Initially I had planned to write a review of Pacific Rim. But simply put, I didn’t think a great deal of the film. My thoughts on it can be summed thus: it was this generation’s Independence Day just with a bit more diversity across race, gender, and nationality. Without its huge budget (and the passion of Guillermo Del Toro), it’s the type of film one would see on the Syfy channel.
Coming out of the cinema, with a cloud of disappointment hovering over me – a feeling that’s increasingly becoming the default these days – I pondered about the parlous state of the Hollywood blockbuster season. Obviously the vicissitudes of the (subjective) quality of art means that in some years, culture will inevitably be better than it has been. But I feel the past couple of years mainstream cinema has been particularly wretched. And looking back, I wonder if we’ve just seen the end of what was a relatively strong era for big-budget movies.
Recently leaving the cinema after watching Easy Money, a friend mused on what upcoming releases may be worth watching over the next few weeks. And we realised that there wasn’t anything that we felt we had to go out of our way to see. I lamented since that bar The Avengers Assemble created, it had been a while since I last enjoyed a movie at the cinema.
Over the past couple of years, the films I’ve seen in the summer months have been Brave, The Inbetweeners Movie, Prometheus, The Hunger Games; a list of films that weren’t necessarily terrible, but it says a lot that I’ve only seen them once, don’t own any of them on DVD, and am not about to either.
People often talk about us just coming out of a golden age for television drama, and that’s tough to argue when one thinks of dramas such as The Wire, The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under. But when I look at cinema, I wonder if the last few years in big-budget blockbusters was as good as it’s going to get?
I confess a bias here on the topic of comic-book movies. I like that an artistic medium, once derided as a pastime for social misfits is now a key component of Western entertainment. I relish that for my younger sisters, the annual pilgrimage to watch the latest superhero tale is a common (and almost mundane) aspect of how they consume stories. And I doubt that they’re in a minority.
I look at movies such as Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight, X-Men 2, Batman Begins, Toy Story 3, Inception, WALL-E, and The Bourne Ultimatum, and posit that in years to come, consensus will look back on this era and say, “You know, that was a damn good era for the high-budget event movie.” Whether you enjoyed the films on the aforementioned list or not (and I’m safe in the knowledge that a few people reading this didn’t like them), what makes them stand apart for me is that they were all about something. You may not have liked the approach or found the execution of the story inept but they didn’t revolve around what film producer Jon Peters calls, “action beats”. In this well-known (NSFW) clip, Kevin Smith talks about his experience of working under Peters when drafting a script for a Superman movie that was mercifully never made. The key part is when Peters instructs Smith to ensure that, “every 10 pages, something big has to happen.”
I feel it’s safe to assume that “big” is a synonym for ‘crash, bang, punch, kick, explosion!’ It’s a mindset that severely harmed the most recent of the Superman movies. This isn’t to say that action scenes can’t be a key component of these tales. One of the most appealing aspects of the Bourne trilogy were the breakneck fight scenes & car chases. The only time I’ve heard a movie audience audibly gasp in awe was during these sequences. One should remember that cinema is a visual medium, and a filmmaker with an ability to stimulate the ocular as well as the aural is an essential aspect of making a blockbuster movie. However, the visual flourishes are only the condiments to the meal. When far too many filmmakers treat them like the meal itself, depth of narrative, a strong script, and the right casting becomes questionable. And while you may not have liked The Dark Knight, WALL-E or Inception, these were all movies about something more than “look at the big ‘splosions”.
They treated the audience as adults, rather than as a restless baby who you distract with something shiny & loud to stop them throwing a tantrum. It would be hyperbolic to declare us at the end of a golden era of blockbuster cinema, but it does appear that Avengers Assemble was the swansong of this age. And as enjoyable as that movie was, it was primarily held together by the wit & crackle of the script rather than the heft of the story. I understand that my lamentations will seem much ado about nothing for some. And that’s fair enough. If the majority of people weren’t satisfied by what they were getting, they would stop going to cinemas. But I’m not satisfied. I expect better. And part of why I expect that is because Hollywood has proven themselves capable of better. Yes, it’s popular entertainment, but “popular” doesn’t have to be a synonym for “mediocre”.
And to be perfectly frank, I’ve grown tired of hearing the following as a justification for moribund work: “What did you expect? You don’t go to see a movie like
Pacific Rim: robots. Sea things. Fighting. Clichéd plot points leading laboriously to conclusion in which Shaun Slater dies. You’re welcome.
— Hayley (@HayleyWright) July 31, 2013
That spoiler isn’t even a spoiler. You know it’s going to happen way before it happens and you don’t care about the character anyway.
— Hayley (@HayleyWright) July 31, 2013
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History, and is a writer for the Writers of Colour website. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).