Given how slowly time seems to move in the Trump era — the past two months have flown by like a couple of years back in the 1800s — it can be difficult to remember all the way back to 2016. But allow me to guide you through the sands of time way back to September, when Ty Burr of the Boston Globe mused about the end of cinema at the close of one of the worst summers for blockbusters in recent memory.
“Someday we may look back on 2016 as the year the movies died,” Burr wrote. “There were blockbuster hits, and a couple of them were even good, but by far the majority were soulless, noisy, and dull — pure product from an industry that has lost the ability to speak in any meaningful way to a mass audience.”
Consider some of the films that Burr and other critics were forced to sit through in the months before he wrote that: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, Suicide Squad. Perhaps Burr was being a touch dramatic, but those truly are soulless, noisy, and dull films. If it was your job to sit through one terrible blockbuster after another, week after week, you might wonder if cinema was over, too.
I bring this up because I want to make sure we appreciate how different things have been so far in 2017. Almost every week lately, there’s been a pretty good-to-great new blockbuster opening at the local Cineplex: John Wick 2, The LEGO Batman Movie, Get Out, Logan, and most recently, Kong: Skull Island. These films have been popular at the box office, generally well-reviewed, and seem to be genuinely liked by viewers. Contrast that with the toxicity that clouded the response to last year’s tentpole fare like Ghostbusters and Suicide Squad, when politicized pissing matches between critics and aggrieved online constituencies became the new normal. So far in 2017, we’ve been blessedly free of such nonsense. For the first time in a while, going to the movies and talking about them afterward has actually been … fun.
The $190-million Kong: Skull Island is perhaps the most marginal film on that list of recent releases — a fair number of critics thought that movie was soulless and a bit dull, too. But if Kong: Skull Island is the floor, the floor is much higher than in 2016. Inspired by Apocalypse Now in the same way that Max Fischer in Rushmore is influenced by Platoon — as an excuse to blow stuff up while jamming on some cool old Jefferson Airplane songs — Kong: Skull Island is pleasurably dumb entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The cast is good and everybody seems to be enjoying themselves: Samuel L. Jackson drops some f-bombs, John C. Reilly grows a crazy beard, and Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston manage to not appear overly embarrassed.
Best of all is what Kong: Skull Island is not — an unwatchable, joyless dirge in the mold of Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. Skull Island is not a “serious,” “dark” or “totally f*cked up” meditation on the mythos of King Kong. There are no allusions to Sept. 11 or the economic crisis of 2008. There are no slow motion shots of entire cities being destroyed while Wagnerian music drones on the soundtrack. Kong: Skull Island is just a dopey monster movie. All in all, it is t0tally fine. I would watch Kong: Skull Island 10 times in a row rather than sit through X-Men: Apocalypse again.
When Burr rued the sorry slate of summer movies in 2016, he zeroed in on the lack of conversation about contemporary films versus other media. “Ask yourself: What in popular culture got people excited or even interested over the past few months?” he asked. “Was it a third Star Trek reboot, a fifth Bourne movie, a 34th X-Men? Or was it Stranger Things and The Night Of on TV?” Indeed, it seemed like the only time people talked about movies last year was when critics liked a movie than fanboys hated, or vice versa.
In 2017, the most talked-about movie has been Get Out, Jordan Peele’s socially conscious horror-satire that manages to be authentically scary while also commenting on race relations in original, profound ways. There is no TV show or album right now that does what Get Out accomplishes — it packages a subversive movie about white supremacy inside the Trojan horse of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Plus, it’s uniquely cinematic — Peele’s movie would still be effective if you watched it on your phone, but the way Get Out builds existential dread over the course of 100 minutes and then pays off big time at the end makes it an ideal movie-theater experience.
Last year, a slew of great low-budget genre films — Midnight Special, Green Room, The Nice Guys — came and went from theaters without making much of an impact. Even the excellent Hell Or High Water, which garnered a Best Picture nomination, only grossed $27 million. Get Out meanwhile is a bonafide hit — it’s already made $111 million on a budget of just $4.5 million, all while inspiring volumes of thinkpieces about left-wing hypocrisy and the renaissance of black American film. Get Out is exciting, provocative, and straight-up matters in a way that virtually no blockbuster-type movies mattered last year.
It’s worth noting that at this time last year, 2016 was looking pretty good. Yes, you had once-in-a-generation abominations like Dirty Grandpa, but there were also some pretty good “big” movies (Deadpool and 10 Cloverfield Lane) and some pretty good “small” movies (The Witch, Hail Caesar!, Everybody Wants Some!!). I would still choose 2017’s offerings over those movies — Logan makes Deadpool seem pretty callow — but the early part of 2016 was clearly better than what came later.
Then, at the end of March, Batman v Superman was released and proceeded to cast a pall over cinemas that never quite cleared. Are we due for another letdown in 2017? If so, which film will signal the downturn — Beauty and the Beast? Power Rangers? Ghost in the Shell? For now, I’m content to count our blessings. Coming off a frankly disastrous year for spectacle at local movie theaters — at a time when movie theaters need spectacle more and more to get patrons off the couch — it’s been refreshing to come out for big-ticket movies in early 2017 and actually return home satisfied.