Jewish World Review June 11, 2002 / 1 Tamuz, 5762

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Why Hollywood relies on déjà vu films | While Hollywood rakes in big bucks with its earlier-than-ever slate of summer blockbusters, it's easy to ignore some of the distressing signals about the creative vitality of the film industry. Despite robust box-office grosses, the big studios continue to suffer from a paralyzing and perhaps incurable disease: "sequelitis."

The two recent releases dominating the season so far hardly represent triumphs of daring or originality. Spider-Man is an energetic adaptation of a 40-year-old comic book (that had already inspired numerous TV versions), while Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones is the feeble fifth installment of the most popular series in movie history.

Other big titles slated to invade the multiplex this summer include such familiar packages as Men in Black II, Austin Powers in Goldmember (the third in the series), Spy Kids 2 and, inevitably, Stuart Little 2.

There's also the fourth movie adventure for Tom Clancy's CIA hero Jack Ryan, The Sum of All Fears - though Ben Affleck now takes over the role for Harrison Ford.

Even a campy TV series from a previous generation gets a new lease on life, as Scooby-Doo offers an all-star supporting cast (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr.) to accompany its heroic, computer-generated hound. And two of the acclaimed and "original" melodramas of this movie season, Unfaithful (with Diane Lane and Richard Gere) and Insomnia, (with Al Pacino and Robin Williams) are actually remakes of previously released foreign films - French and Norwegian, respectively.

Environmentalism may be chic and responsible, but this emphasis on recycling old entertainment ideas borders on the obsessive. Record payments have already been tendered for the vocal talent in the forthcoming Shrek 2, and to Arnold Schwarzenegger (despite a string of recent box-office duds) for Terminator III.

In fact, skeptics might suggest that American pop culture is simply running out of inspiration - despite the fact that the Writer's Guild of America registers more than 20,000 new scripts every year.

For movie producers, the problem with exploiting any of these fresh properties is the daunting level of risk involved - especially at a time when a typical big studio film costs well over $100 million to produce and distribute. Unless a major motion picture performs powerfully in its opening weekend, it stands little chance of earning a profit.

The key to cutting through the cultural clutter on that all-important first weekend is some familiar element to attract the public. With the cost of a ticket pushing $10, the consumer wants a sure bet just as much as the producer does - and that means a brand name, like McDonald's or Starbucks or Nike. Spider-Man is a brand name. Men in Black is now a brand name. Star Wars is the ultimate movie brand name.

Even more offbeat projects rely on this same psychology. The summer movie Signs, about the intriguing, supernatural subject of crop circles, offers the reassurance of two different brand-name stars - Mel Gibson as the lead actor and M. Night Shyamalan (creator of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) as writer-director. The vaguely - or distinctly - familiar ring to so many new movies not only encourages the audience to invest its hard-earned money on tickets (and popcorn, parking, babysitting and so forth), but also provides a deeper sort of cultural reassurance.

At a moment of splintering and trendy "diversity," Americans no longer instinctively rally to traditional symbols of unity.

Less than a year after Sept. 11's powerful surge of fellow feeling, the nation again seems hopelessly split along ethnic, religious, economic and political lines. All the divisions and the carping have returned with a vengeance - even when it comes to the bitterly partisan Washington discussion of intelligence failures prior to the catastrophe.

In the summer of 2002, we may not be able to unite over anything important, but we can experience some soothing sense of community while waiting in line for Attack of the Clones. This same nostalgic yearning for some pop culture event to bring us together fuels the sad series of TV reunion and revival shows.

The networks shamelessly trot out aging stars to invoke memories of The Cosby Show and M*A*S*H and Laverne & Shirley and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and even L.A. Law in an attempt to draw an audience that is massive and also diverse. Even Scooby-Doo, coming to a multiplex near you becomes - its producers hope - a sacred symbol of a more innocent and unified time.

A hundred years ago, the great American classical composer Charles Ives wrote one of his signature, epic pieces, the Holidays Symphony. In four movements, his vivid tone painting portrayed "Washington's Birthday," "Decoration Day" (later known as Memorial Day), "The Fourth of July" and "Thanksgiving." The piece worked because these great national occasions provided a resonant subject, evoking powerful emotions and memories from every American.

Today, very few people can recall a stirring observance of Washington's birthday, or even explain the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day and Labor Day and the Fourth of July.

In fact, one of the few universal associations with Memorial Day is its traditional role in marking the beginning of the summer movie season - a milestone all but obliterated by Hollywood's jump-the-gun eagerness to roll out its latest wheezy, breezy, recycled offerings.

Many Americans may not have observed Memorial Day this year, but all America paid attention to the Star Wars release day - and some of us even took off from work for the occasion.

In a fragmented culture, we eagerly embrace such reassuring icons. For Hollywood, familiarity doesn't breed contempt, but instead inspires reliable profits.

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Michael Medved