The watchword for the current Christmas movie season is caution.

Relentlessly, in movie after movie, Hollywood relies on known quantities -- known stories, known characters, known stars and big-name directors -- so much so that the product tie-in between "Santa Claus: The Movie" and McDonald's seems strangely superfluous. "Santa Claus," after all, like the movies surrounding it, scrupulously obeys the law of fast-food -- if people know what to expect beforehand, they'll flock to it, even if the product is second-rate.

It wasn't always this way. The people who founded Hollywood -- men like Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Karl Laemmle and Jack Warner -- were uneducated, generally boorish and sometimes violent, but they knew what they liked and were willing to wager all they had that the public would like it, too.

They were risk-takers, and they got rich. What's wrong with the New Hollywood isn't that it's too interested in making money, but quite the opposite -- the studios just want to limit their losses. A sequel, a big-name star, is a kind of insurance policy, and that's the problem with the known quantity: you're looking at the floor, not the ceiling. It's not just balance-sheets-as-esthetics, but bottom-line thinking at its most niggling, timid and insidious, the kind of thinking that was anathema to the old Hollywood moguls, who left their bottom lines back East with their dry goods stores.

Caution has thrown us into the midst of the worst Christmas season in memory, an unmitigated disaster that has produced thus far one nicely made, but flawed, family fable ("One Magic Christmas"), two shallow entertainments ("Young Sherlock Holmes," "The Jewel of the Nile"), nothing memorable and much junk. The films that remain, due for release next Friday -- "Out of Africa," "The Color Purple," "A Chorus Line" and "Enemy Mine" -- promise little relief. It's a fitting conclusion to a year that will leave critics scrambling to fill their 10-best lists and that has kept the public at home.

What was once the arena of the brawling entrepreneur has become the nave of the number-cruncher. In the words of Louis B. Mayer, "Include me out."

As production costs have increased, Christmas has come to seem less and less the land of bonanza. At this time of year, advertising costs, on television and in print, are at their highest; simultaneously, competition among studios gives exhibitors increased leverage, allowing them to cut better deals than the studios would hope. And at Christmas, a movie can only run six weeks (at most) before kids, roughly a third of the audience, return to school, and adults return to work.

Partly in response, the studios will only release 12 movies this Christmas (as opposed to 18 last year). But the primary response is the "presale" -- movies that are perceived to have a built-in audience. Two ("Rocky IV," "The Jewel of the Nile") are sequels to smash hits; two are Christmas movies ("Santa Claus: The Movie," "One Magic Christmas"); four are being marketed through the marquee value of the names attached to them, whether it be Redford and Streep ("Out of Africa"), Chase and Aykroyd ("Spies Like Us") or Spielberg ("Young Sherlock Holmes," which he "presents," and "The Color Purple," which he directed).

"A Chorus Line" is based on the long-running Broadway play; "Clue" is drawn from the popular board game. The only exceptions to the seasonal rule are "Enemy Mine," a thriller starring Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, and the lamentable "White Nights."

In short, the cinema of caution.

Predictably, the presold movie induces boredom and a contempt for the audience, in the filmmaker a phenomenon that's nowhere more apparent than in "Spies Like Us." Director John Landis is so uninterested in the material that he amuses himself with various inside jokes and cameos of his director friends; Chevy Chase, as one critic has quipped, can't even be bothered to shave in the morning; the screen writers, likewise, don't exert themselves unduly with such basics as narrative or even good gags.

The characterizations in "Spies Like Us" aren't meant to breathe, to have any sense of rounded life -- they're just supposed to register as quickly as possible, so that the audience, in true presold style, knows immediately what to expect. A general appears, his face screwed up in sinister glee, and you think: "He's an evil militarist plotting the end of the world." Chase appears, watching television on his computer terminal at work while listening to his Walkman, and you think: "He's a lovable screw-up driving his boss crazy." A beautiful woman appears, and you think: "One of the heroes will have an affair with her." The actual working out of the plot comes almost as an afterthought -- in your mind, you've run through it in an instant.

"Spies Like Us" is a vanity production in which you're meant to respond reflexively to an off-screen personality, not an on-screen character. Chase: ha ha. Aykroyd: ho ho. They're there, not to tickle your funny bone, but to remind you that they've tickled your funny bone before. But this is the season for vanity productions. Like "Spies Like Us," "Rocky IV" isn't a movie at all; take out the rock videos, the flashbacks to old "Rocky" movies and the fight sequences, and you've got about 15 minutes.

In the original "Rocky," the realistic milieu, a world of shabby walk-ups and soiled walk-ups, was meticulously etched (by director John Avildsen) to provide a foundation for the fable; by contrast, "Rocky IV" is highly (if ineptly) stylized (by director Sylvester Stallone), self-consciously mythic from the start. The characters in "Rocky" were losers and more human for it: Mickey was a maudlin failure with pockets full of old newspaper clippings, Paulie was a pig and even Rocky himself was "a leg-breaker for a second-rate loanshark." "Rocky IV," on the other hand, is peopled, not with characters, but icons -- everything in the movie refers to something outside the movie. And the whole point of "Rocky" was that he loses the fight, but, in a Capra-esque way, it almost doesn't matter, since he's gone the distance and, more importantly, has won Adrian. What was beautiful about the movie, in other words, was that it precluded a sequel, since all that was left was for Rocky to win.

Since the logic of a sequel is to return us to characters who are already familiar, movies like "Rocky IV" or "Jewel of the Nile" put the exploration of character -- the real business of a popular film -- on the back burner. To fill the void, they resort to all sorts of gimmickry, whether it be the rock videos and frantic camera effects of "Rocky IV" or the big-budget production numbers of "Jewel": a fighter plane crashing through houses and ultimately exploding, an elaborate chase on a train, a man walking through flames.

These movie makers aren't interested in making movies -- they want to make machines, and none so much as Spielberg. The real products of the Spielberg assembly line are not the movies that bear his "Steven Spielberg Presents" imprint, but a series of previously idiosyncratic directors he has die cast in his own image. It's hard to tell that Barry Levinson, the director of "Young Sherlock Holmes," was once the director of "Diner," for what's come out is just another Spielberg machine, complete with an underground pyramid, a virgin sacrifice and an Egyptian death cult, with flying bicycles and Rube Goldberg rescues and the teasing hint of a sequel (which makes it, I suppose, presale squared).

The point is not whether the special effects are any good (in fact, they're masterful), but whether they have any place in a movie that should be about two boys in an English public school. There's no sense that the effects are fracturing the intimacy, because intimacy isn't what "Young Sherlock Holmes" is about, even though the indestructibility in our imagination of our old intimacy with Watson and Holmes lends the film whatever charm it has. There are inklings, in the disappointing box office of "Young Sherlock" and the relative failure of last summer's "Goonies," that by promiscuously appending his name above the title of second-rate stuff, Spielberg is squandering the magic his name once automatically promised; that giving the people what the want isn't what the people want anymore.

The cardinal point of decadence is art that (and let's be French here) "deconstructs itself" -- that contains within itself its own contradiction, that purports one thing and epitomizes the opposite. In which context our current film culture, presold or not, reveals that we have entered a decadent phase, in which the cracks have become canyons.

Nothing is so regular as Hollywood's insistent critique of Christmas commercialism, all the while the producers are ladling home the simoleons -- a phenomenon that comes in a peculiarly virulent form in "Santa Claus: The Movie." The central conflict in "Santa Claus" is between an evil toymaker and an elf who wants to give toys away for free; of course, the movie is being used to promote a series of toys now available in stores; it's also riddled with product tie-ins, including the aforementioned McDonald's hamburger (which reportedly netted the producers $30 million).

More centrally, the movie is itself a kind of elegy inspired by F.A.O. Schwarz, elaborately decorated with toy machines (run by doll-like elves) that make other toys, scored (by Henry Mancini) with what sounds like department store Muzak, spangled with glitter until the eye aches -- just when you thought you'd gone to the movies to get out of the stores, you're back in them.

The movie is a prime example of the kind of thing it decries. It deconstructs itself.

"White Nights" is a cri de coeur for artistic freedom, yet it's hard to imagine a movie less artistically free, from the way it tries to make Gregory Hines' tap and Mikhail Baryshnikov's ballet more accessible to a youth audience with thumping rock music and incongruous martial-arts motifs to the crude way it tries to exploit America's turn to the right with rote anti-Soviet dialectics. "Spies Like Us" claims to be about two rebels, though it couldn't be more in lockstep with Hollywood formula.

The most egregious example of this (and pretty much anything else) is "Rocky IV." On its face, the movie exalts primitivism (Rocky trains with heavy stones) over technology (Drago trains with high-tech Nautilus machines), but perhaps no other movie has used film technology, from camera effects like freeze-frames, slow motion, shock cuts and insistent close-ups to overmiked sound, in such a brutal, bullying way.

"Rocky IV" claims to be a piece of flag-waving patriotism, but, taken together with "Rambo," it espouses the contrary. When Stallone identifies the Soviets as evil because of their love of high technology, he's giving them exactly the same role the American government played in "Rambo." And in the movie's climax, the Moscow crowd leaps to its feet in acclaiming Rocky, spurring a Gorbachev look-alike and the attending Politburo to do the same, while Rocky mumbles something about how he changed, and they can change, too.

Now, far be it from me to accuse Stallone of being a Soviet dupe, but this sounds suspiciously like the relativist line of a left-wing softie: The governments of both the United States and the Soviet Union are equally bad and in the same way; the Soviet people are just like us, and they respond to the same things; the Soviet government is responsive to its people and could change if only we'd change, too.

The precise chemistry between caution and decadence in the culture at large is mysterious, but the synergy between them in the current crop of Christmas movies is clear. When the cautious filmmaker adopts the strategy of the presale, he's not creating, just recycling, just as the classically decadent filmmaker, obsessed with what's gone before, diddles with old forms. What we're seeing, in other words, is the interface between schlock and postmodernism, the way the economics of the familiar blend into the esthetics of despair, at a time when America hungers for a new romanticism.

The heck with movies that rake over old embers -- give us some movies that burn.