I went to see Disney's The Lone Ranger at the SilverCity Cineplex movie theatre last night, wanting to catch it before it closes. It was a good-looking production featuring interesting portrayals of the iconic characters of my youth, and it provided some strong moments typical of the western genre. Still, my overall reaction was: "It's trying too hard to be a hit."
Contrast this to the crazy-wild interest and success of Sharknado, which played on TV last week (SyFy and Space). This was utter B-movie fare: sharks swept up by a tornado and dumped into flooded California. According to this movie, your best defense against a tornado waterspout is to have a chainsaw handy in case sharks rain down on you.
The key word here is underperforming. While there was a lot riding on Silver, there was less sink or swim for Sharknado. Sharknado was intended to be over-the-top and silly. The producers made a movie they wanted to see. Based on the Facebook and Twitter response, others wanted to see it too.
(To The Lone Ranger's credit, the ticket-seller said the film had sold out the night before and the theatre was pretty packed when I was there.)
The Lone Ranger had its over-the-top moments too, with a horse that defied gravity and a Saloon Madam's leg that doubled as a firearm (think Cherry in Planet Terror). But rebooting a treasured icon for modern viewers is a tricky business, and while it has worked for some films like Star Trek (2009), The Lone Ranger suffers upfront from an audience disconnect to the "western experience." What interest is there for today's kids in the need to build a physical cross-nation connection (the railway) when they can pick up their phone and reach anyone anywhere around the world? The Twitter generation is also more of a collective mindset, more Borg than John Wayne, so the notion of a "Lone Ranger" who will right wrongs may not have the same appeal or impact as it did for young audiences in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
So, why would Sharknado, which also had a 1950s vibe, fare so well? As absurd as its premise may be, Sharknado likely resonated with viewers who recently experienced mass flooding in the US midwest, Canada and other disasters. The best science fiction and horror movies exploit the fears of the time. The price was right too: free to watch or PVR. In addition, while movie theatres politely lecture patrons to turn off their cell phones during screenings, the home-viewing audience can partake of alcoholic beverages, tweet and FB post to their heart's delight during the broadcast. This can be seen as equivalent to watching flicks from the comfy seats of big-finned cars at the drive-ins of the 1950s.
Going back to Star Trek, it's interesting to note that Gene Roddenberry pitched and sold the original TV concept as "Wagon Train to the stars." The western was in its heyday. People were connected to that genre's theme. The Lone Ranger may yet ride again, when the time is right for a white-hat hero rather than a chainsaw-wielding one.