Magazine | August 5, 2013, Issue

Cinema ex Machina

Of my two local-ish movie theaters in New Hampshire, one has an irksome habit of always showing the film just a little larger than the screen, so that anything happening out on the borders of the frame remains a mystery: If memory serves, it was the most recent Die Hard sequel that had all the dateline stuff in the lower left-hand corner, so that the two-line “MOSCOW. AUGUST.” appeared intriguingly as “COW. GUST.” My second local theater’s even worse, a dingy box that always reminds me of being a young cadet at my boys’ school, and the dispiriting huts the sergeants used to muster us in to show us ancient public-service films on how not to catch venereal diseases.

So, when I’m in the big town, I like to catch up on the big movies and see them on the big screen. The other day, the big town wasn’t that big — Burlington, Vt. — but it had a multiplex or two, so I scanned the listings: Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters Inc.; Man of Steel, the re-reboot of Superman; Pacific Rim, something to do with robots vs. aliens; Despicable Me 2, a sequel to a computer-animated cartoon about a reformed supervillain; Grown Ups 2, an Adam Sandler sequel with all the urine and feces gags they cut from the first film; Grown Ups 2 in 3D, the same urine and feces gags but viewed through cardboard spectacles . . . And, for the first time that I can recall, there wasn’t a single movie I could face the thought of sitting through.

I see that conservative critics are blaming Hollywood’s listless summer on its blockbusters’ off-putting politics: In the new Lone Ranger, the sidekick is the star and the bland pretty boy playing the Ranger is just (in Tonto’s words) a “stupid white man”; in White House Down, an Obama-esque hopeychangey president comes under siege in the people’s house from Tea Party–type terrorists.

Granted, it’s all terribly tedious, but it’s not really “political” in any meaningful sense. In The Lone Ranger, the baddies are top-hatted mustachioed railroad barons because the formula dictates someone has to be the villain and, for a multinational conglomerate like Disney, big business is the easiest to hand. In Olympus Has Fallen, last month’s blockbuster about terrorists attacking the White House, the baddies were North Koreans, which superficially has some connection to reality but in the end is no more grounded than the right-wing Palin worshipers. There’s a scene in which the president demands to know why traitorous Secret Service agent Dylan McDermott has gone over to the Norks, and he mumbles something about banks . . . bailouts . . . whatever . . . Are we done yet? Can we get back to the explosions now? Rehearsing Damn Yankees 60 years back, the great Broadway director George Abbott was famously asked by one actor what his motivation was: “Your paycheck,” snapped Abbott. Dylan McDermott’s motivation is apparently Lehman Brothers’ paychecks, which is even less persuasive. The Russian villain in A Good Day to Die Hard dispenses with the same perfunctory pretext more adroitly: “Do you vont to know vot I hate about America?” Stage pause. “Everything!”

#page#Everything — and nothing. Which is a bit of a problem if you’re looking for a film about . . . something. The producer Lynda Obst has a new book out purporting to explain the age of globalized “tentpole” “franchise” movies selling on “pre-awareness.” It’s called, after her best-known romantic comedy, Sleepless in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as boffo a hit title as her previous tome, Hello, He Lied. Everyone loved that one — such a perfect distillation of the industry’s flattering self-image as a shark tank of ruthless cynics that you didn’t need to read the book. Hollywood is now approaching the condition of Broadway in the “abominable showman” David Merrick’s dotage: The shows are boring but the backstage machinations preserve the glamour a while longer.

What did I call those 3D glasses? “Cardboard spectacles”? As Ms. Obst explains in her book, they love 3D overseas. So Hollywood now makes cardboard spectacles for the youth of developing countries, a half-billion-dollar summer stock for the barns of Asia. In Guangdong, the Chinese make America’s Walmart filler; in Hollywood, America makes China’s multiplex filler. The Chinese were the co-producers of the recent futuristic dystopian time-travel shoot-’em-up Looper, which I dimly recollect as a film so disciplined about its nothingness that, when the old Bruce Willis materializes from the future and meets his younger self and the young Bruce asks old Bruce if he’ll remember meeting young Bruce upon his return to the future, old Bruce advises him not to get hung up on details. Don’t even think about it.

And so it goes on: Iron Man 4, Cardboard Man 6, Franchise Man 12. I’m half-ashamed I even know that word, but that’s Hollywood — from Franchot Tone to franchise drone. What happens to a culture whose economic incentives drive it ever further from telling its own stories? Say, maybe that’s why the Chinese are so keen to annex the movie industry — to so neuter us that, by the time we need to make another Casablanca, we’ll no longer know how, or why . . . Hey, perhaps that would make a good conspiracy thriller: Alan Rickman as the sinister studio chief bought by Beijing, Scarlett Johansson as the plucky vice president of development who figures out what’s really going on, Liam Neeson as her ex-CIA dad who rappels into the backlot and kills all the extras . . . Oh, don’t worry. When they option the script, they’ll change the villains from the Chinese politburo to a Tea Party 501(c)(4) owned by a subsidiary of the Koch brothers.

Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Salon and Breakfast

If you were a distinguished philosopher, economist, political theorist, or literary critic arriving at Heathrow from the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand between, say, 1990 and 2010, there was a ...
Politics & Policy

Sensitive SEALs

Americans know there’s something special about the SEALs. Arguably the most skilled and motivated military unit ever created trains to be ready for any possible challenge on land, at sea, or ...


Politics & Policy

The Anti-Che

Miami, Fla. — Felix Rodriguez seems fated to be linked to Che Guevara. This is not entirely just. Rodriguez loves freedom, and has worked tirelessly for it; Guevara loved tyranny, ...
Politics & Policy

An Arm and a Leg

In 1994, two eminent Boston hospitals, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, merged. Officials hailed it as a new era for integrated, high-quality care. The state’s secretary of ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Law, Naturally

Natural-law theory provides the principal philosophical justification of traditional sexual morality, opposition to abortion, and other paradigmatically conservative views in ethics. Princeton law professor Robert P. George is the most ...
Politics & Policy

The Bard in SoCal

Discussions of movies like Joss Whedon’s new version of Much Ado About Nothing — filmed in his own well-appointed California home, remarkably enough, during a lull in the making of ...


Happy Warrior

Cinema ex Machina

Of my two local-ish movie theaters in New Hampshire, one has an irksome habit of always showing the film just a little larger than the screen, so that anything happening ...
Politics & Policy


Wind Power’s Spotty Record Rupert Darwall’s excellent article “Free Markets Mean Cheaper Energy” (June 17) had a minor, but salient, error. He correctly noted that Danish electricity spot prices sometimes go ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Mike Bloomberg may want to sit down with Bob Filner and explain what ‘stop and frisk’ means. ‐ According to conventional wisdom, the Gang of Eight immigration bill went from ...

A Sinecure for Your Thoughts

In the future, I would like to see every sentence that begins “The public official declined comment” end with the following words: “and was promptly terminated under the Mandatory Comment ...
The Long View


TO: V. Jarrett FROM: Staff IN RE: Your request for upcoming state and local criminal/civil cases that might be of interest Following Monday’s status meeting, staff researchers and others spent four days searching state, local-court, ...
Politics & Policy


WEAVE OF THE DARK To conceive of the weave of the dark is to lift forward the cloth with a texture of silk, or wool, or nothing, melting into the air, where the mind is ...

Most Popular


It’s Time for Colin Kaepernick to Move On

Colin Kaepernick. Remember him? Below-average quarterback. Above-average poseur. Not “activist,” not really. Activists actually say stuff. Kaepernick almost never says anything. He’s like the Queen or most popes — you have to read the deep-background musings of supposed members of his inner circle to get ... Read More

Trump and the Black Vote

"Donald Trump is a racist, white supremacist, white nationalist. So are his supporters." Some version of that refrain is heard almost hourly somewhere in mainstream media. Democratic politicians seem to proclaim it more often than that. Listening only to the Left, you'd conclude that more than half a ... Read More

The Age of Miscalculation

On August 7, 1998, more than 200 people were killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Americans learned three names most of them never had heard before: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda. On August 20, 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered a ... Read More