Well, I did it: I went to see Godzilla vs. Kong. All I can say is I’m glad I did a Ph.D. in literature so I could catch the film’s many subtle allusions to classical texts. They come pretty thick and fast. If you blink, you might miss the reference to Sartre in the third act.
Okay, not really. It’s hard to imagine a movie whose plot is more entirely contained in its title: Godzilla. Versus. Kong. There truly is not more to this than that. Big lizard. Big monkey. Big fight. Don’t overthink it.
And I loved it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to look down my nose at tentpole action films. Just the opposite. I was raised on them. The showing I went to featured a trailer for the forthcoming movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat, one of my favorite video game franchises. I still remember the first time I notched up a win with Sub-Zero (the best character, duh). If I know myself, I can predict that I will probably go see Mortal Kombat, the movie.
But again, it’s hard to imagine a video game less suitable to narrative adaptation than Mortal Kombat. Yes, there’s an elaborate lore surrounding some of the later entries, but in essence the point of this game is: you pick a magic kung-fu dude. I pick a magic kung-fu dude. Our magic kung-fu dudes fight each other. There is about as much moral drama and emotional heft inherent in the premise of Mortal Kombat as in that of Tetris.
Now, on one level, I’m glad we’re returning as a society to a place of acceptance that not all action movies have to also be hyper-serious cosmic allegories. There was a while there — an era which seemed to me to ramp up with Zack Snyder’s DC universe and peak with Avengers: Endgame — when you couldn’t go watch big angry guys shooting lasers in the midst of collapsing cityscapes without also getting a weighty sociological and metaphysical parable dropped in your lap.
Some of the movies in this more ponderous mode were pretty good — I thought James Mangold’s Logan was a particularly strong meditation on the state of manhood in American culture and cinema. But more often than not, the “message” was less profound than the director seemed to think it was: “get it? Being an X-man is like being gay because societeeeee, mannnnn.” It was like a lot of them were built around concepts that someone found mind-blowing when they were smoking a blunt, and then never really got around to examining them in the harsh light of sobriety.
So, for example, I actually really enjoyed Black Panther — but I found the enraptured hand-wringing about its stunning and brave implications for social justice tedious in the extreme. Not to mention the fact that this sort of heavy-handed preaching lends itself to woke posturing, as we have seen.
So unlike a lot of people, I was kind of glad (or at least amused) when Wonder Woman 1984 turned out to be a hot mess. It felt a little like a throwback to simpler times: remember? This is how movies used to be. There were some that were thoughtful and artsy, and there were others that were just big, dumb fight-fests. And that’s fun, and fun is good.
COVID Killed the Movie Star
So all honor to Godzilla vs. Kong, and I mean that. But there’s more going on here: every work of art, however lumbering and silly, takes place in a cultural context that renders it significant. The cultural context of this spring blockbuster is: we have gutted the movie industry.
Truly, one of the most senseless casualties of COVID panic was this: in our arbitrary, flailing, manic response to this virus, we reached into the chest cavity of a long-ailing cultural institution and gratuitously ripped its innards from its body like Patrick Swayze does to the bad guys at the end of Road House.
The same day I went to see Godzilla vs. Kong, the beloved theatre chain Arclight Cinemas announced it would never open its doors again. I still remember what a thrill it was, as a middle school kid living in Santa Barbara, to drive up to LA for a pal’s birthday and sit in those big bucket seats at the ArcLight. It was the gold standard of the movie experience: you settled into the dark and compulsively slammed Milk Duds as the screen lit up your world.
That’s over forever now, and it feels like more is ending than just ArcLight. The enthrallment of that universal American experience, the movie culture that so many of us can look back on as a fixture of our youth, is dimming and draining from the world every day. It’s just no longer the most vital or urgent art form, the thing we all do and make small talk about. Other media are competing for that title now, and though Netflix seems to have an early lead, we can’t rule out video games or virtual reality as the national entertainment of the future.
And these are trends which long predate COVID: streaming services have had the movies on notice for years now, and the wild success of movies like Bird Box made clear that the days of Hollywood’s dominance were numbered. The pitiful grandstanding at awards shows, the desperate bids for woke relevance, the ever-plummeting numbers: all of these are obvious symptoms of an industry in decline. When COVID hit, we needlessly but decisively took the dying dog out back and shot him point-blank between the eyes.
The Bygone Days of Cinema
It’s hard for me to know how to feel about all this. Art forms do decline, especially in periods like ours when the invention of new communications technology occasions a sea-change in how we express ourselves. As the novel and the newspaper and the pamphlet rose to prominence with the advent of mass printing; as the movies and radio gradually replaced the novel when electricity took over; as painting lost its cultural magnetism with the development of photography; so movies are now slipping into obsolescence with the onset of the digital age and the rise of social media. These things happen.
When they do, partisans of the old art form inevitably feel the poignancy of the thing and become vulnerable to fits of nostalgia. I am a partisan of the movies, and so I wax elegiac as I consider their eclipse. And of course they’ll always be around, just as there are always good paintings and novels and plays being made. But what’s vanishing isn’t the existence of the art form: it’s the whole culture in which that art form has weight and ritual associated with it, a hypnotic kind of communal significance. There was a time when we all gravitated toward the movies, talked about them, shared them, were enraptured by the experience of sitting in a theatre. That time is passing away. In some sense, it’s already gone.
So though I’m furious that the movies are apparently having to go out the way they are — wantonly destroyed by wasteful and despotic lockdowns — my deeper emotional reaction to it all is a lingering sadness, that feeling of fond farewell you get when a time you knew and loved is passing away.
Movies and America in Decline
On that level maybe the state of cinema is the state of America in microcosm: we are being roiled by dramatic and seismic crises at the moment, and our natural reaction to them all is anger. When the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations stands on the world stage and flatly condemns America from within — “white supremacy is weaved into our founding documents and principles,” she said — it’s hard to have any cogent thoughts beyond pure, seething indignation at her gall.
But the riots and the lockdowns and the critical race madness are, like the closure of the ArcLight, explosive events whose intensity can obscure the much deeper shifts in culture and politics that underlie them. Our ruling classes — the Democratic Party, the comfortably weak Republicans, and the corporate shills who do their dirty work — have started flailing around and smashing things because in point of fact, their rule is unsustainable and their grip on power is very, very weak. I’m not saying they won’t do plenty of damage during their reign. But I am saying that, like the movies, they are on their way out. It’s just time.
Consider not only the staggering decrepitude of our oligarchy’s supposed leader, skeletal dementia patient that he appears to be, but also the sheer worthlessness of all their ideas. What if we teach people to hate each other according to race? What if we manipulate and distort their natural bodies? What if we abolish God?
Well, those are all things that have been tried before, and it is obvious that they lead to misery and eventual collapse. Like Aristodemus of Cumae, who tried to suppress manliness in his subjects; like the ancient Assyrians, who persecuted the ancient Jews and died by the same sword they lived by, our would-be tyrants are ultimately fighting against forces that are written into the structure of the world. It won’t end well for them.
What Comes Next?
America as we know it is in for a sea-change. It could be a disastrous one, or it could be the ushering in of something new, some thrilling period of adventure in space and digital renaissance. I hope it’s the latter. But even if so, I will be sad to see the nation of my youth transform, just as I am sad to see the movies lose their luster.
In the meantime — while we wait for the next great thing—the old world increasingly looks like a ghost town. That’s what I found most striking of all about my night at the movies: it’s like visiting a wasteland. There’s basically fun, empty schlock like Godzilla vs. Kong and Mortal Kombat, and there are seething woke revenge fantasies like Promising Young Woman, and that’s about it.
I feel about the same way about the news these days: it’s a wearisome litany of stupid (let’s pack the supreme court!) all of which seems like biding our time before the catastrophe or the inspiration. In the years between the world wars, as tensions simmered in Ireland and Europe, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming” that “the center cannot hold.” With all that disaster in the air, he knew something had to give:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
We are living in a time of suspended animation, of old things passing away. Such times are always eerily nerve-wracking, but they do not always end in disaster. “Forget the former things,” said God to the Prophet Isaiah, “do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” Let us pray that when the next phase comes, it will be less grim than it was for Yeats. Like the prophet, we will have to wait and see.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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