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Unpacking 2014's blockbusters

If you want to talk about the experience of the average moviegoer in 2014, you need to talk about blockbusters. Boyhood might be the recipient of cascades of praise from critics and award bodies alike at the moment, and stands a solid chance of picking up the Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And yet, its box office take in Australia – just shy of $1.5 million – suggests that the majority of multiplex attendees are unlikely to have seen the film. What are they watching instead? Well, as of writing this article the top four films at the 2014 Australian box office are The Lego Movie, Transformers: The Age of Extinction, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy. Outside of the animated category, these films aren’t serious awards contenders (despite Paramount’s dubious campaigning), but they are the films that people are actually watching.

It’s easy to mischaracterise the blockbusters that dominate said box office takings as mindless pablum spoonfed to the masses, geared for financial success and little else. But while the millions of dollars poured into these behemoths might limit truly idiosyncratic artistic expression, there’s plenty worth unpacking in the money-making movies of 2014, which provide insight into our modern approximation of a monoculture. For all the ubiquitous complains about sequels, remakes and adaptations, there are original stories and perspectives to be found in this mass of blockbusters.

Before I begin, it’s worth noting that there is no universally accepted definition of what is and isn’t a blockbuster. I’m going to borrow Potter Stewart’s handy qualifier – I’ll know it when I see it. To provide some parameters, though, I don’t think it’s purely an issue of money. The aforementioned Gone Girl, for example, isn’t a blockbuster in my eyes despite its substantial takings. Why? Well, essentially, it just doesn’t feel like one – it lacks explosions or CGI, and it feels like a product of an auteur director rather than a studio. That said, money matters; Snowpiercer is an action-packed sci-fi starring Chris Evans, and yet its five-figure take at the Aussie box office precludes from blockbuster status in my eyes.

Actually Mindless

With that out of the way, it’s also important to note that the characterisation of big budget, special-effects heavy movies as mindless is not entirely without merit. A good percentage of 2014’s tentpoles were pure product, calibrated by committee to best accommodate the needs of the ticket-purchasing public.

Take a truly execrable example, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Star Andrew Garfield recently lamented that studio interference marred the final product, but you don’t need first-hand experienced to recognise that; the whole thing is the kind of unfocused mess only born of focus group feedback. The plot is coherent and yet totally nonsensical, awkwardly combining two ridiculously miscast villains (because that’s what superhero sequels do, right? Also let’s not forget Paul Giamatti, what the hell) with that famous Spider-man storyline Raimi’s films didn’t get to. The pacing is clumsy, comprehensible character arcs are non-existent and there’s a springboard into a Sinister Six spin-off that nobody asked for, because connected filmic universes are where the money is.

Not that ticking all the boxes necessarily produces an inferior product. Edge of Tomorrow, for instance, has nothing especially substantial to say, with its chief drawcard the opportunity to watch Tom Cruise die over and over again. But it’s an entertaining if imperfect film, whose relatively disappointing box office performance doesn’t bode well for future blockbusters that aren’t directly adapted from comic books, television shows or children’s toys (Edge of Tomorrow isn’t entirely original, adapted as it is from a Japanese novel, but it’s about the closest we got in 2014, give or take a Lucy or Interstellar).

Similarly, I’m not convinced there’s much depth to the Marvel smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve seen a comparison drawn between the galactic war at the centre of the storyline and the Israel-Palestine conflict; but conflicted territories and suicide bombers do not a coherent allegory make, let alone the total lack of moral ambiguity. Fanboys and girls are quick to point to the film’s advocacy of working as a community, but that’s not an especially engaging message unless you’re still glued to Play School every afternoon. As I rambled in my review, I don’t think that GotG is a bad film, per se. It’s simply a competent execution of the Marvel formula, with any originality that might have sprung forth from its space opera setting or ex-Troma director James Gunn’s guidance buried under thick, syrupy conventionality.

Contradictory Commentary

I used the phrase ‘pure product’ to describe the above films but, of course, the vast majority of films – and every blockbuster – are, by definition, products geared towards making a profit. Being profitable does not preclude artistic expression or social commentary, of course. However, it can make it difficult, as the films in this category demonstrate.

Take the film still atop Australia’s box office, The Lego Movie. Here we have a film that rejects all-powerful corporations that demand things are done Their Way that also doubles as an advertisement for a corporation who nowadays package their product as follow-the-instructions sets. The same schism is found as the film celebrates free-reigned creativity while at the same time proposing that team work and order are necessary for success.

I don’t know that I’d precisely describe the film as hypocritical – given how many messages Lord and Miller cram into their film, it’s tempting to suggest that they’re merely playing with the kid’s movie formula rather than attempting to produce anything genuinely subversive, whatever Ben Walters might argue. But there’s a definite tension between the film’s goals to say something – anything! – about creativity within a corporate culture while butting up against those same restrictions (not all of these tensions are evident in the film, but the fact that even Christopher Nolan was asked to bless the film’s depiction of Batman suggests a whole bunch of copyright contract jockeying behind the scenes).

See also: Transformers: Age of Extinction, which reflects upon the terrible consequences of corrupt corporations and governments collaborating while being, at its core, a collaboration between Hasbro and the US and Chinese governments. The film ultimately ends up on the corporation’s side, admittedly, repositioning Steve-Jobs-stand-in Stanley Tucci as a good guy once he grasps the notion of ethics. Michael Bay is readily dismissed as the harbinger of mindless, money-grubbing trash, but he’s too smart to ignore entirely (which is why, dear reader, I subjected myself to this film before writing this dang thing).

After all, it takes real cojones to open your film – the third sequel to a franchise based on children’s toys – with a tour through a dilapidated cinema house whose owner laments the rise of sequels and remakes. Or to intersperse this dense mess of computer-generated robots destroying computer-generated skyscrapers with a plethora of equally unwieldy, often contradictory ideas. Bay is a director who courts the Chinese dollar while populating his film with regressive Oriental stereotypes (not to mention a persistent belief that black minstrelry is funny in 2014). He litters the film with anti-intellectual ‘satire’ while making the heroes of the piece preternaturally talented – if brawny – inventors. He’s so conflicted in how to simultaneously venerate and sexualise his protagonist’s blonde teenage daughter that he provides said daughter’s girlfriend with a laminated copy of the loophole that legally allows them to have sex. I don’t know that I’m the man for the task, but there’s a lot to be learnt about modern America’s conflict between commodification and conservatism in these 165 minutes.

Then there’s Hercules, a film about a hero who fakes his mythical legend, falsely packaged to audiences as a tale of said mythical hero. Or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which cleverly hinted at the hypocrisy of its own interrogation of marketing by cutting its propaganda video to resemble the film’s trailers. Or, on a sadder note, How to Train Your Dragon 2, which squandered any chance of interesting conflict by scrapping earlier plans to make Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), the antagonist of the piece (and introducing an othered, coloured villain in her place). There’s no suggestion that studio meddling influenced this decision, but it’s hard to think otherwise.

Our Movie Has Something to Say, Dammit

This category is pretty straightforward: blockbusters that aim to Say Something about How We Live Now. Interstellar, helmed by the king of the modern intelligent blockbuster, is the prime example of the form. To be honest, it’s barely a blockbuster even by my own flimsy criteria – despite its big names and big special effects, it strays from the formula we’re accustomed to nowadays. But Nolan wants to you to know that it all means something, so the screenplay (from Chris and his brother Jonathan) lingers on an introduction that dabbles in pro-intellectual, anti-global warming rhetoric before going on to emphasise its themes with a half-dozen repetitions of the same damn poem. It’s really just a silly film that takes itself far too seriously.

Not that it’s an outlier there. Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t strive for the same gravitas as Interstellar, certainly, but there’s a real attempt to provide contemporary commentary on American policies. For the opening hour or so, it’s quite successful at balancing the requirements of the Marvel formula with a cogent if exaggerated criticism of America’s drone warfare. I can forgive the Russo brothers for ticking off a few necessary Marvel Studios boxes – thinking specifically of Nick Fury’s ‘demise’ – but The Winter Soldier’s feints at real insight fall away as it embraces cliché. Hydra’s infiltration of the upper echelons of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a potentially potent parallel for the shaky foundation of American politics; it’s just a shame that the corruption is so easily resolved by one Steve Rogers speech. I guess a more nuanced approach wouldn’t have allowed enough time to crash giant aircrafts into buildings (again).

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more successful, if not especially contemporary; we could talk about its parallels to the arms race or the Cold War or the Russian Revolution, but I fear I would risk this article more closely resembling a high school essay than it already does. There’s clearly an intentionality behind that film though – no surprise, given its frequently politically-minded forebears – which is absent from the underrated Dracula Untold. The film is cheesy fun, yes, but squint just right and there’s an effective allegory to be found for America’s tactics in the so-called War on Terror.

Of this bunch, the most interesting is X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is so successful as sparkly entertainment that it’s easy to miss its depth. Bryan Singer, returning to the franchise, is less interested in revisiting the mutation-as-queerness approach that elevated X2, but rather addressing the historical politics that Matthew Vaughan – who contributed to the screenplay – introduced in First Class. The Cuban Missile Crisis felt like a cameo in that film; the Vietnam War’s role in Days of Future Past is infinitely more substantial.

Set in the wake of America’s defeat, the ideological conflict that develops between pacifist Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who sees eradication as the only solution, is a direct parallel to the conflict that defined the country during its hostilities in Vietnam. These differences have defined the two nemeses across most of their comic and filmic incarnations, however. More intriguing is that way Singer incorporates surveillance/home video footage into the film, recalling both the infamous Zapruder film and how journalism coloured the American public’s view of Vietnam. Incorporating these elements into a film that also has to reassemble a splintered franchise and the requisite big budget setpieces is a real achievement.

Breaking the Blockbuster Constraints

The most interesting blockbusters of the year operate by not respecting the word ‘requisite’ at all. These two films are unquestionably blockbusters: they’ve got big special effects, big budgets, big names and big box office receipts. But while they dabble within the strictures of what defines a modern blockbuster, they each carefully subvert audience expectations to produce films that satisfy both the escapist desires of a multiplex crowd and those looking for something deeper than an extra-large carton of popcorn. They’re very different films, but they’re each powered by the same basic principle: the death of the relatable protagonist.

Luc Besson’s surprise hit Lucy, for example, initially introduces its titular heroine – played by Scarlett Johansson – as a young American traveller; frivolous, but easy to relate to. It doesn’t take long for the film to unlock its premise along with the excess percentage of Lucy’s brainpower and, in the process, Lucy becomes less a sympathetic young woman and more an exaggerated action archetype. Besson delivers everything you’d expect from an action film – Scarlett Johansson shoots people, kisses a dude, gets involved with a car chase, et cetera – but denies audience involvement at every turn, sapping our heroine of her emotion and denying us any coherent insight into her goals.

Look, Lucy is a dumb film in many ways. It’s impossible to accept its outlandish pseudoscience without many, many grains of salt. But that silliness suits its knowing deconstruction of its genre. When you lay down money for a ticket to these sorts of films, you know what to expect: the hero will overcome all obstacles, there will be a perfunctory romantic entanglement and a spectacular setpiece or two to justify the budget. The best blockbusters carry us along for the ride anyway; Lucy doesn’t even let us get on board. Its defining scene – and one of the best scenes of the year, in my opinion – is when an expected hallway confrontation between Lucy and a throng of Taiwanese gangsters is instantly undercut by our heroine simply magicking the villains into the air. There, the film seems to say, she won. Are you happy now?

There’s no such magic to be found to found in Godzilla, which instead uses the blockbuster framework to ponder the impossibly immensity of tragedies. The infinite blandness of Aaron Taylor-Johnson has earned the scorn of armchair critics everywhere, but I’d argue it’s a feature, not a bug (even if the actor himself may not be aware of this). Cinema – and, really, any work of art – struggles to convey the scale of tragedies whose casualties stretch into the thousands. Filmmakers are very good at making you feel the loss of the protagonist’s loved ones, but it’s nigh impossible to capture the immensity of death on such a scale without wading into a sea of anonymity. That anonymity is exactly what Godzilla embraces, making it the least conventional and most misunderstood of the year’s blockbusters.

What separates Godzilla from the pack is that it redirects the impact of its large-scale destruction and fearsome special effects towards pathos rather than entertainment. A modicum of pathos is not unexpected, of course; few blockbusters are entirely escapist, and you can’t borrow 9-11 imagery without some degree of seriousness. However, there’s little escapism or excitement at all within Godzilla’s bulky frame (which perhaps explains why it’s one attempt at cathartic release, the stadium reunion, plays so clumsily). Instead, director Gareth Edwards is more interested in evoking the deep sense of disconnected bereavement associated with watching tragedies from a distance.

Ford Brody, played by Taylor-Johnson, barely qualifies as a protagonist. He’s an observer, a vantage point, not an agent who affects the outcome of the narrative. In fact, there isn’t a single human in the film who makes a substantial difference to the plot; it’s the forces of nature of Godzilla and the MUTOs who call the shots. All we can do is watch – watch the devastation in the Philippines, the nuclear disaster in Japan, the destruction at the heart of an American metropolis. The modern resonance of these locations is not accidental. Nor is the sense of muted horrified created by the film. Those looking for a slender slice of entertainment from Godzilla were disappointed; those looking for the potential for blockbusters to tell new stories were not.

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