Thoughts on Mediocre Movies

Want to feel depressed? Watch some high-grossing films, then reflect that you live at the mercy of governments elected by the fetid masses to whom they appeal. This past week, I watched three. Spoilers ahead, if such a thing can even exist.

Limitless starts from an interesting premise, and one that will be increasingly relevant in the coming decades: The development of nootropic drugs that radically enhance human intelligence. It gets silly and predictable pretty quickly after that.

To me though, the most interesting part of the movie was the ending. The protagonist eventually learns that the miracle drug is killing him, and much drama ensues. Then, in the final scene and with little explanation, we learn that he has used his magical intelligence to make the drug’s effects on his mind permanent – and safe. He turns on his one-time mentor, who has committed the unspeakable crime of working for a large corporation and regularly wearing a suit and thus is undeserving of our sympathy. Worse, in my opinion, he appears to be hoarding his newfound safe, effective wonder-drug for his own use, rather than share it with the world and usher in a new era of universal super-intelligence. Once again, I find myself siding with the bad guys and despising the heroes.

Halfway through the movie – while the protagonist is using his powers to get rich and laid with abandon – I predicted the writers were setting him up as a modern-day Icarus. Perhaps he would redeem himself – say, by overdosing on the drug for one final burst of brilliance to cure the lesser damage done by the one pill he encouraged his girlfriend to take? Instead, the film left him happy, brilliant, safe, and en route to world domination.

Hollywood primarily pushes mindless distraction, but it also sneaks in the myths and morals of our age. Limitless tells us that we can have it all, that there are no consequences to our impulsive, reality-defying ambitions. The humble and hardworking are punished, while the lazy, selfish, shortcut-seeking fools are rewarded. Welcome to America and her colonies, circa 2011.

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The Company Men follows the lives of three corporate refugees, each cast off from the upper echelons of a downsizing shipping/transportation conglomerate.

Casualty #1 is Ben Affleck, sales manager, who must suffer indignities such as having to sell his Porsche and being thrown off a golf course for letting his club fees lapse. The irony of his angst is intended, and I credit the film for portraying successful businessmen as humans – but it’s telling that the writers and audiences take it for granted that once Affleck’s character loses his job, his family will struggle to meet their next month’s mortgage payment. With just a modicum of self-restraint, most western families could be completely financially secure. Instead, they spend themselves to the brink of bankruptcy regardless of their income. The result is going to be a massive and uncomfortable decline in real living standards when the debt-supported house of cards finally collapses, as it soon will. The Company Men, of course, doesn’t dwell on this uncomfortable truth, preferring to end on the unrealistically upbeat founding of a new shipping company by the laid-off workers. The producers cut out the epilogue, in which the fledgling company spent a decade jumping through EPA sustainability assessments, fought off multiple EEOC challenges, and was eventually bankrupted by strikes.

The film’s villain is, of course, the evil CEO. His crimes against humanity include firing redundant workers, shutting down unprofitable divisions, being vaguely sinister-looking, and not emoting sufficiently to express his sympathy for the laid-off workers. Because god forbid we should aspire to a dynamic, flexible economy in which some sectors grow while others contract. Also, in an ideal world, executives would all be reduced to blubbering incoherence for days at a time whenever someone’s contract expired and they couldn’t justify the business case for extending it.

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Finally, Transformers 3 was a tragic disappointment, and the eight-year-old in me cries out for justice. I mean, the mighty Optimus Prime, thwarted for half the friggin movie because he got tangled in high-tensile wires? Come on. And am I missing something, or did Shia Labouef sell out the Autobots and humanity because his watch pinched him? Is Michael Bay a toddler? Speaking of which, I haven’t seen Fast Five, but I highly recommend this interview of the screenwriter by the Pulitzer-due producers of Today Now!  (Every day, I find it a little bit harder to tell the difference between The Onion and the real world. I wonder if the two will eventually merge.)

The moral of the story is: Consume pop culture at your own risk. If hangover and heat exhaustion forces it upon you, at least try to cast a critical eye and get a blog post out of it.

Freedom Twenty-Five Readers: What TV shows, movies, music, books and other assorted cultural errata cause you the most worry for the fate of our world?