Moviegoers in Harm's Way

There was a recent study performed in Luxenbourg that looked at how people react when they start playing violent video games--the ones in which you shoot people and see their blood spurt and limbs fly. What it found is that when people first start playing, they exhibit the "Lady Macbeth effect," which is to say they become obsessed with cleanliness, and are observed to wash their hands more often. The effect goes away if they continue to play the games, but for a while they seem to be literally trying to wash away uncleanliness, which implies that they have a feeling of moral dirtiness left by the violence of these games.

This is of interest because, for all the anything goes nature of contemporary entertainment, it shows that people still have a moral reaction to what is depicted, and that the moral decisions shown in entertainment have an effect on its audience. The past year has seen a spike in movies that all center on spectacles of large-scale destruction and the implied deaths of thousands or millions of people, although we rarely see a drop of blood or an actual dead body. Starting with last summer’s The Avengers, the trend amped up this summer with Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim and G.I. Joe: Retaliation all showing skyscrapers collapsing, entire city blocks leveled and the offscreen death of millions. It would seem that the aim is to try to borrow seriousness and take on urgency by aligning with real-world tragedies, most notably 9/11.

What effect does this have? Does it bother people to have mass destruction portrayed as “awesome?” To spend the film's biggest special effects recreating things we saw as real during 9/11 or on other atrocities? And what goes on in the minds of kids when they see movies in which cities are destroyed and yet no one seems to be hurt? And no one mourns--or mentions--the thousand or millions who have just died? I don't know the answers, but it would seem that the manner in which the films depict the loss, and whether it shows the heroes helping people or not, or the victims mourned, can have a big effect on the feeling one leaves the film with.

Did you see G.I. Joe: Retaliation? Of course not. It contained something that pretty much blew me away with shock... and I haven't seen discussed anywhere. The villain has a torpedo that he demonstrates on London. The city is not evacuated--a usual moral step movies mention as a way of subverting queasy feelings--and London is destroyed. The number is not mentioned, but the implication is that eight million people were just killed. But the thing that blew my mind is that... the movie simply continues, and no one ever mentions it again. The bad guy is caught in the end, and the movie treats it as though everything is put right. The complete loss of one of the world’s largest cities, not to mention the deaths of millions of people, is never brought up. There's not even a sense of "we lost a great deal, but we triumphed." It is treated as nothing at all.

But that's G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and who cares about that, right? Then came Star Trek Into Darkness, in which a large spaceship crashes into San Francisco (also not evacuated), plowing through public areas and destroying numerous buildings. It clearly shows us that the public is in harm's way, but it differs by not lingering unnecessarily on the destruction of buildings. And it ends with a memorial service, which goes a long way toward showing us that the filmmakers know that something important has happened, which must be acknowledged. Because if you don't acknowledge it...

You end up with something like Man of Steel. This film goes further than perhaps any other to date in showing the destruction of a city on a massive scale. There are two major sequences in which first a small town, then a large city, are destroyed. During a large battle in an IHOP restaurant, there are people cowering in booths. But somehow, during the course of the entire restaurant being destroyed in a fight, they gradually start to vanish (we don't see them slip out, they simply diminish in numbers) until, by the end of the scene, they're gone. During a climactic battle in Metropolis, a machine crushes entire city blocks to dust, presumably killing millions of people, none of whom we see, or are ever made reference to. Then Superman and the villain fight, destroying several buildings in the process. We sometimes see bystanders cowering within the buildings, but they're fine. At one point a skyscraper falls on a woman, but she's fine. Not a scratch. The rubble seemingly created a pocket around her, and trapped her, though without throwing a hair out of place. This woman is freed, gazes upon the Hiroshima-level desolation in which her city now lies, and gasps "He saved us!" One missing touch from the 1978 Superman that was mentioned in several reviews was the brief scene in which Superman, in that film, rescues a cat from a tree. The Superman of Man of Steel is never shown directly helping people at all, and the result is a grim, dark movie that leaves one with a bit of a bad feeling. The movie wraps up with a jaunty scene at the Daily Planet--its business unaffected by the mass destruction of the city--and the millions or even billion people who have died are never so much as mentioned.

As a good point of comparison, The Avengers is the only film that comes close to showing Man of Steel-level mass destruction and (implied) loss of human life, but it does several things that Man of Steel doesn’t. For one, it shows people directly in harm’s way, as opposed to simply pretending that they aren’t there, or aren’t affected. More importantly, it shows the heroes taking distinct pains to save people, which shows that they—and the filmmakers—care about the faceless masses. And finally, toward the end we see large memorials and candlelight vigils, which acknowledges that what just happened is a tragedy, and had serious effects.

Fast and Furious 6 has a scene in which the villain drives a huge tank barrels down a freeway, shredding cars underneath its wheels as it goes. But the movie does two things: one, have our heroes drive their cars ahead specifically to herd innocent bystanders out of the way, and two, show people getting out of their cars and running to safety by the side of the freeway. Contrast this with a similar scene from A Good Day to Die Hard, in which Bruce Willis (the hero of the film) drives a giant truck over numerous cars stuck in traffic on a freeway. The way this movie attempts to get around the innocent bystander problem is to simply have the cars be empty. We are to understand that the cars have people in them--they are bumper to bumper in traffic on the freeway--yet we don't SEE any people be crushed and killed, because the cars are empty.

Pacific Rim is by far the most responsible film in terms of the respect it offers to bystanders caught in the destructive battles it depicts between monsters and giant robots. There is an extended flashback in which we see a monster’s attack from a young girl’s perspective, showing the destruction as terrifying and traumatic—not at all awesome. Most of the battles take place in the ocean, far from human involvement. There is one battle that takes place in a city, but the movie makes explicit that the city has been evacuated long before, and it’s quite notable that the destruction of property can be very fun, once we’ve been assured that no people are getting hurt.

So what is the result? Like the dirty feeling violent video games leave some with, a film that treat its bystanders poorly can leave a queasy feeling afterward. Many people describe feeling somewhat disturbed at the unapologetic mass destruction depicted in Man of Steel. A friend of mine described feeling sad afterward, and I recall feeling a bit sad after my first viewing as well. This is the result of the millions killed in the film without a mention--in fact, under the assumption that seeing twenty skyscrapers topple is pretty awesome--and also the fact that in contrast to the uplifting, optimistic Supermans of yesteryear, this incarnation doesn't care about humanity much at all.

Contrast this with the feeling with which one walks out of Fast and Furious 6 or The Avengers, which can be described as a bounce in your step and a song in your heart. Why? Because the films goes out of their way to show that the characters care about the bystanders, and take special pains to protect them. Then the filmmakers also take time out to show us that the bystanders make it to safety, a small but crucial step that demonstrates the humanity of the filmmakers.

So it would seem that the degree to which filmmakers depict concern for those caught up in the destruction they depict has a direct effect on the audience’s ability to carelessly enjoy what one is seeing. G.I. Joe and A Good Day to Die Hard show no concern for those killed in its on-screen battles, and come off as what they are; crass attempts to wring cash from people. Even Man of Steel’s mass destruction exists mostly to show something different and to appropriate “seriousness,” because this is a second attempt at a Superman reboot and is vital to Warner Brother’s wish to build up to a Justice League movie. That is to say, anyone’s passion for that character was a distant second to its imperative to make money and build a franchise, and it sure seems like it. And while many people like that movie, there are just as many who hate it and bemoan its hopeless, grim feeling.

Movies like Man of Steel or G.I. Joe leave one with a quasy feeling, because they demonstrate that the heroes are not particularly concerned with the deaths of the faceless masses—and by extension, neither are the filmmakers. They could have taken time to show concern for the victims, but chose not to. By contrast, movies which take time to show their heroes as concerned about the people caught in harm’s way leave one with a good, upbeat feeling, because they demonstrate that the filmmakers are aware, and concerned, about the anonymous people out there who are affected by the events they depict.

Take it one step further, and you can say that to filmmakers, we in the movie audience are the faceless masses. Like the innocent bystanders in films, we in the audience are a bunch of faceless individuals to the filmmakers, who know that we're out there, but rarely if ever actually meet us and thus have a distant, abstract relationship to us. We are affected by what the filmmakers do, but they are only distantly affected by us. So the way filmmakers treat the faceless masses in films can express the feeling of how they regard the faceless masses in the audience—that is, us. Either we’re all just numbers that live or die without ever being seen, or they remember that there are individuals out here, and let it be known in their films. It may not affect the box office numbers, but it has a lingering effect on whether a film is loved and supported, or leaves one with the feeling that you need a good wash.