What Happened To Hope?: The Emotional Emptiness of Modern Cinema

We’re living in an age where hope is something that we desperately need, but is a concept that feels very distant from stark reality. 2021 has seen the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, raging conflict and political instability, and the rapidly emerging, widely accepted threat of climate change. The world today is arguably a bleak one to exist in, and combining these major concerns with poor economic prospects for young people makes for a not very promising future. Fiction is something we can generally turn to be reminded of our value and purpose, except for the fact that cinema today seems largely devoid of hope. Where can we find it on the screen when the industry’s biggest releases are more interested in keeping us spending on enormous franchises than sharing ideas?

You can rarely have hope in blockbuster movie franchises because conflict is only ever over until there is a sequel. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is a perfect example of the hopeless and intellectual emptiness found in major releases, re-treading old plot points and saying nothing of any note. It features the return of the Jedi in the form of Rey (Daisy Ridley), even if this should have happened in earnest after the epic journey of the original trilogy. Most crucially, this sense of repetition doesn’t lead to any momentous conclusion that warrants ruining the hard-earned happiness of the preceding films. The idea it decides to end the series’ main saga on is that the same wars are fought again and again across the generations, a concept that hardly inspires belief in the possibility of real change.

Blockbuster films are prone to repetition as capitalist products that thrive on the status quo. To put forward new ideas or to reflect underrepresented parts of society doesn’t fit with reaching the widest audience possible. Presenting the least offensive ideas, or the most generally accepted ones, means that more people will want to watch the film and engage with it enough to be ready for a sequel. Blockbusters can’t offer a future then, or possibilities of change, because that change might be anathema to the people they want to keep coming back again and again to purchase more of their product.

The bulk of the film's theatrical poster, with Rey poised for combat in front of a masked Kylo Rey. The bottom right of the image has them battling on a Death Star turret, and the bottom left has a selection of key supporting characters. It's coloured in red and blue, largely, showcasing the clear good versus evil battle in this sequel
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

However, despite an industry that is today largely cautious around making its customers think or feel, there are plenty of classic family films that have endured for generations thanks to their optimistic perspectives. The box office impact of these films can vary wildly: The Wizard of Oz (1939) recouped its budget many times over, whereas Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) made a comparatively tiny impact in cinemas. Films such as these, however, have seen countless repeats on television and their encouraging, optimistic messages have become part of our collective cultural knowledge. The major downside with this though is that these works run the risk of being cultural background noise, the value in their outlooks taken for granted rather than seriously acknowledged.

It’s reassuring that audiences of all ages have been touched by Paddington 2 (2017), though, a movie which harkens back to the gentle innocence of old-school family flicks. The foundation of what makes it both nostalgic and a breath of fresh air is the craft behind it, from the charming and memorable set design to the uproariously engaging performances. Beyond the immensely high entertainment value though is genuine heart, most strikingly evidenced in how the film presents prisoners’ humanity. It’s an unlikely subject for a family film and something that isn’t explored enough even in cinema aimed towards adults. The world would surely be a kinder place if more films shared the community-minded, redemptive sentiments of Paddington 2.

One of the most infamous pieces of children’s entertainment preoccupied with morality and optimism is Pollyanna. The original novel was released in 1913, and it has been adapted multiple times in the years since. It seems like a timeless story, the lead character being a young girl whose belief that every cloud has a silver lining begins to bring joy to the lives of the troubled adults around her. “Pollyanna” has unfortunately become a name that, to some, refers to an unrealistic or annoying optimism. The complaint with the tale does not come from the target audience of children but from adults, perhaps feeling that the story doesn’t reflect the complexities of adult life. But it is undoubtedly possible to have optimism in the face of the multi-pronged troubles of adulthood, and the unduly cynical response to Pollyanna shows how starved adults are of inspiring, life-affirming cinema.

Smiling Pollyanna raises herself up and looks into an unseen distance
Image courtesy of Carlton Television

Award-winning movies have often provided an optimism which seems trite, but the success of Moonlight (2016) at the Academy Awards suggests that Hollywood is increasingly aware of the work that is really inspiring. Previous Oscar winners like Good Will Hunting (1997), American Beauty (1999), and The King’s Speech (2011) have been geared towards the concerns of straight white men and offer easy resolutions, indicative of an industry unwilling to look beyond the status quo. Moonlight is a Best Picture winner, however, that is transgressive comparatively and in and of itself, rejecting stereotypes and presenting ideas rarely shown in mainstream cinema. Its focus is the sexuality of gay Black men, and it presents the subject with beautiful tenderness and complexity. The unfortunate fact is, though, that whilst a certain number of viewers would have been moved and inspired by the film, there are many people who have simply passed it by. Its $65 million box office is nothing compared to blockbusters that earn over $1 billion, making its influence seem miniscule regardless of the prestigious gong that it earned.

Those who are looking to be inspired can easily find recent films that go against the trend of sanitised corporate viewing. One of the most hopeful films that I’ve ever seen is the history-inspired LGBT+ movie Pride (2014). The focus is on gay activists who decide to team up with striking miners in order to elevate both causes, and their journey towards finding common ground is both heartwarming and encouraging. It’s a total counterpoint to the individualism of superhero movies, its individual characters not being as memorable as the immense brilliance of collective action. This is the sort of inspiration that’s needed in an age where society is notoriously and concerningly fractured, though it still feels like a small act of resistance against the corporate behemoths intent on removing any semblance of authentic spirit from culture.

Some of the best arguments for a better future can be found in science fiction rather than realism, which matters given the genre’s popularity. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that interesting ideas would be found in a genre about imagining the future, but this is something that doesn’t happen enough when our biggest science fiction films involve superheroes. However, audiences have an appetite for science fiction that isn’t part of a franchise: The Martian (2016) earned half a billion dollars despite largely being a tribute to human ingenuity, focusing on one man’s skill to survive abandonment on Mars. It is the darker and less commercially successful looks at our future, though, that really solidify this message of our ability to weather all threats. Children of Men (2006) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) both present miserable near futures where almost everyone is subjugated; yet, their protagonists’ will is enough to change nearly impossible odds. This brave and dangerous resistance is important when we’re facing significant, elusive threats like climate change.

The protagonist of Children of Men, Theo, looks sombre in a dismally grey future London. A motorway bridge sits in the background as does a propaganda sign with the word 'Suspicious?' indicating the mood of the film
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Audiences don’t seem to want to deal with real challenges on-screen if they’re not immediately hopeful or simplistically presented, and it seems to be because audiences are no longer used to watching real emotion. This seems clear in the way that cinema has superficially explored climate change, with The Day After Tomorrow (2004) – the biggest blockbuster on the subject – being pure hyperbole that is a disaster movie rather than a personal tale. It’s nearly twenty years old, too, and hasn’t been superseded despite its concerns becoming ever more urgent. Viewers seemed to have become so used to not seeing reality in any shape or form, however, that not even the saccharine sweetness of Richard Curtis holds appeal any longer. About Time (2013) earned about three times less than Notting Hill (1999), despite there being less than twenty years’ separation between them. Thoughtless and familiar escapism through action and adventure is the only thing bringing people to the big screen in droves.

Getting cinema to change is difficult when it’s driven by studios stuck in a money-making mindset, but it’s also difficult to say whether film can fundamentally shift the way people view the world. The challenging cinema of the ’70s, for instance, didn’t stop the individualistic, excessive, intellectually moribund ’80s. However, it’s easy to see that the cinema of the ’70s came from the counterculture of California, showing that it’s at least an indicator of where the views of society are sitting. The filmmakers of tomorrow will undoubtedly have a greater awareness of society’s mood and the state of film than your average cinemagoer though, and perhaps might find the likes of Pride and Moonlight shaping the stories that they put out to the world. Maybe as the challenges of today and tomorrow become ever closer to home, audiences will find refuge and encouragement from the filmmakers who are unwilling to give in to corporate hopelessness.

The cinematic landscape might appear to be a bleak one for people championing originality, but what should be clear by now is that there’s hope where you look for it. People won’t just accept the same content forever, and bold, inspiring, timely works do find their way to the surface. Audiences and Hollywood can be surprising in what they choose to champion, with a film about potatoes growing on Mars going toe-to-toe with the origins of Han Solo. However, we’re living in a time where the most successful works feel totally adrift from issues that loom over us today, and it’s not enough to wait for the tide to change. Critics, fans of cinema, and those in the industry need to shout from the rooftops about the films that might galvanise the public to face the issues of today head-on. What also needs to be considered is that hope hasn’t just become unfashionable —it’s been suppressed. If we are to see a change in what dominates the screen, those of us with a vested interest in cinema need to do the heavy lifting, and spark hope by challenging the corporations that would rather keep the status quo. A challenging, hopeful, and human cinema can only dominate if we recognise that we have the power to fight for a spiritually richer art form.

Header image courtesy of A24