Why has mainstream cinema suddenly become so dark? The obvious reason is 9/11, but ageing audiences and Asian influences have also played a partby Mark Cousins / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
As Prospect’s multiplex moocher, I would like to report a trend in mainstream cinema: it has darkened, both thematically and psychologically. The trailer for Spider-Man 3 shows that in the next instalment, arachno-man merges with a black creature from another world. The film’s tagline is “the battle within.” In 2005, Star Wars: Episode III depicted Anakin Skywalker’s own battle within. The same year, Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins saw his parents slain and had a traumatic experience in a dark cave, setting him on his, and the film’s, tenebrous course. Also in 2005, The War of the Worlds was so visually dark that cinemas put up signs explaining that the projection wasn’t at fault. The Passion of the Christ (2004) was one of the most downbeat mainstream films ever made. Currently showing in the multiplexes are The Prestige, which is stygian in the extreme, and Casino Royale, which treats us to 007’s battle within.
It was a surprise to discover that the movie Bond even had a within, but there’s no doubt that the tone of mainstream cinema has darkened: nearly all its franchise characters—those heroes who blow in the direction of cinematic and social prevailing winds—have undergone traumas of late. Sunny disposition is out. Black is the new lack. It has happened before. In the 1940s and 1950s, European emigres and filmmakers who saw combat made more than 300 shadowy films about venality and lust that became known as the film noir cycle. In the 1970s, a more pessimistic view of human nature emerged blinking from the Californian sunshine, lasting for about a decade. And for 30 years now, tinseltown’s legend-maker-in-chief, Steven Spielberg, has seemed profoundly undecided about trauma and darkness.
What is behind this new spate of mainstream movie noir? The obvious answer is 9/11, but other issues should be considered first—like demographics. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of US movie tickets sold to fiftysomethings doubled from 5 per cent to 10 per cent. Over the same period, 16-20 year olds, Hollywood’s core audience since the mid-1970s, dropped from 20 per cent to 17 per cent. In the current decade, movie attendance by 55-64 year olds is projected to increase by 14.6 per cent. Add the fact that once in the cinema, older audiences buy more cappuccinos, bottled waters and glasses of chardonnay, and the massive impact of these changes on Hollywood’s income projections becomes clear.