Hollywood's superhits -- dazzling and . . . empty?
It's official: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Superman II" are major hits. Variety, the show-business newspaper, calls them "true champions" which jointly collected more than 25 percent of the total June box office.Skip to next paragraph
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Hollywood is cheering, as well Hollywood should. Last month marked a sharp turnaround for filmgoing, which has been in recession for 2 1/2 years. In fact, June registered the two most lucrative weeks in movie history -- though though that's measured in dollars, not the number of admissions.
But should the rest of us be cheering? True, the new superhits are fast, colorful, packed with action, and reasonably clean. Still, they're also . . . childish. There's hardly a scene, word, or gesture to provoke a thought or stir an emotion in the grown-ups (regardless of age) in the audience.
And that's the problem with today's Hollywood "product." It's all aimed at the 15-to-22-year-old crowd who see their favorite films again and again, pouring their disposable dollars through the ticket window, the candy counter, and the Asteroids "videogame" in the lobby. Is it any wonder that the movie on the screen now tastes like the candy and looks like the Asteroids game? Sweet, dazzling, and empty.
Oh, fun is fine. But there's such a thing as freshm fun. "Star WArs" was fresh. We'd never seen anything like it, even though its inspiration came from old space operas and romances. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was fresh, with a starry-eyed optimism that was childlikem in the best sense.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the brain child of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who directed those earlier films, respectively. You can see the same formulas running right through it, from the lightweight "Star Wars" imagery to the canny "Close Encounters" finale here given a dark and dangerous twist. And "Superman II" -- which registered the most profitable opening weekend ever -- is a clone of the original "Superman," still taking most of its ideas from a venerable comic strip and adding little of its own except some welcome comedy.
Of course, we expect Hollywood to repeat its successes. But imitations used to be regarded as minor, secondary films. Titles like "Son of . . ." and ". . . Rides Again" were universal jokes.Obviously, times have changed. Today, when the hype is as noisy as the hit, the moguls expect us to accept the pastiche of "Raiders" as bold new stuff, charged with Lucas and Spielberg "genius."
The promoters of "Raiders" had a lot to work with, given the past credits of Mr. L. and Mr. S., stretching back to "American graffiti" and "Jaws." Yet not everyone automatically played the press agent's game. Shortly before its release, "Raiders" was considered a "dubious summer release" with "scant awareness" among the public, according to industry analyst Stuart Byron, writing in the Village Voice.
So what transformed "Raiders" into a must-see blockbuster? Rave writeups in Time and Newsweek, Byron theorizes. The movie became a media event, and people rushed to see what the fuss was all about. By now, almost everyone seems to feel "Raiders" is the one to catch this season, forgetting that all the critics didn't play the promoters' game, either: Byron lists the Voice, The New Yorker, the SoHo News, Us, Inquiry, and The Chicago Reader as publications printing mixed or negative reviews by members of the Raiders Resistance League.