As “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” becomes Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie to pass $100 million at the domestic box office, let’s take a moment to appreciate a stinging bit of satire in the film recognizable by anyone who has paid attention to box office figures and multiplex offerings over the past few years.
To clarify: It’s actually a moment after “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” After the story has faded to black and the credits have started to roll, we’re treated to a mid-credits scene — a nice little teaser for those of us who have been trained by a decade of Marvel movies to stay glued to our seats in the hopes of getting a little morsel of information about what’s next for our spandex-clad heroes.
The scene consists of some behind-the-scenes footage of one of the actors in the film hawking Red Apple cigarettes. After extolling the virtues of the brand, which astute audience members will remember having previously seen in “Pulp Fiction” and “The Hateful Eight,” the actor complains about the cardboard cutout chosen to portray them smoking the product. It’s amusing, a nice little capstone for a film that is sneakily funny and serves as an entertaining exit.
But it’s also quietly devastating, a pitch-perfect parody of the films that have dominated box office charts in recent history. Director Quentin Tarantino is simultaneously doing a bit of in-movie world-building — it seems clear at this point that there is an Expanded QTU, one in which Hitler died in a movie theater amid flame and fire and products such as Red Apple have been around for centuries — and real-world mockery.
Because what you’ve just sat through is an advertisement. Sure, it’s a fake ad, like the fake trailers that ran between the two truncated features of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse.” But it is an ad nonetheless. Just as every mid-credits scene in every Marvel movie or “Fast and Furious” movie or DC movie is nothing more than an advertisement for the next installment in a never-ending stream of cinematic product. Just as every mid-credits scene in each of these movies tightens the web between the films, delighting longtime viewers with Easter eggs and joyful little nuggets of connectivity.
We, the moviegoing public, have been trained to sit there and get excited for … advertising. And I can’t help but think that Tarantino is having a small, justified laugh.
The joke is on us, the filmgoers. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is just the second original picture to cross the century mark at the box office this year. The rest of the scoreboard is dominated by the same old, same old. Disney owns five of the top six spots: three comic book movies, two “live action” adaptations of cartoon classics. (“The Lion King” is just animated in a different form, and I refuse to remove those scare quotes.) Animated sequels about dragons and dogs join electrified mouse-cat pocket monsters and electrified lizard monsters on the top of the charts.
Not all of these movies are bad: I quite liked “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” And it should be noted that this is nothing new. In 2018, the 15 highest-grossing films were all based on previously established properties. In 2017, you don’t hit an original property until the 13th-highest-grossing picture.
But there’s still something relatively depressing about the state of modern moviegoing. Whether that malaise stems from audiences being willing to turn out only for franchises and brands that they are familiar with, or studios relying too heavily on said brands and franchises in order to avoid risk, I cannot quite say. At least we still have a handful of inventive and original filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino who can make us laugh at our age’s absurdities.