I saw two movies over the weekend. One of them was good in the bad way, and one of them was bad in the good way.
Good in the bad way: San Andreas hit every mark the trailers promised. Hoover Dam: Destroyed! Downtown Los Angeles: Mega destroyed! San Francisco: Ultra mega super-street-fighter-championship-edition destroyed.
Dwayne Johnson is a no-nonsense crowdpleaser—he might be the first action movie superstar to call movies “content”—and there’s a vibe that runs through all his recent films, certain shared themes, even motifs. Hell, call it auteurism. Johnson doesn’t need to direct; his internal gravity pulls a movie in his direction. (Carla Gugino doesn’t act with him, she orbits.) He likes playing armed-forces badasses with hearts of teddy-bear gold; in GI Joe 2 and Fasts 5-7 and now San Andreas, he’s some kind of official agent who winds up breaking protocol for the greater good.
Johnson’s been uniquely open about his struggles with depression and his divorce—and maybe no divorce is amicable, but he still works with his ex-wife—so you can tease out some added poignancy in how often he plays a family guy. Roadblock’s got two daughters but no apparent wife in G.I. Joe: Retaliation; Hobbs suddenly has a daughter but no apparent wife in Furious Seven. Last year’s Hercules deserves another look: It’s an action movie about the importance of good PR, and it argues that the horny Greek demi-god was actually a grieving husband-father distracting himself from fracture-family depression via workaholic adventuring.
Johnson’s a key figure in the Furious franchise, whose star-producer-messiah Vin Diesel advocates Family with a capital-F. That family is a superteam tribe-cult, people united by something deeper than blood—the subtext is always that they have each other because nobody else will. Johnson’s more old-fashioned—or maybe he’s savvy enough to know that he can’t ever look like a misfit. So in San Andreas, he’s a recently divorced dad whose only real problem is that he couldn’t properly process his emotions after one of his daughters died. It’s like Stallone plus couples therapy, like Schwarzenegger’s only problem was that he worked too hard.
We tend to over-praise action movies that approximate philosophical or political importance. And we are living through the age of Story Gravity—Damon Lindelof’s explanatory term for why every franchise movie is about saving the world, or the universe, or the multiverse. San Andreas has none of that; it’s a movie where California gets destroyed by ten Armageddons and a couple dozen Deep Impacts, and the biggest danger is that Dwayne Johnson won’t save the people he loves.
It spoils just a little to say that, by the end of San Andreas, you’re left with the feeling that this whole earthquake thing really worked out great for The Rock. He’s got his ex-wife back, and his daughter’s dating a British engineer who looks like Eddie Redmayne’s nicer cousin. And don’t you hate it when your ex-wife starts dating a handsome billionaire? Don’t you kinda wish a tidal wave could appear off the coastline and send a few shipping containers crashing onto his handsome billion-dollar head?
I had fun watching San Andreas, but I can’t stop thinking about Aloha. San Andreas is the movie its trailer promised. Aloha is the movie aliens will make about us when they find the ruins of our civilization millennia hence.
I played a game over the weekend where I asked a few people what they thought Cameron Crowe’s new movie was about, based on the advertising. The collective response: “It’s a love triangle, and Bradley Cooper’s falling in love with Emma Stone, but he still maybe loves Rachel McAdams.” One person mentioned that Emma Stone was maybe some kind of Air Force pilot, but then laughed, as if “Emma Stone is an Air Force pilot” would be the craziest thing in an Emma Stone movie.
At this point, I played Two Truths and a Lie. Which of the two following plotlines, I asked, actually occurs in Aloha—and which did I just make up?
1. Bill Murray plays a billionaire industrialist working with the U.S. Government on a new satellite launch, as part of the ongoing privatization of the armed forces—except unbeknownst to the government, billionaire industrialist Bill Murray is planning to secretly (secretly!) include a nuclear weapon onboard that satellite—an act which would break the ironclad global rule about weapons in space and maybe-probably launch the world into a new Cold War.
2. There’s a scene in the movie where, in the middle of a last-minute space launch, a Chinese hacker—never mentioned before, never seen onscreen, never existing in the movie except for a brief climactic moment when he or she becomes the chief antagonist for everyone onscreen—starts hacking into the nuke-carrying satellite, and Bradley Cooper has to counter-hack the Chinese hacker while the satellite is launching. And before that point of the movie, there was never any real indication that Bradley Cooper was a hacker. And then he blows up the satellite using the final chord from “A Day in the Life.”
3. Emma Stone plays a half-Asian fighter pilot who talks about her half-Asian ancestry so much that, in one of the few scenes she shares with Rachel McAdams, the dialogue is mostly just Stone talking about her genetic ancestry—and when she walks out of the room, Bradley Cooper enters and asks Rachel McAdams if Emma Stone was just talking about being half-Asian.
Which one is fake? Which two are true?
Got your answer?
TWIST: THEY’RE ALL TRUE!
(Terribly, terribly true.)
A lot of media people care about Cameron Crowe, because Almost Famous is the movie media people watch when they need positive reinforcement. And Aloha already has a reputation as one of Crowe’s worst, if not just the. It’s the opposite of a come-to-Jesus moment: The movie that retroactively argues Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo were the best case scenario.
Counter-argument: Aloha is every kind of bad movie remixed into something genuinely bizarre. The strident attempts to honor native Hawaiian culture run right into the complete inability to feature any native Hawaiian characters who aren’t defined as politi-mystical archetypes. (When the nuclear satellite gets launched into space, Crowe shoots real-life Hawaiian activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele walking through an open landscape, staring up at the sky, looking like Russell Crowe in Gladiator’s dreamy heaven interludes.)
There’s a running super-liminal motif where Rachel McAdams’ son thinks Bradley Cooper is an incarnation of the Hawaiian god Lono—and the movie would appear to argue that Bradley Cooper absolutely is the Hawaiian god Lono, complete with sonic-space-superman attack-powers. The movie badly wants to make a point about the notion of Hawaii as military-occupied land—but it also wants to imagine that the military barracks on Oahu is a paradise of cute young rom-com Caucasian nostalgics, Mayberry with a Cameron Crowe mixtape, the kind of place where a tough-as-nails General played by Alec Baldwin walks up to a DJ at the local dancehall tavern and asks for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
None of this works. You have to see it to believe it—or don’t see it and believe whatever. I guess there’s an angle on Aloha where it just looks lazy: The Crowe machine, puffing on fumes. I dunno. I’m waiting for somebody to make the Aloha drinking game. I want somebody 20 years from now to explain how it’s all about drones. For the less adventurous, there’s another Hawaiian movie coming out next week. But Jurassic World doubles Hawaii for a fake island, because that’s what Jurassic Park did 20 years ago, and because there’s nobody to complain when you fill a fake island with white people.
Here’s something to consider. That weekend we just had, with the financially successful/critically not-unsuccessful San Andreas and the calamitous-on-all-counts Aloha opening on the same day? That’s the last time this summer that the two big new wide releases of the weekend are live-action original feature films: The kind of thing Hollywood used to make, when they made them like they used to.
I know, I know. “Original” is a shaky term, and San Andreas is just Dante’s Peak with earthquakes, and Aloha is just the mash-up of The Bourne Ultimatum and How Do You Know that somebody somewhere somehow badly wanted.
But this week we’ve got Entourage and Insidiou3 opening against Melissa McCarthy Bond-spoofing with Spy. And then there’s Inside Out, the latest from the Pixar four-quadrant dream factory, and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted 2. More Magic Mikes, more Terminators, Minions and Ant-Man and Adam Sandler fighting your favorite videogames, Mission: Impossible 5 and Fantastic Four 3-2=1, apparently someone ordered a Man from U.N.C.L.E.—some of these movies look great, and one of them has the word “Genisys” in the title.
“Originality” as a concept has maybe never been less essential to Hollywood. By general consensus, the best wide-release movie of the year so far is Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in a franchise that started when Cameron Crowe was undercover in high school. The 2015 film that I’ve personally seen the most—four times in theaters, I can’t help myself—is Furious Seven, the film where a gang of car thieves save America from a private terrorist by crashing a bulletproof car through three skyscrapers. (Not to be confused with Aloha, the movie where Cameron Crowe archetypes save America from a private terrorist by blowing up a nuclear satellite with a boomer-rock mixtape.)
The question I want to pose today isn’t about those good movies, though. It’s the bad ones that fascinate me. Because if you can get a unique high from a great franchise movie—the lizard-brain immediacy of “Watching A Good Movie” combined with the insta-nostalgic resonance of “This Is Just Like When I Watched The Last Movie,” the magical feeling of rewatching something for the first time—you can get a unique low from watching a bad franchise movie. Or even a middling one. Expectations for Avengers: Age of Ultron were high for a lot of people—and no matter how much money the movie makes, it’s easy to read the muted reaction to that film as disappointment bordering on depression.
I wonder if the excitement for San Andreas indicates a minor sea change—if, after three years of sky-high expectations, people were ready for something humbler. I wonder if that’s the reason why Aloha is the bad movie I can’t quite get out of my mind: The movie is only frayed edges and missing scenes and unsketched plotlines, the kind of thing you can never get from a movie factory chugging out product launches on a quarterly release schedule.
There’s no right answer, but I’d be intrigued to hear yours: Is a bad movie that’s completely original more interesting than a merely-okay franchise picture? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll feature your response in next week’s Geekly mailbag.