The Interview is terrible, and you should see it right now. Almost every joke is bad, and almost every joke gets repeated 10 times. But at least The Interview is set in something resembling actual contemporary reality. Right now that’s radical. This Christmas, Hollywood’s major movies were set in a magic dwarf kingdom, a magic forest, and a magic museum where actors cash magic paychecks.
You also could’ve seen two movies set in Movie World War II, Hollywood’s favorite fantasy universe, where the nefarious Axis powers fight a losing battle against overacting. I guess Annie is set in the real world, insofar as Rich Person Manhattan is a real place—but even Annie is set in a universe where anyone wants to hear Jamie Foxx sing.
A lot of things happened in 2014: Hello, understatement! And the movies of 2014 ran like mad from the world 2014. We expect this from blockbusters: Movies set in other worlds and other galaxies, in the future, the past, the Future Past, never the present. But even our finest filmmakers are staging a collective retreat from the contemporary universe.
Remember the ’90s indie revolution? A fleet of young directors—Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Andersons Wes and P.T, Kevin Smith—captured a time, a place. Now their times are long ago, their places far away. Aronofsky’s gone Biblical. Tarantino’s borne back ceaselessly into the west. Nolan’s lost in space. Wes Anderson has his dollhouse universe, located between Eastern Europe and East Williamsburg. PT Anderson has California before computers. Kevin Smith has Canada, and even the Canadians didn’t like Tusk.
You could argue that we’re living in the golden age of mass-market allegories. The latest Hunger Games and Captain America were “political” movies, to the extent that it’s become “political” to argue that fascism really isn’t cool, bro. And some of the very best movies of the year tackled reality through fantasy’s prism. Snowpiercer allegorized socioeconomic disparity. Under the Skin allegorized sexual assault culture. John Wick allegorized the financial crisis. No, it didn’t—but movies don’t need to be about anything. And filmmakers can always say that their movies are speaking to universal truths. “For indeed,” says the philosopher, “mustn’t we all someday go… into the woods?”
But the cinema of retreat is a cinema of decline. This was the year that Fox Business accused The Lego Movie of anticapitalist propaganda, because there were no grown-up movies for Fox to complain about. It’s been five years since a movie set in anything like the real present world won Best Picture. That movie was The Hurt Locker, an excellent action film everyone treated like a boring prestige picture. The Hurt Locker was dinged for accuracy, but it captured something ineffable about the abstractions of modern warfare. (After Hurt Locker won Best Picture, the creative team produced Zero Dark Thirty, a fantasy movie set in an alternate reality where torture works.)
Since then, the Best Pictures have been historical: The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave. One of those movies is great, two are decent, and the last is a movie about how good elocution beat Hitler: This is really not a bad track record by Oscar standards. But you have to wonder if the retreat from reality is the reason movies don’t drive the cultural conversation anymore. Don’t kid yourself with the conventional wisdom that TV is better: Two of the most popular shows in America are Game of Thrones, a show where British people hang out with dragons, and The Walking Dead, a show where British people do hilarious Southern accents.
We should not grade-inflate movies just because they try to capture our modern age. Or should we? Consider Birdman, a portrait of old media (Broadway, ’90s movie stardom) in a world of new media (Twitter, superhero-movie non-stardom). Or Obvious Child, maybe the first romcom to treat abortion as something more than a symbol for something else. Four years ago, David Fincher directed The Social Network, which turned the true-life tale of Facebook into a nerd-noir argument that every Silicon Valley entrepreneur is at least half a monster. (This year, Fincher produced Gone Girl, a film that accurately portrays how the Recession made journalists even more insufferable than usual.)
Fincher was going to reteam with Aaron Sorkin for a Steve Jobs biopic, which if nothing else would’ve produced a bumper crop of think-pieces headlined “Something Something Sorkin Something Something Female Characters.” That collaboration isn’t happening now— and we know why, thanks to a brutal Sony hack apparently motivated by The Interview. It’s wrong to over-glorify the past, but in the 1970s great films crackled with the thrill of the now: Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, All the President’s Men. Those were movies worthy of international cyber warfare. Cut to 2014: Seth Rogen and James Franco made a lazily written, barely edited movie about fart jokes—a movie that, for the first half hour, is basically just an episode of Entourage without the intrinsic tension of Jeremy Piven’s hairline—and that’s the movie that the President of the United States was talking about.
I salute them all: Rogen, Franco, co-director Evan Goldberg, writer Dan Sterling. The movie’s not good, but there’s a great sequence where Randal Park (as Kim Jong-Un) and Franco (as Ryan Seacrest, basically) ride a tank. They blast the tank’s gun; they blast Katy Perry; they get blasted. There’s so much to soak up in that scene: the linkage of celebrity decadence to totalitarianism, the notion that fascism is bro culture with the safety off, the vaguely feminist self-esteem anthem reimagined as a vaguely sociopathic paean to narcissicism.
Was any of this intentional? Probably not; you get the sense that nobody attached to The Interview actually has anything to say about North Korea. But at least they’re saying it loudly. At least they gave 2014 a movie about 2014.
A shorter version of this column runs in this week’s print edition of Entertainment Weekly. Send responses to email@example.com