This July 4 weekend looks to be the most boring since 1986, when Psycho III was the headliner. Between Transformers: Dinobots, McCarthy, Another Exorcism Remake and WALL-E Phone Home, there is literally nothing appealing out right now. But these films are all fantastic specimens of the kind of repetitive tripe that Hollywood is always giving way too much money to. We’re not going to validate these films with an actual review — that would be one word, “derivative.” What we’re going to do is pick them apart and examine what makes them so like everything else.
Disaster movies follow several primary characters from different walks of life as they deal with massive, destructive sequences of CGI that are completely beyond their control.
The term evokes natural disaster movies, but weather movies are some of the worst members of this story structure. In truth, they’ve taken over for action movies as the most titillating, high-profile affairs of the summer. There are some transition movies — several recent superhero movies have featured massive destruction in their plot — but large, extended scenes of destruction have mostly taken over for taut action sequences in the past few years.
This is extremely disturbing for a handful of reasons, mostly because the time they’ve been taking over for spy thrillers is the same time period the U.S. has spent fucking up the Middle East over the real-life disaster movie they put on in New York. Most disaster movies are eerily evocative of the 9/11 attacks, and they make oodles and oodles of money. This seems to indicate that what moviegoers want to see is their own cities destroyed.
Specifically, they want to see their buildings destroyed with no context. Almost 3,000 died in the 9/11 attacks, but no one dies in these movies. Transformers: Age of Extinction specifies that 16,000 died in the previous movie, but even then it’s just a number. Every time a skyscraper is felled in Godzilla or The Avengers, hundreds of people die, but they’re not real people, so it’s fine.
It’s important to stress that this is not a terrible on-screen tragedy — this is cool stuff people turn up to see. In this film, the transformers are making themselves at home in Beijing, not because it’s a necessity of the plot, but because making a mess of China’s capital was Paramount’s way of marketing to the country. It grossed $92 million in the country on opening weekend.
The recent rash of destruction movies aren’t just conceptually similar — the destruction effects are uniform at this point as well. Age of Extinction dramatically destroys Beijing National Stadium, mirroring Magneto picking up and dropping Nationals Park in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Bane demolishing the football stadium in The Dark Knight Rises. Lockdown’s use of a magnet to rhythmiclly pick up and drop things repeats Man of Steel, when General Zod used gravity to the same effect.
Counter example that Does It Right: Pacific Rim
Writer/director/producer Guillermo del Toro identified audiences’ morbid fascination with buildings full of human beings being destroyed, and in this film there are thorough evacuation procedures in place. The wonderful film did terribly at the box office last summer, and I’m not sure that’s a coincidence.
Counter example that Does It Right: Cloverfield
The 2008 found footage flick does a lot right, and one of the neat things about it is it has taken the trope of the screaming, disposable millions and flipped it on its head, spending and entire film putting the audience through a disaster in the second person. It’s a riveting watch.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Being too damn long
There is a beautiful, poetic hour and 20 minute love story hidden in Titanic, hidden deftly, almost intentionally in more than twice that amount of footage. The entire Lord of the Rings series could have easily been five and a half or six hours, and The Hobbit is even more egregiously overlong. There seems to be a fetish for repeating information, adding in a few extrameous storylines and having action sequences that lack direction and point. You can identify these by asking whether or not the combatants are doing all they can to come out on top or if they’re going for body blows and talking about it.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Primary characters, secondary functions
Age of Extinction is rife with characters who aren’t as important as the graphics. Movies should be about characters. Several disaster movies remove focus from their actors and in doing so become about as engagin as a screen saver. This is why these movies tend to be fundimentally flawed.
Counter example that Does It Right: Transformers
Ironically enough, the first Transformers is one of the best disaster movies specifically because it stays grounded. If you can forgive the rampant racism and sexism, the film is a stark human drama about courage in the face of an impossible situation.
Counter example that Does It Right: The Dark Knight
This movie did it by making its traditionally computer-generated disaster into a massively entertaining villain character. It also does a good job of using the entire city as a character, instead of just a designated cast. The Dark Knight is a weird movie.
Tammy is yet another Melissa McCarthy road comedy that follows pretty much every imaginable convention of the genre. This movie is an example of another thing moviegoers want to see — bad things happen to ugly people.
The core of a road movie is the disasters that befall its main characters. In Tammy, the principal character has her car totalled, is fired and cheated on in the first 20 minutes, and her partner in crime is a diabetic imprisoned in her own home. Bad things are necessary to get the characters on the road and into the hijinks. Traditionally, resources also must be removed — it’s not much of a movie if they drive a working car all the way they need to go.
Counter example that Does It Right: fantasy movies
Putting your characters in a mid-evil or fantasy setting where there isn’t convenient travel and the road is genuinely dangerous is a good way to avoid starting the movie with unlikely personal catastrophe.
More ways to Do It Wrong: All funny people have to be ugly and sad
Actors who fit traditional beauty standards just don’t get these parts. McCarthy is obviously divergent from what you see on magazine covers, as is Zach Galifinakis. But the idea that beauty standards don’t affect men is subtly false and it comes out in this genre. Male beauties have big arms and big hair. But characters in comedies are mostly weasily, bearded fellows with solid delivery, like Jason Bateman and Robert Downey Jr. These two are sexy as all get out, but they won’t be getting an action hero role any time soon (or in Downey’s case, he’ll have weird action heroes who are supposed to be weasily and comedian-esque).
Funny folks are also sad folks. Tony Stark is an alcoholic. Tammy is irresponsible. Peter Venkman is a sex addict. No one in movies can be funny and happy with their lives.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Catering to the least common laughs
There’s a difference between making someone laugh and actually being funny. Tammy features all the wrong kinds of humor. Slapstick and gross-out humor, which aren’t really funny, are the primary players. Tammy also hosts a problem of having one Costello playing against several Abbotts. Tammy is always out of place and causing the absurd situation, which everyone else plays against. At a certain point, you wonder why they don’t just lock her up.
Counter example that Does It Right: Actually conceptually funny movies
A lost art. These categories of humor are difficult to pull off because they don’t appeal to as broad an audience as the others, but they are much more rewarding to the viewers that do get it. Absurdism, feature-length situation comedies, well-done satire or even just solid, deadpan deliveries are examples of things that are funny in deeper ways than farts.
Exorcism or “supernatural horror” satisfies moviegoer’s needs to have religious beliefs challenged and validated. It’s a largely Judeo-Christian world, but most religious media is more based on twisted myths and cool gothic visuals than anything biblical. There are a couple of examples in Matthew and Luke of Jesus expelling an evil spirit, but this whole thing with a long latin reading over a severely mangled human body is completely Hollywood.
The present form of the genre was really popularized by 1973’s The Exorcist and recently revitalized by haunting movies like the Paranormal Activity series. The movies routinely display unholy omens, such as lights going out and crusafixes falling over, and it’s always related to and because of family strife. The movies feature a return to faith and vanquishing of the demon, though recently downer endings have become more common. This is similar to slasher movies of the 80s, in which sex got you killed and a virgin was the best thing you could be.
Horror has always been an awkward reinforcement of Judeo-Christian values. This isn’t as disturbing as some of the other desires explored, but it’s just as dated.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Calling in the Ghostbusters
Nothing is scarier than a mystery. If the characters know what they’re up against, they know how to fight back. When movies like Insidious and The Conjuring call in paranormal experts to explain the whole plot, they lose their mystique and become as scary as an average haunted house. In Deliver Us from Evil, one of the main characters is a priest who may as well be named Father Exposition.
Counter examples that Do It Right: The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield
What does the Blair Witch look like? Where did the monster come from? What is the demon after (exclude the shitty sequels when answering this question)? Nothing is scarier than the unknown. Descent into madness movies like Black Swan take this even further.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Basing everything on a true story
Stop saying that. It isn’t.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Jump scares
There is a difference between making someone jump and actually scaring them. Exorcism movies, and Deliver Us from Evil in particular, rely heavily on jump scares and externalized body horror — the hero never gets twisted up or does the spiderwalk, does he? The exorcisms themselves all follow the same quiet-to-loud-and-back pattern. You get the same sensation from a roller coaster, you get the same sensation from a mild cardio workout. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but movies can be much, much more.
This isn’t completely fair — Earth to Echo is a decent movie. But it’s just as derivative and generic as everything else we’re writing about.
The general gist of how kid movies go wrong is they dumb everything down because kids are dumb. Earth to Echo is really only guilty of the most common method of cinematic reduction — cardboard character cutouts. There’s a hotshot leader, a comic relief kid, a girl and a leader, and none of them ever do anything unexpected.
These are all boring, basic characters and dynamics that have been done and done and done again, and outside of a few instant classics (Star Wars) aren’t ever going to be done in a better way. Movies should bring their characters to actual, unique life — not the life of reanimated cardboard cutouts.
More ways to Do It Wrong: Attention span editing
Several films screw themselves over by going way too fast, skipping over the details and generally shaping scenes because they think their young audience couldn’t keep up. How many times does The Incredibles need to tell me the remote controls the robot?
The art of making a poignant kids movie isn’t condescension — it’s clear communication of complex emotional themes.
Counter examples that Do It Right: Where the Wild Things Are, most Pixar movies
Where the Wild Things Areis the perfect example of a movie that, while aimed at small children, is still extremely upsetting and violent. It’s a movie about a seven-year-old facing his own mortality, and it never dulls its theme for the sake of a stupid audience.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a senior staff writer for the NT Daily. I am so tired right now on so many different levels, you don’t even know. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.