Hot cars in the movies? We can't seem to get enough of 'em. Take, for example, "Furious 7," the latest iteration of the muscle car franchise, opening Friday. The basic story might follow Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his "family" (the late Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) as they battle bad guy Jason Statham and terrorist mastermind Djimon Hounsou, but really, it's all about the horsepower: Dodge Challenger, Dodge Charger R/T, an armored Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and many more. Put the pedal to the metal, and go. Fast cars equals power equals speed equals pure movie enjoyment.
"Embedded in the word 'movies' is the notion of movement -- cars (or planes, trains, horses or rockets) move the story from Point A to Point B," says Thelma Adams, movie editor at New York entertainment website Zealnyc.com. "Automobiles are literally a vehicle of storytelling. And if you want that story to be more exciting, mount it on a fast, shiny car that most of the audience could never afford."
Cars in movies represent "freedom, the physical excitement of driving, but there's also this sense of a progressive mastery over the technology, that plays into that sense of power and control," says David Blanke, author of "Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of American Car Culture, 1900-1940." "And there's the sense that it doesn't matter if you're male, female, old or young, there's a relative equality built into the notion that once you've trained yourself how to drive, there's an equality built into the technical requirements of the automobile."
There's also this: Although plenty of other countries have driving cultures, the car movie is pretty much an American phenomenon. Autos have been featured in films going back to the early days of the silents -- the Keystone Kops comedies of the early 20th century feature the police riding around in various forms of motorized transport -- and there's even a 1927 feature, "The First Auto," about the transition from horses to the horseless carriage.
"We are a car-centric culture," says Leslie Kendall, chief curator at Los Angeles' Petersen Automotive Museum. "You think of broad stretches of eight-lane highways that stretch for thousands of miles, and it's not like that in Europe or Asia. America is a younger country, and cars are very young in terms of their history, and we've lived with cars for a greater percentage of our history than any other nation."
Adds Blanke: "The love affair and this sense of freedom provided by the auto is unique in American culture. Part of that is the size of our country. It is connected to the size and infrastructure of this country, and the U.S. was a more egalitarian country when the car was first introduced."
But not just any film featuring mega-horsepower and outrageous stunts makes for good viewing. When it comes to the "Fast and Furious" franchise, for example, "the biggest thing is the characters," says "Furious 7" director James Wan. "I know people love the action and crazy stunts, but it's the characters that keep people coming back. If you can ground the human element of the characters and make them relatable, then you can put these characters in the most outlandish situations."
Meanwhile, Blanke says that "Invariably, what I'm looking for in a film is a character that changes. Bad car movies are ones in which the car doesn't do anything to change the character, where the auto becomes almost a weapon."
With this in mind, Blanke says the 1967 classic "Bonnie and Clyde" is a top car movie, "because the automobile is very much the way they became Bonnie and Clyde. It's there in the beginning, it represents freedom, and they're also killed in a car."
For Wan, the quintessential car flick is Steven Spielberg's 1971 "Duel," in which motorist Dennis Weaver is terrorized by a monstrous oil tanker, whose driver is never seen. "What makes it so great to me is having a human character you can relate to," he says. "The car movie on its own, if it's just about the car, you might as well be filming a piece of furniture."
All well and good, but there's no doubt the "F&F" franchise has found the perfect mix of humanity and technology. (With filming not yet complete, Walker died in a November 2013 car crash. After his death, shooting was delayed for rewrites, and his brothers Caleb and Cody were then used as stand-ins to complete the actor's remaining scenes.)
"The fact it has actually grown with the characters means that it's different than other car movies," says Wan. "It has been able to change with the times, navigate that cultural taste we've been going through. They are similar to other car movies on the surface, with cool-looking cars that drive really fast, car chases, they are similar in that respect -- but that's just on the surface."