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In Defense of Blockbusters: Are We Unduly Harsh on Big Budget Hollywood Movies?

I was just remarking how much I love cinema – how much I am predisposed to like a film – and I got thinking, why are we so harsh on big budget Hollywood films? Don’t get me wrong, the studio system produces its fair share of crap, but it seems to be the target of choice for any person looking to decry the death of modern culture. We’re assured, virtually everywhere, that the blockbuster is meant to be a cheap, disposable form of entertainment – and that it’s simply a “guilty pleasure”, if at all. I’ve noticed this trend quite a bit of late, as this is the time of the year that movie geeks look ahead to the summer season and realise… seemingly to their horror (though it can’t possibly be to their surprise)… that the summer is filled with big-budget mainstream blockbusters from wall-to-wall. Ignoring the fact that Hollywood’s annual cycle is highly predictable these days (save only the emerge of what I like to call “quirky March” in recent years), why is the arrival of the summer fare universally treated as a bad thing?

Swimming with sharks...

Don’t get me wrong. Big budget movies can suck. I mean, really suck. I mean, “oh my god, what I did I do to deserve this?” suck. Hell, I chose to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra of my own free will. However, I don’t accept the argument that the majority of them suck – I’d make the argument that majority are “just okay.” Now, would I be happier if every major blockbuster film rocked my socks off? I would, but I’d also be happy if I woke up one morning to find my toilet made out of pure gold. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Before you make the assumption that I am “settling” or “apologising”, I’d like to ask you what the alternative is? If the movie year were divided into phases, it would look like this:

  • March-April: quirky and unpredictable relatively decent budget films (Kick-Ass, 300, Drive Angry, Watchmen, The Adjustment Bureau)
  • May-August: blockbuster season (The Dark Knight, Inception, Terminator: Salvation, Knight & Day)
  • September-October: summer movie rejects (Rush Hour, Eagle Eye, Flight Plan)
  • November-February: Oscar season (with a break for the occasional Christmas blockbuster season)

Some of the periods blend into one another. It’s hard to tell, for example, where the “Oscar” season ends and the “quirky” season begins with films like Season of the Witch being interspaced with 127 Hours and Black Swan. Still, I think that’s a fair summary of the annual Hollywood release calendar.

Reaching out...

My observation is that every one of those seasons has their fair share of duds. For ever high-quality Oscar-magnet like The King’s Speech, there’s several duds like The Reader or Amelia waiting in the wings. For every Rush Hour, there’s an Eagle Eye just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting public. Every season has its duds, as does every genre and every other form of classification.

Assuming, for example, that the logical alternative to big-budget blockbusters are, for example, films from outside of Hollywood, I imagine the numbers break down about the same. For every In Bruges, there’s a London Boulevard. For every Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s an Agnosia. There’s no objective measure of quality, but I think you’ll find that the consensus is generally in step – no matter what formal classification you use to break down film (save maybe the talent involved), you’ll find that there are a few great films, a few terrible films and a lot of “just okay” films. That’s just the way it works, there’s no shame in that.

Is the big-budget blockbuster a dinosaur?

Detractors of the blockbuster might argue that the problem isn’t so much the public opinion of the films after their released, but something more inherent. Perhaps they’d suggest that there’s just something wrong with the process through which these films are made. You know what? They’re probably right – I’m still shocked to hear about how the studio system murdered Frank Darabont’s attempted adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. We’ve all heard stories about the horrors of working within the studio system – Kevin Smith’s discussion on drafting Superman Lives! should serve as a cautionary tale. There are of course, problems in how the studios approach the material – and I’m confident to say that this is why we end up with so many middling movies.

However, the same concerns apply to all other types of film as well – they aren’t confined to mainstream blockbusters. Hell, look at the compromises they had to make to get The King’s Speech a wide release. Even foreign films are subject to these sorts of disappointing behind-the-scenes wranglings – look at the controversy over India’s 2007 submission to the Academy Awards or the Chinese casting couch scandal. Even ignoring the factors external to the production of smaller, non-mainstream films, there’s still the fact that the production of a large portion of “indie” drama is just as cynical – there’s a reason we use the term “Oscar bait” for this sort of low budget film making.

Time to point fingers?

Hell, I spent the better part of last week at the superb Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, one which was built around discovering and promoting talent from around the world. I was greatly impressed by what I saw, and I don’t mean this as an insult, but a lot of the films were just as visibly and awkwardly assembled to form as the biggest Hollywood blockbuster – they were just built to a slightly different model. That’s not an insult to any of this films, but an acknowledgement that as much as we may deride films like Iron Man or The Bourne Ultimatum for being coldly predictable and formulaic, these other movies follow a different formula – Incendies, for example, is built around the same sort of school of cinema as Syriana; the superb Preludio is a spiritual companion to Clerks. This isn’t an insult, though I worry it may be construed as one, it’s an observation.

So if we accept that other movies have their own inherent flaws in their systems of production and that other films are formulaic in their own way, what other reason might we have for jumping upon mainstream blockbusters like a piñata? There’s an argument I see thrown around which uses the word “disposable” a lot, typically alongside “cheap.” It’s frequently used in a disparaging context, to describe something as a “guilty pleasure.” I know I’m guilty of it, and it’s fairly common. The word “disposable” is somewhat loaded. It conjures up images of trash, or rubbish – discarded papers drifting in the wind. It’s hardly ever a word used in a complimentary fashion.

Is the sky the limit?

The truth is that I’m not entirely convinced that a lot of the big-budget movies are “disposable.” If you were to picture the iconography of movies, I think that the vast majority of images that will pop into your head will come from this sort of major studio fare. Whether it’s the fin break the surface in Jaws, the flying bicycle (or glowing finger) in E.T. or even Arnold in sunglasses, it’s these major movies which form the basis of our shared cultural lexicon. This article is packed with pictures from major films, and I doubt that anyone will have trouble placing them.

Some might argue (and they’d be right to) that these images are simply so iconic because big budget movies with studio backing have the sheer force of will to impact our popular consciousness. There’s an element of truth there, but I’m not entirely convinced. All the marketing know-how in the world couldn’t help New Coke stick around, and Che Guevara makes for a most unlikely of capitalist icons. Although viral marketing might have something to do with it, you can’t force an image into the public psyche, nor can you control what they latch on to.

Once in a blue moon, a good one comes along...

However, even if one accepted that blockbusters weren’t some sort of cultural accomplishment, that they were “cheap” and “disposable” and everything else that their detractors described them as, what on Earth is wrong with that? I’d argue that The Dark Knight is one of the most compelling studies of the Bush era you’ll find, but even if it’s just another comic book movie, what the hell is wrong with that? I prefer my movies to provoke some thought and to engage with me, but I’ll accept if they don’t – if they’re honest about it.

However, how many of the alternative movies can pretend to be more consistently “important”? Surely though, the vast majority of Oscar-friendly fare is just as “disposable.” Films like The Kids Are All Right are more entertaining than especially thought-provoking. Hell, The King’s Speech arguably only has “merit” as a two-hour history lesson. But that doesn’t diminish the quality of either of these productions, but it seems a bit much to suggest that their objective value is that much greater. Especially given that the currency of cinema, as perhaps the most accessible form of culture, is entertainment above education or enlightenment.

It's rare that a blockbuster sets my world on fire, to be honest...

Of course, this ignores the fact that occasionally a major film makes it through the studio system like Inception, which has a whole host of ideas and creative concepts. I accept that a film that challenging and engaging is rarely produced by the major studios, but I’d also suggest that it’s rarely produced by anyone else either.

Maybe I’m just short-sighted or naive. Maybe I am an apologist for a crass popular culture, who is so deeply entrenched in the system that I can’t necessarily see the flaws. However, I think that it’s unfair to demonise one particular type of film as being especially undeserving of merit. I think it’s fair to criticise certain aspects of certain genres – for example, the typical sexism one finds in a mainstream romantic comedy or slasher film – but not to write off an entire genre. After all, the romantic comedy genre gave us all manner of classics, as did horror from Nosferatu through to The Shining. Similarly, films produced inside the “blockbuster factory” have given us classics as well, just as those created and funded outside of it. I think it’s foolish to make a high-level judgement that one is more meritorious than the other.

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2 Responses

  1. The major criticism of “blockbusters” is that they lack intellectual merit and contribute to the dumbing down of popular culture; such thinking results in the creation of a kind of cultural apartheid wherein “popcorn” blockbusters are considered beneath critical analysis and so go unappreciated for their potential artistic value, while “difficult” and “realistic” dramas are elevated to the level of worthy “art” often by little more than the virtue of a lack of imagination.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with blockbusters, sequels, or movie franchises. Many of the films people look back most fondly in past decades were big blockbusters. A lot of those films were, in fact, great. Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Dark Knight are some of my favorite movies of all time.

    • Yep, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with any type of movie. I liek Ebert’s Law: It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s how it’s about.

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