Have the world-destroying stakes in movies become too high?

Are we growing weary of exploding cities, Ryan wonders, and does the world really need to be under threat in our summer films?

“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred Pennyworth sagely noted in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which is something plenty of us have spent this summer doing in our local multiplex.

In Man Of Steel, we watched something resembling a giant lemon squeezer – one of Zod’s “world machines” – pulverise a fair portion of downtown Metropolis over and over again. Star Trek Into Darkness contained loving moments of citywide destruction, while World War Z was a global disaster movie presided over by a hippy-haired Brad Pitt.

These scenes of catastrophe are nothing new, of course, and neither are we saying that we haven’t enjoyed them. But city-levelling disasters have really shot to prevalence again in the last couple of years, with The Avengers concluding with a devastating attack on New York, and fair chunks of this October’s Thor: The Dark World devoted to the wholesale destruction of London landmarks.

This so-called “destruction porn” was mentioned in a recent and much-shared interview by Damon Lindelof, who argued that these scenes of city flattening had become a necessary but unfortunate by-product of blockbuster filmmaking.

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“We live in a commercial world, where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct,” Lindelof said in an interview with Vulture.“But ultimately I do feel—even as a purveyor of it—slightly turned off by this destruction porn that has emerged and become very bold-faced this past summer. And again, guilty as charged. It’s hard not to do it, especially because a movie, if properly executed, feels like it’s escalating.”

With film studios making fewer yet ever more expensive movies, there appears to be a concerted effort to top each summer hit with yet more grand spectacle, and yet more chaotic action. Hollywood’s current appetite for destruction even led to an interesting Twitter conversation a few days ago, which posed the following question: would a relatively breezy, small-scale movie like Back To The Future (originally released in July 1985 in the US) be released in the summer of 2013? Would such a film even be given a greenlight in modern Hollywood?

It’s a thought-provoking question, and ties in quite neatly with a recent interview with Riddick director David Twohy. After the disappointing box office of 2004’s The Chronicles Of Riddick made Universal reluctant to greenlight a sequel, writer and director Twohy, along with star Vin Diesel, made a concerted effort to get a cheaper, independently-produced follow-up in the works under their own steam.

Through a series of cunning deals and sheer guile, Twohy and Diesel managed to make Riddick, and unusually, made it without studio interference. But even here, Twohy mentioned while talking to the Huffington Post that he was put under a certain amount of pressure to up the stakes for the story’s characters.

“I’ve been in those meetings, too,” Twohy said. “Where it’s, ‘We have to up the stakes. We have to give it a ticking clock’ … So, I hope that Riddick, if nothing else, feels a little more handmade than factory-made. That’s what I set out to do and Vin was certainly along for that ride, too.”

Film producers, it seems, are becoming increasingly nervous when films focus on personal rather than global stakes – in other words, a dramatic situation about a high school kid trying to get his parents back together in 50s small town America is deemed far less saleable than a UN operative trying to find a cure for a global zombie epidemic. To put it in Damon Lindelof’s terms, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.” 

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What seems to be forgotten by nervous studio executives, however, is that it’s the personal stakes in a movie that really hold an audience’s interest; without an attachment to the drama of distinct individuals, the wholesale destruction just becomes so much moving wallpaper.

It’s worth noting, for example, that Lindelof’s reworked ending for World War Z takes the (rather disjointed) narrative away from the widescreen devastation of the rest of the film, and focuses instead on a low-key drama in a medical facility. Now, part of this decision may have been simple budget watching, but Lindelof may have also rightly calculated that the ending had to focus more closely on Brad Pitt’s character if it was to have any real dramatic impact. Even Star Trek Into Darkness, full of action though it was, also focused on a personal vendetta.

If you want to look at the difference between an exciting movie that works because of the recognisable drama the characters face, and one where the characters are lost among the action, simply compare the original Die Hard with this year’s hideous A Good Day To Die Hard. The once relatable John McClane has been reduced to little more than a terse macho placeholder, while the plot – which has something to do with Uranium – flatly refuses to get going.

Had Back To The Future been proposed as a movie for the summer of 2013, it’s not improbable that nervous studio executives would have lobbied for a more dramatic scenario than a teenager repairing the damage to his own personal history. Would they have pushed for a more intense race-against-time ending, where Marty has to save the world from nuclear war, terrorists or even alien invaders? We can only shudder at the thought.

No, it’s the relative intimacy, and the warmth of its characters and drama, that makes Back To The Future the cherished film it is. The better question, perhaps, is whether summer films will go back to that style of storytelling in the near future, and how much bigger the action scenes in our summer films will get before audience fatigue sets in. There’s certainly an argument that said fatigue has already begun to arrive; earlier this year, the father of the summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, even warned of a coming “implosion” among a certain brand of mainstream film.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground,” Spielberg said, “and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

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This may come to pass, or it could be that the trend for high-stakes films passes, and a smaller-scale kind of film takes their place. It’s likely that, eventually, we’ll all become tired of watching the world burn for the umpteenth time, and demand to see something different from our summer movies.

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