The movie industry has been shaken, with some releases pushed back months, some pushed back years, and some are now screening exclusively in Mozambique (probably). Hollywood's now going to have to be careful about what projects they move forward on. Worst-case, that means they'll now stick to making the most reliable homogenous crap, but let's hope it means we'll be spared unwanted movies about ...
The Tech Company, Shining With Promise
2010's The Social Network is a dark film, in some ways. Fortunes evaporate. Friends betray each other. Justin Timberlake, after looking cool, suddenly reveals himself to be a wimp. But the movie never comments darkly on the effects of Facebook or of social media. Sure, early on, there's a bit about Mark Zuckerberg stealing photos for his unethical pre-Facebook site, but Facebook itself is just a hugely valuable idea everyone wants a piece of, one that's a boon to the world.
Even in 2010, people were debating the impact of Facebook, and basically, none of that debate made it into the film. Real-world people were asking whether online interaction isolates us, but the movie chose to show Mark stunted from the start, followed by plenty of partying and very little time online from anyone. People back then were talking about online privacy, but no one in the film gets personal information about anyone else from Facebook -- not even in that one scene about successfully guessing a student's name and background.
And now, with all of us having witnessed a further decade of Facebook travesties, the one cinematic story of Facebook comes across as a ludicrously incomplete tale. We now know Facebook would go on to ravage the entire media industry, it would herd people toward fringe beliefs, it would preside over a brutal subversion of democracy. But as far as the film is concerned, the Facebook story's epilogue is just how much stock each founder received and about those two Harvard twins going on to row at the Olympics. It's like us having exactly one movie called The Life of Bin Laden and including nothing after 15-year-old Osama shopping in Sweden.
Based on how much the movie's themes (which drew very little from real life -- the writers made up whatever they thought worked best) connected with the nature of Facebook, the film may as well have been about the invention of the toaster. That's not me dissing the film, by the way. That's what writer Aaron Sorkin said, bragging about his skill as a screenwriter. He had no particular interest in Facebook or the internet when taking on the project.
The Social Network isn't the only story to follow this template. Pirates of Silicon Valley (as well as multiple other movies about Steve Jobs) gets drama out of Steve Jobs being forced out of Apple, but it portrays Apple itself as a superb creation because the computer, of course, is a superb invention. AMC's show Halt and Catch Fire has characters treacherously force each other out of companies for several seasons, but it's also a celebration of the early internet as a tool for unifying humanity. These are really good stories, every one of them. But damn, I do not see that sort of story working again anytime soon.
People are just too used to associating tech giants with evil to now marvel at a rags-to-riches story about them. Could you make a movie today about the founding of a coal mine, with one hero losing out on his share of the mine but coal itself being the solution to the world's problems? It might be a good story, but I don't think that idea would fly, and nor would a movie about the contributions of big tech.
Few will cheer the onscreen rise of Amazon, knowing it'll owe so much of its rise to the rest of the economy shutting down. Few will cheer the onscreen rise of Uber after all those stories about non-employees in their sixties driving 70 hours a week. Few will cheer the onscreen rise of Twitter, knowing just how thoroughly the service now forces each and every one of us to experience K-pop (also, the Trump and QAnon thing).
If we ever get another film about, say, people taking an internship at Google ...
... it won't be about two middle-aged guys proving they can adapt and land dream jobs at this amazing company. It'll be about their learning the company's shady secrets, growing disillusioned, and then somehow bringing it down from the inside. It'll still star Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, though. A lot more versatile than people give them credit for, that pair.
Please, Spare Us New Apocalypse Fiction
In the time of Corona, people's appetites for apocalypse fiction have remained ... well, stronger than ever, apparently. Post-apocalyptic video games are still everywhere, especially since wilderness and piles of discarded junk are a lot easier to design than a currently functioning city. Players found new meaning in Death Stranding, a game about someone saving the world by making door-to-door deliveries, and plague-themed Last of Us Part 2 was one of the biggest games of the year. The following photo is a screenshot from Last of Us 2, I think:
Classic plague apocalypse story The Stand got a new miniseries, and though it doesn't sound like it managed to rise above standard CBS quality, it grabbed some eyeballs. Movies like Contagion have received renewed attention, as have apocalypse novels like Station Eleven.
All of these were stories from before COVID. As fun as it is to notice ways that elements from them match up to reality, none of them were written with COVID in mind. On the other hand, I'm not interested in seeing new apocalypse stories that will inevitably take cues from what really happened this past year. We already have more stories about that, real-life stories, than we know what to do with.
There's an HBO adaptation of The Last of Us coming up, and do you really want to see how they subtly tweak the plot, with characters newly averse to wearing masks? HBO shouldn't do that, but they won't be able to resist. Which still won't be as bad as shows that take place in our world now, throwing away whatever plans they had in favor of portraying a COVID world. The eleventh and final season of Shameless airs this year, and multiple characters will get infected. "It's impossible to do a satirical comedy about the working poor without addressing what happened," says showrunner John Wells. I promise you, it is possible.
Worse still will be titles written specifically from scratch to exploit the pandemic. Last month, we already got a straight-to-streaming Anne Hathaway movie called Locked Down, about a heist during the COVID lockdown. I will not watch it because I can't get out of my head the image of a boardroom full of laughing men in suits greenlighting the film based on that premise alone. (I suppose in reality, it would be a Zoom call, not a boardroom meeting, but I'm picturing a world without COVID restrictions because imagination lets me do that.)
That movie's by all accounts still better than the Michael Bay-produced pandemic film that came out at the end of last year. Songbird is about a souped-up version of COVID-19 called COVID-23, and the movie answers a daring question: What if COVID were really bad?
For the purposes of this article, I decided to watch Songbird. But then I decided, "On second thought, how about I not do that? How about I instead watch one of the Michael Bay Transformers films I missed, the one with the robot dinosaurs?" Age of Extinction turned out to be exactly as stupid as I'd hoped (not nearly enough robot dinosaurs, though), and it also had the wonderful quality of not having anything whatever to do with COVID.
I mean, the big baddie in that film is literally named "Lockdown," but I swear to you, I drew no connection between that and the COVID lockdowns until writing this very sentence. A little escapism is a wonderful thing.
The Cop On The Edge
Speaking of shows adapting to current events, Brooklyn Nine-Nine threw out the scripts they originally wrote to open their upcoming season. Not because of COVID (though, they do plan on incorporating COVID into storylines, the killjoys). Because of last summer's police brutality protests, and because of George Floyd in particular.
Now, maybe that just means they wanted to start the season by addressing something on everyone's mind when we hear the word "cop" right now. But if they really did discard four episodes of scripts, rather than simply moving those to later in the season of this largely non-serialized show, you've got to wonder if they'd written something that would be especially unpalatable now. Did one of the normally loveable officers get a little too rough with a suspect, and the audience was supposed to smile at this, and the writers now realize that won't go down so well?
Maybe we're now completely fed up with fictional cops who take things too far. Sure, we always knew these guys' tactics were shady -- that's why they call him Dirty Harry; because when he's around, things are going to get hairy -- but wrong things that feel deliciously taboo can eventually just feel not at all entertaining. Luckily for you writers everywhere, this is a problem fairly easily solved by giving that loose cannon of yours absolutely any profession other than "policeman."
Take Batman. Actually, no, forget Batman; he's too close to a cop. Take John Wick. Does even the most ethical of viewer stand up at the end of a John Wick film and say, "Well, as entertaining as that was, shooting rival assassins in a violet house of mirrors sends a bad message about the correct way to address the assassination epidemic?" No, because the movie made up a nutty world where our laws need not apply. Such is the power of cinema. And so the movie is safe from our criticism. At least until they create a John Wick cinematic universe with formalized rules, at which point we will absolutely nitpick it.
Or if you want an antihero beating up bad guys, you can't go wrong with the old reliable everyman:
That's right, Bob Odenkirk is coming to theaters this April as a man who fails to protect his family but then breaks bad and attacks every criminal in town. Well, we're just speculating on that last part, but one thing we know it's not going to be about is Bob Odenkirk lashing out against criminals while wearing a police uniform.
The 20-Year Nostalgia Cycle
For decades, we've been at the mercy of creators and audiences who pine for when they grew up, 20 years ago. That's why, for a while now, you've been lectured on about the films of the '80s, as though those are the most important and influential works of all time. Before that, we had '90s stuff looking back at the '70s (That '70s Show, Boogie Nights), '80s stuff looking back at the '60s (The Wonder Years, Dirty Dancing), and '70s stuff looking back at the '50s (Happy Days, Grease).
Nostalgia has since moved forward in time, and TV executives are now reviving a bunch of '90s shows. So are we right on schedule to start feeling nostalgic for the 2000s? I don't think so. Because how do you feel nostalgic for something that never went away?
Look at the big films from the early 2000s, starting with Harry Potter. You could feel nostalgic for Philosopher's Stone, I guess, but only in the way you were nostalgic for it while watching Deathly Hallows -- you're looking back on something that happened years ago, but the series never stopped, now thanks to spinoff films and canonical tweets. X-Men was huge in 2000, but another installment of that same X-Men film series came out just last year. The biggest film of 2000 was Mission: Impossible 2. That film series is still going strong, with the original lead actor and new films coming out this year and in 2022.
Now, if we want movies and TV shows that are set 20 years ago, that too hits a snag. Because if we want to look back nostalgically at a different era, the world needs to have changed hugely since then in obvious ways, and we don't quite have that now as much as previous generations did. We have a few shows today set in the '90s (Little Fires Everywhere, Kirsten Dunst's Central Florida show), but unless they totally drown us in pop culture references like that Netflix '90s show did, it's easy to forget they're in a different time period at all. People text less on those shows than they do today, but people on TV shouldn't text anyway; that's a lame way to tell a story.
Or maybe it's just that I think the world of 20 years ago is too similar to today for nostalgia since I remember it? No, it's more than that. Let me put it this way: These are photos that The Onion currently uses in a recurring feature to represent ordinary Americans:
These are photos that The Onion used for the same feature 20 years ago:
Higher-quality JPEGs now, but the same photoshoot depicts 2021 and 2001. A single photoshoot couldn't depict 1991 and 1971. Or 1971 and 1951.
Or 1988 and 1968, the year The Wonder Years debuted and the year it was set. The Wonder Years got a successor of sorts that takes place in the 1980s, ABC's sitcom The Goldbergs, but a comparable version that comes out this year would be set in 2001. No one's making that; instead, the Wonder Years reboot will again be set in the '60s. It's not that the dawn of the War on Terror is a bad setting for a series. We just can't feel nostalgic for it because the war in Afghanistan is still going on today.
That '70s Show originally took place 22 years in the past; a similar nostalgic show today would take place in 1999. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a celebration of the '80s, took place just 16 years before the release date. A similar nostalgic game today would take place in 2005.
Culture still evolves, in some ways rapidly. But the swift evolution of memes and web design doesn't make for Hollywood-ready nostalgia the same way swiftly changing fashion and music does. I don't want movies mining nostalgia for the music of 2005 when the biggest songs were by Maroon 5, Black-Eyed Peas, and Gwen Stefani (mainly because some of the biggest songs today are by Maroon 5, Black-Eyed Peas, and Gwen Stefani). But I do feel nostalgic for websites from 2005. Like the old Facebook, before there was a newsfeed or any way to share links, back when our profiles said whether we were looking for dating, random play, or whatever I can get. Someone should make a movie about that.
Top Image: Sony Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures