I have a well chronicled stance on movies that crib from my precious childhood memories: with little exception, I despise them. In particular, I have what some may call an intense dislike for one Michael Bay, who seems to delight in frolicking through my formative years, leaving Shia, Megan and irreparable harm in his wake. Unfortunately for me, playing to our collective nostalgia is insanely lucrative.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) achieved a worldwide gross of $485,004,754 against an estimated budget of $125 million. I doubt the 21% “Fresh” rating and 53% audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes, the 5.9 on IMDb or the 31% on Metacritic matters much when the dump trucks full of cold hard cash park themselves outside of the studio.
Transformers worldwide gross? $709,709,780. Revenge of the Fallen? $836,303,693. Dark of the Moon? Over one Billion (with a capital B). Same for Age of Extinction, which – at $210 million – cost the most to make. I lack the hyperbole necessary to properly describe the absurdity of these profits. “They basically just print money,” is accurate but severely lacking. As with Turtles, all of these movies were critically panned… 57%, 19%, 35%, and 18% “Fresh” ratings, in chronological order.
This year has already seen the release of a new Jurassic movie, as well as a new Terminator movie. Jurassic World has treated box office records and the very concept of worldwide gross in much the same way the Dilophosaurus dealt with the late and unlamented Dennis Nedry. Thankfully, the new Terminator movie may be so unwatchable that it finally bucks the money train trend.
Look, I don’t want to be the old guy, sitting on his porch, waving my fist impotently at the sky, damning the children and talking about how good things were back in my day. But, things really were good back in my day. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weren’t a mechanism for the next box office hit – they were an institution. Comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, action figures, at least one movie that was spectacular, lunch boxes, trapper keepers. The best Transformers movie was made in 1986. Optimus Prime died (spoiler alert), and I cried. You cried too. If you didn’t cry, you’re a monster. Terminator was a revelation. Arnold was the undisputed heavyweight action movie king. Jurassic Park was one of the few movies that rivaled the book upon which it was based. I enjoyed Jurassic World, but is was basically Park minus Ian Malcolm.
I already know how much my nostalgia is worth to studio executives, directors, actors, agents – really, the entire Hollywood infrastructure. However, I wish I could explain to these people the cost. Over reliance on pulling successful franchises forward in time helps contribute to an industry that is clearly hurting for new ideas. Young directors with creative ideas are tapped to drive these franchises, which are by and large paint-by-numbers CGI heavy affairs. Legitimately stunning movies, such as Fury Road ($358 million worldwide gross; it didn’t even make back its budget on domestic gross) struggle to find a suitable place at the table… Even Fury Road recalls the past, but it does so effectively both from an artistry standpoint, as well as the fact that it doesn’t exist purely for the sake of monetizing nostalgia. Between poorly recycling things that I grew up loving, and riding other franchises (ahem, Super Heroes) for every little dime that they can, movies are rapidly losing their ability to delight. They have become created and packaged for mass consumption, and designed to be bigger and bigger, better and better, more and more… in all the emptiest, most superficial ways.
What should somebody do when they keep eating but remain forever hungry? They should find a new meal.