Spectacle in Miniature (Video View)

May 21, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

The biggest theatrical movie being released on DVD this week is National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Within a week or two, it should be at the top of both the sales and rental charts. However, as is the case with all action-oriented would-be blockbusters, this one suffers in the transition from the big screen to a smaller one. To work, movies like National Treasure 2 require immersion. Certainly, things like plot and character development aren't big on their list of laudable characteristics. They're effective as no-risk amusement park rides. Placards at theater entrances should read: "Please turn off brains. Anyone observed thinking during this movie will be escorted to the exit." It's possible to become involved in an experience like this in an auditorium with a giant screen and 400 seats. At home, things are a little different.

Admittedly, watching a movie in one's living room isn't the same experience it used to be. With the advent of HDTVs and Blu Ray disc players, it's possible to get a clarity of audio and video that would have been unthinkable in the early days of VHS. Still, clarity isn't size. A 40" or 50" TV with six or seven speakers gets you closer to the theatrical experience than a 28" conventional set, but there's still a significant gap. The number of people is small who can afford a home theater that approximates a multiplex. While it may be every videophile's dream to have a top-of-the-line front projection TV with a 10-foot screen and acoustically perfect walls, not many of us have the funds to make that a reality. Other things take precedence like saving for the kids' college education or planning for retirement. And many CEOs who can afford a "real" home theater don't have enough spare time to enjoy it.

With a normal movie, size doesn't matter. Something like Juno works just as well at home as it does in a theater. The film is driven by story, characters, and dialogue. But what about National Treasure: Book of Secrets? The story is crap, the characters are paper-thin, and the dialogue is laughable. It's all about spectacle, and that's the aspect of a movie that takes the biggest hit in downsizing. A lot of big movies that impress in multiplexes aren't as overwhelming when viewed at home. The experience can't be replicated without similar equipment. And, in a more intimate setting, flaws that aren't apparent in theaters begin to stand out.

The more assiduously Hollywood attempts to turn multiplexes into amusement parks, the more they threaten to alienate those who have given up on the theatrical experience. Unwilling to cope with endless pre-movie advertisements, unruly audiences, and uncaring employees, many of my generation and the generation before me have given up on "going to the movies." When something like National Treasure: Book of Secrets arrives on DVD, they rent it and wonder what all the fuss is about. Popcorn movies can work at home, but there has to be more than flashes and bangs. We can get that with a good thunderstorm. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, doesn't need a gigantic screen and a primo sound system to entertain the hell out of a viewer. Indiana Jones is bigger than life even when squashed to TV-size dimensions. Twister, on the other hand, is a lot of fun in a theater. No matter how much you crank up the subwoofer, however, it gets cut down to size at home. Those behemoth tornadoes lose a lot of their ferocity outside of the multiplex.

There always has been and always will be a place for mindless movies like National Treasure: Book of Secrets (although I can think of a lot better examples of "good trash"). The problem is that Hollywood seems to be drifting in a direction where formula and effects are the two most important characteristics of any movie. While there may be a payoff for this at the front end (at least in the short run), it hurts the back end. The movies we remember are the ones that touch us on one level or another, not the ones that are the loudest or the flashiest. The more National Treasures we get, the fewer titles there will be to remember in years to come.