Michael Cimino, who died recently at 77, was often cited (and is now eulogized) as the man whose hubris singlehandedly ended the age of the auteur. This was an overstatement — there were deep forces at work, as ever, in the transition from the years of Coppola and Scorsese to the years of Jerry Bruckheimer. But Cimino’s famous studio-bankrupting turkey, Heaven’s Gate, really was a kind of Gladwellian tipping point, a hinge from the cinema of the ’70s into a very different world.
In our own era of tentpoles and sequels and reboots and endless “pre-sold” properties, I’ve often wondered what it would take to bring the entire blockbuster-industrial complex down. Could there ever be a Heaven’s Gate of the blockbuster era — a movie so costly and so disastrous that it forced a rethink, a reset, a return not to the auteur era but at least to the days when summer movies were actually original?
Alas, it’s hard to imagine. The “pre-sold” formula is beloved by Hollywood precisely because brand recognition and media saturation can effectively buy big opening weekends even for hot garbage. The blockbusters that go truly belly-up tend to be the all-too-rare originals — John Carter, say — while even a superhero turkey like the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern can still make hundreds of millions of dollars (and still more overseas) and a so-called disappointment like this spring’s Batman v. Superman disappoints to the tune of $800 million worldwide.
Thus we’ve been stuck in a kind of vicious circle, where Hollywood, having forgotten how to make original crowdpleasers, sees its occasional attempts at originality underperform and thus becomes ever more reliant on its pre-sold formula — which in turn gets more creatively bankrupt with every sequel, remake, and reboot.
This is how you end up with the movie wasteland that is the summer of 2016. I’m used to having trouble finding interesting movies to write about in January and February, or late August and September — the traditional dumping ground for films without either Oscar hopes or box-office potential. But normally June and July provide obvious material, steady-enough work.
This summer, though, Hollywood’s major offerings are not just bad but boringly bad, not just unoriginal but staggeringly so. There is literally nothing to be written about X-Men: Apocalypse that couldn’t be written about a half dozen other uninspired superhero sequels. The same goes for the incredible plague of lesser sequels: Neighbors 2 (at least the original was funny), Now You See Me 2 (nobody who saw the original remembers it), Alice through the Looking Glass (in practice, the umpteenth “put Johnny Depp in a weird costume” sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (a sequel to a reboot to . . . oh, never mind), The Conjuring 2, and The Purge: Election Year (my snark has run out).
The most dispiriting sequel of all is Independence Day: Resurgence, a follow-up to a long-ago summer blockbuster that in its time was pure popcorn silliness, but by comparison to its successor looks like, well, the work of a 1970s auteur.
Indeed, comparing the two is an object lesson in what the age of blockbusters has done to basic storytelling. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff noted in a perceptive essay, the new Independence Day follows many recent comic-book movies in dispensing with the classic three-act structure, replacing it with two acts plus a closing segue: In Act One we meet the characters, in Act Two things blow up and blow up and blow up some more, and then something happens to set up a potential sequel, cue credits. There’s no time for even the modest character development, the very limited sense of intimacy, that even “dumb” summer movies once naturally included.
In this landscape even the un-terrible depresses. Finding Dory, the sequel to Pixar’s beloved Finding Nemo, continues its studio’s transformation from one of the few sources of joyful originality in Hollywood to just another sequel factory. Steven Spielberg’s The BFG looks likely to be one of his few flops — a rare stab at (adapted) originality biting the dust, as though studios no longer know how to sell as basic a combination as a famous director and a beloved children’s book. Central Intelligence, which I reviewed last issue, is a serviceable entertainment that makes good use of its stars. But what does it say that a serviceable entertainment might be one of the summer’s three best movies?
Of course there’s still time. Maybe the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, the second sequel to the J. J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, or Suicide Squad (film three of 1,455, or so its makers hope, in the DC Comics Extended Universe of tentpoles) will save the summer.
Don’t laugh — it’s possible! I’ll let you know in two weeks; until then, my advice to you is stay home, make microwave popcorn, and download summer movies from 1996.