In praise of the summer blockbuster

Feature Ryan Lambie 15 May 2012 - 14:55

Ryan argues that summer blockbuster movies deserve far more credit than they get…

For some mainstream film critics, the summer season is a headache-inducing period of horrible noise and brainless entertainment. Cinemas are overrun by a mob of superhero movies, reboots and sequels, and listings are bereft of anything containing a shred of artistic or emotional content.

Although not strictly speaking a summer movie, released as it was in April over here in the UK, Battleship contained all the elements required of a sunny season blockbuster. It was expensive, long (over two hours), noisy, violent, and its plot made no sense. Perhaps understandably, many critics rounded on it. “Miss”, an Empire review stated. “It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a digital action spectacle,” wrote the Daily Telegraph. “If you found Transformers just a touch too subtle, this is the film for you,” sighed the Guardian.

Yes, Michael Bay’s 2007 action disaster flick is now seen to epitomise everything that’s wrong with summer blockbusters – to the point where the Transformers name can now be used as an insult.

The problem with summer blockbusters, from a critical standpoint, isn’t that they’re merely noisy, chaotic and stupid. Look at any number of straight-to-DVD or on-demand action movies, and you’ll find ridiculous, recycled revenge plots, poor excuses for moments of violence, and appallingly written dialogue.

No, the problem with summer blockbusters is that they’re big and brash. They crash into our consciousness with all the delicacy of a steamroller. Their posters get everywhere, and their trailers spread across our computer and television screens like a case of hives.

One of the joys of being a film critic is being able to discover a movie – to stumble on a hidden gem, and then excitedly share the experience of watching it with the rest of the world. Summer blockbusters are annoying because they leave film critics with absolutely nothing to do. There’s no point in evangelising about a movie that’s already plastered all over the TV, or offering free key rings at the cinema lobby with every large drink.

Nor is there any point in wasting excessive amounts of energy in attempting to warn movie-goers not to waste their money on it – as the Transformers sequels prove, some movies are all but critic-proof, and attempting to rail against them is as effective as trying to hold back a tidal wave by shouting at it. All critics can do is sulk while writing up their thoughts on Revenge Of The Fallen or the above-mentioned Battleship, and pray for it all to end.

Critics’ somewhat weary attitude towards summer blockbusters means that, when a genuinely good one occasionally rolls past, they mistakenly lump it in with all the bad ones. Although you might think, from a sample of Twitter and sites like this one, that The Avengers was greeted with unanimous cheer. It wasn’t. The New York Times wrote grumpily about its “grinding, hectic emptiness” and “bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.” Other reviewers were similarly scathing, though I won’t bother to quote them here.

The Avengers isn’t perfect, but then summer blockbusters – or movies in general, for that matter – seldom are. To dismiss it as bloated and empty is to miss all the things it does right; and as its champions rightly point out, The Avengers’ positive aspects far outweigh its negative ones.

Summer blockbusters appear to be regarded by some as a form of fast food – low-fibre slop for the masses, designed specifically to jangle the pleasure senses but utterly devoid of any nutritional content. True art, some critics might argue, requires a bit of effort on the part of the viewer. This is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is considered to be an artistic success, while Roger Corman’s Galaxy Of Terror is filed away as B-movie schlock.

You could be flippant and argue that it takes as much effort and strength of will – if not more – to sit through a Transformers film as it does Andrei Tarkovsky’s lengthy apocalypse, The Sacrifice, and you’d be right. But flippancy aside, there’s an important point to be made about summer blockbuster movies: they’re absolutely unique.

Blockbuster movies are a phenomenon unparalleled in human history – never before have so many minds and skills coordinated to create something with little other purpose than to entertain and make money. Summer movies require dozens of artists, designers, programmers, actors, set decorators, accountants, animal trainers, dressmakers, camera operators, editors, craftsmen, producers, directors, caterers, even – God forbid – writers and lawyers.

In generations past, there were only one or two reasons for so many people from such divergent disciplines to work together on a common goal, and those were relatively practical: building a cathedral, perhaps, or assembling an army to conquer a far-off land.

Blockbuster films aren’t art, just as cathedrals or space rockets aren’t regarded as capita-A art – though they have their own specific kinds of beauty – but they are miraculous. It’s incredible that hundreds of people can come together and actually make something even vaguely coherent. Sometimes, the results are dire. At others, they’re merely forgettable.

In the case of Battleship, a group of people decided to film an alien invasion movie with naval vessels. And rather than simply shoot it in a studio and hope the effects team could make it all look realistic, director Peter Berg and his crew went out into the Pacific ocean and shot much of the film on proper, scary waves. They risked barnacles, seasickness, equipment damage, electrocution, sinking, sharks, scurvy, the Kraken, and a million other potential calamities to make a big, dumb movie about bearded extraterrestrials and old men on a battleship. That’s crazy. And brilliant.

Audience opinion over the merits of Battleship is split (I found its camp ridiculousness oddly endearing). But every so often, one or two blockbuster movies come along that either surprise almost all of us with their ingenuity, if not their perfection (Inception), or stun us with their wit sheer brio (The Avengers). Even the more flawed ones, like John Carter, deserve respect for the quality of their production design (just look at those gorgeous, insect-like ships), warmth and scale.

Blockbuster movies are a weird, one-off moment in our culture – and who knows how much longer they’ll be around for? We don’t build cathedrals so much anymore, and we appear to have grown tired of constructing rockets. But for now, we’re still making big, crazy, silly blockbuster movies, built from the ground up to entertain, stun and baffle. In spite of their faults, we should appreciate them while we can.

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