Monday, May 19, 2014

In defense of the blockbuster, part 4: Accessibility and quality

Here we are at the last of my points in defense of blockbuster movies! Without further or do, let's get started.

6) They are the most accessible type of film.

This is a minor point, so I won't spend too long talking about it, especially because I felt like I've touched on a few of these points in previous installments. The fact of the matter is, blockbusters are the most accessible type of film because they are so popular. Unless you are with a person you know to be an indie film fan, it is much easier to ask a person if they've seen a recent blockbuster than it is to ask if they've seen a recent foreign film. Blockbusters are conversation starters, but more than that, they are something we can all potentially have in common. So many people see them that it's pretty easy to talk about them, share opinions about them, etc.

But more than that, blockbusters are often a first step into understanding films and filmmaking for young people interested in going into the business. Most people's exposure to movies are something like Disney movies, or Star Wars, or something along those lines that are much more likely to be blockbusters. No five-year-old starts out their cinematic experience by sitting down and watching The Seventh Seal, for instance.

The man in the black cloak says it's time for a nap-nap!

Blockbusters provide a primary education into film, a chance for aspiring filmmakers to start simple before experimenting with more critically lauded material. This is why so many mainstream directors praise blockbuster movies for getting them interested in film. For example, this documentary, entitled The Force is With Them, shows directors like Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and John Singleton talking about the profound impact Star Wars had on their lives and aspirations to be professional filmmakers. Everyone has to start somewhere, and blockbusters have a way of inspiring young people to work hard on their dreams like few other movies can. But more than that, they are something universal, works of art and entertainment that we can guarantee at least a few people around us have seen and will be interested in, which can start conversations, friendships, and anything in between.

7) Today's blockbusters are better than ever...?

In the late 80s, two well-established, popular, and acclaimed franchises released new installments. The first was 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, following on the heels of the disappointment of 1983's Superman III.

Yup. The one where the Man of Steel teamed up with everyone's favorite superhero, Richard Pryor...

Superman IV followed Christopher Reeve's Superman on a mission to rid the world of nuclear weapons... and do battle with someone called Nuclear Man? Who had a mullet? And also Gene Hackman's voice...?

Look at him once, then never speak of him again. 

This was followed by Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989. In this installment, Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise embark on a search for God... who is supposedly in the middle of the galaxy? And he's not really God (like God, in the Judeo-Christian sense) in the end, just an impostor... God? And he gets killed by lasers, despite appearing to have some of the traits associated with the omnipotent being a majority of humanity worships...?

And he kind of looked like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz... for some reason?

As you could probably tell from those very brief plot synopses, these movies kind of suck. Upon release, they were critically reviled and major box office bombs. Part of the reason they didn't work is because of very obvious budget cutbacks in comparison to their predecessors. But beyond that, they ultimately tried to differentiate from the formula of the previous installments, only to have it backfire in an epic way. The stories of both of these films are convoluted messes that were driven by plot ideas and the egos of the series' two respective stars, William Shatner and Christopher Reeve. The failure of these movies diminished faith in their respective franchises. (Star Trek got its groove back with the release of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and the next film, 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which returned the film series to form. Superman, on the other hand, would not be seen on multiplex screens again for another 19 years.) 

In terms of unsuccessful blockbusters, Star Trek V and Superman IV are merely the tip of the iceberg. As much as I lauded a lot of the major blockbuster and genre films of the 80s back in my first installment, there's plenty of examples of bad films from that decade, as well. The decade of synth-pop, legwarmers, and Rubik's cube also gave us such infamous outings as Ishtar (a comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty that became one of the most notorious box office bombs), Howard the Duck (an adaptation of the Marvel comics character produced by George Lucas and starring Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins which is... just awful), and other failed sequels like Jaws 4 (in which the shark from the first movie goes to seek revenge against the Brody family. Seriously!) and the latter Police Academy movies.  

In 1995, a little movie called Waterworld was released. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made. It had star power from Kevin Costner, who was riding a massive wave of success following The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK, The Bodyguard, and of course his own Oscar-winning directorial effort, Dances With Wolves (*cue the "but Goodfellas should've won Best Picture instead" sentiment here*). It featured an innovative plot (think The Road Warrior on jetskis) and dazzling special effects. Everyone expected it to be one of the biggest movies of the year, if not of all time. But, Waterworld bombed spectacularly. Viewers were confused at its plot, critics' response was decidedly "meh," and today, Waterworld is now a euphemism for major failure in Hollywood. Waterworld was perhaps the most prominent bomb of the 90s era, on top of films like Cutthroat Island and The Postman (which also stars Kevin Costner). 

But Waterworld did inspire a hilarious joke on The Simpsons, so it has that going for it, apparently....

Finally, in 1997, another little movie called Batman and Robin came out. Like Superman IV, it hoped to redeem the franchise after a disappointing third installment. Like Star Trek V, the director of Batman and Robin, Joel Schumacher, had a very specific vision of where he wanted the franchise to go. Like Waterworld, it had a massive budget, innovative special effects, and star power in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and rising stars like post-Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman, post-Clueless Alicia Silverstone, and post-E.R. George Clooney as the Caped Crusader himself.

Excuse me, I mean George "First person to be nominated in 6 different Oscar categories" Clooney.

And unlike a lot of movies on this list, Batman and Robin didn't do too bad at the box office, but still remains one of the most infamous movies ever made. Why is that? Well, where do I start? Batman's costume had Bat-nipples and a Bat-butt. Mr. Freeze only speaks in puns involving the word "ice." Schwarzenegger and Thurman hammed it up. Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and Chris O'Donnell as Robin didn't act so much as mope around and say terrible dialogue. It was essentially the big screen version of the cheesy 1960's Batman TV series. It was a movie no one wanted. It was a movie no one liked. And while it's cinematic legacy is that Warner Bros. lost so much faith in the franchise they decided to relaunch it with an acclaimed filmmaker named Christopher Nolan at the helm...

You know, the best screen incarnations of the Batman characters ever? Perhaps you've heard of it?

It stands consistently ranked as one of the worst movies ever made, and for good reason.

So why did I just name all of those examples of unsuccessful sequels, big-budget movies that failed, and critically reviled crap? To show that compared to where blockbusters stood ten or even twenty years ago, things are actually pretty good. Say what you will about them, but more blockbusters are consistently better, and score better with both critics and mainstream audiences than ever before. 

Say what you will about the nature of Hollywood sequels, remakes, and reboots, but at least most of the time, Hollywood hires competent directors and screenwriters who are passionate about the material they're adapting. No more William Shatner or Christopher Reeve deciding what to do with the characters they play. No more Joel Schumacher deciding Batman needs more camp, puns about cold, and homoerotic overtones. Directors like Christopher Nolan, Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer, Zack Snyder, Sam Raimi, and Brad Bird are helping to elevate established franchises (and in some cases, creating their own franchises) through innovative direction, and a genuine interest and investment in how these films turn out. 

We can look back at the highest grossing movies of the late 1990s, movies like Independence Day, Twister, and Armageddon, and see that, while perhaps entertaining, they're pretty convoluted storylines. There aren't really any super memorable performances. There are times where each of them appeals to the lowest common denominator. And perhaps there is a certain level of nostalgia to them...

You're talking to the guy who thought Independence Day was the greatest thing our species had achieved on film... back when he was 12 years old.

They can't really hold up in comparison to something like Inception. Or The Avengers. Or 2009's Star Trek reboot, directed by J.J. Abrams. (I prefer to live in a world where Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't exist.) Or any number of other successful movies that have come out in the past 5 years. 

Remember 1998's debacle Godzilla? Roland Emmerich was a proven director by that point, so it made sense to bring him on. Nevertheless, he still produced a pretty low-quality Godzilla flick despised by fans, critics, and audiences alike. But this year's Godzilla was a massive hit with both critics and audiences, and it was directed by a guy who only had one credit to his name, director Gareth Edwards, who had only done the low-budget indie-film Monsters before getting the gig to direct a film about the King of Monsters. Hollywood is increasingly going towards indie directors that have proven themselves to direct tentpole pictures. (In addition to Edwards' work on Godzilla, director Colin Trevorrow, who directed 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed, will be directing 2015's Jurassic World, the fourth installment in the Jurassic Park series, and Josh Trank, who directed the superhero found-footage movie Chronicle also in 2012, will be at the helm for a reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four.)

Dare I say it? Blockbusters are getting better and better. The mistakes of the past are being avoided and corrected. Screenwriters increasingly know how to balance a new, perhaps risky storyline without going off the rails. Studios are increasingly choosing directors that can elevate the material, are passionate about the material, and occasionally can get big-name directors to develop big-budget passion projects. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, has yet to have a movie listed as rotten on Rotten Tomatoes. None of the eight movies in the Harry Potter series had a "rotten" entry. And while some may scoff when a movie about Barbie, a movie about the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland, and a movie about Marshmellow Peeps were all greenlit ON THE SAME FREAKING DAY, the fact is just this year, Hollywood made something that should've been, by all intents and purposes, a pretty dumb adaptation of a toy and turned it into a hit that resonated with critics and audiences alike. 


Honestly, one of the best developments in the recent history of blockbuster material is that legitimate fans are being chosen to direct things behind the camera. Perhaps the trend started when Peter Jackson, who was a massive fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's original work and wanted to do justice to it, knocked it out of the park with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Joss Whedon counts himself as a fan of the Avengers, Sam Raimi had Spider-Man painted on his bedroom wall when he was a little boy. When directors and screenwriters have 50, sometimes 75 years of mythology and characters that are beloved around the world, they want to do justice to those characters and those stories. 

But on top of that, our current era of blockbusters are bringing things to the screen that would've been impossible just two decades ago. I mentioned Lord of the Rings earlier, and while there were attempts to bring Tolkien's magnum opus to the silver screen (most notably the the criminally underrated Ralph Bakshi animated film from the 70s) most had declared it unfilmable due to things like epic battle scenes, trolls, goblins, a giant eye on a tower, etc. and the special effects that would require. But thanks to Jackson & co., Lord of the Rings was brought to us in celluloid, and should be hailed as a film trilogy for the ages. Or think about The Avengers. For the longest time, superheroes and the universes they inhabited were exclusive to the realms of comic books. Early superhero films (think of Roger Corman's infamous Fantastic Four movie) often had constraints in terms of budget or would cut corners to ensure that the film could be finished without going over-budget. The fact that a team like the Avengers could be brought to the big screen successfully without looking shoddy, shows that things have changed, and blockbuster movies are helping to display fantasy worlds and adventures once exclusive to books on the big screen. 

And sure, this is usually the point where people name some of the disappointing blockbusters of the past couple of years. The Star Wars prequels. The Matrix sequels. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Spider-Man 3. And if it's me who is talking, I can't mention the words Prometheus or Iron Man 3 without rocking back and forth in the fetal position. 

"It's okay. It's okay. There won't be a Prometheus sequel... oh wait, yes there will! No! NO!!!"

But think about how many more recent movies stand out as testaments to blockbusters and how amazing they can be if real thought, effort, and art is put into them. 10 years ago, a major genre blockbuster actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Not only is that unprecedented, it is so often forgotten in our discussions about blockbusters. Or think about The Dark Knight, winner of Best Supporting Actor for the late Heath Ledger. Or think about Avatar, which despite its very "love-it-or-hate-it" reputation, still swept the majority of technical awards at the Oscars, and rightfully so. Despite what issues detractors have with the story, they can't deny it is one of the best shot, most beautiful films in recent memory. These are also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how blockbuster film-making is being celebrated and recognized more than ever before. Why is it so many people associate blockbusters with Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, etc. and NOT Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, James Cameron, etc?

What were once genre movies made on shoestring budgets for matinee showings in the 50s are now the major genres in Hollywood, bringing imagination and vision to the big screen like nothing before in movie history. But more than that, big blockbuster genre movies are continually succeeding at telling stories and switching up formulas. We have seen quite a few failed reboots in recent years (Total Recall, Robocop, horror franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th) and every time they fail, film snobs decree the death of Hollywood, how shameless the ripoff is, etc. Well, what about successful reboots? Despite my being a massive Star Trek fan, the franchise could isolate a lot of viewers with its technobabble and intellectual themes. Now, by bringing it to the masses, Star Trek is hotter than ever, which has reinvigorated sales of the original movies and TV shows. James Bond hasn't been through this sort of creative high since the heyday of Sean Connery in the role back in the 1960s thanks to the success of Casino Royale and Skyfall. Planet of the Apes is suddenly a film series people want to see again. For every cynical, moneymaking move to bring back a long-dead franchise, there's a movie that adds to the original while updating it for a new generation, like TRON: Legacy. Even the Karate Kid remake, a movie so many people bemoaned because the original is so well regarded, definitely received a lot of accolades from mainstream audiences, and even have people who suggest its better than the original. The latter three Rocky movies in the 80s involved Mr. T, a robot, and brain damage, respectively. Who would have been led to believe a Rocky movie in 2006 would be one of the best incarnations of the character? 

If only Rocky could've boxed Osama Bin Laden to get on par with the shear patriotism of Rocky IV...

Personally, I refuse to believe to believe that there is somehow more "soulless product" today than there was in the 80s and 90s. I refuse to accept that Brett Ratner and Michael Bay get the final say in terms of this particular era of big-screen blockbusters. There is a lot of creativity, a lot of skilled directors and screenwriters either doing justice to old concepts and stories, or bringing new stories and imagination to the big screen. Much like how TV has been evolving (with people calling this the "second golden age of television" thanks to the success and critical acclaim of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, and True Detective), blockbusters too have started evolving for the better. Hiring fans of the original source material, or at the very least, talented people who have proven themselves in previous releases, to write or direct these movies, or using special effects to create worlds or scenarios never before seen, or just in terms of making a quality movie, hiring quality actors to craft memorable performances. This is the blockbuster revolution of the past couple of years. To the people who wish to bemoan our current state of blockbuster movies, where were you in the 90s when video game adaptations such as Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter came out, and were massive critical and box office disappointments? Where were you during the era of failed sequels such as Star Trek V, Superman IV, and Jaws IV in the 80s? Are you speaking out now because you're more aware of it now? 


If anything, Hollywood is getting smarter, perhaps taking fewer risks than they were in past years, but increasingly working within a genre or franchise to craft interesting stories and memorable films that resonate with audiences. Individual viewers are smarter too, much more willing to distinguish good material from bad thanks to the rise of social media and websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb that score individual movies. It's not always smart, it's not always good, but in this humble writer's opinion, blockbusters are more consistently better today than they were in years past. Every once in a while there's a box office dud or a really bad movie that tampers with that premise, but those exceptions prove the rule. We can point out bad, disappointing blockbusters, and talk about why they don't work, or why they failed, and compare them to films that did end up succeeding. But more than that, more big-budget films score better with audiences and critics than perhaps ever before in movie history. I have no scientific study to back that up, just a hunch I have. But it's one you can see in comparing titles from today to the titles of one or two decades ago. Blockbusters might just truly be better than ever...

So, those are my arguments in defense of mainstream blockbusters. But what are my conclusions? I guess you'll have to stay tuned for the last installment!