Now that it’s October and this year’s parade of “Oscar hopefuls” is in motion, the time has come to ask the question: What were this summer’s movies—collectively—all about? What themes and trends did they have in common, and what can these themes and trends tell us about the zeitgeist of America more broadly? While I only saw six movies, these were enough to give me a feel for this year’s leitmotifs. The six I saw were: *Star Trek*, *The Hangover*, *(500) Days of Summer*, *Julie and Julia*, *District 9*, and *Up*. They weren’t the most popular movies of the summer—*Transformers* was No. 1—and yet I think that together they reflect and embody America’s collective consciousness in the sort of way that only the best summer movies do.
It goes without saying that this summer, both on and off the screen, was obsessed with the recession. The main trend that most film critics agreed upon was the remarkable absence of A-list stars in most of the summer’s most successful movies, such as *Star Trek* and *The Hangover*. The obvious explanation for this shift is that the studios wanted to save money by not paying big-name actors millions of dollars. This decision, however, had a possibly unintended side effect in that the *movie*, rather than the lead actor, was allowed to be the star. Actors have become such outsized figures that they sometimes drown out the movies that they star in. For instance, *Land of the Lost*, which flopped, could not manage to be anything more than a “Will Ferrel movie.” Conversely, the actors in the summer’s more popular movies, because they were largely unknown, could really convince us that they were their characters. They could disappear into their movies instead of overpowering them, which helped make this summer’s movies so good.
The recession shaped this summer’s movies far beyond the economic sphere, though. The films channeled the culture of the recession in a number of different ways. The most important characteristic uniting them all, though, is that they are all, in their own way, modest. Compare this set of movies to last summer’s defining feature film, *The Dark Knight*. It was an excessive movie for outsized times—too big, too long, and totally overwhelming. That summer, with an election approaching that everyone said was the most important in generations, everything seemed overlade with world-historical significance; it was no coincidence that *The Dark Knight* climbed to such heights, with some younger viewers (according to *Boston Globe* critic Wesley Morris) even wondering whether it was the greatest movie of all time. The Joker, a character who was somehow both ludicrously overacted and frighteningly lifelike, was an embodiment of this excess, and of the grave danger it represented. Like *The Dark Knight*, America in the summer of 2008 felt precariously overgrown, bound to topple at any moment.
As we now know, it *did* topple just a few months later. The recession happened, Barack Obama became our President, by the summer both were both old news. Whereas last summer, terrible and earth-shattering events were looming just around the corner, this summer those earth-shattering events had already happened. We were well into the process of learning to live with their aftermath. A creative writing teacher of mine once said, “Avoid excess, unless excess is the point.” In *The Dark Knight*, excess was indeed the point, which was why it was a great movie despite being so *de trop*—its dangerous instability was what made it such a thrill to watch. This summer the point was to demonstrate prudence and restraint; the phrase of the moment was “cutting back.” Of the six movies I saw, none tried to do more than it could, and each succeeded fantastically by working fully within its modest means—succeeded, not in being controversial or in driving home some sort of message, but just in being satisfying, solid works of craftsmanship, which has always been what makes good summer movies entertaining.
*Star Trek* set the tone for the summer. It was the closest thing 2009 has had so far to a *Dark Knight*—a big, eagerly anticipated addition to a well-established franchise. And, like *The Dark Knight*, it also made some risky moves, including the aforementioned cast of unknowns, and also the liberties it took with the official Trek timeline. But unlike *The Dark Knight*, for which excessiveness was an end unto itself, *Star Trek* did everything it did for one reason and one reason only: to be entertaining. Through scene after scene, things keep happening exactly the way you were hoping they’d happen, even at the expense of believability—which, in summer movies, is not very important anyway. For instance, the scene in which Scotty just so happens to materialize right into tube of water may have been a bit silly, but makes for a great bit of screwball comedy nonetheless. And it is also certainly worth noting that *Star Trek* had none of *The Dark Knight’s* darkness; it was a light, hopeful movie after a several-month spell of gloom. In every way, it was exactly what America needed.
*The Hangover* worked decently as a metaphor for the recession. It’s not such a stretch to imagine all three decades leading up to the crash as one crazy night in Vegas, and the past year as the morning-after when we all wake up hung over and try to figure out what the hell happened. Formally, though, The Hangover showed us that it had fully absorbed the most important lesson of the recession: Don’t write checks you can’t cash. It had the same premise as *Dude, Where’s My Car?*, the archetypal morning-after comedy in which friends wake up after a night of excess and have to solve the ever-deepening mystery of what they did the night before. But in *Dude*, the mystery quickly gets so ridiculous that no amount of explanation could ever tie it all together, and it ends up as nothing more than a stupid shaggy-dog story. *The Hangover*, in contrast, ties all the loose ends together as deftly as a good mystery novel. Both movies demand a massive suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, but only *The Hangover* ultimately delivers on the investment.
*(500) Days of Summer* is an even better recession metaphor: the protagonist gets too “invested” in a relationship with a woman that he knows is not looking for anything serious and then plunges into despair when she inevitably breaks up with him. The way the movie is presented out of chronological order makes the analogy even more evident: It let us see the whole arc of the relationship at once, as though it were plotted on a graph. On a deeper level, though, it was a fairly profound expression of the sort of idealism that ultimately led to the recession. Anyone who called it “this year’s *Juno*” sold it short; it was not a cute indie movie, but rather a movie about a guy who expects reality to be like a cute indie movie and then is devastated when it turns out not to be. It was a movie about what happens when people have unrealistic expectations, be they about love or about real estate loans.
*Julie & Julia* may be a modestly significant historical landmark. Unless I’m forgetting something, it was the first movie about blogging. More to the point, it made itself into a recession movie by using its historical setting, 2002, as a foil for 2009. The aftermath of 9/11, like the recession, was a time when people had lost their sense of security and were desperate to latch onto anything that felt solid and real. And, as Julie points out at the beginning of the movie, what could be more solid and real than cooking? It was a timely reminder that the most basic things in life (like food) are what really matter—that is what more and more people have been saying over the course of the recession. The challenge that Julie sets for herself—to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in one year—is ambitious but not overly ambitious, and she does what it takes to see it through. All the while, Julia Child herself hovers over the action like a Laughing Buddha. She was one of the most indomitable characters I’ve ever seen in any movie ever and a perfect guardian angel figure for these difficult times.
*District 9* looked like a heavy-handed political statement about apartheid or prejudice, but what distinguished it was actually how stunningly apolitical it managed to be. Yes, the aliens were second-class citizens living in a big shantytown in Johannesburg, but the movie did not really invite further comparison, however vague, to historical events. *District 9* was truly notable only as an astoundingly fine piece of filmmaking. It was a brutally gripping action movie that gets started and never once lets up. Moreover, the style of the action was itself notable; it was brutal and gritty to match the perpetually dusty Johannesburg landscape that served as its backdrop. Combined with the jerky handheld cameras that shot many of the early scenes, the film stood in stark contrast to the balletic choreography and editing that has dominated action movies ever since *The Matrix* made them fashionable. Its special effects were no less impressive than those in any other summer action movie, but they felt organic. It made the CGI characters seem real instead of, as is so often the case, making the real actors seem like CGI. Like the recent vinyl revival, *District 9* represented *stylistically* a turn away from the digital and back to the unmediated physicality of the analog. At the same time, however, it managed to take advantage *technically* of the digital medium. In this way, its return to basics approach nicely mirrored the country’s growing preference for organic reality over the elephantine bureaucracy that played a large part in leading us into the recession.
*Up* actually came out much earlier in the summer—between *Star Trek* and *The Hangover*—but I didn’t see it until the end of the summer, and I think it would have made a fitting end-of-the-summer movie. It obviously invites comparison with *WALL-E*, its predecessor in the Pixar catalog and the other “event” movie of the summer of 2008. *Up* and *WALL-E* were both brilliant films, and both received more or less unanimous critical acclaim—but *Up* somehow did so much more quietly. *WALL-E* was a big movie that made a blaring (and controversial) statement about consumerism. Right-wingers and other buzzkills were quick to point out the irony of an anti-consumerist Disney movie. *Up*, on the other hand, was just a simple, entertaining adventure with a profoundly touching love story packed into just the first ten minutes. It was completely apolitical, just doing all the things a good movie should do without trying to make any but the subtlest of statements. My favorite moment in the movie is when the old man throws all of his wife’s old things out of the house so it (yes, the house) will be able to fly again. The meaning is clear: If you want to overcome the spirit of gravity, you need to let go of all the junk that you’ve been holding onto all these years and start traveling light. It was the perfect metaphor for the end of the age of excess and of the new era that is now underway.