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Why silly summer movies matter

Fluffy nonsense can still remind us of what makes us human.

A scene from Spider-Man: Homecoming
Here’s to a great summer at the movies.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In January, Saturday Night Live skewered artists’ rush to characterize their work in terms of Trump’s election or vague notions of “resistance.” In a sketch that centered on the press tour for a new movie, a director played by Kyle Mooney described the film, Hot Robot 3: Journey to Boob Mountain, as an important political statement: “In this political climate, artists have a responsibility to make good work, no matter the cost,” he says soberly.

It’s a hilariously self-important statement, and that’s the point. Of course, some artists do important work in processing, reflecting, and challenging the political environment. But, the sketch suggested, sometimes a sexy robot is just a sexy robot.

At the dawn of the summer movie season, that’s an important sentiment to remember. Traditionally, summer is the time for frothy, silly movies: studio comedies like Ghostbusters or Central Intelligence; action and sci-fi blockbusters like Star Trek Beyond or White House Down; and, of course, a steady flood of superhero fare, with plenty of sequels and reboots of established properties that have built-in fans.

While the occasional summer film engages with the “important” stuff by telling challenging stories that connect to public concerns — Straight Outta Compton, for instance, or Hell or High Water — it’s still a rarity to see such films at the multiplex during the warmer months.

But in a year where political division and social turmoil seem to have reached new highs, the question naturally arises: Are these so-called “sexy robot movies” that dominate the season still worth paying attention to in 2017?

Guardians of the Galaxy
Summer movie season is about to start.

In short: Yes. Politics, art, and entertainment cross over in many ways — and they should — but the vitality of art and entertainment can’t just be reduced to how well a work conveys a relevant political message. The movies have a much bigger task than that. Even a silly summer movie can be an important part of our lives.

Art and entertainment work best on a gut level

At their best, art and entertainment demand that the audience bring their particular perspectives to the experience in order to make the work “complete.” A movie that preaches at me but doesn’t move me is no good. A movie that invites me to connect with it because it challenges me to invest something of myself in it is one I’ll remember. I might find myself challenged by an idea, see myself in a character, understand the world through someone else’s eyes, or have an emotional reaction to what I’m experiencing. While I’m watching the movie, I’m engaged in the experience.

But there are shades of engagement. Sometimes that means I will be challenged and made uncomfortable. Yet that’s not the only way art can encourage us to engage. There’s also laughing, cringing, crying, feeling visceral disgust or fear or joy. Those are all things that movies are especially good at.

Art and entertainment work on our gut level. They connect with something about us that isn’t merely intellectual.

This is vitally important for artists who are trying to tell stories that explore topics that matter, like how people’s dignity has been ignored or suppressed. You can share information with someone, and they may or may not be moved by it. But if you can make them feel and see your point on a level deeper than intellect, you can change the world.

A scene from Terminator 2, which is being re-released in 3D this summer.
A scene from Terminator 2, which is being rereleased in 3D this summer.

And yet there’s a broader range of possibility in art. Perhaps surprisingly, I feel pretty optimistic about the capability of seemingly fluffy, passive summer films to help us recall some of what makes us human. Purely entertaining movies can have a place in this ecosystem as more than just a guilty pleasure.

I say this as a critic who approaches the summer movie season every year with a feeling of exhaustion. It’s my job to watch everything and have opinions on all of it, and there’s no season in which that’s more tiring than the summer, with a tentpole release nearly every weekend that is big, loud, and large and requires me to review an entire history of prequels or universes just to figure out what’s going on. But I still walk into each screening with a lot of hope in my heart, and a little bit of excitement too.

Summer movies fit into the rhythm of life that humans crave

Why all this optimism?

Humans need routines. They’re built into nature, with changing seasons that we can feel on our very skin. Religions have weekly holy days and yearly seasons of celebration, repentance, and ordinary working times. Modern, secularized calendars have them too. While many Americans no longer live by an agricultural calendar, with spring sowing and fall harvest, a sort of internal calendar is still bred into us from our earliest years by the nationwide school system. Even glossy women’s magazines have an institutionalized schedule, featuring extra-thick issues for fall fashion and the inevitable “bikini season” late-spring specials.

The movie release calendar settled into a routine decades ago: Fall is for prestige releases, winter and early spring for a smattering of smaller and sometimes less ambitious offerings, and summer for blockbusters. That this calendar is driven largely by profit motives is obvious. Prestige films come out in the fall to maximize award season potential. Winter and early spring movies try to capture a cold season of indoor entertainment. And summer movies aim to capitalize on vacations, holidays, and days off.

But market ties don’t mitigate the movie calendar’s cultural rhythm, and it’s one that syncs up surprisingly well with the rest of the year. Since we were kids, fall was when we buckled down and got to work; it feels like the right time to go see some serious movies (and maybe let loose with the odd studio comedy or two). In the wet, cold days of early winter, hungover from the holidays and awards season solemnity, we’re ready for a romance, or a B-movie, or a horror film.

And in the summer, as soon as warm weather rolls around, a little buzzer goes off in our heads: time to kick back and rest, even at the movies.

For a lot of people, that means indulging in nostalgia. Something about summer makes everyone feel a bit like a kid again. So we end up with a slate full of reboots and sequels, of movies based on beloved books and comics, and, these days, of rereleased movies we loved decades ago — even movies about sexy robots. Those nostalgia flicks are mixed with a healthy dose of history, horror, comedies, and the occasional original film too.

Charlie Hunnam plays King Arthur on the big screen this summer.
Charlie Hunnam plays King Arthur on the big screen this summer.

Plenty of this summer’s films will be bad. Some will be completely unimaginative. Some are just blatant money grabs without much to offer in the way of connection. Some will destroy, rather than celebrate, the nostalgic impulse. Nothing is immune from criticism.

But just because a movie is lightweight, or doesn’t try to say anything about The Current Situation, doesn’t make it bad. A movie without a symbolic message can still make us cry, laugh, and remember what makes us human. When everyone’s scrolling through Twitter and risking issue fatigue, movies can help transport us for a while and refresh our perspective.

Art and entertainment has a task in “dark times, and stupid ones”

Back in 1993, the novelist David Foster Wallace — who was also one of the best media critics of his time — spoke with interviewer Larry McCaffery about what he thought fiction was supposed to do in what Wallace called “dark times, and stupid ones.”

“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness,” Wallace said. “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

McCaffery asked if Wallace meant that writers were obligated to not just “depict our condition but also to provide the solutions to those things.” Wallace disagreed. (It’s a long block of text, but one worth reading.)

I don’t think I’m talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That’s not what fiction’s about. Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary US that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be. This isn’t that it’s fiction’s duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I’m not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t art. We’ve all got this “literary” fiction that simply monotones that we’re all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like “Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!” But we already “know” US culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?

In the same interview, Wallace also criticized television — which he loved, despite himself, but viewed as lowest-common-denominator, mass-market entertainment — for training its audience to be “sort of lazy and childish in its expectations” by trying to keep viewers comfortable, rather than challenging them. “TV-type art’s biggest hook is that it’s figured out ways to ‘reward’ passive spectation,” he said.

But for all of his hesitance about mass culture, here he gets at what entertainment has the capacity to do. Entertainment can be nostalgic, or socially aware, or silly. But if it’s engaging, then it adopts a clear-eyed view of the world we live in — political and social conditions included — and asks how we can live in the midst of it. And importantly, Wallace points out, it does so without rushing to offer solutions. Instead, it sits us down in the muck and complexity and reminds us to keep on living.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
From 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Good artists and entertainers soak up the ideas and concerns around them and filter that input through their own point of view. Then they make things that bring into focus something the audience might otherwise miss or forget, like liberal racism, or what it feels like to be in love. Sometimes they remind us of the ways the world has changed since we were kids or the ways it has stayed the same. They serve as a window into someone else’s reality. They explore the mystery of doubt, or of language. Sometimes they just want to remind us to laugh.

So even silly summer movies have a place. Rarely do they confront serious issues around history, identity, mercy, and justice — and sometimes that’s due to laziness. But sometimes a purely entertaining movie finds its purpose in how it helps us live in the midst of darkness and difficulty, because it helps us stay tuned in to our life’s rhythms of work and rest.

Summer movies give us space to regain perspective

Just because it’s 2017 doesn’t magically change our basic human need for rest. As SNL also reminded us this season, if you don’t think things have always been tough, you simply haven’t been paying attention. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking the only movies worth watching and talking about are the Important Ones.

A scene from Alien: Covenant
Alien: Covenant looks properly frightening.
20th Century Fox

An exceptional movie can mix social critique with entertainment; Get Out, which as we head into the first big weekend of the summer movie season is still holding steady at No. 5 in box office returns for the whole year so far, does both expertly. But take a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which has little to nothing to offer about the state of the world today, other than generalized conclusions about loving your friends and not having a huge ego. There’s no need to draw a straight line from its egomaniacal villain to egomaniacal world leaders. We get it. We see it. In Wallace’s terms, that diagnosis can be done in about two lines.

And yet Guardians is still a ton of imaginative fun that’s important to the superhero genre. It is, in a manner of speaking, just a sexy robot movie. If we were to churn out think pieces and filmmaker interviews about its social relevance, it would be unfair to what the movie actually is (and would sound pretty self-important too). We can relax. Art does many things, and rest is one of them. As Wallace suggests, sometimes what we need is to relearn how to thrive in the midst of the mess.

Writing in the days following President Trump’s inauguration, Filmmaker Magazine’s Vadim Rizov put it this way:

Such rhetoric is an extension of the line of thinking that posits art as either Good or Bad based on how well it accords with the political moment, and it’s all too easy to do mechanically. If everything matters, nothing is more or less important than anything else, and the Resistance becomes futile. It’s gonna be a long four years: let’s try to make our words and intentions matter rather than reaching for the low dopamine rush of trotting out the same insularly congratulatory sentiments for applause.

It’s disrespectful to movies to say that “overthinking” them wrecks them, but it’s also disrespectful to make them fit a framework they never wanted to fit in the first place. Under a political regime that seems determined to overload us with explosive, ludicrous, often frightening news, summer movies give us space to breathe and remember what makes us human.

And while reflexively insisting that we have to eradicate political or social commentary from our entertainment would be dangerous, insisting on it would be just as bad. Critical analysis is important. No work of art is below or above judgment. But our judgment has to start with recognizing a movie’s goals and then determining whether it achieves them. When a movie sets out to give us a couple hours’ reprieve from the world, and it succeeds with freshness and imagination, it’s a movie worth watching.

So, happy summer. See you at the movies. Let’s enjoy the sexy robots.

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