I have this theory about decades in film. Generally, you hear stuff like “the 70s were the time for gritty, dark dramas,” “the 50s were the best for science fiction” or “80s teenage films were the best.” This type of description is often pretty vague, but it can accurately sum up a particular zeitgeist of an era. It’s true that “Chinatown,” “Taxi Driver” and “The French Connection” were filmed in the 70s, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in the 50s and “The Breakfast Club” and “Weird Science” in the 80s.
Something about those periods produced genres of film that were unique and conversational. That’s not to say that there aren’t good gritty dramas outside the 70s, but rarely can a movie cause a similar zeal as those movies did. That’s not a bad thing–a movie like “Children of Men” could not, I think, have been made in the 70s, but it fits in perfectly as an aughties’ view of the gritty drama. It’s that natural evolution that causes the medium to advance and survive.
What gets particularly interesting, though, is when a modern movie does behave like something from a different time, like an 80’s teenage film. Movies are constantly referring back and talking with other movies – some do it so heavily as to become parody and not homage, like some of Quentin Tarantino’s recent work. That’s not the same, though, and viewers are smart enough to tell this. No matter how much Tarantino tried to make “Django Unchained” like a western, it still was more of a Tarantino movie than a western.
“Superbad” is a counter to this. It has all the charm and awkwardness of “Pretty in Pink” and other “Brat Pack” movies, but it was made in 2007. It’s what I like to call–and this is pretty theoretical at this point – an aughties interpretation of an 80s film. It’s what you would expect to happen if the 80s teenage moviemakers had grown up and produced movies nowadays. If Anthony Michael Hall and Emilio Estevez had been born 20 years later, they would grow up to be Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.
That’s a weird image, but it’s a fun exercise to do and think about. The funny thing I’ve noticed about getting similar vibes from really different movies is that it doesn’t generally work when someone sincerely tries to do an homage. “Superbad” wasn’t a straight homage to “Weird Science,” but it ended up being pretty similar. Occasionally, homages work – “Super 8” tried to be a Spielberg movie and it ended up being one, more or less (what a great movie, by the way, among the best of the last 10 years), but they just as often become pandering and band.
This is going to be a weird example to praise, but go watch the movie XXX if you want an example of this phenomenon. If you followed my other column, you would know that I wrote about how I wished real politicians were more like fictional politicians. After watching XXX, though, I am beyond glad that none of our government officials are like the ones in that movie. The gist of the plot is that we can’t stop some heavy-metal-listening, party-having Russian terrorists with conventional tools – normal secret agents, guns, etc. – so we get this dude who’s really good at snowboarding, played by Vin Diesel.
That’s literally the plot, and it’s fantastic. It got horrible reviews, but I think my theory can explain it. XXX is an early-aughties interpretation of an eighties action movie. If you took the producers of Commando or Red Heat and told them to make a movie now, this is what they would come up with.
You can play this game with any movie. My recommendation of the week is “Battleship.” It’s a perfect representation of where big-budget action/adventure movies are at right now. We kill aliens. There’s no Will Smith, but it’s still worth it. And tell me what decade you think it’s from.