What the Success of G.I. Joe Says About America

Like him or not, comedian Bill Maher often makes some interesting (and very true) observations. On his show last Friday, he remarked how stupid and misinformed Americans have become (I can’t find the video, but the transcript is here).

I feel myself starting to agree. But I’m not talking about stupidity when it comes to politics, I’m talking about stupidity when it comes to entertainment. For example, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” grossed an astonishing $56.2 million on its opening weekend. I haven’t seen “G.I. Joe” yet; I haven’t even seen “Transformers 2″ yet and nor do I ever plan on viewing either of them. Why don’t I want to see them? Simply because they’re based on toys. If I wanted to see a story about toys, I would take the G.I Joe and Transformers action figures I have out of my cabinet and hit them up against each other, while making up dialogue.
Now, it might be unfair of me to judge either of these movies without actually seeing them. But as critical consensus shows, I’m not missing much. On Rotten Tomatoes, “G.I. Joe” recieved  39% approval rating while “Transformer 2″ received an abysmal 20%.  So, why is it that “Transformers 2″ is on its way to making $400 million while “G.I. Joe” is starting to make what looks like a big final fortune? Simply put: stupidity. Why can’t anyone think of an original idea anymore? Why must movies be made for the simple purpose of merchandising?
Maybe the reason isn’t so much that studios don’t want to create original ideas as much as they’ve forgotten how to. It kind of reminds of “Fahrenheit 451;” the reason books were banned wasn’t so much that the government didn’t want people to read them as much as people had stopped reading them and there was really no use for them anymore. Likewise, when you stop thinking of original screenplays, the ideas never come back.
But our popular culture hasn’t fallen that low yet, and we certainly aren’t in a dark age as Roger Ebert suggests. There are still some great movies out there now that nobody is seeing. Take for example, “The Hurt Locker.” It’s by far the best film this summer (and maybe even this year, if you don’t count unreleased Sundance entries). It’s currently tracking an amazing 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So why then, is it still playing in just 535 theaters? Like “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” “The Hurt Locker” is filled with actions and explosions. I believe there is an audience for this film, you just can’t ignore the fact that some people look for a more meaningful experience when they go to the movies. And even those who don’t might find something to like in this movie, if only they are given the chance.
Before I sum up all of my points and reach a conclusion, there are still two films I’d like to mention that are perceived by most as the biggest disappointments of the summer: “Bruno” and “Funny People.” I’ll admit that both were not as masterful as I had hoped, but that didn’t stop me from being entertained and even fascinated by both. For all their faults, both tried to do something new and original. They strived to break new ground rather than be part of existing trends. Now, the message their poor box office receipts will send to studios is never to make a daring comedy ever again.
But there is one glimmer of hope: the wide release of the upcoming “District 9.” Yes, it’s a blockbuster. But it’s not based on a toy, a video game, or even a comic book; it’s a purely inspired, purely original idea. It’s a film about aliens, but it’s also an allegory on apartheid. So as long as studios find ways to provide smart movies to a wide audience, there is a chance for the survival of intelligence in Hollywood. But as long as movies like “G-Force” are raking in big bucks and movies like “Twilight” are dominating awards*, it’s survival will remain on life support.
In conclusion, maybe it’s not the people that are dumb, it’s the movies. And once Hollywood figures that out, this supposed “Dark Age” will finally come tumbling down.
*I meant the MTV Movie Awards/Teen Choice Awards; nothing major like the Oscars or Golden Globes.