Do Films, and Should Films, Challenge Their Audience?
Every summer, we are treated to a barrage of summer blockbusters. These films are often characterized as loud, dumb, popcorn entertainment. Pure escapist entertainment, intended to divert the audience’s attention away from the reality and shelter them in the comfort of fiction.
Every winter, we are treated to a barrage of Oscar contenders. These films are often characterized as slowly paced, moving, intellectual pieces of art. Genius film making, intended to make the audience think and provide them with a masterfully constructed experience.
And yet, I would argue that 2016 has dealt that long held assumption a nasty blow. Comic-book films like Captain America: Civil War presented questions about the role of government, and the dangerous relationship between friendship and vengeance. Arrival, an alien invasion film, displayed a calm, intellectual take on an alien encounter, focusing more on communication than Presidents in fighter jets. And while Independence Day: Resurgence also came out this year, it was a massive flop domestically.
Bigger blockbuster films have been introducing more intellectual themes in the past decade, a trend that arguably started with The Dark Knight. And while not every tentpole film presents an intellectual premise, they have been far more eager to challenge the audience than they were in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when films like Independence Day and Armageddon dominated the box office.
And yet, this year La La Land has swept both the golden globes, and as of the writing of this article, is dominating the Oscar scene. I loved the film, but compared to other movies like Moonlight and Silence, La La Land is escapist entertainment: a flashy, beautiful, and amusing film.
Can a film like La La Land, which is geared towards the young, and fun loving spirts of its viewers, be legitimately be considered art when it is far more delicate to its audience than a film like Captain America: Civil War, which forced its audience to ask more difficult questions while subjecting its viewers to a far more brutal finale?
Should summer blockbusters stay out of intellectual affairs, and should every Oscar contender force its viewers to partake in a ruthless viewing experience like Schindler’s List and 12 Years A Slave? What makes a film intellectual, and perhaps more importantly, should a film strive to achieve that title?
Before we define what makes a film intellectual, I must explain my personal view: no genre, budget, aesthetic, or talent involved restricts a film from being intellectual. It doesn’t matter if Francis Ford Coppola or Michael Bay directed it, it doesn’t matter if it’s science-fiction or crime drama, and it doesn’t matter how much it cost to make. Batman doesn’t restrict a film from being deep or providing insight, and The Dark Knight proved that.
The same character who was the protagonist in Batman and Robin, one of the worst films ever made, was the star of The Dark Knight, a comic-book film so good that many were upset it was not nominated for best picture.
But the character of Batman presents an interesting dilemma: what must a film be in order to be characterized as intellectual? The Dark Knight is the grittiest Batman film to date, and as one looks across the long line-up of films considered to be ‘smart’, it is easy to see that most of them aren’t ‘fun’.
And I don’t think that is because smart films aren’t fun, I think it is because smart films often disguise themselves as fun films, while providing logical themes that go right over most viewers.
Why do viewers miss these themes? It isn’t because they aren’t smart, it is because they have been conditioned not to. Especially after the 1990’s paraded garbage summer blockbusters, tentpole films have garnered a reputation as fun, but stupid. Too many people miss the messages in these films, because too many people aren’t paying attention. The messages are there, but crowds of people just don’t want to look. At least, that’s half of the reason.
For a film to successfully challenge its audience, it cannot simply ask a question: it has to ask a question in an effective and meaningful way. This means that all those summer blockbusters and family films that tacked on a message without giving any consideration as to how the audience might absorb it don’t count as intellectual. And yes, this also applies to awards contenders.
If a film asks a thought provoking question, and does so in a meaningful way, I would argue that it has successfully challenged its audience. It doesn’t matter if a film has five hundred explosions or if it is pure dialogue.
The Imitation Game, a film about the team who created the computer that cracked the Nazi code during World War II, asked its audience important questions, such as how human ingenuity compares to sheer strength, the nature of artificial intelligence, and the ethics one faces during wartime.
Iron Man, a comic-book film about a weapon designer who is kidnapped and nearly killed by his own weapons, asked its audience important questions about the usefulness of weapons, if one should achieve peace through pacifism or violence, and whether or not dangerously powerful technology should be restricted from the masses.
Iron Man 2 is a comic-book film that the same questions as its predecessor, but does not successfully challenge its audience because those questions were treated as an afterthought. The writers and director were too busy showing Tony Stark blow up watermelons while he was drunk at a party, and setting up future Avengers movies, to focus on the deeper questions that the story might have presented. The question and the theme of the films must be the center of the story, it must be the point of everything that happens. So when Justin Hammer comes on stage at his expo and makes dumb jokes, the film fails at challenging its viewers.
So now that we can define what makes a film intelligent, how many films fit the description? I would argue that most films try to challenge their audience, but that most do not succeed. Take any film, and chances are you can find some message tucked away in the plot. But most films don’t effectively ask the audience a question. However, I see an increasing number of films each year that are willing to try. Just look at the top three grossing films of 2016: Rogue One, Finding Dory, and Captain America: Civil War.
Rogue One blurred the lines between good and evil, and painted a greyer picture of war, even if that war had spaceships and lightsabers, which I touched on in my review. Finding Dory showed its viewers the hard life of a mentally disabled woman and how such a disability can be overcome, even if that woman was a fish. Captain America: Civil War asked its audience whether or not non-governmental operations should be institutionalized, even if that operation consisted of superheroes, which I explore in far more detail here.
This leads to one final question: should films challenge their audience? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes. There is nothing wrong with escapist entertainment, as the world can be a hard, unforgiving place and there are times when taking one’s mind away from reality can be a good thing.
But on a larger scale, films should not spoon feed their audience. Films should not provide reduced, basic morals buried under a plethora of explosions or fart jokes. The entertainment industry should challenge its audience, it should force them to question their own views, and press them to think on a larger, more critical scale. Films should always leave their audience different than how they found them. They should introduce new ideas, formulate new concepts, and be unafraid to present unpopular claims. Movies must persuade their audiences to think, and vigorously labor to offer important themes, even if viewers might be afraid to question them.