Ever since film first started to become big business there’s been an attempt by the art form to reflect the moods of the time. To hold a mirror up to the world and dress it up as entertainment. Even big name productions would tell stories that meant something to the people of the time be it the hunt for communist sympathisers, the disenfranchisement of youth or the explosion of excess culture. Films have attempted to tell stories that mean something to the culture of the day. Genres and actors go in and out of style, technology to present these stories advances but the one constant is that films try to tell a story relevant to now. Certain themes have stuck around for a very long time, such as the empowerment of women and race relations. It used to be that even the largest films would tackle these themes head on, but times have changed. These days a big Hollywood blockbuster can’t risk losing its audience by being too cerebral. So, I ask, are there themes in film today that can be explored by the blockbuster films and what’s preventing them? Click the link below for my incoherent ramblings.
One thing you may have noticed I’ve been bringing up about with a lot of blockbuster films recently is that they aren’t big, or clever and often aren’t even attempting to be. That works fine if the film hits the right balance, Pacific Rim being a prime example of that. It could have explored themes of arms races during war time and how far man will go to take on a threat. It didn’t though. It concentrated on big robots punching equally big monsters in the face. I can imagine the film that would have explored these themes but I enjoy the hell out of the film we did get so I’d rather not think about it being any different.
I half recall one of the creative minds behind Star Trek Into Darkness claiming that people didn’t understand the themes the film presented. Apparently it was about the war on terror. I didn’t see that. What I saw was a film about contrived events leading to big flashy set pieces. I enjoyed the film a fair amount. But I really can’t figure what it’s themes were. It certainly didn’t explore the idea of what the existence superior human would mean for the world. The villains wanted to turn Starfleet into a military force because he was scared of potential threats after the destruction of Vulcan in the first film. His plan was to use Khan to help start a war with the Klingons. I suppose there’s a little something about creating military strategies based on fear, but what it really boiled down to was the story of an insane admiral using terrorists to start a war against the people he really wanted a war with. That touches on issues such as the justification of wars in the Middle East today but that’s only touching. It’s not exploring.
Any large scale mainstream film today needs to sit in that comfortable PG-13/12 certificate. The studios have for quite some time been concerned with keeping themselves afloat as the demand for bigger spectacles grow and grow. This means any film they’ve heavily invested in needs to be promoted for as many people as possible. That means kids need to be able to get in because God bless their disposable income. The side effect of this is that these large films can’t be as heavy with the old brain thinkings as they could be. You don’t want people going out for a night with kids to be confronted with a 2 hour plus examination on the nature of reality or the depths of horror a man can take himself to in order to achieve a goal. That’s not to say themes can’t be explored. Film makers just have to be more tactful.
The X-Men films are a prime example of this. Well, a couple of them are anyway. They explore the themes of being different. Being an outsider. Of being able to accept yourself so that others can too. Primarily the films are about being gay and coming out the closet. Do you hide what you are so people accept you? Do you take the risk that some people may turn their backs on you because you were born different from them, despite being the exact same person? What if the world is scared of you? All these questions are asked an explored over the first 2 X-men films. The third film suggested the existence of a cure which is just all kinds of offensive when you consider what the mutant powers represent, but at least it was explored… just about. God that film sucks. Point is, the writers managed to find a way to explore a mature theme, that would be very relevant to the many teens in the audience in a PG-13 film. Huzzah!
I’ve ripped on the Total Recall remake a fair few times on this blog but I think it deserves just a little more of a beating. The original film juggles themes of perception of reality, your dreams vs real life and the exploitation of under-classes for financial gain. It did all of this in a hard R rated film that was also a big budget action blockbuster. The remake was a PG-13 and the closest it came to those themes was having the characters occasionally question if what Quaid was experiencing was a dream. It then ignored all that and just rushed through any dialogue scenes to get to as many over the top action scenes as possible. None of those themes are impossible to explore in a PG-13 film. None are about sex. None of them are too dark. They’re two simple science fiction themes and one that is actually pretty relevant today what with companies like Apple turning a blind eye to the working conditions at the factories where their products are made. They even have Quaid working in the factory that makes the robots he is trying to stop by the film’s end. So many missed opportunities there.
Films like the original Total Recall don’t really happen anymore though. Because of the shift to a focus on lighter entertainment, not uncommon during times of conflict an war, you can’t really provide the sort of balls out risk taking that used to happen during the 70s and 80s. Film makers seemed to be free to take risks all the time back then and that’s not just with the violence. They’d be allowed to tackle dark, mature subjects and do so with quite a budget. Directors such as Verhoeven, Lynch and Cronenberg would likely struggle to get started today. Could you imagine films such as RoboCop, Blue Velvet, Dead Ringers and Videodrome even getting made today? At least in the same capacity that they were before of course. As we’re all too away, any one of those could be remade for a teenage audience at any moment. One of them is. Through the 90s films such as these started to die out. Cronenberg’s eXistenz and the Wachowski’s The Matrix probably being some of the last examples of adult aimed big budget films that juggled heavy themes. Even they were toned down from the director’s previous works. I doubt the Wachowski’s would even get Bound made now. Their name’s on the film would require a huge budget and you ain’t getting a huge budget with lesbian sex.
So is there a theme that modern blockbusters have in common? Yes, there is. For this we turn to the Mike Judge film Idiocracy. That was a film about how the general dumbing down of modern entertainment and society led to a future where the most average man today would be regarded as a genius in the future. Big studio films are now so afraid of actually confronting a theme head on that they pass only lip service to it or not at all. So I propose this. The theme modern blockbuster films share, whether intentional or not, is the theme that society doesn’t want to confront heavy themes and so they must be pushed aside and denied. In it’s place we get flash, action and forced character interactions. Instead of an intricate plot that balances many aspects of a particular subject we instead have a film that is more concerned with the appearance of cool events whilst skating around anything potentially troubling.
Now look at the newspapers, the unstoppable spread of dross websites such as TMZ, The Daily Mail and many other similar alleged news outlets. Look at the exploitation of sexualised imagery in music videos, regardless of the songs content. Also look at how the art of the lyrical metaphor seems to be vanishing from popular music. Look at the sort of television our stations are filled with now. Now tell me the modern blockbuster film isn’t representing the world as it is today. The dumbing down and lack of head on theme tackling is merely a reflection of the society we live in now. Television, music and entertainment do not make any attempt to tackle hard subjects now. The shows that do get massive praise, as they should. But a show like Breaking Bad won’t pull in as many viewers or revenue as X-Factor or whatever dancing show is currently on.
Complex entertainment just isn’t the big business the larger companies want to court. They know that there’s enough people out there willing to consume low quality dross that they can just keep churning it out whilst siphoning a little of the money into the construction of their Scrooge McDuck style money pits. Thankfully history tells us that trends will come and go. Eventually the financial stars will align to allow film and television producers to take a few risks. To allow directors to explore complex themes in a more open manner. Maybe even with a little blood and nudity for those of you out there that actually believe that PG-13 is the sole reason films don’t do this anymore. As mentioned above, you can explore complex themes and still make a family film. But for art to flourish the freedom needs to be there for the creative types to present these themes how they would prefer to.
This is all a balancing act. A balance between artistic freedom, financial concern and financial reward. When the reward isn’t as big as the concern the artist can be a little more free. Today that isn’t the case. Countries are fighting, people are afraid and they want to escape. They’re spending their time and money on pure escapism and so investing in risky niche projects isn’t something the studios are willing to do. Occasionally a film that sits outside the norm will do well, films such as Black Swan, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Kings Speech. When more films such as those do well studios may be inclined to take a few more chances. Eventually the balance will be addressed though and great works will flourish again. I just hope that until then film makers can get out of the mindset that a dumb film doesn’t need to be a good film. Pacific Rim kicked all kinds of arse and it was a thick as shit.