In the forthcoming movie Anti-Life, Bruce Willis plays the leader of a roughneck crew of mechanics tasked with saving the remnants of humanity from the claws of a murderous shape-shifting alien. In another age – say, 25 years ago – there is a chance that Anti-Life would have wound up as the seventh or eighth biggest film of the year. However this is 2021, and Anti-Life looks destined to become yet another miserable, unloved video-on-demand (VOD) offering that primarily exists as a vehicle for Bruce Willis to sleepwalk to his paycheque.
Or at least that would be the case if the cinemas were open. But they’re not, so Anti-Life finds itself on an equal pegging with every other movie that comes out. Because now all movies, be they compromised blockbusters or terrible late-period Bruce Willis filler items, are VOD movies. Regardless of quality, they are destined to be flopped on to the same dreary streaming menu. At time of writing, the “top new releases” section on Rakuten includes Wonder Woman 1984, The New Mutants, an Anthony Mackie/Jamie Dornan double-header that could be about anything, a documentary positing the theory that we all live in a computer simulation, and a film called Jiu Jitsu, where Nicolas Cage beats up some aliens with a sword.
This is the new movie landscape, and it’s a level playing field. Now that we don’t have to sneak off work or hire babysitters to catch a movie at the cinema, all films will be judged on the same criteria. Sometimes that criteria is: “I’ve heard good things about this.” Other times it’s: “Screw it, there’s nothing else on and I want to watch Nicolas Cage wang a sword about to pay off his tax bill.”
What I’m trying to say is this: it isn’t completely implausible to assume that Anti-Life will be a hit. It will make as much money as Wonder Woman at the cinema, which is to say nothing at all, and the stuck-at-home population may well be so starved of entertainment that they want to see what Bruce Willis is up to, if only out of morbid curiosity.
In the spirit of public service, I should point out that this is a bad idea – because Anti-Life is cheap and dull, and Willis seems like he’s phonetically repeating all his lines into a void. But people might still watch it, just as they might watch Eye for an Eye, the forthcoming John Travolta detective movie that seems like the byproduct of an administrative snafu whereby the entire production budget was accidentally spent on wigs. Or Willy’s Wonderland, where (and I’d like to clarify that this is a real film that actually exists), Nicolas Cage has a bare-knuckle fistfight with a bloodthirsty beret-wearing crocodile mannequin in a haunted theme park.
When all of these films land on VOD services, they’ll land with precisely the same impact as a blockbuster. The only thing separating Willy’s Wonderland from, say, Godzilla vs Kong is the size of its publicity budget. And, arguably, even that doesn’t matter too much at the moment. Both films will be sharing a landing page on a streaming site. It’s a binary decision: King Kong punching a big crocodile or Cage punching a big crocodile.
With that in mind, this could become a golden age for fading legacy stars forced to slum it on VOD. Now that that’s the only way to watch new releases, these unfashionable old-timey workhorses have suddenly found themselves back in the game. Maybe Boss Level, a “death-loop action thriller”, will prove to be Mel Gibson’s gateway back to the A-list. Maybe Original Gangster, a film about an orphan in gangland London, will provide the shot in the arm for Steve Guttenberg that has been absent for the last 20 years. Maybe Nemesis, potentially the most generic Billy Murray flick ever made, will drag Nick Moran’s career back to his 1990s heyday.
Sure, this might all be a fleeting phenomenon, either because the cinemas reopen or all blockbusters start being released straight to streaming. But now, even if this only lasts for another six weeks or so, this broken new landscape means that there’s a very good chance that Nicolas Cage could regain his crown as the biggest goddamn movie star in the world.