Where Did the Plot Go?

With the exception of There's Something About Mary, the highest grossing films of 1998 have been action thrillers. Even The Waterboy has drawn big crowds by advertising Adam Sandler's gruesome football hits. There is nothing shocking about this statistic. High budget action movies have ruled the box office for the last decade.

What is shocking is how bad the majority of these films are. Armageddon, Deep Impact and Godzilla cleared over $100 million each at the box office. Godzilla, which took in over $130 million according to Rolling Stone magazine, is the worst film that I have ever seen. Even The Waterboy is less than mediocre, as Adam Sandler's zany nonsequitur humor takes a back seat to highly physical comedy. Too many directors seem to have forgotten George Lucas' advice, that "special effects without a story is a pretty boring thing."

The quality of scenery and the quality of dialogue seem to be inversely proportional in today's films. Studios spend so much money blowing up computer models of New York City that they shun originality and complexity in their characters. They fear that such risky elements may limit the demographics of their audiences.

Their financial calculations make sense. Producers know that big stars and unprecedented explosions are a winning combination. We are all inherently intrigued by the idea of watching Bruce Willis save the Earth from a deadly asteroid, or Ferris Bueller take on a 50-ton lizard.

The unfortunate side-effect of emphasizing explosions is that the plot suffers. Even movies which intend to ignite spirited debate about freedom and tolerance in American society end up being as profound as a Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame production. The Siege and American History X are as heavy-handed as a textbook for seventh-grade civics class.


Story lines have become so formulaic that studios are recycling old stories at a record rate. Sometimes they try to trick us by changing the title (The Prince of Egypt), and other times they unabashedly flaunt their lack of originality (Godzilla, Psycho).

Voicing complaints about the state of movie-making is always frustrating. Defenders of the status quo will inevitably claim that the American people want to see high-tech action flicks with hackneyed plots. The truth, however, is that we are tricked into seeing blockbuster films by carefully crafted media blitzes and the draw potential of Hollywood heartthrobs. We all can remember when we went to see a film such as Armageddon even though our friends told us it was awful. Like insects that fly into the light after watching their comrades burst into flames, we convince ourselves that a movie in which Bruce Willis saves the earth has to be entertaining.

Of course, our dollars speak louder than our words. The only way we can change anything is to stop throwing our money at vanilla action flicks. Instead, we should frequent independently produced film with more regularity.

The meager budgets of independent film makers allow them to take the risks which the major studios are unwilling to assume. They can create multifaceted characters and develop themes with enough subtlety that viewers must labor to understand them. They rely on plot rather than on explosions to keep the attention of their audiences. Of course, some Indy films are as terrible as Hollywood flicks, but the best of them are more intellectually rewarding than anything that Hollywood has to offer.

The Italian movie Life is Beautiful demonstrates the type of greatness which independent films are capable of achieving. The film details the struggle of a Jewish man in the Holocaust to save the life of his five-year old son by hiding him from concentration camp guards. It takes a monumental risk by using a great deal of comedy in an unamusing environment: The father creates a fantasy world for his child in which the child will win a real army tank if he can successfully hide from the Nazi officials.

The movie develops an original moral theme with enough subtlety so that the film does not end in the typical Hollywood way, with the main character summing up the importance of the film in an ostensibly stirring speech. It also take a renegade view towards violence. The director, Robert Benigni, makes it clear that people are about to die and spares us the gore. As a result, Benigni creates more sympathy for their pain than the desensitizing violence of Hollywood murders.

Unfortunately, as long as Armageddon grosses over $200 million compared to the $3 million pulled in so far by Life is Beautiful, Hollywood will not have the impetus to change its ways. However, pushing for partial reform is not a pipe dream. Viewer revolt against megablockbusters has already begun in small measure. Predicted cash cows such as Deep Impact and Godzilla brought in less than expected at the box office. If the failure of these films starts a trend, then studios may begin to re-emphasize plot lines more over explosions. Though Hollywood may never become a mecca for high art, we can hope to receive a little more thematic bang for our buck. Alex M. Carter '00 is a history and literature concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.