The most depressing (and difficult) part of a trade critic’s job is predicting how any given film will fare at the box office. How often have you read a Variety review that scolds a movie for being an epic travesty, then goes on to forecast how it will set the box office ablaze — or, conversely, one that extols an art film’s many virtues before admitting that it’s dead meat commercially?
What a welcome surprise, therefore, to see this weekend’s B.O. results, where the good movie wins (“The Conjuring” earned an impressive $41.5 million) and the lousy one bombs (“R.I.P.D.” eked out just $12.8 million on 51 fewer screens). But why exactly did audiences choose “The Conjuring” over “R.I.P.D.”?
The knee-jerk answer is quality, though it’s seldom so simple. “The Conjuring” is the real deal: A well-made haunted house movie full of genuine claw-the-armrest scares. New Line knew what it had and strategically responded by holding word of mouth screenings for months. The production outfit even agreed to premiere the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, knowing reviews would run more than a month before it opened (I have seldom seen Justin Chang more ecstatic than he was in his Variety rave). “R.I.P.D.,” on the other hand, did not screen for critics until the night before it opened. Scott Foundas’ review amounts to a charitable “the pic itself isn’t quite the calamity some portended.”
But audiences go to awful movies en masse all the time, including many far worse than “R.I.P.D.” In this case, I suspect it comes down to how the two films deal with death. No issue vexes people like the admission of their own mortality, as anthropologist Ernest Becker argued in “The Denial of Death” (a handy meaning-of-life tome for those interested in such things). “The Conjuring” respects our fear by inviting us to stare death straight in its ugly-doll face, while “R.I.P.D.” makes a mockery of the afterlife.
Director James Wan gets it: Audiences want to be scared. As Becker argued, we have doubts about how brave we would be if confronted with death, and (to take it one step further) scary movies offer a chance to test our resolve vicariously. It’s the same reason we ride roller coasters, thinking maybe this time the car will stop at the top of the loop and dump all of its passengers onto the pavement below, but instead we emerge at the other end having faced our fears.
At the screening of “The Conjuring” I attended, the New Line publicity department set up night-vision cameras to record the audience’s terrified reactions; for a split second, my mind panicked as I considered the possibility that I might literally die of fright in the theater. (All told, I held up pretty well, especially compared to the grown man sitting beside me, who screamed longer and louder than its six little-girl characters all the way through the movie.)
“R.I.P.D.” is another matter. The movie barely engages with its own concept, which it treats as a lousy joke. Right off the bat, cute cop Ryan Reynolds gets shot by his partner, and before he can even process what’s happened, he’s sucked up into the sky and plunked down in a surreal job interview. The gist: go to hell or enlist in the R.I.P.D., a law enforcement agency tasked with tracking down and arresting “deados” — basically, random people who died but refused to give up their bodies (a transparent twist on “Men in Black,” with overripe corpses instead of closet aliens hiding among us).
The movie provides some opportunities for comedy, courtesy of Jeff Bridges and Mary-Louise Parker, as well as quite a bit of cartoony CGI, but it never gives audiences a reason to care. The main characters are already dead, and instead of letting Reynolds attend to unfinished business (an approach that worked romantic wonders in “Ghost”) or explaining how and why other souls manage to stick around, it goes barreling off toward a big, dumb effects-driven finale.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that people are necessarily so self-aware when making their moviegoing decisions, but if confronted with the choice between a tightly wound thriller that helps them cope with their subconscious fears and a bit of escapism that openly pokes fun at mortality, it’s a no-brainer. Lucky for audiences, “The Conjuring” also happens to be a really good movie.
Which film did you see this weekend, and how did you pick it?