After the surprise success of Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World in its opening weekend, Esquire made an interesting observation: Hollywood seems to have developed a self-loathing problem. Films like Jurassic World and Tomorrowland are rife with subtext (and just flat-out text) about the modern movie-making process, about the kinds of stories we tell and what that means for us as a society. It’s an astute reading of a growing trend, one that really kicked into full gear with Birdman‘s Oscar win earlier this year, but there’s one thing about the reading I’d take issue with.
Hollywood doesn’t hate itself; it hates us. And we apparently love them for it.
Whether it’s misusing cinematic language when handling a death scene, ignoring everything its heroine does, or failing to understand the narrative meaning of wardrobe, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World had its fair share of problems – and that’s not even digging into the slack narrative, the awful character work, the ridiculous ending, and the tacky, nonsensical pandering to fans of Jurassic Park. But the film doesn’t blame filmmakers. It has a fair share of blame for execs who keep twisting and tampering with the stories in an effort to craft the perfect, neverending franchise, who seek to make regular, how did Disney describe their modern films? Oh yeah: “Brand deposits.”
But the execs aren’t doing it just for fun. They’re doing it all for us. The audience. The stupid, crass audience who won’t recognize the majesty of dinosaurs really brilliant movies because they’re on their smart phones seeing another gritty, spectacle-driven superhero movie (or on their smart phones). They blame the nerds who keep demanding that Hollywood crank out samey superhero movie after samey superhero movie, shit no one there wants to be making and none of them understand the appeal of, but all of them know that it’ll make money, and that’s what matters. Birdman director González Iñárritu has called superhero films a cultural genocide, and his film reflects that mindset. So do the Oscar ceremony at which he won, which featured at least three different ‘jokes’ at how much Hollywood hates making them. But they’ll keep doing so, and even if they quietly hate us for seeing them and wish they could be doing anything else, they’ll love the cash they make.
It’s essentially the same logic filmmakers use to justify decades of sexism and racism in hiring practices: We, the smart, cool filmmakers and artists, don’t want to be doing this, of course, obviously, but audiences want what they want, and what they want is tough, cool white dudes and literally nothing else ever. Similarly, these filmmakers seem to desperately want someone to make the kind of movies they loved growing up, but they have no faith that audiences would go to those kinds of movies. And we’re not talking about arthouse fare here! Trevorrow didn’t spend this film making a feature-length homage to Ingmar Bergman’s arty existentialism, but to Steven Spielberg, the King of Populist Cinema, the guy who basically invented the modern blockbuster as we know it. Trevorrow seems to believe that we don’t get more movies like Jurassic Park because we won’t see it, and thus there’s no reason for him to even bother trying to make a good movie. After all, we wouldn’t appreciate it anyway.
In Jurassic Park, Spielberg manages to craft something that moves comfortably between harrowing and wonderful, a movie that never lets you forget the majesty of what you’re seeing for too long. It doesn’t do so by telling you about all the cool features of the dinosaurs, or by telling you that you should be feeling wonder. It does so by letting the brachiosaurus’ sing, heads high above the treeline against a red-and-grey sky that makes it look like they truly are in another world. “Yes,” the film may be saying, “Bad things happen. We aren’t in control. But it still brought this lost, otherworldly beauty back into the world, and there’s value in that.” Even the last shot of Jurassic Park reinforces this idea, and it does so with a bird, a smile, and a bit of music, not with Dr. Alan Grant turning to the camera and delivering a lecture on what Spielberg wanted us to think.
What Jurassic World‘s Colin Trevorrow and Tomorrowland‘s Brad Bird and Birdman‘s Alejandro González Iñárritu got so thoroughly wrong was this: If you want your audience to feel a sense of wonder, a sense of hope for the future, if you want your audiences to care about more than just simple spectacle… make them.
Don’t tell them to. Don’t ask them to. Don’t chide them for failing to. Make them. You have the tools. You have the sublime way sound and image hit that screen and dig into our animal brains. You have a century of evolving, sophisticated cinematic language, and millennia of narrative language. Smart phones and cynicism can’t stand up to that power. If you do your job, that is, and make a movie instead of a 200-million-dollar thinkpiece.