Projecting Fear: How Movies Define (and Enforce) Culture

October 26th, 2020 - by Mick LaSalle / San Francisco Chronicle

When It Comes to Movies, This Is the Millennium of Fear

Mick LaSalle / San Francisco Chronicle

 (October 25, 2020) — Movies are how a culture dreams, and for much of the 21st century, Americans have been having nightmares. Our current films refract, disguise and intensify our real-life fears and send them back to us in an endless feedback loop. And so, our entertainment agitates us, confirms our paranoia and, ultimately, makes us feel worse.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that just what movies do? Actually, no. American movies of the past mainly concentrated on vicarious thrills, on putting you in someone else’s shoes, not on reminding you that your existence is at risk.

Yes, American movies have always been hard-core, in comparison to the rest of the world. In the 1890s, at the dawn of cinema, the Lumière brothers were in France, filming parents feeding their baby, while Thomas Edison was in America filming the electrocution of an elephant. This is a harsh country with a tradition of harsh entertainment.

But what we don’t have is a tradition of fearful entertainment. That’s the part that’s new.

Films that Stoke Fear

Twenty-first century movies, taken as a whole, have communicated a series of disquieting messages in film after film: Society hangs by a thread, and a yawning dystopia awaits. Space aliens are taking over; that is, if artificial intelligence doesn’t take over first. And you can’t trust anything that the government says — it’s either weak or out to destroy you. In film after film, American movies tell us that nothing we have or see is of permanent value. And if you have a popular landmark in your city, you can expect it to be knocked down.

We’re not talking about one-off titles. Obviously, you can go back in time and find disparate movies — the original “Planet of the Apes,” for example — that fit this pattern. Rather, we’re talking about the dominant strain of 21st century American film as scared, paranoid and despairing of the future.

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.”

Box Office 1999

For contrast, let’s first take a look at the top 10 box office films of 1999: “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Toy Story 2,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “The Matrix,” “Tarzan,” “Big Daddy,” “The Mummy,” “Runaway Bride” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Some of these films, to be sure, depict danger, but with the exception of “The Matrix,” which in retrospect must be said to have anticipated the current era, they don’t suggest that your world is dangerous. And this pattern holds, not just in the top 10, but in the top 50.

Go back to 1998, and it’s the same thing. Of the 50 most popular films, not a single entry could be classed in the paranoid-fearful mode. Even the giant-asteroid films — “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” — had happy endings.

“Love Story”: a 1970 film withAli MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal

Box Office 1970

That’s how movies used to be. Let’s go back even further, to the top 10 of 1970, including “Love Story,” “Airport,” “MASH,” “Woodstock,” “Little Big Man,” “Ryan’s Daughter,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Catch-22.” Again, it’s the same story: Some of these movies depict very difficult and upsetting things, but the implicit assumption is that these situations are exceptional, not the norm: A 25-year-old woman gets a fatal disease, there’s a plane malfunction, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Audiences understood that these things are being dramatized for the very reason that they were unusual.

Avengers: Endgame

Box Office 2019

Now let’s look at the films of 2019. At least 20 of the top 50 titles — that is, at least 40% — deal with the end of the civil society, either as a possibility (“Joker,” “Men in Black,” “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”) or as an accomplished fact (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Zombieland: Double Tap,” “Alita: Battle Angel”).

To state the obvious, 40% is a lot. Back in the 1940s, about a third of the movies were love stories. That’s a lot of love stories, but then, love is more of a presence in human life than extinction-level events. Even so, extinction-level events are more present in today’s movies than romance was in the 1940s.

By the way, 2019 was no anomaly. Go back to 2018, and eight of the top 10 dealt with either societal collapse or a struggle to save the world (or universe) from destruction:  “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Incredibles 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Aquaman,” “Deadpool 2,” “Mission Impossible — Fallout,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” The two exceptions were “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Hanging by a Thread

It’s all hanging by a thread — that’s what the movies have been telling us, not once, not twice, but virtually every week, over and over again. Civil society can seem to be running smoothly, but it’s just one little bump, one tiny destabilizing event away from careening into a state of nature.  But it’s all coming down.

Let’s go back to New Year’s Day 2000. The United States’ economy was booming. We were the only superpower. There was a budget surplus, and we were at peace with the world. When filmmakers wanted to depict strife, they had to import it from other eras. For example, the turn of the millennium saw a flood of World War II movies.

Two years later, everything was different.

Ash-covered survivors of the 9/11 attack resembled zombies.

Pandemics and Paranoia

Fear, paranoia and pessimism started to dominate our films in the aftermath of 9/11, when news photos showed dazed people covered in ash, walking through fields of desolation. We couldn’t forget that every one of those people — and all the people killed in the buildings, and all the people jumping out of windows — had one big thing in common with us: They woke up that morning feeling safe.

Understandably, movies about civic destruction soon followed, and they never went away. They never had a chance to go away, as 9/11 was followed by an anthrax scare, two wars in the Middle East, an economic meltdown, school shootings, an opioid crisis, the presidency of Donald Trump and a pandemic. Meanwhile, we saw the exponential rise of social media, which gave a can of gasoline and a book of matches to every neurotic and fantasist peddling a conspiracy theory. The latter fed the besieged mentality that sustains the paranoid strain in our cinema.

By the middle of the last decade, half of our summer fare somehow involved the possible end of civilization, and many depicted, as if in passing, the destruction of our cities. That many Americans took delight in such films is a matter for social psychiatrists to examine in the future. However, we know that people with a fear of heights experience an impulse to jump at the moment of peak panic. In a similar way, perhaps audiences have an impulse to dwell on and surrender to the things they fear.

Helpless in the Face of Danger

And what is this fear, exactly? That is, if we boil it down to its essence, what is the fear that has infected our movies? At its most basic, it’s the fear of helplessness before unseen forces. It’s the fear of a malevolent universe. It’s the fear of evil elements working against us that we can’t even see.

That variety of fear has been with us forever, but in the 20th century, when movies tried to stoke it, the terror was usually grounded in metaphysics. The evil entity might have been a curse, or a demon or an evil spirit. Sometimes the fear was prodded in a yet more subtle way.

For example, “Frankenstein” (1931) showed us a man created by another man. Does this creature have a soul? And if he doesn’t … do we? No wonder the villagers try to kill him. His existence threatens to upend their entire concept of the universe and of their place within it. His existence suggests a cold, mechanistic world in which people don’t matter.

We live in more secular times, and so when movies have stoked that fear in the 21st century, the threat was grounded in more worldly concerns: The government is watching you. Aliens are watching you. You’re not safe. You’re being controlled. You don’t even know it. Your world is collapsing. Your buildings are falling down. You can’t do anything. You are not safe. It’s all going away, and it all means exactly nothing. Oh, if only you were a superhero!

Movies and Politics Are Entwined

Of course, it’s not a coincidence that where we are in our movies — scared, hypnotized and full of dread — is where we are in our politics and in our national life. Movies are reflecting our fears more than they ever did, and maybe that means we’re worse off than we ever were, but I doubt that.

In any case, attitudes have a way of changing quickly in this country. In the ’30s, we were isolationist. By the end of the ’40s, we were practically running the world. The ’70s were almost as pessimistic as our present era, but the ’80s and ’90s were so buoyant and prosperous that they were almost boring.

Point being, just as things changed quickly for the worse, 20 years ago, they can change quickly for the better, too. And let’s hope they do — soon.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle‘s film critic. Email: Twitter: @MickLaSalle

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.