2012 and the Onslaught of the Hollywood Blockbuster
2012 is an epic production and a culmination of all of its director’s prior concerns. One could go far as to state that it is perhaps the film Roland Emmerich was destined to make. It is also a huge headache which you will probably forget in a couple of hours, if you’re lucky.
As I mentioned the film contains many of the trademark conventions of Emmerich’s prior productions. Foremost is an ensemble cast all playing their part to avert or escape danger, previously witnessed in Independence Day. Secondly there is the frankly awful b-movie dialogue, evidenced in The Day After Tomorrow. Finally there is the central theme of a broken family which overcomes disaster and ultimately returns to its conventional nuclear state, also present in Independence Day.
In one particular scene John Cusack’s character states ‘We’re going to need a bigger plane’. He is making a light-hearted reference to his family’s doomed situation as they try to escape the apocalypse. The filmmakers, however, are knowingly referencing the mother of all blockbusters, Jaws, and the now infamous line uttered by Roy Scheider’s character ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat’.
The Hollywood blockbuster has come a long way since the release of Jaws in 1975. It was in the seventies that the Hollywood movie brats were honoured as the saviours of the film industry. The films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg continued to prosper precisely because they focused on marketing and targeted a broad audience. Together they invented the summer blockbuster and the franchise and the rest is all history.
Hollywood is still following the same principle, albeit on a larger scale with more risk involved. As Henry K. Miller has noted in his review of 2012, published in this month’s edition of Sight and Sound magazine, blockbusters can be viewed as Hollywood’s reaction to the threat of home and portable entertainment and its continued proliferation. The point being that these high-budget spectacles are unsuitable for laptops or phones and can only be viewed on the big screen. The scenario was the same in the fifties when Hollywood tried to combat the threat of television by inventing a number of gimmicks such as 3D, which has recently been revived, and several widescreen formats. The latter were created to further enhance the spectacle of the A-list productions that the studios were focusing on. Successful films of the era included the biblical epics The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Output continued to decrease but budgets grew alarmingly creating a recipe for disaster. The failures were as epic as the productions themselves. Cleopatra released in 1963 followed the same conventions as the blockbusters of the previous decade. With its inflated budget, overlong running time and delayed release date it did not repeat their success. The same occurred in the seventies when Michael Cimino, riding high on the success of The Deer Hunter, was given carte blanche on his next film. The production of his following feature, Heaven’s Gate, was notoriously elaborate and ultimately catastrophic. The film was released over schedule and its budget had rapidly increased. Unlike Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s huge commercial failure, it didn’t even receive good reviews. It also resulted in United Artists, the studio that had backed it, almost filing for bankruptcy and eventually being sold off to MGM.
Today’s industry ethic revolves around the continual promotion of a handful of spectacular event movies seen as the backbone of the industry. These include comic book adaptations such as Iron Man, franchises such as Harry Potter and general high budget eye-candy such as Transformers. Unlike the blockbusters of previous decades the subject matter has lost every ounce of intelligence and originality in favour of spectacle.
One major change which has recently appeared is the alteration of the A-list calendar. Whereas before these movies were relegated to the summer period they are now being released late in to the year. Two such examples are 2012 and Avatar and to a lesser extent the second part of the Twilight saga, New Moon. What is also notable is how Hollywood has managed to cater for different forms of its fractured audience yet continually chooses to ignore certain demographics altogether. Whereas the comic book adaptations are catered toward the young male crowd the most popular franchises of recent years also attract young female viewers, examples include the Harry Potter series and the Twilight Saga. It is the older adult demographic which continues to be ignored and most likely continues to ignore the cinema.
The A-list films are marketed through the use of multi-media platforms which include toys, books, games, accessories and pop soundtracks. These films are touted as the saviours of Hollywood and much like the apocalyptic spectacle of 2012 there is no escaping them.
It seems that Hollywood is headed down the same path to failure. For every film touted as the saviour of the industry there are numerous failures. This year for example The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra underperformed at the box office. Hollywood continues to mine other avenues in order to prolong its unoriginal output. The comic book writer Alan Moore who has severed any ties he had with Hollywood as it continues to butcher his work stated that the more money you throw at a project, no matter its field, the less risk and imagination is involved. Therefore Hollywood should stray from its conventional attitude of bigger is better and in the process perhaps cultivate original ideas. Asian cinema has proven that it can be done. It needs to readdress the older audience it has ignored for the past decade and respect its younger viewers by intelligently interacting with them through the medium of film. Otherwise the naysayers will continue to rightly proclaim, as in 2012, that the end is nigh.