Saturday, December 26, 2009

"It's Just a Movie..." -- Reflections on "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"

I hate it when people say, "It's just a movie."

It's not "just" a movie. It never is. It never will be.

Some movies just shouldn't be dismissed like that. Right now there's a controversy surrounding Avatar because of it's obvious left-wing political leaning. Fair enough -- let's talk about it. But no one wants to talk about the atrocity that is Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Both films are fantasy movies, sure enough. One is made by a major filmmaker (James Cameron), but the other has greater star power (Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Robin Williams, etc.). Yet, I bet if I started a conversation about Museum at a party, people'd tsk-tsk me and either change the subject or walk away (not talking from any experience here). Avatar will be run through the wringer, but Museum gets a pass.

I think a movie like Night at the Museum is one of the most disturbing pieces of film made this year. It's not because of the creepy wax figures come to life, or the fact that Ben Stiller makes out with one of them (although, to his credit, at least it's Amy Adams, who'd have my lips' full attention at a moment's notice). And it's not because of the fucking stupid dancing Einstein bobbleheads, Celine Dion-crooning cupids, or the vain "Thinker" statue. It's because this film is revisionist history at its worst. And it's marketed towards kids.

I can hear it now: c'mon, it's just a movie.

No. It's a business.

Museum cost approximately $150 million to produce (see Internet Movie Database), sold toys through McDonald's Happy Meals, and will finish 2009 as the 10th highest grossing film of the year at $177 million, not counting overseas or DVD/Blu-Ray sales (see Box Office Mojo). When this much money and commercial enterprise is on the line, you can't call it just a movie. The same is therefore true with any film on the market. It's just these ultra-big budget films deserve extra heat. To whom much is given, much is required, right?

So, all this money and time has been invested in making an extremely irresponsible film that revises history and fucks up our children's understanding of what actually happened, while at the same time letting them know that our government doesn't have security cameras inside its museums, or any after hours night guards (apparently Ben Stiller is considered the best night guard because he's the only one).

Before I get deeper into my rant here, let me summarize the movie for those of you who haven't seen it. Don't worry...I won't give anything away.

Ben Stiller reprises his role as Larry Daley, the former night watchman at the Natural History Museum in New York City. Since the first movie ended, Larry has become quite the inventor, doing infomercials for novel products like glow-in-the-dark flashlights. But, he's unhappy, and misses the friends he made at the museum after hours. When he returns for a nostalgia trip, Larry discovers the museum manager is shipping out all of the exhibits to the Smithsonian archives so the Natural History Museum can upgrade to technologically exciting attractions (like holograms of Teddy Roosevelt).

Larry isn't happy, but can't do much, until he receives an urgent phone call from the mini-cowboy Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson) who tells him bad shit's going down at the Smithsonian and they need his help. Larry hops on a plane and heads to Washington D.C. to infiltrate the Smithsonian. He encounters a new villain (Hank Azaria as Kahmunrah), new obstacles (a giant octopus), and a new historical friend (Amy Adams as the hot-to-trot Amelia Earhart). Hijinks, plot contrivances, and falsely played revelation sequences ensue.

How is this revisionist history, you're now asking. It sounds like it's "just a movie." Not a very good one, maybe, but nothing particulary awful. Well, consider this: Bill Hader is cast as Gen. George Custer, who's claim to fame is dying with his men at Little Big Horn. The movie makes mention of that, yet in this movie he's making friends with native americans, like Sacagawea. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt is considered a well-spring of wisdom, and lauded for launching our national parks. Yet it was at the expense of the native americans that he did all that. No matter -- it's okay now because he's got the hots for Sacagawea, too.

In this movie, historical figures are merely being played up for laughs, but not in an intelligent way. Warner Bros.'s "Histeria" and "Animaniacs" back in the 1990s also had fun with history, too, but didn't pander to the lowest common denominator. They assumed you knew a little when you sat in front of the screen. Museum assumes you don't give a shit about history. Little of what these characters do fit in with any understanding of their cultures, contributions and significance. They seem to only be on the screen to offer a trite sound byte while leaving a big mess.

It's just a movie.

Teachers work hard trying to give out correct information about history, and movies like this fill kids' heads with the wrong shit. It makes the job harder because the kids will be more likely to listen to what a "movie" has to say since the movie expects nothing from them and makes them laugh when the giant "Thinker" sculpture says "Firepower" while flexing his muscles in order to show off to a Grecian statue (my kids laughed uncontrollably, even though the line was repeated in every fucking commercial for the movie). Teachers just don't have enough time or energy to re-write the wrongs of irresponsible bullshit like Museum.

If the only problem with this movie were the logical issues, like the fact that there are no real world consequences for destroying parts of the Smithsonian museum, or that somehow a bi-plane was able to fly from D.C. to NYC in under an hour carrying a giant crate full of an assortment of musuem exhibits, then I'd probably agree that it's just a movie, albeit a stupid one. Combine poor writing with social irresponsibility and a big we have a film that should piss people off.

But it won't, though. Movies like this never piss people off, because most people keep saying the same ol' thing again and again...

Do I have to say it?

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