Aug 31 2009

What’s Up, Hollywood?

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As we approach the end of this decade, many filmgoers appear to be asking the same question: “Is it me, or are Hollywood films getting worse?” It’s a difficult question to answer, since Hollywood’s big blockbuster events have produced an even number of hits and bombs, both critically and financially, in the last 30 odd years. However, in the wake of films like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra, it is becoming clear that the bigger the budget, the louder it’s going to suck.

To understand the ins and outs of the “Hollywood blockbuster”, we have to go back to the mid-Seventies. Sure, before this time there were widely advertised films and box office hits, but the blockbuster had yet to become a recognizable genre. Due to the increase of films focusing on post modernism and dark, thought provoking themes concerning war and politics (often referring to Vietnam or Watergate), film studios decided to make films that were a throwback to those made in the earlier half of the century, such as Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz; films that resembled events than artistic creations and pushed the boundaries of attendance as they did the limits of budget.

Like the legendary films of Hollywood’s golden era of cinema, these new blockbusters would have something for everybody: adventure, romance, thrills, chills, dazzling effects, big production value and emphasis on escapism and fantasy, rather than topical issues or dark, depressing themes. In short, make a film that everyone would enjoy and pay to see again and again and again. The first person chosen to make this film was then-first time director Steven Spielberg, now the blockbuster godfather, with his film Jaws in 1975. Jaws possessed that sense of adventure and suspense that struck a chord with audiences around the world, and tested the patience of its producers with its ever-increasing budget and ambitious, yet struggling special effects. Two years later, Jaws’ success was surpassed by George Lucas’ Star Wars, which to this day has created and sustained an impact in culture that many thought impossible.

Granted, these films were extremely successful financially, but Jaws and Star Wars were also critically praised; both films even took home a few Oscars. To this day, both films are held in high regard by film critics, historians and professors, not to mention regarded as classics by the mainstream, so clearly, money has nothing to do with quality. Both films also contain many staples of blockbuster films, such as explosions, guns, violence, action, so it appears that “BOOM!” and “BANG!” have nothing to do with the quality of a film either. Neither film is particularly original, as Jaws was an adaptation of a Peter Benchly novel, not to mention a monster movie at heart. George Lucas was heavily inspired by a number of samurai and western films, even commandeering a few cinematography and editing tricks from famed director Akira Kurosawa.

However, what these films did have were two filmmakers who wanted to tell a story, and a good one at that, which is the point of any movie, regardless of budget or genre. Were Spielberg and Lucas the only two filmmakers with the ability to make a big budgeted, well written film? Doubtful. Did Hollywood decide to give any yahoo with an eye for action a camera and a budget in hopes of creating more box office hits? That they did. In the Eighties, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer burst onto the scene with films like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cops, and Flashdance; some of the biggest films of the decade. The duo went on to produce Bad Boys, The Rock (Simpson’s last film before his death) and Armageddon, which also happen to be Michael Bay’s first film. Bruckheimer has produced nearly every one of Bay’s films, and has produced the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and the National Treasure films.

I need not mention that Michael Bay is loathed in the film community for his slap-dash, bing-boom-bang approach of storytelling, not to mention that now you know who to thank for bringing him into the world of directing (thanks Mr. Simpson and Bruckheimer). Furthermore, his latest techno-opera of crap Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is hailed by many as the worst film of the decade, and is said to have brought about the end of an era in cinema. In the last decade, we’ve seen a decline in the quality in blockbusters, and the term “quality” is relative. From Con Air to The Day After Tomorrow to GI Joe, these films no longer contain any of the adventurous, gee-whiz spirit or the fun of films like Star Wars of Indiana Jones or The Matrix, nor are these films really epic events in and of themselves anymore. On the other hand, the second Transformers film grossed an incredible amount of money, so who really cares or notices? Right?

And therein lies the decline of the blockbuster; it is not so much about money, but it’s the quest for money, and more money, and more after that. Don Simpson shamelessly expressed his beliefs that his job was to make as much money as possible and did so by specifically targeting the developing “MTV generation”, banking on fast cuts, explosions and sex appeal to raise attendance. Furthermore, writing movies around “high concept” ideas (simple plotlines that can be summarized in a sentence or two) became highly popular, since filmmakers would only need to focus on the visuals of a film rather than the content.

Yet, to be fair to the late Mr. Simpson, he also did say that “to make money, it may be important to win an Academy Award, for it may mean another ten million dollars at the box office”, which tells me that some of these big time producers recognized the importance of quality. If you were to look at the big blockbusters of the Eighties and Nineties, you would notice that there are as many well made blockbusters as there are awful ones. However, good blockbusters are quickly becoming few and far in-between.

In recent years, very few original ideas, relatively speaking, have managed to grab hold of the film industry, and Hollywood appears to be manufacturing films off of an assembly line, as every film follows a similar format: Open with explosion, show hero sweaty and shirtless, mutter one liner, fight scene, explosion, cleavage, explosion, show love interest’s bare back, bigger explosion, end with ambiguous ending and roll credits to Linkin Park or My Chemical Romance.

Jerry Bruckheimer once said, “We are in the transportation business. We transport audiences from one place to another”, and that’s what Hollywood has been doing. They found a formula that appeals to the masses, particularly teenage males, and are milking that cow for all its worth. Plots, characters or concepts are no longer important; the films can be adaptations of old television shows, anime, comic books, toys, board games…anything. It does not matter so long as there are explosions, bullet time and breasts. Look at the blockbuster films in the last ten years; remakes, adaptations or sequels. Granted, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter films did well, but stretch an idea out long enough and it begins to lose steam. Look at the latest films from blockbuster titans George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. War of the Worlds was a pretty weak alien invasion story, but who cares because it had Tom Cruise and explosions and narration from Morgan Freeman. George Lucas went back to the Star Wars well to create three unnecessary prequels that ruined a near-spotless saga. The two even teamed up again to give us another Indiana Jones sequel that threw flying fridges and saucers into the mix, and they ended up bastardizing the entire series.

In fact, the advent of sequels and reboots just goes to show that Hollywood is no longer interested in telling stories and are taking the words of Don Simpson to heart: its not about art or storytelling, its about knowing your audience and making profit. Many critics and cinephiles alike are eager to jump on the film industry for its part in ruining the quality of film, but we have to remember that in order to turn a profit you must give the people what they want. For as hated as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is, it also made just under four hundred million dollars in the United States alone. From the perspectives of those benefiting from the film’s success, it would be understandable, even expected for producers and bigwigs to continue giving the people what they apparently want. After all, according to the box office Optimus Prime+ Megan Fox’s boobs = money money money.

In a way, it’s up to the audience to dictate where the film industry will go from here; do we want dazzling effects or content? We have to remember that Hollywood, for better or worse, is a business that gives us what we want. If a film looks stupid, don’t see it, or if you want to see it for riffing’s sake, sneak in. At least you won’t be handing your money to Michael Bay.

There is hope, however, that the blockbusters of yesterday are on the rise with films like Batman Begins, Dark Knight and Iron Man, which took special effects, action sequences and gigantic budgets and applied them to phenomenal acting, character development, and all around good story telling. Cinematic giant James Cameron will be premiering his first film in 10 years, Avatar, in December and promises it to revolutionize the way films are made, all while not sacrificing the necessity of a good script. Hopefully, Avatar’s reputation and dazzling effects won’t collapse on itself.

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