Maxing out the Stuff-O-Meter: Modern Blockbusters and the Problem of Excess
Sometimes I feel like there’s just too much “stuff” in modern Hollywood films.
For the last two decades now, the blockbuster has been growing in budget and technical ambition. My hunch is it began with the dual releases of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. Both films heralded important visual effects breakthroughs. On the positive side, with Gollum the film ambitioned to create fully integrated CG characters who were capable of giving humanistic performances. On the negative side, Jackson’s and Lucas’ own indulgences led to the films favouring spectacle and action, in Rings’ case often bloating the book’s battles into the major events of the film — given far more time and attention than the arguably more thematically important textual elements. Lucas, at the time, suffered a more noticeable failing: his sense of character, performance, mood and drama suffered in his gambit to push the technical boundaries. But, ultimately, they succeeded in designing spectacles that enchanted audiences. Since the early 2000s we’ve seen visual effects improving at a rapid pace: the scope of what they can do growing each passing year. Nowadays, VFX teams are creating marvels of all sorts, making immersive worlds come alive. Often the most impressive computer effects are the quietest. The ones that feel as though a natural world surrounds the actors. That the aliens or dinosaurs or other things on-screen might very well be real; they fit so naturalistically into the world depicted.
When one comes to 2012–2014’s The Hobbit trilogy, the problems that began in the 2003 trilogy become more noticeable. The action is ludicrous to the point of seeming like it borrowed ideas from cartoons and video games (and I’m fairly convinced that it had) and it is constant. Half the final film is filled with long, heavily-CG’d scenes of huge armies clashing while the characters performing impossible stunts. Denethor’s Olympic fire-run and Legolas’ mumakil murder all those years back may have been the perfect illustration of the absurdity that CGI could bring, and the future trilogy would make even those foolish choices look subdued. It’s hard not to get on Jackson’s case, though many want to exonerate him from all flaws of The Hobbit as much as possible by blaming, primarily, the studio. But truthfully, he seems one of the central harbingers of this trend. His 2005 remake of King Kong showed his commitment to the pathway of indulgence in VFX trickery. For example: climaxing the brontosaur stampede with a Simpson-esque pile-up, or the decision to take Kong’s iconic battle with a T-Rex and turn it into a fourway WWE match where Kong faces off against three V-Rexes (as they’re called in that film). For Jackson, it seems important technical developments that enhance film immersion (Gollum and Kong) are matched alongside the juvenile need to do something just to do it, to take action to its physical limits and then some. Characters no longer feel like characters: they become so digitized they are thrown into impossibilities that should kill them several times over. It’s the baffling impulse that believes watching Legolas leap from dwarf-head-to-dwarf-head on a churning river, shooting arrow after arrow at goblins, is somehow engaging cinema.
But it’s not special effects as an art that’s the problem, but the use of them in banal and infantile manners. It’s when the story becomes about them, when the entire scene is designed around them, when drama and reasonable suspension-of-disbelief is broken to make way for the Spectacle of the thing. I recall watching Five Armies in horror: it was a story I care about, by an author I love, and this was its treatment. All I could do was gaze helplessly as I watched Bard the Bowman create a makeshift crossbow with his son as a balancing tool to shoot the dragon Smaug in the heart. People around me laughed. I was bewildered. The music seemed to be trying to tell me this was a “heartfelt” scene with Shore working in emotive choirs and rising strings, hoping to stir us. But the audience just giggled. And I sat appalled. It was like watching Peter Jackson burning the book before my very eyes, cackling.
I speak for myself, of course, and only for myself. Reality is, this Stuff is popular. And other audience members seem to love their own stuff-o-meters being maxed out, spiraling ‘round and off the meter, screeching in a little metallic voice “It’s off the charts!” as something insane, like a character skateboarding on a speeding limousine whilst dodging bullets coming from all around them. There’s always been action — and ludicrous action at that, see any Indiana Jones film — but nowadays there’s a homogeneity to it, and an increased physical and emotional weightlessness to it. 2016’s Wonder Woman feels like a prime example, where the superheroic confrontation with the villain ‘Ares’ somehow seems like it was tacked-on from a completely different film. Everything must end with huge punchouts. With the rise of superhero films, it appears that the stuff-o-meter maxing is a calculated design to perform this hugeness to the fullest extent. It seems every Summer and Christmas season, a film ends with the eerily similar 20 minute spectacle of an American city being half-obliterated as some titans fight their hordes of opponents (or bash each other up).
Action, and spectacular action, is fine. But I feel overwhelmed by frequency of it. It seems so many big budget movies nowadays have at least three, if not more, of these scenes, each trying to outdo the last, and every one of these trying to outdo what came out last season or last year. Truth is, I feel bored. It’s something I’ve been shown a hundred times or more at this point. Scenes of mass destruction have become regular. Expected. Furthermore, there’s no tension because, ultimately, the depictions are often too silly to take seriously, or the heroes so powerful and necessary for the next instalment, they’re not in any peril. I genuinely wondered, when I heard about Avengers: Infinity War’s high killcount how anyone could fret over it. Half the ‘dead’ seemed to have their next spin-off film coming up in a couple of years. Death and sacrifice mean nothing. They’ll be trotted back out in 18 months time anyway. There is no finality to it. No sense of loss. Everyone, always, will come back, perfectly hale.
Beyond boredom, the Stuff also leaves a deeply rooted sense of emptiness for me.
Increasingly deeper emotional experiences seem lost in the blockbuster film. Most of the Marvel films I’ve seen tend to use humour as a crutch. A ‘witty’ one-liner follows most dramatic statements. In Doctor Strange, the super-magician fights off his enemy in the Dark Dimension (which, weirdly, is full of colourful objects) keeping himself trapped in a time-loop to hold off his advance. One might expect such an act to be a swelling of emotion, to have the weight of self-sacrifice for the greater good. But no, it’s constructed in a humorous manner. If you wish for a richer emotional experience look elsewhere. It never used to be this way, of course. Remember the Indianapolis speech in Jaws? Or that film’s rustic everyman simplicity of three characters hunting a terrorizing shark on a small boat? The genuine fear as the shark battered and sank the little boat a mile or two away from the land? Nowadays the boat would be six warships and the Great White a breed of winged shark-mutants, in their hundreds, firing lasers, blowing up some part of San Francisco.
It’s not that spectacle is wrong, or that it can’t be mesmerizing or moving. It’s just that I wish it was not so constant, not so consuming. I wish more film-makers had the sense to pullback, to hold back, to focus on the layering of character or theme, or the beats between lines, holding onto silence or in some way allowing a chance to feel the heartbeat between two people in a moment. A moment of contemplation, of loss, of admiration. A moment of loving embrace. A moment of quiet. Something still and there and uninvaded. I wish disappointment, defeat, or sorrow might be allowed to stay enough to be felt, not suddenly sidestepped with an explosion or a “ha, ha” line. It’s that the definition of spectacle, now, is purely action based.
It seems we’ve entered a period where the ruling principle is make it BIG. Make it Big and Loud and Busy. Make it Long, give it everything you’ve got, and next time, find a way to give it even More. I suppose, at the end of the day, that the modern style, at least that which feels so predominant now, is somewhat at odds with my taste. I wish there was more balance between these elements, between character and style and spectacle and poignancy. It’s the proportions that make me sigh, sitting down into another film where the ending will typically be, again, half-an-hour of action and explosion, watching impossible feats — sometimes by superhuman figures, sometimes by humans — and all will come back to how it was. The equilibrium fully restored, nothing in the film’s universe lost. Has anyone grown or changed? Usually not.
It’s always been a problem, to some extent or another, with Hollywood productions, and the aiming for a mass audience appeal. Even in 1997’s Titanic (another film that would go from a hard sell to an impossibility these days) Cameron forces in a gun chase as though a sinking ship and over a thousand deaths isn’t already dramatic enough. Yet nowadays the style of it feels at the extreme. In contrast, Titanic is a three-hour epic centred on a love story aboard voyage that became a historical tragedy. Half of it is about the bonding of young lovers framed through the memory of an old woman. The ending is a tragedy, the spectacle in service of the horror and the pride that built that doomed ship and called it ‘unsinkable’. Today, the grounding is not in character or tone or theme, but purely in budget. The larger the budget grows, and the more guaranteed an audience, the more absurdity is thrust up on screen. This film had an army of 10,000 mutants? This one will have a battle with a million robots!
Over the last decade or so, married to the rise of the franchise film, it feels like big-budget cinema has been taken over with a sameness. So many films feel engineered in the same fashion, each one strangely akin. There’s little room to experiment or play around with things, little room to explore emotions and tones that don’t comfortably fit the continually prevailing mould. Little seems weightful or emotive anymore, and many things that try often do so through hugeness and its limited expressions. Snyder, infamously, mistakes oppressive gloom for “deep” cinema, but even he attempts it with a perpetual Loudness and Hugeness that aspired to make each action scene — nay, each scene, each shot — as huge as he possibly could. Snyder floundered, his Massive Grimness being outdone by Marvel’s playful indifference to anything deep, poignant, or challenging. It’s as if this era has been strangling subtlety and stillness and scenes of such things out of the films. It’s as if each and every time, all things must press on towards the exact same narrative beats. The very same design. All films must hit the point of ‘peak action’ where massiveness is mistaken for purposefulness. And if something dares feel meaningful or simply sad, a quip is made to alleviate the audience of that sombre emotion.
I don’t need to measure the Stuff in these films anymore because, at the end of the day, that increasingly seems all that’s there.