What's wrong with the movies? Have new ideas vanished forever? Are we doomed to endless reruns of old ideas and stale stories? Sure, Hollywood has always thrived on conventions: We know what to expect in a western or a musical, and that's part of the fun.
But lately, the traditions are feeding off themselves in a way that's not healthy. Even the would-be blockbusters can't make it under their own steam. "Superman II" is a clone of "Superman," and the spring science-fiction extravaganza -- "Outland" -- turns out to be a thinly disguised "High Noon" in outer space!
Worse yet, public taste is plugging into the most dubious picture of all. The trade newspaper Variety reports that one-third of the "top money" movies in a recent week fit the "horror" or "violent" categories. And we aren't talking about "class" films like "Dracula" or "art" movies like "The Shining." The leader was the sequel to "Friday the 13th," an exercise in exploitation, while the pack ranged from dull ("The Howling") to sick ("The Last House on the Left").
The fault could be with the time of year, between the weighty winter months and the silly summer season. Yet Variety notes a "major increase" in cheap horror and violence over the spring of 1980. According to the report, "what stands out above all the excuses is the ongoing strenght of the horror-violence market."
Looking at all of 1981 so far, a showbiz-watcher in the Village Voice has more gloomy news. According to Stuart Byron's analysis, nearly every "hit" so far this year has been a cheap horror or exploitation quickie, a reissue, or a left-field surprise like "Hardly working" or "Tess." The sole exceptions are "Excalibur" and "Fort Apache, The Bronx" -- capably made movies, but hardly brilliant or original.
So here we are, with "Scanners" on one side, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" on the other, and "Fear No Evil" hovering in between. The biggest art-film hit is "La Cage aux Folles II," a camp variation on Abbott and Costello, and a sequel to boot. Meanwhile, interesting failures like "Altered States," "Raging Bull," and "Thief" are listed as "disappointments" at the box office, while such worthwhile efforts as "American Pop" and "Eyewitness" are "down the tubes." (Returns aren't in yet on a few pictures such as "The Four Seasons" and "Atlantic City," which could swing either way.)
When summer officially arrives, we'll have a new string of Hollywood haymakers vying for attention. Will they end the current spate of shockers, cheapies, and rereleases? If so, it won't be boldness or originality that does the job. James Bond always makes money, but do we really need more of him, in "For Your Eyes Only"? Cheech and Chong always make money, too, but i'm sure I don't need their "Nice Dreams," inspired by various illegal substances. For the rest, it's sequelmania: another Muppet movie, another Superman, and another look at the successful "Star Wars" follow-up, "The Empire Strikes Back."
Yes, I'm looking forward to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," directed by Steven Spielberg (of "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and with George "Star Wars" Lucas himself as co-executive producer. But advance reports type it as a down-to-earth "Star Wars," with special effects reserved for the climax, a la "Close Encounters." In other words, the Wunderkinder seem to be playing it safe again, rehashing proven formulas. Is Hollywood so burdened by its own bloated budgets -- so fearful of the mighty gambles it insists on taking -- that it's afraid to try anything truly fresh?
Of course, the summer movies could surprise us and turn out to be a bunch of masterpieces. Still, I'm dubious. To point up what's wrong these days, in terms of real creative juices, let's look at a current offering, the big-budget "Outland." I had high hopes for this one, because I like science fiction, and because Sean Connery and Peter Boyle are dependable stars.
But after a good beginning, the story bogs down in flat repetition of ancient formulas. It's the flatness I object to, not the formulas themselves. though the setting is a far corner of the solar system, the plot is pure wild WEst. Trouble is, the western tradition is merely transferred, never transformed or transcended.
Connery plays a marshal -- yes, that's what they call him -- trying to keep order in an outer-space mining colony. He runs afoul of the local boss, who gets his men to work harder by doping them up. when the marshal breaks up this racket, he finds that a gang of hired guns are comin' in on the next stage -- I mean shuttle. Naturally, the neighborhood cowards won't help Sean Connery any more than they helped Gary Cooper in 1952. So he makes a lonely stand, with no ally but a friendly female physician, who gives the story a feminist spark.
"Outland" takes place on a moon of Jupiter called Io. this is the only word I know where the spelling and the sound are exactly the same: I-O, get it? So when the movie begins by instructing us in the pronunciation, you can bet your brain isn't going to be strained by the rest of the action.
And it isn't. Still, if "Outland" had a better humor, it might have been a lot of fun. the old "High Noon" plot is a good one, and its familiarity gives it a folksy feeling after all these years. But "Outland" is serious about this stuff! We're supposed to squirm with suspense as if we'd never seen an old movie on TV, chewing our nails until Sean wins the final showdown.
This is an insult to one's intelligence, even for a lightweight entertainment. and there are others. Why does nobody stand up for the marshal? Just because. Why does the little boy cutely ask what Earth is like, when he spends all his time studying Earth in books? Just because. And -- my favorite plothole -- why is there a long chase between the marshal and a smuggler, when there's no place for the smuggler to gom in this tiny colony welded to the rock of Io?
Movies can be fun without being foolish, and nostalgic without being imitations. "Outland" doesn't revive the heritage of "High Noon," it rings pale variations on a purloined theme. Like most of the moguls in today's hollywood, filmmaker Peter Hyams (who also made the dreadful "Capricorn One") is playing it safe with the tried and the tested.
No wonder ticket sales are off, no wonder moviegoers are staying home, no wonder cheap exploitationers and reissues are moving in for a quick kill.Surely tinseltown can do better than this.