Our Secret Urge to Fight: What We Have to Learn From the Highest Grossing Non-Sequels of 2013

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We go to the movies to see a polished facsimile of ourselves, to see our collective fears and anxieties play out at an air-conditioned, melodramatic remove from reality. If the top-grossing movies of 2013 are any indication of who we are, then we must be starved for sameness, for the comfort of recurring characters — because for the most part, the top-grossing films of this year were sequels, prequels, and franchise reboots. Our yearning for the same characters has been mercilessly monetized, but this should hardly surprise us.

It is not far-fetched to surmise that the glut of sequels, prequels, and reboots has something to do with studios hitting upon a jackpot combination that produces easy money vis-à-vis bottom-of-the-barrel blockbusters. Why fight the franchise formula? Audiences certainly have not fought back and, at this rate, seem no closer to doing so.

There’s more gristle on another bone: what do films that buck this trend and provide more marginally original fare say about our viewing habits? Specifically, what was it about the top five cinematically original films that allowed them a voice in an arena clamoring with sameness?

All five of 2013’s top-grossing films were sequels or reboots. It’s not until number six, with Gravity, that we get something different, and the only other original script in the top ten is at number ten with World War Z. The Croods was the 12th highest grossing film of the year, and must have come out while I, like the film’s characters, was slumbering soundly in a cave. It was followed by Frozen and The Heat, the 13th and 14th highest-grossing, respectively.

Gravity, World War Z, The Croods, Frozen and The Heat: these five films do not rest peacefully upon the same spectrum. Indeed, it takes some time to realize their relatedness, the common blood that crafts their common bond. Nevertheless, I believe it is there. Rather than focus on critical acclaim or how much money these movies made however, we need to talk about the stories. Not a singular message but the gut of the story itself: the consequences of our hubris and the necessity of reconciling opposing forces in order to survive. This common message is a warning against recalcitrance that is, however universal, a message crafted specifically for our contemporary time.

At Gravity, the highest grossing of the films here discussed, I was unequivocally transfixed. Not because the film was perfect — in fact, it was very hard to suppress laughter when Sandra Bullock lifted herself from the sands of paradise (Lake Powell, Arizona, in this case. How lucky to survive such an ordeal and land in such blue, tranquil waters!) — but because it was, at the very least, entertaining. I didn’t go to see Gravity to learn about physics. I went to see Gravity for the same reason that I went to Iron Man 3: because we go to the movies because we are ready to evacuate life of its immediate meaning. We are willing to condense experience into mutable parts that we’ll douse greedily in fantasy, lest the $15 we spend to escape remind us too much of what we’re trying to escape from.

Gravity is a film about the singular human will to survive. The film deals with a situation where there’s a single, barely functional shuttle to get its protagonist back to Earth, and the script makes it clear that it would have been much easier for Bullock’s character to just give in and die of oxygen deprivation. Instead, apparition-Clooney stops her from a suicide. That’s the lynch pin: the acknowledgement that, yes, even in those situations where suicide seems perfectly logical, we must fight to stay alive, because that’s the biologically sane thing to do.

World War Z is a Brad Pitt movie about zombies, and the recent resurrection (sorry) of the zombie genre is particularly interesting for us here. Zombies present the unique problem of the pestilence within — we fear zombies because they are us, transmuted. World War Z has lots of explosions and caterwauling, but again, it’s ultimately a film about humans fighting to survive.

There’s a vaccination motif in World War Z, and the idea of vaccination has always seemed to me to be one of the most poignant metaphors of medicine: the necessary ingestion of a controlled amount of disease in order to rein in the disease itself. It’s a particularly salient lesson we should learn from 2013, because the year we just lived through is testament to the dangers of hubris, of not reconciling opposing parts in order to survive. The protracted government shutdown was, in effect, the culmination of a political inability to do what the characters in World War Z had to do: save themselves by tasting the poison.

The animated films on this list, The Croods and Frozen, deal with the need to take risks that require sleeping with the enemy. In The Croods, patriarch Grug warns of uncertainty and peril. He instills in his family an ideology suffused with fear, but the film itself is an utter rejection of this philosophy. Throughout the narrative, the need to take risks in order to evolve, to prosper, is made painfully clear. The Guy character’s insistence on risk in order to survive, and Grug’s initial recalcitrance and subsequent change of heart, are not only the movie but the lesson itself. Guy’s paradise is, after all, called “Tomorrow.”

Frozen takes a more nuanced approach to this subject. Elsa is unable to control her power and the consequences born of this hubris are only mitigated when she realizes the alternative is losing a sister. The movie calls it love, but I’d call it common sense. Leash your ego and save the kingdom; admit your inability to solve all the issues, and there may yet be hope.

The last film on our list, The Heat, Bullock’s second appearance on this list, gives the viewer a similar takeaway. Bullock’s traditional character meets Melissa McCarthy’s brash, irreverent one, and the two clash immediately. Of course, saving the day and ending the movie requires a collusion of both forces, and it is in tandem that they succeed. The buddy-cop comedy genre deals explicitly in these terms. There is no need for a totalitarian approach when the more effective police (and more importantly, human) work can be done as a function of the cooperation of diametrically opposed parts.

The real fight, as we can infer from the preponderance of these movies, is a collective desire for change. In my mind, and maybe in yours, the past several years are hard to distinguish from each other. We remarked on the remarkable but turned a blind and weary eye to the malaise that mollifies us. If the success of the films discussed her are any indication of the state of the union, then the union wants to fight, to inject itself with a pathogen that could prove deadly. The alternative, dying without resistance, just isn’t an option.

Maybe I am reading too much into the discrete decisions of studio executives who produce films to finance personal lifestyles of which the rest of us will only ever have intimations. But the yearning for survival is more primitive than that. The sentiment is pervasive not because it lives on air, spreading and shifting with currents and continents, but because it lies within us already. Leave your old spade behind and pick up that strange shovel you’ve been meaning to use. Whether the change we want is political, cultural, or personal, it is, terrifyingly and reassuringly, up to us.