Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Curious Case of Blockbuster Fatigue

X-Men: Days of Future Past was released on blu-ray this past Tuesday and in the 72 hours that it's been available for me to purchase, I have held it in my hands twice and thought about purchasing it several more times than that. But there's this nagging feeling every time I have the urge to buy it. This feeling that I honestly just don't remember anything about it. I only just saw it three months ago, yet it's already left my brain for the most part, and I just can't bring myself to purchase it, even at an admittedly great price for a 3D blu-ray.
This whole summer I felt as though most every movie I saw completely left my brain within 24 hours of having seen it. The only exception to that was Boyhood, which I'm still ruminating on months later, but now that blockbuster filmmaking has entered the age of shared universes, homogenization, and focus group tested sameness, I can't bring myself to care about any of the big movies I've seen in the past few months. I liked Days of Future Past while I was watching it. It was entertaining, well-written, well-acted, and well-made, but it ultimately felt disposable, and that's the problem with this particular age of blockbuster filmmaking. I have a theory as to why that is, if you'll allow me to share it.
The problem began in 2008 when Nick Fury showed up after the credits of Iron Man. The promise of incredible team-ups to come and crossovers and shared universes seemed amazing. It seemed like the kind of thing that geeks like me could only dream of when we were kids. Nine films and six years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I'm beginning to understand why getting everything we ever dreamed of isn't always a great thing. I've enjoyed all of the Marvel movies, but have I watched any of them more than once? The answer is no (okay, maybe I saw Avengers twice, but that was only because my oldest daughter really wanted to see it). In fact, the only reason I went to the theater to see Thor: The Dark World was because Clementine wanted to see it. I bought it when it came out on blu-ray, but like every other Marvel movie I own, it's just gathering dust on the shelf.
I'm reminded of the famous line from Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum's chaos theorist lectures Dr. Hammond on the inherent danger of what he's done saying, "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." I understand the irony in quoting one of the biggest blockbusters of all time in a rush to prove why blockbusters are inherently flawed, but replace the word "scientists" with the word "filmmakers," and you've got a perfect example of what's wrong with movies today. In fact, the quote seems even more prescient when you look at what Malcolm says just before that quote. "You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it." It's eerie how many parallels there are between what he was saying and where we are some 21 years later. 
Another gigantic film this summer was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, another well-made, well-acted, well-scripted film that I couldn't tell you much about if you put a gun to my head. I remember the apes; some were good, some were bad. I remember the humans; some were good, some were bad. How did it all shake out in the end? I don't honestly remember and I only saw it 10 weeks ago. That's a problem. The rush to get these films into theaters as quickly as possible before the increasingly short-termed memories of global audience members lapse altogether, has ruined big budget filmmaking. The effects look great, but I can literally see great effects anywhere I look. The problem boils down to the studio system that allows this sort of environment to not only thrive, but to become the only way to get films made anymore.
It also comes down to poor writing, and I'm about to pin some blame here. When we write the obituary of this era of homogenization in blockbuster filmmaking, I think the blame will fall squarely at the feet of rampant egomaniacs Bob Orci & Alex Kurtzman. This writing duo has been nothing if not consistent in their hackneyed scripts that feel tailor-made to the sensibilities of studio heads looking to churn out a familiar product with only marginally interchangeable parts. All of their films are the same. Every single one of them follows the exact same formula to the point where I'm not even convinced they do any actual writing anymore. They're a script making factory, not writers, and the fact that they've placed the Star Trek franchise into Orci's hands makes me more fearful for my favorite fictional universe than I've ever been, even when Enterprise was the only game in town. 
The willingness by studios to just reboot a franchise anytime it starts to come apart is another major problem here. The first Smurfs movie was a surprise hit, but then the second one bombed after they announced they were already working on a third one, so their solution was to just reboot it. Talk has swirled of rebooting Spider-Man again, despite the fact that the reboot 2 years ago was basically the same exact story that was told in 2002, just with different villains and a different love interest. And don't even get me started on DC and Warner Brothers' attempt to mimic the Marvel formula by cramming a dozen superheroes into one film and then saturating theaters with a non-stop barrage of superhero movies over the next 6 years. It's awful, and someone's got to put a stop to it.
My excitement for the new Star Wars: Rebels cartoon series was instantly diminished halfway through the first episode when I realized that they're linking its universe to the Star Tours ride at the Disney theme parks. Is this what it's come to? Honestly, do we need a Boba Fett film or a Han Solo film? What's next, a Willrow Hood film? I know that's an extreme example, but it's not as far a leap today as it was five years ago. I liked the most recent Hunger Games film quite a lot when I saw it, but the trailers for the new one have done nothing but make me apprehensive about the potential for more bloated filmmaking in an attempt to keep these franchise cash cows going. It's a truly sorry state of affairs, and it's not going away any time soon unfortunately.
The best big budget movie I saw this summer was also one of the biggest flops. Edge of Tomorrow, despite its terrible title, was fun, thrilling, and memorable. The script was exceptionally well crafted, the direction was top notch, and Tom Cruise turned in his best performance in 15 years. How did the American public greet a film with no ties to another franchise? They ignored it, and in turn missed an opportunity to reward filmmakers doing solid work. It's despicable that the combined box office for Edge of TomorrowPacific Rim, and Cloud Atlas, arguably the three best $100 million-plus movies of the last three years, is less than for the fourth Transformers movie alone. That's a truly pitiful statement. 
Can anything turn this ship around? Yeah, if people stop going to see middling fare because they think it looks cool or they played with the toys as a kid, then maybe we've got a fighting chance. I don't see that happening though, and I fear that this era hasn't even peaked yet. That's the scariest thought of all. 
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

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