The cash machine that is "Avatar" proves once again that spectacle never goes out of style. Although we pay lip service to the virtues of intelligence in entertainment, what we really like is to sit back and marvel at the greatest bells and whistles Hollywood can buy.
Not only that, we want the next big thing to be harder, faster, even more mind-blowing than what came before.
Yet how far can we push the envelope? Is there a line, or will our senses grow so numbed that our personal moral compasses go permanently haywire?
In his new novel, "The Extra," Michael Shea goes all in on cynicism.
He envisions a Hollywood in which "live action" is quite literally that -- action scenes resulting in actual death. Productions are so brutal, violent and "real" that the concept of simple "snuff" films has come to seem like Disney fluff.
A harsher L.A.
Shea sets his novel in the Los Angeles of the near future. It's pretty bleak.
The city has been subdivided geographically according to class: poor and poorer. Those who live in the deepest poverty reside in the Zoo; the middle-class live in the 'Rise, but it's hardly a picnic for them either.
In such a world, literature is scarce and 'Risers Curtis and Japh hawk books on the black market to make ends meet. That's just a part-time gig, between long hours spent watching their own backs. Yet though the living is hard, the landscape is often lush, a side effect of the obliteration of half the city's population and homes.
Still, life is cheap and people are desperate, which is where Hollywood comes in. Or, more accurately, Panoply Studios, which offers the downtrodden a crack at the American Dream -- as extras in the studio's latest big-budget vid.
Of course, there's one small catch: The job involves surviving two hours on set with Anti Personnel Properties (APPs), mechanical monsters that are programmed to kill and eat whoever they come upon.
Survival's a crapshoot, but like the song says, when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. And if you make it through, there's a bonus that'll set you up for life. Plus a wad of cash for every monster that you can bag.
"The Extra" is mostly a pulpy comic book that's equal parts bromance, over-the-top Hollywood satire and blood-spewing horror tale.
It's dark and ridiculous, but like any death match story worth its salt, it traffics in just enough plausibility to make us feel unsettled. After all, it's hardly out of the question that one day we might pay money to sit in a dark room and watch people die for our amusement.
Staring bleakly at their own dead-end lives, Curtis and Japh join the cattle call. They're in search of respect, the prospect of big bucks and the affections of righteous Zoo girl Jool, your basic hard-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside female lead.
Thousands of extras will battle APPs, but, of course, the real monsters are behind the scenes.
At the top of the despicable heap is producer-director Val Margolian, regarded as "the greatest living vid director" for having spawned the "live action" genre and its accompanying box-office windfall.
Margolian's an auteur without a conscience, rationalizing away each senseless death as the price of art. "The people you were watching were having life as real as it got," Shea writes, "dancing on the border between life and death. . . . Val and his imitators had made possible hundreds of thousands of deaths."
Now, though, Val's become a bit of a diva, and the crew has plotted his comeuppance. Trouble's coming from all corners, especially the studio execs and protégés who are ready to push him aside in order to take cinema to its next logical step: humans killing other humans in war re-creation films.
As the extras fight for their lives, the behind-the-scenes bloodlust transforms the book from sci-fi bombast into a deliciously depraved morality tale.
Sure, "The Extra" is brutally over the top, and its characters function more as types than flesh and blood. But Shea's broad strokes are pretty vibrant and never less than fully entertaining.
You know, it's a spectacle. Can't wait to see the movie.
Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.