The onslaught of summer movies, most notably the critically reviled but blockbusting Transformers 2, has renewed the argument over whether or not a movie can be just good fun and still be fun. Our own Charles Jones has already weighed in on this debate, defending Transformers 2 and its’ lack of any incredibly thought-provoking plot points or moral messages. He makes some excellent points in the process, and it’s worth reading over his article if you haven’t already.
I’m one of those people that has little patience for bad films. Part of this is a sinful desire to puff myself up appearing smart, artistic, and thoughtful to others. However, for the most part, my dislike of films is something I believe is altogether justified and an exercise in prudence.
After all, despite what some may think, films aren’t bad because they break some arbitrary rules that were thought up by critics. Films can be bad because they undermine the story itself or the audience’s viewing experience. This is an unfortunate mishap, but I am also fairly lenient when it comes to these mishaps. They are harmless. The worse they accomplish is keeping the film from becoming great.
However, there are other, more sinister attributes that might cause a film to be viewed by critics and thoughtful consumers as “bad.” For instance, a film may subvert its’ own message by telling its’ story in a way that conflicts (i.e. The Kingdom, wherein you spend 90 minutes being entertained by an attempt to “kill them all,” only to be told in the end that you should have been disgusted instead). A film can be so clear-cut and obvious as to be preachy and unrealistic, resulting in a lesson that would only be valuable in the film-world in which it has been presented (i.e. the numerous teen movies in which believing in oneself inevitably results in success). A film can also present a unified but morally abhorrant message, resulting in a movie which is simply less truthful and worse off for it (i.e. The Davinci Code, Brokeback Mountain, and pretty much any other movie that has been protested by the church).
Finally, a movie can be bad because it is dumb. Many would argue this point, claiming that every movie need not be the work of a genius. I should point out, however, the distinction between a dumb movie and a simple or silly movie. While simple films can often be thought provoking and sincere (Up, any other Pixar film), and silly movies are often painstakingly crafted and thoughtfully subversive (Zoolander, Monty Python), dumb movies are made either by dumb people or (more likely) people who stifle their artistic potential for the sake of appealing to the lowest common denominator. Rather than making an effort to appeal to our virtues (I would argue this is one mark of true art), they tend to appeal to our vices. Their movies thrive off of simple formulas that are known to cause audiences to flock to the theaters: existing franchises, large explosions, crude and gross humor, slapstick comedy, sexual exploitation, sentimental manipulation of emotions, and simplified plot-lines.
Many of these traits are fine when used sparingly, but when a movie relies solely on these things to carry a movie for its entire duration, there is a serious danger for the viewer: the movie does not ask us or challenge us to think. In fact, it is in the movie’s best interest that we don’t, or else we might realize that the plot actually makes little sense, that we are being manipulated, or that Megan Fox is being exploited in a most horrific way.
Our susceptibility to these attitudes in not inevitable by any means, but it certainly results in what can only be called a bad film. It demands nothing of us except that we passively accept what they offer. It results in a viewing audience that is in general worse off for having watched it. It is cynically produced with no concern in mind besides the financial windfall that will result.
The greatest danger of these movies is not what they are but what they do to us. They give us permission and at worst train us not to think about what we’re watching. As Christians, we don’t have this option. We are charged to remain sober and vigilant and to judge all things by scripture and the gospel. Does this mean we must concoct touching spiritual metaphors based on everything we see? No. But it does mean that if we ever find ourselves being taken on a ride by a movie about giant fighting robots, it’s best to either take control or jump off.