In a lot of ways 2005 so far is typified by Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder; two films that aren’t really offensive in any way but so essentially poor in their craftsmanship that they bugger the imagination. How could, in other words, they possibly have happened? Much of the conversation about what’s wrong with our culture is the malady of being too comfortable in our culture. Our visual knowledge is over-developed, the thinking goes, to the point that everything’s become shorthand while nuance, more often than not, flies to the wayside.
(Consequently, the breath of fresh air some feel with 2046 and Broken Flowers is, to a large part, breathed from slow lungs.)
See, but, that implies that the people making films and shows nowadays have assimilated a lot of other films and television, when I suspect that the truth is a lot of these people are just aware of film and television without any sort of consideration of what’s been seen – that any sort of analysis of what’s been seen is steadily devalued at the same rate as all other forms of intellectual discourse in the United States. It’s the danger of feckless consumption.
Watching Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder exactly approximates the experience of reading a book by someone who doesn’t actually know any English (like Robert James Waller, for instance, or that jackhole who wrote The Celestine Prophecy). They’re movies made by people who don’t seem to have ever taken a moment to consider what it was that worked about one thing and didn’t work about another – the product of people who think that leaving your brain at the door is a good idea and possible in any case; people who make no bones about admitting that thinking is hard for them and, most tellingly, mutually exclusive from any ability to have pleasure. Cultural artifacts like this happen because in this time and this place (and for some time now), being critical is bad manners.
With the former costing around $20m and the latter upwards of $80m (two years ago), Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder have squandered $100m between them before PR and distribution costs. And that’s not just one person, that’s a whole bunch of people getting together and agreeing that, for their money, they’ve assembled the right cast, the right crew, the right screenplay – that they’ve found a winning combination to not only make their hundred mil back, but maybe a tidy profit to boot albeit most likely in overseas and home video sales. (I’d like to believe that somewhere along the way someone thought that they might be making a good movie, but, seriously, if you wanted a good movie, you wouldn’t be associating yourself with names like Uwe Boll, Christian Slater, Tara Reid (!), Peter Hyams, and Ed Burns.) All of these people have seen movies that have succeeded and believed that in seeing them, they have understood them.
With only about a dozen or so viable, intelligent film critics left gainfully employed in the United States: paladins for the medium in all the glorious pretense of that claim, I do wonder if the parasitical arrangement between critics and the movies they review isn’t closer to a symbiosis.
But then I read Roger Ebert’s review of A Sound of Thunder and, as is his tendency now and again, he’s made a few really puzzling errors in his review. It doesn’t matter that much here, but I suspect that it did matter a lot in his Rules of Attraction review in which he asserts something happens which most certainly does not - and then changes the offending paragraph in the online edition (the one for posterity, but not the one that matters) after what I fantasize to be a lot of angry letters. I don't care if you hate it Roger, but at least do a better job pretending to have seen it.
Ebert talks about “saber-toothed eagles” appearing in future-Chicago which, although no stupider than what actually does appear, don’t appear. He mentions the scene where “a giant brontosaurus” attacks, but it’s not a brontosaurus and, neither of us being a paleontologist, we’re told by this idiot film that it’s not a brontosaurus and is actually an allosaurus. I don’t know what an allosaurus is, but I do know that a brontosaurus is what Fred Flintstone rode to the gravel pits, and that thing doesn’t look a thing like this thing. Is he making a joke? Maybe he is, and it must be an elaborate one because later he misquotes a line about “brontosaurus blood.” Does it matter? Naw – not in terms of the two-star “aw shucks” review he gives this thing – but what does matter is that he wasn’t paying very close attention to this film to which he’s now offering a patronizing pat on a head. And not paying attention may be only what the film deserves, but is also part of the reason why films made by cinematic illiterates happen.
I think if you don’t like movies very much, you smirk about films like Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder. You feel superior to them in a way as unwise and puzzling as feeling superior to approaching hurricanes and rising floodwaters.
But I was well and truly curious about why anyone would go to a film like this and, in going, why did they stay? So I went to a “civilian” screening of A Sound of Thunder on a Friday afternoon. With me on this ill-advised sojourn: five other lonesome souls, one of which, a middle-aged lady in a cardigan (in the middle of summer) left twenty-three minutes into the film which, I’m guessing, is early enough to still get your money back. I heard no comment, no snortles, no cell phone, no crinkle during the entire film – it was the most polite audience I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a film with in about five years – and afterwards, stealing a page from Joe Queenan, I offered them a refund of their ticket price ($7.00 matinee. Bargain!) if they didn’t like the film in exchange for them telling me why they didn’t leave after the five minute mark when any question of its extraordinary ineptitude could any longer be rationalized away.
The only couple was comprised of thirtyish Jake and his girlfriend Cayleen. They went because Jake had read the Ray Bradbury story when he was a kid and had sort of been looking forward to this movie – they both thought it was “okay” and politely declined my offer to refund their cash. Jake said that he just went to movies to relax and have fun and implied that he resented it when they made him think. “Critics, man, every single movie out there you can find some who likes it.” Why not pick one you agree with and stick with him? “I hate critics, their job is to hate everything.”
Me, too, Jake – especially the ones that liked Fantastic Four. Cayleen said that this wasn’t her cup of tea, that usually she liked other kinds of movies (“like what?” “I dunno, something with John Cusack in it?”), but that she didn’t mind going to the occasional “guy flick” with Jake. I told Jake that he was a lucky man. “I know it, brother!”
Peter had read the story, too, and now in his early fifties, he liked to go to shows earlier in the day before the “kids” got out of school. Peter thought the movie was “pretty bad” but that he never left a movie before it was over. I asked him if he thought it was funny and he said “no, it wasn’t a comedy.” I like Peter a lot. Peter took the seven dollars.
Fifty-four year old Bob had, yep, read the story as a kid and was curious about the film. He asked me why it wasn’t reviewed locally and I told him that it had been screened late on a Wednesday night and that the deadlines for major dailies is generally Wednesday afternoon. “Why would they do that?” Well, Bob, they do that so that you can’t say that they didn’t screen it for the press but you still can’t write a review of it. Bob thought A Sound of Thunder was the worst film he’d seen all year (and he goes once a week) but didn’t leave because he’d bought popcorn and a soda and so was already into it for over twenty bucks. “Besides, it was nice to be in air conditioning.”
Couldn’t argue with him there. Bob took the seven bucks, too.