Just as What Dreams May Come got it through my thick skull that audiences don’t like it when the same characters are played by different actors (for metaphysical reasons, presumably showing the effects of age is okay), I formulated an important theory–humor me, it would be “important” if I actually made movies or if anyone listened to me–from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.
No, no, not “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer”, which is a TV show, but the movie Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, with Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens, Kristy Swanson as Buffy, and Luke Perry at the height of his popularity.
The lesson was this: You can’t make a successful movie where you mercilessly mock the target audience.
Buffy was, in essence, about the triviality of high school life. All those girls who wanted to see Luke Perry got treated to a lesson in how stupid they were. Buffy herself transcends her situation out of necessity, but opportunities for the average teen to do so are relatively scant.
The series took a much gentler approach all around.
I’ve seen this mistake made a number of times: The under-rated Last Action Hero, for example, ruthlessly mocks the tropes of action films, while itself being an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. (The first half does, the second half suffers a little crisis of conscience, and tells us it’s all real, potentially–a position which lacks much credibility after the first half of the film.)
More recently, Josie and the Pussycats overtly trashed the consumer culture and trend-following of teens. It, of course, broke the record for number of on-screen product placements, something which is pretty funny in a “meta” way. But really, does the audience want to be told they’re brainwashed morons?
You can mock your audience, presuming they have a sense of humor. You can’t do it while insulting their intelligence, however. A good example of doing it right is the mild Galaxy Quest, which roundly mocks the sci-fi fan. Science-fiction fans, for all their obsession over trivia and ability to take their childhood passions to the grave, are (broadly) smart and self-deprecating in their humor.
For example, this sketch. (Can’t believe there’s not a better version online.)
Still, if you’re going to deconstruct Sci-Fi tropes, you generally need to replace them with better ones. Sci-Fi fans aren’t really interested in people saying “That’s not the way things are.” They know that. They’re interested in the way things might be.
The choices that Galaxy Quest makes are telling: The Kirk-figure, played by Tim Allen, is a kind of true believer himself (something I doubt of Shatner). In addition, the aliens are geeks themselves, gawky, ungainly engineering types who move awkwardly because–I guess because they’re not comfortable in the human forms they assume. (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, now that I think about it, since it seems to be an illusion versus an actual changing of shape, but we’ll roll with it.)
Of course, the little TV show saves an entire race by serving as a model, and a fan saves the crew from destruction with his knowledge of trivia. In the end, the show is even renewed with the original cast.
When I put it down in black-and-white, it almost seems like pandering.
By contrast, you could look at This is Spinal Tap: a movie which tried to mock heavy metal fans, a great many of whom don’t seem to realize they’re being mocked.