The notion of celebrity is a funny thing. People hang on their every word like their thoughts are worth more, but the moment they say the wrong thing they’re hung, drawn and quartered. Chris Pratt went so far as to preemptively and hilariously apologise in advance for anything stupid that he says in the upcoming Jurassic World press tour. But while Pratt is being Pratt and we’re loving him for it, a fellow movie star and geek favourite went out of his way to put his foot in his mouth. Last week Simon Pegg, known for work like the Cornetto trilogy, Spaced and the new Star Trek movies, stated in a radio interview that the current crop of superhero and genre movies are infantilising society. Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview (and keep in mind they are excerpts, for true clarity it is best to find the full interview)
“Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed … I don’t know if that is a good thing.”
“It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”
Naturally, the fan community didn’t take too kindly to his claims. And while fans are used to certain segments thinking this way, the fact that one of their own (Pegg is a self-professed ‘geek’) would come out and say this certainly rubbed them the wrong way. It’s not the first time Simon Pegg has had issues with segments of the geek community. After hardcore fans of Star Trek voted ‘Into Darkness’ (or as one friend and fan I know likes to affectionately call it: Into Dumbass) as the worst movie in the franchise he lashed out at detractors. As a further aside, there may be further cause for alarm to fans who didn’t like the latest movie, with Pegg being brought on as a writer to make it, according to the man himself, ‘less Star Trek-y’ and more accessible. What that means for fans remains to be seen, but it’s probably not the kind of news they want to hear.
He would later go on to clarify his latest comments on the state of cinema in an essay on his page (titled ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’). And while it does clear up his line of thought, I still don’t fully agree with everything he has to say. But it is worth taking a look at the notion of meaning vs spectacle in film that is up for debate. Does what Pegg say carry any truth?
The main concern he seems to hold is that these movies aren’t encouraging the audience to think, and instead choose to be wowed by the visuals of “Hulk fighting a robot” (referencing the Hulk v Tony’s Hulkbuster suit fight in Age of Ultron). In his response he admits to generalising, citing two recent sci-fi movies Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina as examples of ‘grown up sci fi’ (anyone who read my Ex Machina review will know I think it’s amazing and intellectually stimulating). The point is though that there is a conscious shift in the cinematic vision that is affecting not only the viewing of movies but extending our childishness to a problematic level.
But is Hollywood more interested in the spectacle than the story? I think it is actually pretty easy to answer ‘yes’ to that, but not without a fairly significant but included (we’re talking Nicki Minaj sized ‘but’ here). While it is hard to argue that Hollywood isn’t gunning for spectacle over story when a Transformers expanded universe movie series is being greenlit, I don’t think it is fair to blame Hollywood on this. Nor do I think it is critical of the industry that people are talking about entertainment over real life issues.
First of all, there is a reason the Transformers are getting more movies made. Because people are going to the cinema to watch these movies. As crappy as it might be, it raked in over a billion dollars at the global box office. It would be bad business not to keep trying to rake in that kind of money. But likewise it is not like smart and serious movies aren’t being made. Movies like Nightcrawler and Whiplash, or even sci-fi thinking movies like ‘Her’ exist and even succeed in the current climate. They might not do the numbers of a Transformers or Avengers, but they aren’t all flopping. And let’s not pretend like entertainment has only just started to get ‘dumb’. There has and will always be examples of intelligent and mindless entertainment to choose from
It is also unfair to label all of the current superhero movies as pure spectacle over story as well. While comic book heroes have rarely been subtle in their messages, it doesn’t ignore the fact there are messages, and there is meaning to be found in these texts. While I criticised Age of Ultron for being a ‘spectacle’ rather than a movie, it wasn’t because it was nothing but mindless action. The movie made a genuine attempt to forge connections and meaning in its plot, but was let down for other reasons. However there are still real discussion points to be had and plot relevant concepts to consider. At the very least being granted the chance to critically break down a movie on its ideas provides an avenue for thought. Movies like The Winter Soldier or the Dark Knight trilogy prove that these costume films can have depth to them. Likewise, the superhero movies that don’t try for this (Green Lantern) have more or less failed, or at least done disappointing numbers.
Here’s the thing: These films aren’t the reason we tweet about a Batman v Superman trailer rather than the earthquakes in Nepal. It is instead indicative of the larger social climate. If the mass population weren’t tweeting and talking about Batman v Superman, they’d be talking about Taylor Swift or the Kardashians. Or the football game. Or Game of Thrones. This arguably unhealthy focus on ‘dumber’ movies isn’t the cause of our misaligned focus, it is merely a symptom. It is the same reason why instead of focusing strictly on the political issue they focus on the man or woman behind it. This is how we as a society are right now, and it is not a recent development alongside Robert Downey Jnr appearing as Iron Man. Society places less pressure on people to ‘grow up’ than they used to, and the rise of the geek into the mainstream represents that, but it is not the cause. Are we really going to blame Transformers for the downfall of critical thought? Because that seems to be what Simon Pegg is suggesting here.
Look, obviously I’m coming at this from a biased stand point. I write a weekly pop culture column for crying out loud! I admit to getting overly excited over geeky things, and willingly admit to distracting myself with entertainment when real life gets a bit crappy (again, I wrote a whole piece on how Scott Pilgrim has affected my life in that way). Whether this is necessarily right or wrong from a moral perspective, or if it is healthy for society to foster this kind of circumstance is one for debate, but the movies that get made do so to fill a demand. We’re not forced to see these movies, but enough people clearly want to when you see the box office results.
It’s a similar situation in journalism (I’ve heard it a lot throughout my degree). We blame those who produce the news for their focus on the celebrity and the ‘softer’ news. But there is a reason why the focus is there. Because that is where the money is, and where the population’s eyes go to. Whenever something operates as a business (be it movies or commercial news) then ultimately whatever people choose to watch is what will flourish and become the status quo. If more people watched SBS news than A Current Affair, then the broadcast focus would change accordingly. Does it make society dumber? Maybe so, but why are they producing it in the first place? While journalists are encouraged to think of themselves as working ‘for the greater good’ (to bring it full circle with a Simon Pegg movie quote), entertainment is there to entertain. It has less perceived moral duty, and while it is true people make films to educate and make people think, it is primarily there to entertain.
I do find it funny that Simon Pegg is criticising modern genre films for being too much spectacle and ‘dumber’, yet the latest Star Trek films are criticised for being just that. The man has been behind some genuinely great movies (Hot Fuzz ranks up there with the funniest movies I’ve seen and is a great satire piece), but I don’t fully agree with his sentiments over the past week. However it does open up questions that are worth discussing. What are we looking for in our movies? Story and meaning or spectacle? And honestly, why can’t we have both? I loved Ex Machina, but at the same time I also get a kick out of The Fast and Furious franchise. Isn’t the point of entertainment to be that we can enjoy both sides for different reasons? But if you don’t believe intelligent movies are being made, you just have to look a little harder.