Well, Jonah Lehrer, the nice young man pictured here, has an interesting piece in Wired that suggests an explanation for the success of this movie. In fact, it potentially explains a much wider phenomenon. Ever since the premier of Star Wars in 1976, I think I've noticed a dieing out of thought-provoking, intellectually interesting movies, and a growing abundance of stupifying gobs of eyeball candy like Avatar. I can remember the day when they could make a quiet, didactic think-piece like Twelve Angry Men and actually make money. It's hard to imagine anyone doing that today.
Lehrer's explanation is suggested by an experiment by a series of experiments. The first one:
The experiment was simple: they showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie ("The Good, The Bad and the Ugly") and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, the scientists found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is "Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision".) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on.Across the audience, these regions of the brain "clicked together" in scenes that triggered them. What about the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with logical analysis? Well, that's just it: there was no clicking together there.
Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing" - and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound while wearing 3-D glasses - we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself in the movie:The idea is that movies, especially the eye-popping kind enabled by new technologies really do rot your brain. This could explain the progressive stupefaction of film that we see today.Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom ''losing yourself in the act'' receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.
Or, the process could be even broader than that, something that is built into cultures of certain sorts. Arguably, what I see happening to movies has happened before, long before moving pictures were invented:
The games of the circus and the amphitheater absorbed the interest and coarsened the taste of the public, and drama died in the arena, another martyr to Roman holidays.Through emphasis on acting and scenery rather than on plot or thought, the drama gradually yielded the stage to mimes and pantomimes.Source: Will Durant, Ceasar and Christ, Volume 3 of the Story of Civilization.