why make that movie? Everyone by now knows computer hacking isn't cinematic!

In Swordfish, director Dominic Sena (also responsible for the masterful Gone in 60 Seconds) tries to liven up the hacking scenes by having Hugh Jackman jump up and down like a mental patient while blaring techno music on the soundtrack and spinning the camera around quickly. It doesn't work.

But it is pretty hilarious. Most of Swordfish is like that. Dim-witted, silly, unrealistic and juvenile enough to have been penned in a few hours by a pre-teen, but glossy and slick and just mindless enough to be inoffensive. That's usually my take on bad Hollywood films. They suck, but hey, they're usually pretty to look at and short. And sometimes Mike Dytka calls a small child "Bing Bong" repeatedly.

But on rare occasions, I see a film so bad, it truly offends my sensibilities. Films that are bad enough to genuinely cause me discomfort in the theater, feelings of frustration and fatigue. Garden State was such a film, a movie that bothered me to the point that I wanted to physically enter the film so as to confront several main characters.

This year's abomination Crash was another, a movie I found deeply offensive. The critical and commercial praise for Crash saddens me and causes me genuine despair about the future of our nation. I'm still hoping most Americans don't actually believe the messages implicit in Crash, ideas about how racism is an inevitable psychological condition permanently lodged in the brain of every human being, recreations of classic stereotypical scenes played as straight-forward realism, over-simplified self-help jargon presented as fact. Maybe they just liked the aesthetic style and performances and didn't really even consider the underlying themes and messages.

I don't hate Joss Whedon's Serenity on quite that level. It doesn't make me fear for the future of our nation. I just found it irritating and a pretty massive disappointment. Yes, a disappointment, for though I was no huge fan of Joss' TV work, I nonetheless had considerable hopes that his beloved (and unseen by me) series "Firefly" would work as an independent sci-fi/action-adventure film. I'm a big fan of the genre and there just aren't enough quality directors making space epics, so I'm always gonna root for the new guy to succeed. I did, after all, go and see the film on opening night.

Alas, it was not to be. After seeing Serenity, I noticed that some bad movies impact me far more than others. Anyone who knows me is keenly aware of the effect Garden State had on my fragile psyche. It was as if I saw a multimedia representation of everything I hate in contemporary culture, a living document of my pet peeves and irritants. Why is it that something phony, dumb and pointless like Braff's Opus makes me so angry, whereas I could watch XXX: State of the Union and Renny Harlin's Mindhunters back-to-back with a grin on my face?

And that's when my friend and co-Cinegeek (more on them later) editor Ari made the connection: a lot of the same people like all three of my most-hated movies! In particular, there are many fans on the Braff-Whedon axis, who feel that, taken together, movies like Garden State and Serenity represent the best that modern Hollywood has to offer.

There is something here aside from mere tastes. Obviously, anyone who loves those two films is going to differ with me on films. But what connects with so many about Braff's, Haggis' and Whedon's work that so repells me? I feel like, if I could pinpoint it exactly, I'd be a long way towards developing a Unified Theory of Bad Movies. And, of course, as someone who wants to write movies, it would be nice to know what specific thing to avoid at all costs.

So far, I've made several hypotheses, but nothing that really works as a singular, unified theory.

I thought, at first, that it might be what I have previously dubbed "phoniness" here on the blog. Basically, I hate when films are obviously based on other films instead of any sort of objective reality. Take, for example, Ron Howard's Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, one of my least-favorite films in recent memory. The movie pretends to be a personal story of one man's struggle with schizophrenia.

Now, I do not have schizophrenia, nor does anyone I know. My experience with and knowledge about the disease are extremely limited, gleaned only from a liberal arts education, media and conversational anecdotes. I'm no expert. But even I know that the disease is much more complicated than the movie-of-the-week eccentricity on display in the film. The afflicted mathematician sees a grand total of 3 hallucinations during the entire course of his life, and once he learns to ignore them, he's well again! Hooray! Saved by an acute memory and, oh yeah, the healing power of love.

What a load of bullshit! How insulting to the millions of real people around the world who struggle with this illness every day! Here's a case where screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and Ron Howard just took a year-long vacation and called it "pre-production and principal photography." A few days of research could have told them enough about schizophrenia to write a halfway decent, somewhat reasonable film.

But phoniness can't really explain my distaste for, say, Serenity. I mean, it's a fantasy set in outer space in the 26th Century. Who knows what that will be like (although, let's face it, nothing like this)?

Serenity is guilty of another, different but similar cinematic crime - it's unimaginative. One thing I keep reading about Whedon's film in all kinds of reviews is praise for his boundless imagination, for his ability to create a complex and dynamic universe from scratch in which to set his spectacle.

Now that's just ridiculous. I don't want to get off on another Serenity rant, but nothing in the entire film isn't borrowed from an old TV show or movie. Nothing. Not one thing. Name a thing from Serenity and I'll tell you where it's borrowed from (or, at least, one of the places).

Characters in a futuristic sci-fi using swords? The Matrix movies and Highlander.

A futuristic yet post-industrial universe that's falling apart slowly? Star Wars.

A sexy chick assassin who acts like a weird mute most of the time? The Fifth Element.

All of humanity being forced into space after the environmental collapse of Earth? Countless sci fi TV shows and films, from Battlestar Galactica to Titan A.E., Don Bluth's animated disaster written by none other than Joss Whedon!

A mutant with weird powers abducted by an evil government organization and turned into a weapon, only to escape, causing a massive manhunt to get him/her back before the secret can get out? X-Men.

I urge people to leave suggestions in the comments below. Remember, we're talking Serenity only, because I've never seen (and will never see) "Firefly."

Even having made all these criticisms, the lack of originality and imagination isn't really enough to cause my visceral level of dislike for Serenity. I really actively was put off by the film. It was more than just disappointment at Whedon's lack of ability to expand his vision.

I keep coming back to an unfortunate realization, though. I think maybe I hate things like Garden State and Serenity more than random bad movies because of their rabid fan bases. Nothing is more annoying than seeing through a shallow, dumb piece of trash and then having scores of fellow film fans wet themselves with excitement over that same shallow, dumb piece of trash.

And Serenity has a TON of fans. Fans of "Firefly," the show upon which the film is based, are called Browncoats. I don't know why...The main character, Mal, I suppose might wear brown coats on occasion, but it's still kind of an odd nickname for a dork culture. More dignified than Trekkie, perhaps, but less dignified than Trekker.

Browncoats take their Whedon pretty seriously. Take former Cinegeek and all-around lame-o Adam. Here's his blog, Neurotrash. (The name is 50% accurate...I'll let you determine which 50%). Here's his most recent post, colorfully titled "Lons from Cinegeeks can kiss my arse."

Is Adam British? Or is he just using the alternative "arse" spelling to be amusing? Who knows? If it's just for comedy's sake, he can rest easy knowing that he and his demi-god, Joss Whedon, share a similarly juvenile, simplistic sense of humor.

Anyway, Adam namechecks yours truly in the headline of his blog post, but doesn't actually have the cojones to take on any of my arguments. He just summarizes the action in the long-winded, aimless way of most amateur film critics. And Adam doesn't just helpfully summarize most of what happens in Serenity for us...He summarizes "Firefly" too!

Rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), a brilliant doctor who squandered his family's entire fortune to find and liberate her, the two ended up on Serenity with no aim except to escape the clutches of the Alliance. The Serenity's captain, Malcom "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) kept them aboard for personal reasons more than anything else. The doc, much as he was skilled at patching up the crew's frequent injuries, never integrated into the familial unit that the rest of the crew comprised. And River served no function except as an occasional threat to their well-being when an Alliance bounty hunter or Operative caught up with them.


Oh, you're still reading. Wow, congratulations. Even I gave up halfway through, and I'm writing this blog post!

It goes on and on like this (and on and on...) Eventually, Adam gets to his central message, which is that Serenity is, like, totally great. He even refers to it as the most "writerly" script Joss has completed. Oh, please. Adam, stop using words like "writerly." You don't know what they mean. If a script is "writerly," that means it's bad. A good script should be more "cinematic" or "aesthetic" than "writerly." A good, meaty, carefully-composed novel is "writerly." Doofus.

But enough beating up on Young Adam. The point here is that guys like him, undiscerning hardcores who embrace these trite films as their own and pounce on anyone who says otherwise, are largely responsible for my particularly hateful, angry reaction to films like Garden State or Serenity. I guess it's not those films fault that they inspire such fevered, lemming-esque devotion in a certain breed of easily-seduced young people. But it is their fault that they suck so bad.

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