Whining About Blockbusters: Please Don’t Save the World Anymore!

Blockbusters

Here’s my first response to a pop-culture question submitted here. If you have a pop-culture question you’d like me to answer, let me know on Facebook, Twitter or the blog!

“Do you think Hollywood is moving towards acton movies with substance like Pacific Rim or sticking with the norm?” – Jordan-Marie

First of all, I would question your classification of Pacific Rim as an action movie with substance. To me, Pacific Rim represents the ideal version of a dumb summer blockbuster: it’s noisy and silly, its characters are thinly drawn and its special effects are all-consuming, but Guillermo Del Toro injects the movie with a genuine thrill of invention and sense of fun that other big-budget spectacles have lacked this summer. Hollywood studios have been forced to double down on the gargantuan action thrillers that we commonly think of as blockbusters because of a need to please the widest possible constituency both at home and overseas, where profits have been higher than ever. The movies with “substance” (complex themes, resonance with contemporary events and ideas, characters who challenge stereotypes, unconventional story structures) have been increasingly relegated to the fall season to take advantage of Oscars and other awards opportunities, which boost prestige and look attractive in advertising campaigns.

But I wouldn’t despair too much about the state of blockbusters. As Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out in a fascinating piece for RogerEbert.com last month, even the most mind-numbing movies of this summer have grappled with interesting ideas, even at a very subtextual and perhaps unconscious level. And as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas pointed out in a sobering talk about the state of movies earlier this summer, audiences will eventually tire of the same formulas repeated over and over again without variation or invention – we just haven’t reached that point yet.

For my money, I’d love to redefine what has now become the norm for “summer” movies – remember when romantic comedies used to be a big part of the summer movie landscape? Small-scale suspense? Family comedies? And what about movies starring women? When Sex and the City, The Proposal and particularly Bridesmaids racked up “surprising” box-office success, many people speculated that more female-driven movies would be placed in the summer as counterprograming to the male-skewing superhero films. (Of course, those superhero films aren’t as male-skewing as they used to be.) Yet, with the exception of The Heat, this summer’s well-regarded female-driven movies (Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine) have been confined to arthouse cinemas in major metropolitan areas. I would even welcome a few of the prestige films we now associate with autumn (big-name directors, sterling casts, historical or topical subject matter) as an antidote to the mind-numbing excesses that plague the least skillfully made action films. Movies are expensive – if versions of the same movie seem to be coming out every week, I for one will be less inclined to shell out money to see each new one.

Mainstream Hollywood should take a lesson or two from the movie that many people cite as the first summer blockbuster: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Even though that movie is often blamed for initiating the unrelenting focus on big-budget spectacle during the dog days of summer, that movie defies many of the laziest conventions of its successors. The actors (Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw) weren’t classically handsome or proven box-office draws. The movie’s biggest special effect, the shark, doesn’t appear until the climax of the movie. And the stakes are smaller but no less affecting: it’s easier to fear for the lives of three people we’ve come to know over the course of two hours than to constantly muster the energy to be bothered by the looming demise of the human race again. I know that superheroes save the world, and that robots beat monsters. Show me something I don’t know.

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