Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where are the Blockbusters?

This is a very simple question: Where are the blockbusters, and how can we find them? It is Summer, the time of the year most notoriously known for large scale, special effect movies, however, this year seems to lack any real definitive blockbusters yet. Yes, there has been Thor and Pirates, but neither of these films have stuck, both critically and financially, to truly stand alongside the best blockbusters ever made, and even the more popular blockbusters of previous years.

It used to be that a movie was not deemed a blockbuster till after its release, after the box office gross had been summed up, but nowadays movies are deemed blockbusters before their release, due to how big their budgets are. Now in my opinion, a true blockbuster is a movie that manages to enter the cultural zeitgeist, in a way that no other movie can. One does not know whether or not a movie will impact the culture in the way of a Star Wars or Gone With the Wind till after the movie is released. How can anyone know whether or not the movie will make an impact before it is released? It isn't possible. For all of one's predictions and stat tracking, no one can predict which movie will be the most popular film of a given year.

As it is, we are in a Summer that, by today's definition, has already had a few blockbusters, but by my definition, there has not been a single blockbuster this Summer thus far. The thing is, there is a misconception that all a blockbuster needs to be successful is a big budget and grand visual effects. I would like to argue that this is not true. A true blockbuster is more than just a formula on paper that can be replicated time and time again. If everyone knew how to make the next Star Wars, then they would, but the fact of the matter is, is that every Summer there are still countless movies that fail to connect with an audience. If we are lucky, there is at least one movie per Summer that succeeds, but there have been some Summers where there were none, and some where there were many. But the bottom line, it has nothing to do with money, but more to do with the stuff that makes up a movie that money cannot buy.

Let's look at one of the first blockbusters, Star Wars, as the example. The thing that makes this movie special to so many people is not the attack on the Death Star or the trash compactor sequence, it is the characters and the greater themes inherent in the story. The characters are simple, black-and-white, but each character represented a greater idea that every human could relate to. Hope and rebellion. It tapped into those ideas that humans want to find. These ideas could be seen in nearly every image of the original Star Wars film, such as when Luke looks longingly at the twin sunset on Tatooine, or the silent desire for rebellion against the Empire when Luke sees the fried bodies of his Aunt and Uncle.

It was not the spectacle, nor a cliched Hollywood romance that made Star Wars what it was, nor was it because it had these complex characters (which it did not). It did have originality, but that still wasn't why it reached the audience. I mean, there was very little that was original about Avatar in terms of formula and character, but what made it succeed with audiences is how it tapped into those deeper ideas, same as Star Wars. As J.J. Abrams put it in the latest issue of Creative Screenwriting, anyone can recreate the shark in Jaws, but it is hard to replicate the scene where Chief Brody's son mimics his father's movements at the dinner table. That little moment is one of the most memorable of that blockbuster, and that shark was nowhere in sight.

The themes do not have to be of hope or rebellion, it can just be something simple that strengthens a relationship like that of Brody and his family in Jaws. It is the little things that are most often overlooked when these big budget ideas are put on the fast track. When these ideas are rushed, the films themselves ultimately start to run together with so many other similar movies that you don't even care.

While the Summer still has many potential blockbusters to go, I'm just disappointed in May's output so far.

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