'Jupiter Ascending' and 'The Last Witch Hunter' Deserve Better, or, Why TV Cult Films Are Dying
Lots of what you see on TV is movies, but there are fewer of them going around. And both technology and the film industry are turning away from the tradition that once made cable essential to one's cinematic education.
The Ninth Gate is viewed as an embarrassment in the Roman Polanski catalogue. It made a modest profit, and was poorly reviewed. In the canon of devil-worshipper mystery movies, it’s way down on the list; certainly, it ain’t no Rosemary’s Baby. Yet it was, for years, a go-to rerun film on channels like Syfy and TNT. I will always remember every minute of it.
Fluke hits like The Fifth Element and Stargate got to preserve their legacy for years after the statute of limitations might have worn off, whether on TBS, TNT, or Syfy. The latter installments of The Mummy series, one of the weirder action franchises of the past twenty years, lived on in infamy, and, for a time, even the second Riddick film. In the comedy vein, it was easy to see Down Periscope or Joe Dirt any given Sunday (or, for that matter, Any Given Sunday). Certainly, they were worth sampling during commercial breaks.
Nowadays, looking at the listing of a site like TNT shows that big franchise movies have taken over cable as they have the industry. And insofar as breakthrough hits replay, they are sure bets. Films take less of an investment for cable channels, and present more surefire returns than reruns of shows — in an age where networks have been caught speeding up Friends reruns to fit in more commercials — so you actually have big-screen fare going around than ever before on cable, despite the increasingly ludicrous original programming boom on TV and streaming services over the last few years.
But though there is more cinema on cable, it is the same established movies, over and over, and mostly, big franchise films are the gold standard. X-Men, Lord of the Rings films and the new Batman series are everywhere.
There are only a few stray unusual apples — maybe an Olympus Has Fallen, or a Red, or some other modest box-office action hit that you didn’t know was a hit soaking up some rerun sunshine for a time.
In my eyes, there’s perfectly reasonable explanation for this: not enough slightly misbegotten, one-off films are being made. Outside of the issue that so much of the market is dominated by endless franchises and reboots, the number of movies studios turn out a year shrinks drastically every year, and therefore the selection of films.
The silliest and most anomalous big-budget, non-franchise action blockbusters of this year — for my money, Jupiter Ascending and The Last Witch Hunter — will not see their day in cable court, though they would have been perfect for the job in the early 2000s. You can watch Jupiter Ascending starting at the moment the ball drops on 2016, but you’ll have to be exploring premium Cinemax channels. These would-be cult hits will become movies, if they’re lucky, to watch drunk on Netflix, but gone will be the pleasant experience of having sat through 20 random minutes full of Eddie Redmayne screaming in an emphysema voice — incidentally, one of the most entertaining performances I saw in theaters this year.
We can no longer sample in the way we used to. If a movie doesn’t grab us in its very beginning, we will scroll back to the main “Recommended for You” Netflix screen and pick something we can deal with better.
After the last cord is cut, gone is the beautiful tyranny of cable.
So many worthy weird apples will fade into obscurity. Older popular films of the golden era of cable will still play on TV, but they are true ol’ reliables — Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption or Mrs. Doubtfire — and increasingly, there are less of them. No movies build their reputation, or notoriety, in reruns anymore.
In today’s non-premium-channel cable listings I caught a glimpse of a Meet Joe Black and a Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, but outside of that, little in the way of a pleasant surprise. TBS is Hangover-dominated; I have to wait for New Year’s night for an Along Came a Spider screening. VH1 is playing it safe with The Breakfast Club. Fuse’s Starship Troopers franchise marathon is a welcome sight, but it’s clearly a one-off boon for the day. Cable cinema is not the rich, multivalent world it once was.
Sure, the medium itself will someday die, but before that — in this era of low attention spans — we will bury the cable cult film, languishing in its death bed as we speak: the one you remember simply because it was always there when you were bored. Now, you’ll find these films exclusively on demand — even cable providers are finding increasingly confusing on demand solutions — and chances are you won’t have the patience to get five minutes in.