18 July 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Planes, Sex, and Anarchy

I love weekends like this. It's a Summer Friday and there are three new movies landing in theaters and each one is going after a completely different audience. So, like we do every Friday some insane new mass media pop culture item lands, it's time to test the waters and attempt to predict the cultural, commercial, and critical prospects of each brand new thing. Today they come in three's.
Also who would have guessed nine years ago
 that this would be the sum of Dane Cook's career in 2014

Let's start with what I'd predict to be the weakest of the three: Disney's Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014). This is impossibly the sequel to the spin-off of what many generally consider the weakest of the Pixar films, Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011). I'm not sure why these films have earned that stigma, but for some reason they're treated as Pixar's one shallow cash grab, and many critics especially consider the sequel to be the undebatable singular misstep in their canon, even if there is some argument over the merit of other flicks like Brave (2012) or Monsters University (2013), although I loved the former and had no interest in the latter.

Anywho, for better or worse, Cars is this awkward red-headed stepchild among all Pixar films. It's somewhat odd that they're considered this shallow cash-grab considering that they're among their worst-grossing entries. The key is their merchandisability, though, which is crazy high. And hold on, because Planes (2013) isn't even Pixar - it's just a Disney animated flick that looks exactly like Cars and has some involvement from John Lasseter on the production end. It's hard to believe that Planes only came out last year and did pretty alright at the box office, considering it was originally intended to be a direct-to-DVD release. Fire & Rescue is truly nothing special, and I'd seriously doubt its ability to make any impact critically, commercially, or culturally. It'll probably make some dough just because there's literally nothing else for kids at the movies right now, but other than that, no one cares.

Up next we have Sex Tape (2014), which stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel making a sexy video and then accidentally selling it to all their friends. It's a total grab at the kind of soft R-Rated comedies that have been really successful lately, like Horrible Bosses (2011) and Bad Teacher (2011) that mostly feature A-list comedians letting loose a little bit. There's got to be some interest in a sexy Cameron Diaz (is there ever not?) and for Jason Segel...well, he is actually looking a big gaunt, but he's not defining sex like Diaz has since...forever.
Presenting the most dangerous movie title to Google
 since The Angry Beavers. My guess is you won't see
 more than this.

And by soft R I mean these kinds of films are kind of dirty, which is liberating, but they don't really offer anything really challenging or boundary-pushing like a Hangover movie or something. Okay, just the first Hangover (2009). They're naughty but resoundingly safe, which allows a wide swath of audiences to buy in and enjoy them. And that's not to say that any of these are poor films, but it's just not something that I believe ends up with a lot of significant critical or cultural weight. Sure it's getting a sequel for some reason, but who are there is a really serious Horrible Bosses fan? These sort of films don't really inspire a cult following, and for some reason I guess I'm expressing a disappointment in that. Maybe films don't require cultural success to be considered successful, and they can just make a ton of money and be barely good enough to only be considered "not sucky."

No, I can't accept that.

Anyway, Sex Tape also just doesn't look all that funny, despite it's pretty good cast and pretty contemporary idea. There's all this fuss over the cloud in the trailer, though, that kind of misses its mark, because even though older people may not understand the cloud, yes, every young person understands the cloud and how to manage it. I'm thinking its central conceit is therefore a whiff, and this may suffer. Still, sexy Cameron Diaz. that works.

Lastly and perhaps somehow most significantly, we have The Purge: Anarchy (2014). This is another sequel to a movie that only came out a year ago, but it's the most notable and interesting to me out of the threesome of flicks coming out today. It's able to take a world established by its predecessor, The Purge (2013) and build another story out of the same premise. I wish that films would do this more often - set themselves in the same world as their franchise brothers but without the same characters, plot, or situation. It's not like a Friday the 13th movie where things change up but Jason keeps coming back. The best part of The Purge was the morality play it presented by asking you what you would do if for one night a year all crime was legal. It's an intriguing high concept that's pretty adaptable. Anarchy, for once, is a natural sequel to expand that conceit out of Ethan Hawke's home and into the world at large.
Soooo not the image you want after that Sex Tape pic

This requires a lot of really accurate yet adaptable world-building, which isn't present in that many franchises. Godzilla movies still need Godzilla. James Bond movies still need James Bond. Marvel is getting there with building similar organizations and world events into different films, but it'd still be a tall order to take the kind of alternate approach that The Purge is doing. The only major example of a world that could pull this off would be Star Wars, which has such an articulated and defined world that many different characters can exist doing different things at different times and still appear connected through the characteristics of a well-developed universe. The Lord of the Rings could do this to some extent, but it still feels like every event is leading to one concise metanarrative.

So this is all to say that while Anarchy may not be a good movie at all, it's at least a culturally more interesting one than anything else coming out this weekend. Actually, Planet of the Apes has some nice variants of world-building if you wanted to see that this weekend again instead of these three disasters. The Purge created a lot of goodwill, which is really rare with horror films, and with a $9 million budget, it'd be insane for Anarchy not to find some similar success.

The big question now is what are you seeing? Will you go the child-appeasing cash grab Planes: Fire & Rescue route? Or how about the culturally vapid R-comedy Sex Tape? Or are you digging the world of The Purge and want more through Anarchy? Let you voice be heard in the comments!

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