Do Our Great Movies Matter?


Well, the Oscars came and went. I didn’t watch them (though I did finally see Argo instead, which oughta count for something). But the whole conversation surrounding cinema’s Superbowl got me thinking: Do our great movies matter?

I mean, duh. Of course they do. It feels silly to insinuate otherwise. But lately I’ve been wondering how much of an impact any particular flick really has on us as people. In other words, I don’t think any of us would deny that the medium is important. But how important is it, really?

Movies have the power to change people, if they allow it. Period. This is a really obvious, potentially reductive example, but it sure seems like the amount of people cosplaying as Neo has gone up dramatically since 1999. I won’t bother with any psychoanalysis about assuming identities or anything, but that specific behavior didn’t exist prior to the movies. They can change us if we let them. That’s all I’m saying here.

I’m concerned that we don’t let them change us in the right way often enough.


Do you remember when the reviews for The Dark Knight Rises started coming in? RottenTomatoes had to TURN OFF COMMENTING for that movie due to the obscene number and content of comments posted on the “rotten” reviews. We’re talking hundreds of comments. We’re talking slander, insults, and threats.

All this, from people who were self-proclaimed fans of a movie trilogy founded on principles of sacrifice, honor, and integrity. The previous movie in the trilogy featured a hero who had so mastered his impulse control that he could keep fighting for reason and ethics after he lost his friends and reputation to the devil himself.

And its fans viciously attacked movie critics online, for not liking a movie. (A movie that, incidentally, revealed a surprising amount of flaws once people finally SAW it).


Not to keep ragging on comic book/movie fans, but The Avengers was a movie that ultimately extolled the value of camaraderie and the team effort. Many of its fans occupied themselves with debates as to whether it was better or made more money than The Dark Knight Rises.

What the hell, guys? Why does this happen? If these movies are as powerful and important as we say they are, why do so many of us act as if we never learned the lessons they teach***?

I specifically picked those two examples, by the way, because these are movies that most of us can agree are well done, created by artists with something to say, and extremely popular. Also, the specific act of treating filmmaking like a horse race is something relatively unimportant. Obviously, movies can’t solve gang wars or anything, but you’d think that maybe becoming familiar with the struggles of Bruce Wayne might dissuade one from, you know, threatening somebody over a movie review.

If I may bring up a column from a couple weeks ago, shouldn’t the fans of a movie have some sort of responsibility to, you know, take the message seriously? Film is a storytelling medium, after all, and stories are in no small part vessels for the delivery of messages.


Really, if we aren’t taking these kinds of stories to heart, what are we sitting in the theater for? I realize I’ve been asking a ton of questions in this article. Sorry about that.

The concern that I’m really battling here — since I seem to be focusing on superhero movies — is that we’re using these big, important themes (responsibility, sacrifice, compassion) as an excuse to create wish-fulfilling fantasies. Like, we’re really there just to see Batman punch some dudes, but the movie hanging the violence on a deep thematic discussion of chaos and integrity somehow makes that base pursuit okay.

This kind of stuff really does seem weird to me. The arguments surrounding movies seem to be getting more and more divided, petty, and pointless. It’s especially alarming that the very movies getting this treatment would often be ashamed of us, if movies were people and bothered to think about this issue instead of all the other philosophical quandaries that reality would create.

I don’t know. I know I’m probably overstating the significance of this stuff. I just can’t help but think that the motive for consuming all this media gets a little lost in the shuffle sometime. And every now and then I come across a movie that almost does seem like if enough people could see it, then the world might get a little bit better.

But of course, that would require us listening.


To close us out, I’d just like to toss out a short, non-definitive list of the great movies that I’ve listened to, and what they said. Feel free to add your own below.

For All Mankind – Made it impossible to ignore the beauty and scope of the universe.

Eyes Wide Shut – Kubrick’s final masterpiece forced me to come to terms with the hard truths of commitment and romantic relationships.

The Cabin in the Woods – This one made me start to question the nature of fiction violence, or as Joss Wedon put it, ask “Why do these terrible things keep happening to these blonde girls?”

Speed Racer – The Rosetta Stone for staying honest to yourself, in whatever line of work or walk of life you wind up in.

Videodrome – A film that reminded me that it DOES matter what we watch, because we hear its voice whether we want to or not.

***This doesn’t even break into the much more relevant question of why these incredibly immature things happen, at all, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.

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  1. People watch movies to be entertained, not to learn lessons about how to treat total strangers on the Internet.

    Watching others learn lessons makes the viewers feel a sense of accomplishment without actually having to do anything themselves.

  2. I agree that we should learn from movies, take lessons from them and attempt to grow. That is what filmmakers are trying to do. At least some of them. But there is the entertainment factor that Korky mentioned. Films are inherently a commodity to enjoy and lose yourself in. To get lost in the world of the film or the struggles of a character. If a film maker is able to make an entertaining movie that gets people talking, the audience is more likely to take something away from it.

    That goes for any kind of lesson you teach, whether as a parent or a teacher. You can’t just lecture people. You need to get them involved. Keeping people interested and invested, forcing them to go out and talk about what they have seen or heard will ultimately help communicate any points/ideas/lessons on life.

    That’s not to say that the audience isn’t at fault when it comes to these online reactions. Yeah, there are people who get so belligerent with their opinions that no good discussions can be had. I blame the internet. Having a screen in front of them has cause many people to forget how to have a civil conversation or debate (or in some tragic cases for the younger people, they are not learning how to properly talk to others at all. Insults and trolling help no one).

  3. Meh. I think I follow your main premise, but it kinda/sorta loses weight given the fact that your reference movies that are relatively current (with the exception of VIDEODROME) to make the point.

    Certainly, movies ‘speak’ to each of us in different ways. Because of that, there’s a very wide spectrum that defines what a truly ‘great’ movie is. For example, CHARIOTS OF FIRE (for its day) was revered as truly great movie-making, but it puts me to sleep every time I watch it. Not that it matters but I’ve never so much as yawned during CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, PLANET OF THE APES, REAR WINDOW, ON THE WATERFRONT, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, etc. (seriously, I could go on forever), but methinks you get the point.

    So much of the last 30 years of cinema has been a bit of a jumble. The only thing that’ll be great about a film like, say, AVATAR in 100 years from now might still be its box office record; its cookie-cutter and formulaic approach to storytelling most likely won’t put it in any history books, though James Cameron will get a respectable nod here and there.

    And THE AVENGERS — while entertaining — will suffer the same fate. Why? Because these types of movies are almost made so that someone else will come along and top them in entertainment value.

    Another problem is that even relatively gifted contemporary filmmakers (say, Spielberg, for example) have entirely given up contributing to history because they’ve grown far more interested in historical revisionism. Take AMISTAD for example. While it does a terrific job of trying to factually represent the times historically, it’s entirely bereft of factual characters. Cinque (the slave who led the revolt played by Djimon Hounsou) is so inaccurate it’s laughable because if you believe the message of the film — that Cinque essentially rose up to proclaim just how wrong slavery was in a U.S. Court — then you’re ignorant of the fact that, in reality, once the trial was over, Cinque returned to Africa to be (you guessed it) a slave trader. Knowing REAL history destroys the historical revisionism of the film, and mostly that’s my biggest gripe about Hollywood.

    What’s “great” today won’t be what’s “great” tomorrow, nor the day after … but the films that stand the test of time and continually inspire folks to tell greater and greater stories deserve a place in every fan’s library but rarely do they find one.

  4. Lastly (sorry, I forgot this) I meant to say that, seriously, if you need a fan to “teach” you a lesson, then you’re in pretty sorry shape to begin with!

  5. “They can change us if we let them. That’s all I’m saying here.”

    True. An important point simply put.

    It’s a numbers game, of course. Some people will be deeply and sometimes forever affected by a film, even one most see as a simple action block buster, forgotten the moment they leave the theatre. For others, film is more likely to have this affect on them than other mediums, like music, a novel, even a video game.

    But since for any given piece out there most people are not going to be so moved, it’s those responses that we’ll mostly hear and read.

    Of course, what we consume culturally does shade us on some level–it can’t help but not, but if you’re talking about an immediate, noticeable impression, then no, you won’t often see a film broadly achieve that. But that’s OK, I think. It’s alright if only some–or one–are moved.

  6. Easy answer. Movies can’t/won’t change me because I’m not some impressible pre-adolesant anymore, simple as that. What does some rich, liberal Hollywood ponce, who lives in an ivory tower, know about me or my beliefs? I don’t show up to the movies to have Sean Penn cram down my throat things that I should believe in. Some other person’s vision doesn’t/won’t/shouldn’t have the power to “change” me. How is James Cameron staging Pocahontas in space, suppose to make me care more about the environment and that corporations are evil when I need to sacrifice the environment to heat my home in the winter and get me to my job for said evil corporation?

    Cabin the Woods taught you what exactly? That horror movies follow an archetype? Hell, everything follows an archetype, try taking a course on ancient lit and spending a month learning how everything written is based off the Iliad and the Odyssey. Or how every.single science fiction plot was copied from either HG Wells, CM Kornbluth, Phillip K Dick or Issac Asimov.

    As soon as a movie starts trying to preach to me, I immediately tune out. I’m not going to the movies for a live action “Dear Abby” article. I’m going to be entertained and it’s always a plus when it’s “smart” entertainment but as soon as it tries to become something more, I resent it. A movie isn’t going to change anyone, not really. And if it does, that person is either a child or regretfully impressionable.

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