Forty years after its release
In another sign of our bizarre cultural death spiral, The Empire Strikes Back, which first appeared nearly 40 years ago, was the top film at the U.S. box office last week. The previous week, an anniversary edition of ‘Ghostbusters’ charted at number one. We’re living in 1984 in more ways than one.
Despite the fact that most Americans currently exist in a hazy state of half-lockdown, approximately 1500 movie theaters are open nationwide, and not all of them are drive-ins. But what are they showing? Mostly nostalgia. Last week ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ played on more than 600 screens and earned a paltry $644,000. The next two movies on the list were Black Panther and Inside Out, even though you can watch both of those with a Disney+ subscription, just like you can The Empire Strikes Back. Other top grossers includes Jurassic Park, Goonies, and Jaws, also all widely available elsewhere for the last three decades.
Even though most theaters are limping along showing nothing but old movies that you can easily watch at home, there are some new films. We’ve chronicled the endless saga of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. When will studios release it? This week? Last week? Next month? Never? And the same goes for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. But for some low-fi pictures, studios are just saying screw it. The indie horror film Relic, also available as video-on-demand, made $236K on 126 screens last week. Palm Springs, now streaming with a Hulu membership, also debuted on 66 screens. The theater down the street from me, as of this writing, was showing a documentary about Congressman John Lewis and the Jon Stewart political satire Irresistible, even though you can watch both of those on any device at home.
But that’s not really a sign of anything other than studios clearing out the backlog. Irresistible would have been a bomb in any environment. Critics and audiences have received Palm Springs and Relic well, but they’re also indie genre movies, not potential blockbusters. Nothing is going to bust the block right now.
On the one hand, it’s kind of cute and charming that The Empire Strikes Back is the number-one movie in America. But it’s also really sad, and shows how deeply we’ve descended into the dystopian cultural fog. Hollywood has shelved its most beloved and popular cultural products. Superhero films, a Pixar movie, a James Bond movie, a Fast and Furious movie, and many more films are just gathering digital dust until we can venture out of the house without fearing The Sickness. While there’s a lot more TV in the can, and shows somehow continue to leak out the streaming pipeline, July feels a lot drier than May, and October is going to feel very parched indeed.
The great American content mill, the mightiest cultural output machine in human history, has completely stopped operating. Some reality TV and talk shows, and the occasional sitcom, are limping along with special quarantine episodes, but those have limited appeal. Right now, as far as I can tell, only The Bold and The Beautiful and The Young and the Restless and a pandemic thriller starring Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford have resumed production. Jimmy Fallon is shooting The Tonight Show in-studio again. A Tyler Perry sitcom will begin filming next week in Atlanta. And James Cameron is making the Avatar sequels in New Zealand. In the meantime, we have a lot of political “entertainment.”
That’s it, it’s not much, and it’s not enough.
America’s relentless cultural industry is one of its great strengths. It employs millions of people, and keeps the rest of us amused and distracted, but also informed and enlightened. When it pauses, everything pauses. Time has literally stopped, and we’re all getting restless, and also a little bored. Health and social justice may be more important, but we like our TV, and we like our movies. Hope to whatever Higher Power you believe in that we get them back soon. Because if we don’t, we’ve just begun to go nuts.
And for those of you who say we don’t need movies and TV and don’t want them, that the revolution needs a new analog culture, or that they’re never coming back because pandemic disease will stalk humanity forever, allow me to quote the villain of this week’s highest-grossing film, the most sinister character on our screens this side of Donald Trump:
I find your lack of faith disturbing.