The Contemporary Blockbuster
I had a couple of hours to kill the other week so I saw Monster’s University and was entertained from beginning to end. Here’s a film that tells a story, where the characters have arcs and the climax is justified for containing action – although here it is understated and clever, rather than over-the-top and in-your-face.
You have to commend Pixar, who regularly knock out great movies – movies you can enjoy whether you’re a kid or an adult.
Amazingly, using CGI, Pixar have the facility to be as outrageous and explosive as they want – there’s no limits with CGI, after all – and yet instead, the CGI is just a means to an end, rather than their entire existence.
Several months ago, I mowed through the Die Hard franchise. The original still stands up as an awesome action flick. Sure, it’s bubblegum fare, but it’s entertaining. There’s a story, the characters develop and evolve, you become invested in them and their world, and you root for them to emerge triumphant. Really, that’s all you can ask for, isn’t it?
As the Die Hards go on, the action grows progressively more extraordinary. In fact, you’d consider it breathtaking, if you actually still cared about anybody involved. Sadly, the protagonist (John McLane) is unrecognisable from the original. He’s just a stock action figure now, an homage to who he was in name only.
This has become the template for contemporary Hollywood. Forget the fact that you can stack up five Die Hard movies and point to the original still as – by far and away – being the best, even though it has less action, and those scenes it does contain seem tame by today’s standards. We know which is the superior movie, and yet instead of trying to reproduce it, go in completely the opposite direction.
There was a time that blockbusters were about story. You trusted the audience to become immersed and sit through the developing plot, usually to be wowed by occasional action sequences and to be overwhelmed by some extravaganza at the end. Like Monsters University, the conclusion wasn’t about the protagonist blowing up as many things (and people) as possible. It was another story in itself, the tale of what the protagonist has to achieve for the completion of his goal.
Take Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance. Great story, great action, fantastic conclusion – a conclusion in which the hero, Indiana Jones, surrenders and is tied up whilst the Germans attempt to raise the power of the Ark, only with dire consequences. Given Indy’s wreaked a trail of destruction throughout the movie, you’d expect him to take on a Big Bad here – the ultimate antagonist – and then rescue the girl. Nope. Indy’s powerless throughout the finale.
Superman II has a similarly outstanding ending. Superman fights the villains in Metropolis. They’re evenly matched. In fact, Superman’s outmatched, since it’s three-to-one. Continuing to fight them will lead to his defeat, as well as the deaths of countless innocents. So Superman retreats, lures the villains to the Fortress of Solitude, and outsmarts them into giving up their powers. The filmmakers take a course here that avoids combat and explosiveness and the result is magnificent. It’s another finale that’s about more than a proverbial fistfight.
Of course, the story can deliver that, if it’s delivered well – the (logical) culmination of events which lead to an unavoidable confrontation. Take the granddaddy of blockbusters: Jaws. We spend the whole movie living in fear of what the shark might do. When it does kill or attack, it’s sudden, leaving us to deal with the repercussions of the assault – until the end. Then it’s Chief Brody versus the shark. The whole movie, Brody’s lived in growing terror of the shark threat. Now, his shark expert, Quint, has been eaten; his ally Matt Hooper is also thought dead; and Brody – who has a phobia of the water – must combat the shark while perched upon a sinking ship.
Compare that to now. I’ve seen all three Transformer movies, and I could not recall what their stories were about – something about good Transformers and bad Transformers, and (following a series of little fights) there’s a big fight at the end. The reboot of Spider-Man toyed with the origin of Spider-Man, stuck in a villain because that’s what you need in a superhero movie, and then unleashed with action, finishing with Spidey taking on the Big Bad. Star Trek into Darkness and Man of Steel followed an identical template: set up a loose plot, and then nothing but action – much of it contravening whatever rules these respective universes have established.
Worst of all, these movies make money because they do look amazing, they do sound amazing, and contemporary movie-going audiences just don’t seem to care that they’re shallow, don’t make much sense, and are ultimately forgettable. You have people defending them as great flicks. Take a look at the forums on IMDb.com and read the rationale behind why something like Man of Steel is such a great reimagining of the Superman character, or why Star Trek into Darkness is brilliant.
People just don’t get it. They’ve forgotten how to get it. Why should they even try when the filmmakers have stopped trying themselves?
I like to switch off when watching a movie, but not to the point where I have to switch off my intelligence, ignore the (numerous) plot-holes and the contrived plotting, accept the poor characterisations, and swallow it all as genius because the explosions are pretty and the soundtrack overwhelming and the franchise is deemed cool.
We’ve been reprogrammed into what we’re meant to accept as cinematic entertainment. TV’s getting the great drama with tight plotting, complex characterisations and layered arcs. Movies are now about franchises, about merchandising, about branding. It’s about lots of style, but little substance. And the masses keep lapping it up, enjoying it because superficiality is the standard, and filmmakers have become scared to attempt anything more meaningful for fear of losing their audiences, or just lazy because the formula seemingly guarantees box offices.
I just wish they realised they could have it all in a blockbuster – franchises, merchandises, branding, cutting edge special effects.
And stories, too.