This past weekend, a film named "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" opened. And there were a number of surprising things about the movie: it wasn't an elaborate practical joke; it was greenlit with the expectation that people would want to see it and it seems the smart and capable cast and crew members didn't have anything better to do. But most surpising of all is the way in which a film with the words Abraham, Lincoln, Vampire and Hunter, in that order, in the title, is executed in such a relentlessly grim, humorless manner. Decades ago, it would have been the stuff of B-movies, and yet writer Seth Grahame-Smith and director Timur Bekmambetov play it almost entirely with a straight face.
Pairing a silly title (which every time we saw the trailer with an audience, would elicit big laughs) with a deadly serious approach does not, it would appear, seem to have paid at the box office, with the film opening to a decidedly disappointing $16 million by Sunday, and critics mostly slaughtered the film (our own reviewer was, in fairness, one of the exceptions). Now, we're not saying it would have done any better with a more tongue-in-cheek approach -- "Snakes On A Plane" proved long ago that people might be amused by a joke title, but won't necessarily turn up to see it regardless of how silly the film is. But it does serve as the latest indicator of a steady trend across not only this summer, but also the last few years. Simply put, blockbusters are for the most part less fun than they used to be.
Think of some of the biggest grossing films of the last year or so: "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon," "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2," "The Hunger Games," "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes." All dark, grim and pretty low in laughs. And not just laughs, but any real sense of enjoyment; the action sequences, at least in the first two, were harrowing more than they were thrilling, absent the gags and beats that generally make action sequences memorable. And this year has already seen a number of movies -- "John Carter," "Battleship," "Wrath Of The Titans" and "Snow White And The Huntsman" come to mind most immediately -- which also seem to take themselves a little too seriously. Even Pixar's "Brave" feels more serious-minded than we've come to expect from the company.
Does the fairy tale of Snow White really need to be treated like a big-budget version of "Game Of Thrones?" Does a movie based on a board game have to be so chest-beating and unaware of its own ridiculousness? Does a proposition as silly as "Cowboys & Aliens" really benefit from being treated like a John Ford picture? Even "Men In Black 3" is actually pretty light on laughs, compared to other installments, preferring to focus on an angsty backstory that ties together the central characters.