“Art,” Roger Ebert said in a speech on human empathy on a Colorado Public Television feature in 1994, “is the closest we can come to understanding how a stranger really feels.”
If that's the case, then maybe it’s grimly logical that with Gaza on fire, and hundreds of families in Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur mourning a wreck that still smoulders, the most popular films in American theaters this past weekend are stories of apocalyptic or near-apocalyptic crisis. Also, sequels.
The first is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the story of humankind felled by a manufactured virus and an army of chimps rendered sentient by the same virus seeking to fill the power void. For the second consecutive weekend, Dawn has seized the top position at the U.S. box office, having grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in international ticket sales since opening ten days ago. It’s a follow-up to the 2011 20th Century Fox film that revived the decades-old franchise; both movies have enjoyed a surprisingly warm embrace from critics.
Not drastically far behind in the numbers was The Purge: Anarchy, whose title is perhaps more fitting, or at least to the point, than that of the first film in the franchise. The plots of both deal with a utilitarian sort of lawlessness sometime in the nearish future, in which anyone can pretty much do anything — murder is popular — over a twelve hour period once a year in order to keep crime rates otherwise low. Tepid reviews of the sequel apparently notwithstanding, the film made just under $30 million in ticket sales after opening in U.S. theaters on Friday.
After that, things are more incongruous with the Ebert-empathy thesis: a Pixar movie — another sequel — and a tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy about a leaked sex tape came in at third and fourth, respectively. Both have received mixed-to-plainly-negative feedback (Planes: Fire and Rescue holds a 44% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; Sex Tape’s is twenty points lower).
It was, on the whole, a shoddy weekend for Hollywood, the New York Times reports, though of course the summer blockbuster season is still relatively young. We’ll get the fifth — fifth — installment in the predictably stalwart Step Up franchise in a few weeks. There’s a redux of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming out; given that (a) it’s a Michael Bay number and (b) Megan Fox is in it, we can rely on every adolescent male in the U.S. to help it at least break even.