dominance of big-budget filmmaking has not led to a new kind of hyper-realism that would give writers and directors new freedom. Instead, it has addicted Hollywood to unreality of an entirely new sort. The best example of this is the rise of the comic-book superhero movie. For decades, both on television and in the movies, this stuff was scraping-the-bottom-of-the- barrel entertainment. Special effects were so primitive that the sight of a man trying to fly, or someone using some form of superpower, was more apt to be risible than exciting. (This is why the genre tended to degenerate into camp. It was so self-defeating that it had to make fun of itself before you made fun of it.) But in 2002 came Spider-Man, the first superhero movie of the digital age. And it was a smash. It was followed not only by its own sequels but by a series of successful movies based on the X-Men comic books. And then, in 2008, Marvel made the leap to film with its own version of its comic book, Iron Man . This was, as the younglings say, “the game- changer,” as the comic-book picture joined with science fiction and animated features to serve as the mainstays of Hollywood. If you go through the list of the top-grossing movies of all time in the U.S., you literally have to travel down to No. 35 – thirty-five! – to find one that isn’t dominated by special effects or digital work. It’s Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ . And it’s not until you get to No. 43 that you find one set in the present day ( American Sniper ). What this tells you is that for most moviegoers under the age of 40, going to the movies is about seeing special effects, and it has been for nearly 20 years.
Now, switch over to the chart that shows you the most successful movies of all time adjusted for inflation and the story is radically different. The top 25 on that list include Gone with the Wind (at No. 1), The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, The Godfather, The Sting , and The Graduate . These movies conjure up a different kind of moviegoing experience – one that’s story-based and involves recognizable people in recognizable settings facing problems in the real world. This was what the movies were for – to reconfigure reality in a highly dramatic (or comic) way, with the goal of entertaining people by making them feel as though they might live through what the characters are living through. That was the nature of the regular fare produced by Hollywood that didn’t make it to the all-time charts – the singles and doubles and triples, if you will, rather than the home runs. The computer’s dominance of big-budget filmmaking has not led to a new kind of hyper-realism that would give writers and directors new freedom. Instead, it has addicted Hollywood to unreality of an entirely new sort. The breakup of the studio system half a century ago and the subsequent takeover of the entertainment business by corporations that sought to impose a rational financial framework on a creative medium that is – due to its reliance on crazy people – irrational by definition, changed the moviemaking game.
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