Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Americans want to watch the World End

Put the peace pipe down and throw your neighbor’s hand to the side. If there’s anything to be learned from this week’s box office numbers, it’s that Americans love to watch the world burn.

“Why does the sun go on shining
Why does the sea rush to shore
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?”

- Nina Gordon

As film lovers, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that good films don’t equal big box office returns and vice versa. Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage, proves the notion as it brought in over $24 million this weekend, beating out the stronger cast and script of I Love You, Man. Could it be that Nicolas Cage’s puppy dog look won us over? Doubtful. Cage has shown he is a good actor when he wants to be, but the strong showing at theaters has more to do with our thirst to see our species destroyed.

If the apocalyptic paint by the numbers film were the first of its kind to rise to the top, we could dismiss it. But we all know that isn’t the case. The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan’s inexplicably poor effort, made $31 million on the opening weekend. We love Zooey Deschanel as much as the next person but there is no way that film should have made as much as it did. The promise of our destruction carried us into the seats, just like the “Happening” carried that sewing needle into that girl’s neck. Some might argue that a few people went to the the theater with hopes of saving M. Night’s career from being destroyed, but let’s take the topics one at a time.

Films that chronicle the world’s tragic demise are nothing new. La Fin Du Monde (1931) examined how a world disaster has the potential to unify and strengthen human relationships. Fast forward sixty-four years later and we saw Zack Snyder’s Watchmen exploring the same idea to the tune of $55 million on the opening weekend. It seems that not even a sagging economy can stop moviegoers from burning the cash in their wallets to watch the world end. Is life imitating art?

A look at the opening weekend numbers of some of the highest grossing disaster films of the past fifteen years helps us understand that we don’t necessarily have to have an award worthy disaster film to be intrigued. The Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes, which determines an overall rating based on critics’ reviews of a film, help prove our point that a good film and getting the green don’t go hand in hand. (Tomatometer rating is next to the film title, followed by the film’s opening weekend at the box office.)

Independence Day - 62% - $50,000,000
War of the Worlds - 73% - $64,000,000
Armageddon - 40% - $36,000,000
Deep Impact - 46% - $41,000,000
The Day After Tomorrow - 45% - $68,000,000
I Am Legend - 69% - $77,000,000
Maybe it makes sense that these films, which are heavy on the special effects, would be lacking in story. We can push our connection with the people to the side so long as we get shiny objects and images that entertain us. Apply that same statement to the current state of America concerning interpersonal relationships and it would hold true. You don’t need Tom Cruise running from aliens to see the connection.

Could it be that we have grown tired of the rhetoric existing with the countless wars the American government is waging? We have the war on terror, the war on drugs and I wouldn’t doubt it if we have the war on women carrying small dogs in handbags, perhaps the only war of the three we can actually win in a concrete manner. Maybe the reason we desire to fight a war outside of our understanding or actual means is to counteract our inability to succeed in the battles at hand outside of the theater.

Is it unrealistic to think that disaster films allow us to live out our desires to loosen the suffocating grip that technology, consumerism and industrialization has over our lives? On the other side, could disaster films passively act out our underlying notion of patriotism so that we don’t have to do it in real life? Why join the army when Will Smith will do it for us? Or could it be as simple as understanding that people just want to go the movie theater to see shit get blown up. I’ll leave it up to you to decide, although it’s my belief that the answer is probably all of the above.

Maybe it’s time that we accept the fact that world peace, as wonderful as it sounds, doesn’t sound like a great theme for a film. We would be much happier if we get to see Bruce Willis, some sort of national monument destroyed and an ending that puts the U back in the U.S. of A. Don’t we know it’s the end of the world? Judging by the box office numbers, it seems like we do and we love it. - Adam Sweeney (adam@filmschoolrejects.com)

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