Rob Edelman: More Apocalypse

Jul 22, 2013

These days, there seems to be an endless flow of contemporary action/sci-fi adventures featuring evil forces that are determined to destroy humankind. The latest of the lot is PACIFIC RIM, and it involves what happens when the world-- the entire world-- must unite to thwart some colossal, murderous monsters of the Godzilla variety.

PACIFIC RIM is little more than a comic book come-to-life. Whatever shading and subtlety you think you might uncover within the storytelling becomes lost in the sheer spectacle of gazing at oversized monsters and warrior robots in endless, deadly battle. In this and other similar films, the stars are not so much the actors as the special effects and the choreography of the fight scenes. And it matters little if those actors are as high-powered as a Brad Pitt, who toplines WORLD WAR Z, or as low-wattage as a Charlie Hunnam, the lead actor in PACIFIC RIM.

However, what struck me most about PACIFIC RIM was the reporting of how it performed at the box office during its first weekend in release. This coverage was not encouraging. USA Today reported that, “Despite Internet chatter and online buzz that had become the envy of the industry, the $190-million sci-fi opus PACIFIC RIM...claimed $38.3-million (at the box office). The opening fell short of analysts’ projections of $40-million.” The paper added, “Last week, the $215-million THE LONE RANGER opened to a dismal $29-million. The week before, the $150-million WHITE HOUSE DOWN mustered just $25-million in its debut.”

But back to PACIFIC RIM. NBC reported that the film’s opening weekend box office “means it has a long way to go before it can declare itself even remotely successful.”

The content and quality of PACIFIC RIM, THE LONE RANGER, and WHITE HOUSE DOWN notwithstanding, these films are damned as being dead-on-arrival because they do not immediately rake $50-or-$70-or-$100-million. Is this the equivalent of a ballplayer who complains because his latest contract offer is for a mere $8-million? He issues a statement that this is a slave wage. For sure, he deserves a $12-million contract, or perhaps one for $15-million, and he somehow expects his fans to side with him-- including those who would have to work a full half-century to come close to earning $8-million.

And here is another point: Because PACIFIC RIM, THE LONE RANGER, and WHITE HOUSE DOWN did not earn instant blockbuster status, will they forever have the word “failure” stamped over them?

Years ago ago, new TV shows that did not become instant hits were given sufficient time to gestate, to find and build their audiences-- and they eventually became classics. For example, when the sitcom CHEERS debuted in 1982, it was ranked 74th out of the 77 prime-time TV shows in the Nielsen ratings. But it was given a chance, and it became a top-rated show that lasted for 11 seasons. HILL STREET BLUES also received miserable Nielsen ratings when it premiered in 1981, but it too was not cancelled and it too became a smash hit that ran for seven seasons. Even though it was based on a high-profile hit movie, the TV version of M*A*S*H struggled when it premiered in 1972. But it was not cancelled, and it lasted eleven seasons.

Years ago, a movie could open and, even if it did not immediately play to packed houses, it was allowed to build an audience via word of mouth or positive reviews. But not so today. We live in a time in which “success” and “failure” are instantaneous. If your film or TV show does not rake in the big bucks or big ratings-- and do so now-- the result is that your film or show will be given the hook. And this really is a shame.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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