When it comes to the huge spectacle surrounding a blockbuster film some people, myself included, may start thinking that something that is aiming to appeal to almost everyone is surely something generic, laid in the same structure that has been proved successful time and time again.
Joseph Campbell, a researcher interested in story and myth, even found out that almost every traditional story told around the world had the same formula behind it, something he called the Monomyth. So, if there’s a way to tell a story that will almost always work, of course, Hollywood will bet the huge sums of money apparently required for creating blockbusters in that. So, I agree with you. Blockbusters, apart from a few exceptions, have lost their magic.
We can even look at this subject with an even more scientific lens and realise that, according to the Triune Brain Theory, most of these films try to appeal almost exclusively to our Reptilian Complex, the part of ourselves only concerned with our environment, our most basic needs, fear, reproduction and survival.
Looking at most of the blockbuster films of today we can see how some directors are almost entirely focused on engaging this basic part of ourselves by using several long moments of intense visuals and sound along with sexually appealing female and male characters, among many other tools. This is, by no means, something that I think should be frowned upon. However, blockbusters can go further by also presenting things we can relate to at a social, creative and intimate level.
Now, this is where the masters come in. Blockbusters are now defined as movies produced with an amazingly high budget and marketed to the widest possible audience but initially, they were described as films with a great audience response independent of the production conditions. A good blockbuster film – that manages to be exciting, interesting, intimate and creative, all at the same time – can only be created by someone who truly hones his or her craft, as long he or she has a great team along for the ride. What seems simple at first, after a careful look (or several), in fact, may reveal what lies beneath the surface.
A good and effective blockbuster film relies on a balance of simplicity with intricacy. Most of the great directors of blockbuster films have managed to keep you engaged by using storytelling and filmmaking techniques with such perfection that they’ve become invisible and have given you the feeling of being inside the film.
It’s no mistake that Alfred Hitchcock uses long focal lengths for the subjective shots of Jeff while he’s looking to his neighbours through his photographic camera in Rear Window (1954) and that Spielberg decides to employ the Vertigo technique created by the latter when Chief Martin is faced with a shark on the beach in Jaws (1975). This way, by carefully applying a vast technical knowledge to transmit the intended feeling in any given moment of the film, the masters create something that keeps vast audiences on the edge of their seats but that also reaches the viewer in unexpected ways. You get into the characters’ head and, in that moment, you share not only their points of view but also their interests and fears.
Another surprising common characteristic of the blockbusters that have managed to stand the test of time is the existence of beautiful, humane and delicate moments between all the noises of the main conflict. Now, I’m not talking about the boy-kisses-girl moment, or the wink between fellow men after a job well done. I’m talking about something that we, as the audience, feel is so unique but at the same time, immensely relatable and genuine.
Still concerning Jaws, there’s this moment where Chief Martin is ruminating at the dinner table about the presence of a shark in the waters of his town. He’s clearly upset and crestfallen. Then, out of the blue, his little son starts mimicking him. This brief moment of a play between father and son, while the mother watches, is not only informative to what their relationship is but is also immensely delicate. There’s practically no dialogue. Spielberg can often be called overly sentimental but he’s one of the few blockbuster directors that aim to offer intimacy as well as excitement.
I understand that I’m talking about a topic that most cinephiles and filmmakers shy away from. Hitchcock, for instance, was thought to be a sell-out, a commercial director only interested in making superficial films that did well in theatres, this is until François Truffaut decided to interview him and compile the interviews in the book Hitchcock / Truffaut. In those interviews, the French critic achieved his goal: proving Hitchcock was a master filmmaker, a puppeteer that knew how to pull the right strings and when to get the answer he was seeking from the audience.
It’s funny to think that there was a moment when most people didn’t value his skill and thought that, like nowadays, a blockbuster film had to be intrinsically void of any deep feelings. It is true Hitchcock was known to be somewhat difficult with his actors but there’s no denying his characters meant everything to him. I don’t especially agree with this approach but it really shows this director’s devotion to the humanity of his work.
If you look at Steven Spielberg’s tracking shots, for instance, you may realise how carefully he directs his scenes so that you keep engaged in the story and not realise for a single moment that everything is happening in an unbroken take. He is doing it because his story and his characters need it in that moment, and if he has a way of doing it while being invisible, you bet he won’t grab your attention to the technicalities of what’s happening behind the curtain.
This is something he learned from the masters that came before him and I couldn’t write this article without mentioning Akira Kurosawa and one of the films that were probably responsible for starting this entire movement: Seven Samurai (1954). This film is not only filled with action and emotion but it also has huge empathy behind it. Seven Samurais getting together to protect the people of a small village that are constantly raided, and willing to put their lives on risk for others? There is no denying the huge beauty and poetry behind all of this.
George Lucas and Spielberg have both been very clear about the influence of the Japanese master in their own work and when we look carefully at their films we can realize that, amidst all the spectacle, there’s a delicate situation they’re trying to explore, as if the adventure is an excuse to delve into what really means to be human.
Star Wars (1977) can be an immense space opera, a cowboy film set in space, but what it really is about is the story of a father and son, love, finding your place in the world and helping others. Titanic (1997) is not only about the huge disaster that happened, it’s about finding the one you belong with, no matter what the rest of the world may say or think about it. Now, this is what I’m taking away from these films and even its directors might disagree with me but I think most people can concur that without something to relate to, the craziest adventure will probably seem cold and empty.
Like Spielberg did with Jaws, M. Night Shyamalan has been making a comeback with relatively low budget films compared to most blockbusters of nowadays (even though if we’re talking in millions, here) and really getting a great response from the audiences with his most recent film Split (2016). Jordan Peele has recently directed Get Out (2017) with less than 5 million and the film has already made more than 100 million in revenue. Their films prove that a blockbuster can be intriguing, emotional, creative and even socially meaningful. They represent what a true blockbuster can be and, when that happens, along with a great marketing strategy; a huge audience will most likely engage.
I believe there’s beauty in the apparent simplicity of blockbusters. We are told, at least for the duration of the film, that it’s possible to fight the challenges that we’re faced with and win them, becoming not someone else but a better version of ourselves and learn a lot along the way. For a moment, everything makes sense.