What can be said about movies today? Cinema has always been prone to fluctuations due to changes in culture and technology. The coming of sound, the Production Code, the Hollywood Blacklist, Television, the end of the Studio System, home video, CGI, the various iterations of 3D and illegal downloading. Each one of these changes had real or imagined impact on film production in the United States.
Since the unprecedented success of Jaws Hollywood has been obsessed with the summer blockbuster… A giant spectacle designed for mass consumption. Initially George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had this market cornered with mass entertainments that were also imaginative and of a pretty exceptional quality. Films like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial all stand the test of time remarkably well.
During the 1980s there were also a number of very interesting films on intermediate budgets topping box office lists… Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters were the two highest grossing films of 1984 and studios were happy to invest money to make and market comedies which led to films such as Three Men and a Baby and Home Alone topping the box office lists in 1987 and 1990 respectively. Regardless of the quality of these films, it is inconceivable that today a comedy film would have the studio support and audience to top the box office.
The recent turning point appears to be when Titanic became the first film to gross over $1 billion domestically in the United States, its fraught production history was forgotten and the studios became more obsessed with larger and larger movies to make more and more money. In the eighteen years since Titanic, only three films that have topped the annual international box office receipts haven’t been part of a major franchise. That said these three films Armageddon, Avatar and Frozen were all released as blockbusters, with probably only Frozen exceeding the studio’s expectations.
The top dozen grossing films since 2010 gives a pretty good insight into why Hollywood keep churning out remakes, reboots and franchises.
1. Jurassic World (2015)
2. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
3. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
6. Toy Story 3 (2010)
7. Iron Man 3 (2013)
8. The Hunger Games (2012)
9. Frozen (2013)
10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
11. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
12. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
All of these films share the common ground of being aimed at either children or teenagers and being fantasy, action or animated films that can be easily translated into any language. With the exception of Frozen, all of these films are also part of an already successful franchise whether that be from cinema, comics or the world of young adult fiction.
The top grossing film on this list is 2015’s Jurassic World, a reboot of the Jurassic Park franchise of the 1990s. Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was the highest grossing film of 1993, an imaginative story about a scientist using genetic engineering to bring dinosaurs back from extinction for the sole purpose of building a theme park. The film was groundbreaking for its use of CGI, seamlessly combining computer generated dinosaurs with practical effects and actors on real sets and locations. The film was visually stunning and filled with moments of genuine suspense. It also raised a lot of ethical questions about commerce and scientific endeavour. Two sequels of questionable merit followed over the next decade.
The success of Jurassic World will no doubt extend the current current focus on remaking, rebooting and recycling past hits and cult classics. Anything that is loved from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s seems to be in the process of being remade and generally very badly. To a large extent these films have been terrible, taking the basic story of the original and stripping it of any humour or heart. The original versions of Robocop, The Wicker Man, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Get Carter and Rollerball are all incredibly original films. Written with considerable wit, they also make genuine statements about their time and place. Without exception these films completely humourless and lacking in any context.
Even more frustrating is that when a film shows up that has a spark of originality and makes a decent return on investment the idea is then certain to get milked within an inch of its life. A film like Paranormal Activity that was genuinely effective and made on a very small budget will suddenly spawn sequels, prequels, spin-offs and copy cats until that little spark is snuffed out and what was good about the film in the first place becomes a horrible cliché. A comedy made on a moderate budget with an original story line will almost certainly be focussed grouped and edited and edited until it becomes an endless series of nasty banal gross-out humour lacking any heart.
The most unfortunate legacy of Jurassic Park is a result of its greatest success. Prior to Jurassic Park CGI was pretty unrealistic. James Cameron had pioneered some impressive CGI with his work on The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, although by Jurassic Park’s standards these effects look a bit clunky. Films had generally used practical effects and when these were inadequate for the action a primitive version of CGI was used. Watching these films now there’s something endearing about these effects and when practical effects work, such as in The Thing, Blade Runner, Star Wars, An American Werewolf In London and A Nightmare on Elm Street they are so much more effective than the best CGI. Mad Max: Fury Road is a rare recent example of a film seamlessly blending practical effects and CGI, making for a phenomenal visual experience and showing what the technology is capable of today. In doing so it highlighted the missed opportunities of of so many other recent films.
The impact of the advances in CGI over the past couple of decades seems to have had unfortunate consequences on the film making process. CGI has become an integral part of the making of any blockbuster and with every advance in the technology, such as motion capture suits, the integrity of the film-making seems to deteriorate. No matter how good the actor, when standing in front of a blank screen being told where to look whilst talking to or fighting against an invisible partner, their performance is going to come across as wooden. The regular absence of actual sets or human performances, ends up creating a cartoon feel to the spectacle making it almost impossible to care for the characters or action on screen. This is particularly noticeable in the middle of a mindless five minute fight sequence. This reliance on CGI effects and endless fight sequences is what I find particularly tedious about the Marvel Comics movies.
To date there have been twelve films released in the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe”. Based on the extended universe of Marvel comics, these films have reaped a combined worldwide box office gross of approximately $9 billion. Ten more of these films are currently in development. On the whole these movies appear to be much the same. Some ordinary chap has some kind of accident and gets some kind of amazing ability. He then defeats some enemy or other. Then some random bad guy shows up who has even more superer powers and then beats the superhero in a fight. The superhero then has some kind of crisis of confidence, comes up with a cunning plan and then defeats the stronger adversary. Occasionally a group of these superheroes get together and fight some villain stronger than all of them combined and the same basic formula ensues.
These films are often compared to video games with their bright shiny flashing violent images that really promote little endearment to characters, but quite honestly I see the format of these films as being remarkably similar to that of a porn movie. They begin with a vague attempt at setting up characters and a story, followed by a rather unrealistic entanglement between two people of unnatural physical proportions. There is then another flimsy scenario followed by another extended entanglement. This formula continues until whatever flimsy plot there was is resolved through a grand climax.
Over much the same period there have also been four Transformers movies with a combined worldwide box office gross of approximately $4 billion. These films are essentially based on some toys created by Hasbro in the 1980s. The Transformers movies are probably closer in structure to internet pornography than to the more complex structure of a porn movie. The Transformers films are an endless series of entanglements that move from one place to another without any coherence or pretence of humanity, but these movies have made a phenomenal amount of money. As a result more and more movies of this type are being produced.
But there are still great movies being made. During every period of apparent decline in cinema there have always been great movies made. Every era has something to recommend it and of course a lot of the best art of any era is not recognised until well after the fact. Great films such as The Night of the Hunter, Blade Runner, Bringing Up Baby and The Rules of the Game were considered failures when released and many films seen at the time as astonishing and groundbreaking are virtually unwatchable today. In decades to come it’s hard to see hugely successful and almost unwatchable films such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest being looked back on with the same affection as a Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or any fondness at all for that matter. However, it’s easy to see the works of interesting and original filmmakers such as Richard Linklater, P.T. Anderson, David Cronenberg, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson being revered in the decades to come.