Part two of a three part discussion of my frustrations with Hollywood movies.
Sometimes a movie needs an explosion or ten, that I cannot deny. And, sometimes, truly bad people will destroy lots of random things for no apparent reason (or have the mission statement of destroying, rather than conquering, the world)–how else do we know that they are evil, after all?1 But, as I have gotten a bit older, I have become increasingly troubled by what I consider excessive collateral damage–not even violence, per se, but explosions and damage for its own sake, often committed by good and evil alike.2
Once upon a time in my mythic glory days of Hollywood that probably had more to do with the limits of special effects than any actual moral integrity, the good guys only killed bad people and blew up property that belonged to bad people. There was a limit to the collateral damage and an implicit guarantee that no innocents were harmed in the filming. No more is this the case. Now in moral decay, ever action movie features damage that feels that it serves no particular purpose for the movie except as filler. Larger, expensive, flashy filler.
The list of action movies that do this encompasses nearly every movie that comes out these days. To name just a few: Bad Boys (I and II), Iron Man (particularly II), Conan,3 Transformers, and GI Joe (One of the first movies taht really bothered me). One of my favorite lines in a review was for the International, saying that it had potential as a movie, but that it ended up being a movie that was cobbled together. In particular, the reviewer was upset that the movie included a car chase at a particular point not because the car chase fit with the rest of the movie, but because the movie had not yet had a car chase. This is how I feel about most of the collateral damage: it is included because it is a genre specific feature and the movie had not yet reached its quota. For what it is worth, a good counterpoint to this phenomenon is the movie The Expendables, but more on this below.
Collateral damage that serves no purpose to the movie is more evident in bad movies, but is also in good movies, and movies that I like, which make this blatant disregard for damage and innocent bystanders that much more troublesome.
People have long argued that sex and violence in video games and movies has led to an uptick in violence and otherwise decayed morals. I don’t actually accept this argument, not to mention that short attention spans, apathy, lethargy, and obesity are causing more harm to individuals in society than is violence–even if you do not subscribe to Steven Pinker’s theory that violence is at a record low. For what it is worth, I am not sure that I do agree with his theory, which, from what little I have read, has some significant holes, including that while violence affecting percentages of world population may be down, but the total number of people affected has risen dramatically. But I digress. My concern is more that possibility for and tolerance of, say, the lethal presidency and the use of drone strikes has risen along with the nonchalance of collateral damage. In this way, it is not that movies encourage people to cause wanton destruction, but that it in some way normalizes and legitimizes it. In fact, I do not know if there is any correlation here, but in seeing two trends rising side by side, I am given pause.
Here are just a few examples:
- G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009): The bad guys are preparing to unleash a weapon on the Eiffel Tower, so the Joes get their advanced suits and run down the street to try to thwart them. Unfortunately for the Parisians, the Joes not only fail to stop the bad guys destroying the tower, but they manage to destroy quite a large number of cars, trains, and buildings in their haste to get to the bad guys.
- Iron Man 2 (2010): In this particular movie (one which I did enjoy), there is a fight scene at the Stark Expo, and Tony Stark does a fairly good job of protecting the innocents. My quibble here is that while flying around and attacking the various robots, both sides launch off quite a few rockets that often miss each other, landing in locations unknown. The message seems to be out of sight, out of mind, but, if anything, that is a more worrisome prospect in this age of drone and missile warfare. I was troubled and found myself wanting some assurances that the missiles landed in empty warehouses, parks, or streets…something better accomplished if the scene had not been set at a crowded expo in a city.
- Transformers, Dark Side of the Moon (2011): In this movie, the Decepticons promise to let the leaders of earth live if they force the Autobots to leave, thereby removing the only force on earth capable of resisting them.4 The Autobots then fake their flight and reappear after the Decepticons have laid waste to Chicago. Then their leader, Optimus Prime, says: “Your leaders will now understand: Decepticons will never leave your planet alone. And we needed them to believe we had gone. For today, in the name of freedom, we take the battle to them!” My interpretation of this monologue is that the Autobots went into hiding and let Chicago get destroyed to prove a point to the human leaders. Am I reading too much into this? Probably, but willingly sacrificing a city of nearly three million people to prove a point is hardly a heroic action, but the heroes do it anyway without a hint of irony.
It was this very reason that I enjoyed the first Expendables movie (2010). It had a cast that included Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone, Jason Statham, and Jet Li, and it was basically one extended shootout between these guys, an elite mercenary unit, and some Latin American petty dictator. And yet the only people killed by the good guys were bad guys and the only property destroyed by the good guys belonged to bad guys. There was something refreshing about this, perhaps unrealistic, stark division between what good guys do and what bad guys do. Even if it isn’t realistic, shouldn’t this be the model that we aspire to?
1 Movie logic here. I actually disagree with the underlying principle since wanton, thoughtless destruction is a mark of madness, not evil per se.
2 This is more of an issue for me in live action films and the more of a spoof a film is, the less I care. Archer, for example, gets a free pass.
3Conan did this by having Conan and his crew roll rocks down a hill into a slave camp and his slave carts and cages that may or may not have been full of people. There were also actual explosions. For a movie about a guy whose basic m-o is to run around hitting things with a sword, I was stunned at the extent to which the collateral damage endemic had taken hold.
4The logic circuits in my brain overloaded with this particular issue, though, since the basic storyline is that the Autobots get absolutely wrecked by the Decepticons on Cybertron and only a few of them escape to Earth. Then, somehow, they are consistently able to thwart the Decepticons (of whom more survived, it seems) here. I don’t understand.