Where Has Peril and Unpredictability Gone in Modern Movies?

When was the last time you saw a major blockbuster and felt real concern for the fate of the main characters?

This feature contains spoilers for Executive Decision, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Mission: Impossible and, er, Dad’s Army.

In the mid-1990s, before the internet could spoil it for them, people piled in to see the still very enjoyable thank you very much Executive Decision. It’s a fun action movie, with Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal getting top billing in the movie. But there’s little suggestion that anything particularly radical was lying ahead. Yet in hindsight, there’s something far more surprising than perhaps it was given credit for even then.

For, surprisingly early in the film, Executive Decision is one of those rare films that’s willing to kill off one of its stars, Mr. Seagal in this case (something he was reportedly not too happy about). Not in a dramatic last scene kind of way, or major swirling moment of sacrifice. Rather, he falls from a plane, and is never seen again.

Lots of theories have circled about whether Seagal was ultimately dumped from the film early – John Leguizamo, for one, has written about the torrid time he had on the set with him – but his character’s premature death is in early drafts of the script. Bluntly, he was always supposed to die. And in doing so, it destabilizes the film a little. Even though we suspect that Kurt Russell – the last star standing – will save the day, the rules have very slightly changed for this one movie at least. An element of peril and unpredictability has crept in.

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Take, too, 1993’s Cliffhanger. This was one the one where the ripples of Stallone’s biceps alone were a decent workout for any cinema sound system. Crucially, too, it was a big comeback movie for him, the one where he tried to reclaim his action movie crown after a series of box office disappointments (even Stallone himself admits, for example, that Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot is something of a write-off).

Considering this is the same actor who’d mown down hundreds of people single-handedly in Rambo III the decade before, Cliffhanger kicked off with a moment of utter failure (the more recent Olympus Has Fallen would follow a similar template): Stallone’s Gabe can’t stop the character of Sarah falling to her death. Our first big moment with Stallone as a mountain rescuer, and he fails. It’s important, too, as Sly is suddenly just a little more fallible, just as he was when he first brought Rocky Balboa to the screen. It’s a small but welcome turn from his characters as the 1980s progressed (and I say that as a fan of Stallone in the ’80s too).

For us to really buy into the stakes of a movie, at least the chance of failure for a character has a to be a viable option. For a big blockbuster production in particular to remove the shackles of predictability, there has to at least be the feeling that the protagonists could either lose, or take serious damage for doing so. Yet if you go down the list of this summer’s big movies, this was an ingredient sorely missing.

Thus, in Star Trek Beyond, we see – early on in the film – the destruction of the USS Enterprise. Yet nobody surely sat there and thought they wouldn’t just build another one at the end of the film. But imagine if they didn’t: imagine if for the next film or two, Kirk, Spock and Bones had to travel around space in a tin-pot replacement? That there were real consequences to losing the prize ship in the Federation fleet?

Or what about Captain America: Civil War? I liked the film a lot, and enjoyed the airport-set action battle immensely. But what if a marquee Avenger had died, and – crucially – stayed dead? What if, for instance, Ant-Man had gone? Or Captain America himself?

For some time, it was rumored that Steve Rogers would indeed be biting the bullet, and imagine if Marvel had pulled the trick of killing him mid-battle, just a in a casual moment rather than a heroic gesture? We’d be feeling the impact of that in the Marvel cinematic universe for years. As it stands, for all its qualities, when there’s a big death in the MCU, most of us just suspect the character concerned will be back.

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It’s not just Marvel, either. Come the closing of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, even if most of us didn’t know that Justice League was following, was there a single moviegoer on the planet who thought that Superman would be dead for long? I for one didn’t buy that this year’s Dad’s Army would kill one of its characters off at the end, yet alone DC taking out one of its two prime comic book leads.

Big movies, then, don’t do a feeling of peril very well at all at the moment. They do excitement, certainly, but rarely a sense of danger.

There are still odd moments. I found myself clinging to my seat during the opening set piece of JJ Abrams’ Super 8, for instance. I didn’t really know the characters at that point, but Abrams had conjured a human spectacle in the midst of a CG sequence, with the people front and centre of it. That felt rare. Abrams would, too, try – with some success – to throw us with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or at least those who hadn’t had one particular spoiler ruined in advance for them. This, though, goes to the heart of another challenge filmmakers face: that when they do come up with something, there’s a subset of websites that have what’s best described as a charitably weak grasp of spoiler protection.

But back to peril.

It’s not just blockbusters that have this problem, although given the commercial stakes involved in a major production, inevitably any risky story turn is likely to involve a meeting somewhere. Smaller movies do tend to follow their lead sometimes, and that’s what makes it a delight when something like Arrival comes along.

Here was a film where my hands weren’t just clinging to my seat, I was on the verge of ripping the arm rests off. I’ve thought about this a lot. There are many scenes where nothing much seems to happen in Arrival, yet the sheer tension was palpable. I hadn’t seen this kind of alien invasion film before. What was going to happen? Would everyone survive? How can this turn out well? I think Ben Affleck’s Argo deserves credit too for introducing genuine, palpable tension. And at the smaller end of the scale, all bets felt off when Jeremy Saulnier unleashed the dogs in Green Room earlier this year.

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That said, it’d be fair to note that peril, as many major films have proven, isn’t a pivotal ingredient to a major blockbuster. But I do suggest that it remains a very strong one, when it works. Going back to Star Trek and Captain America: I felt I’d got my money’s worth in both cases, albeit in a bit more of a warm comfy blanket kind of way, then anything designed to jolt me.

At the very least, unpredictability would help.

I’ve mentioned this example before, but I can’t help but cite again a point Barry Norman made in his review of 1993’s excellent The Fugitive. He argued, in that instance, that the film’s outcome would have been notably less obvious had the two lead roles been reversed. That Tommy Lee Jones took on the part of Richard Kimble, and Harrison Ford became Sam Gerrard. Were that the case, he not unreasonably argued, then the outcome of the film would remain in doubt. As it stood, what were the chances of Harrison Ford playing a character who murdered his wife in a mainstream summer blockbuster?

There are those that are trying, I do appreciate that. When a trailer arrived with Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a plane for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, nobody doubted he’d survive – but also, it turned out to be the pre-credits sequence. I think most of us would have expected something as dramatic as that to pop up at the end, but even knowing Ethan Hunt would come through it, I still found the sequence exhilarating.

Mind you, the Mission: Impossible franchise also demonstrates the problem. Not since the first, PG-rated Mission: Impossible film has one of the IMF team been suddenly and brutally killed mid-movie. There are been few casualties since as they embarked on their entirely possible missions. Even when Philip Seymour Hoffman devoured the screen in the early stages of Mission: Impossible III, his initially hugely effective villain wasn’t allowed to win, which is a pity.

The summer just gone saw Hollywood deliver a collection of effectively middle of the road movies, a surprisingly large proportion of which failed to land the expected size of audience. Much has been written about how this should mark a sea change, that Hollywood needs to take a few more gambles, rely less on franchises and sequels, and explore new avenues. Me? I’d rather they rediscover a sense of danger, a real belief in the peril on screen. Easier said than done, of course. But then I’m still talking about Executive Decision 20 years on…

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