Stop Telling Me to Turn My Brain Off During Movies
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece called “Ranking Every Jurassic World Character From Dumbest to Least Dumb.” The response to the article was generally positive; some folks who enjoyed Jurassic World even conceded that, yes, the people in it are pretty dopey. But there was a small vocal minority who hated this piece down to its very core, not because they necessarily disagreed with my opinion but because they objected to my having any opinion in the first place. One reader on Facebook suggested I should revise the list to include myself at the very bottom “for the colossal overthinking of a popcorn movie.” That was a slight variation on the most common complaint, one any writer or cinephile who’s ever dared to criticize a big, moronic blockbuster knows very well:
“Stop thinking so much! It’s a movie. Just turn off your brain and enjoy it.”
There’s an old expression about how “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” Truer words were never spoken about the world of movies. Art is completely subjective and there really is no accounting for taste. As an open-minded guy who believes everyone is entitled to their opinion, I’m willing to accept almost any argument in favor of a movie; I may not agree with it, but I’d never deny someone their right to express themselves. The only argument I automatically reject on principle is “turn off your brain.” If the only way to enjoy something is to turn your brain off, then it probably isn’t very good.
What’s curious about the “turn off your brain” argument is the way it ignores how people actually watch movies. When a film is really working, people get swept up in it. They lose themselves in the characters and the story. They care about what they’re watching; they feel things about what they’re seeing. It’s only when something is tedious or poorly conceived that they begin to really question what’s not working. Turning your brain on in the midst of a dumb movie isn’t an act of sabotage; it’s a defense mechanism against boredom. If the movie did its job, it wouldn’t happen.
We should demand more from films. Instead of asking viewers to turn their brains off, how about we ask the people who make these things to turn their brains on?
The “turn your brain off” brigade often defend dumb movies on the grounds that they’re “not supposed to be smart.” Their unspoken implication is that a smart movie is also automatically a boring one, as if the only way a movie can entertain someone is by lulling them into a narcotized stupor of total idiocy. And while it’s true that no one goes to Jurassic World looking for a probing theoretical discourse on the ethics of genetic modification, there’s clearly a middle ground between a hoighty-toighty academic treatise and paper-thin, empty-headed characters and ludicrous, facepalming stupidity. It’s possible to entertain people without talking down to them. These may be popcorn movies we’re talking about, but you can’t eat popcorn without your brain telling your mouth to chew it up and swallow it.
To put it another way: The goal isn’t a tedious colloquy. The goal is the first Jurassic Park.
A few readers who didn’t appreciate my Jurassic World list claimed that the movie was simply made in the tradition of Steven Spielberg’s original film, and that the whole franchise rests on a foundation of dumb characters. (“If Jurassic World were full of intelligent people, we wouldn't have much of a movie to watch,” one complaint read.) That’s simply not true. A look back at the first Jurassic Park reveals a film that was exponentially more clever than its recent offspring. For two movies about the same exact subject, they couldn’t be more different — at least on a cerebral level.
Some Jurassic Park characters make questionable decisions, but the film’s early scenes are filled with astute discussions about the merits or dangers of the park and its dinosaurs. As I noted in my review of the film, “The heroes and villains of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park were intellectuals; scientists, mathematicians, academics, and hugely successful entrepreneurs. They were mostly smart people doing smart things. With the exception of Dr. Wu and maybe Chris Pratt’s raptor trainer Owen Grady, the protagonists in Jurassic World are all dummies doing dumb things that lead, directly and indirectly, to their deaths and the deaths of hundreds of other people.” And come to think of it Dr. Wu is actually a character from Jurassic Park, so maybe he shouldn’t even count.
“Turn off your brain” is less of a defense of a movie than admission of incredibly low standards for entertainment. Why ask so little from something you paid to watch? It’s odd that in an age where people complain so ferociously that movies are so much worse now than they used to be, that some of those same people would turn around and defend those same inferior products with the excuse “Eh, it’s fine as long as you don’t think for even a moment about anything passing in front of your eyes.” When that’s all you require from Hollywood, why is it shocking when they churn out nothing but garbage?
It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a movie to be slightly more intelligent than a bag of hammers. Isn’t that the base level of what a movie should be? It can’t be that difficult. Big movies from talented filmmakers pass this bare minimum of entertainment every year. Already in 2015 we’ve seen many blockbusters that can be enjoyed with an alive and alert brain, including Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Spy.
We should demand more from films. Instead of asking viewers to turn their brains off, how about we ask the people who make these things to turn their brains on? Do you know what happens to someone when their brains turn off? They die. If they’re lucky, maybe they wind up as a lifeless vegetable, spending the rest of eternity attached to a respirator, thinking absolutely nothing. Does that sound like fun to you?