Following up ‘Once there was: The Carribean‘
A long time ago, in a kingdom far, far way, the blockbuster was simply a movie that stood out in terms of its box office result. Gone With the Wind is the classic example. Later, when cinema attendance fell dramatically due to suburbanization and the introduction of television as the form entertainment pur sang for the masses, the blockbuster became an event movie, planned extensively by studio executives. They were historical or biblical epics, or when these started to fail in the 1960s, musicals or disaster movies. They were populated with a large number of a-list Hollywood stars. But they did not save Hollywood from the television. Neither did the artsy films of the ‘New Hollywood’ generation, the Scorseses, Coppolas, the Ciminos and the Altmans. The Godfather notoriously was the huge success that Francis Ford Coppola did not want to make in the first place, because he though that Mario Puzo’s book was trash.
Then, in 1975, there was Jaws. Its production history almost guaranteed a flop. The director was a relative unknown, and his three lead actors (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss) were not exactly typical Hollywood stars. The book it was based on, by Peter Benchley is an exercise in misanthropy, and therefore not exactly a crowd pleaser. Once shooting the film, the shark did not work in the water and an increasingly annoyed and agitated crew were stuck on location for weeks.
But Jaws became a blockbuster. It ‘ate up’ all its competition, consuming the screens of the summer 1975. It was the first of its kind, soon to be followed by Star Wars (and its follow ups), Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (and its follow ups), Alien (and its follow ups), the Terminator films, the Die Hard franchise, Jurassic Park (and its sequels), Speed and ultimately the One That Could Not Have A Sequel: Titanic. Films that were more than just films: they were advertisements for fast food, toys, lunch boxes, computer games, pyjamas and theme park rides. They, eventually, made more money abroad than in the US. And, also eventually, more on video and tv than in the cinemas.
The films listed above are of course but a fraction of what has been served to us as blockbusters over the past decades. They are I think the most significant ones though. I think it was Speed that reached the ultimate in what a blockbuster could be, in terms of breathtaking action thrills and almost no character development (because there is simply no time for building a true romance when you’re on a bus that’ll explode if it slows down). I also think that from that moment on, with Titanic as the ‘ahead-of-the-wave’ prototype, blockbusters became ‘epic’. The possibilities offered by Computer Generated Images of course helped, but ‘epic’ means more than just ‘grand scale’. It is a deliberate reference to those old time (1950s/1960s) historical and biblical films, that, apart from a grand scale, offered a historical, moral or even religious lesson, character development, politicking and social relevance. The non-stop action movie as a powerhouse blockbuster had outrun its possibilities, perhaps because its target audience was at home behind their Sony Playstation. A fin-de-siecle sentiment at the end of the millennium may have played a role as well.
So we got Gladiator and its numerous unsuccesful rip-offs, the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And we got numerous comic book adaptations that took their subject matter seriously, and introduced ‘darkness’. The Spider Man and X-men films for example, but also Batman Begins, by Christopher Nolan. No wonder that people, in the summer of 2003, were happy to see a film without a number attached to it. That offered almost no character development and noon-stop action. One that was epic only the sense that it was set in a historical period. And one that, perhaps most significant, was not followed up by a theme park ride, but was inspired by one. Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl was the delightful guilty pleasure for film fans all over the world who were tired of morals and heroes with troubled histories, and who craved for a hilarious cardboard character like Jack Sparrow.
Of course the success of the film inevitably led to a sequel and a ‘three-quel’, filmed at the same time and basically two parts of one long movie. And as all serious, and less serious, film critics agree, they are overlong, over-written and most of all, overplot. Really. The plot is all over the place. Or should I say ‘plots’. For not only every major character, but also most supporting characters, have their own agenda, which are all played out in the third film ‘At World’s End’. The general idea is that it probably makes some sense, but it is hard to figure out what sense. It needs constructed set pieces like the one described in my previous post ‘The Guitar Chord Effecting the Mix Up of Right and Wrong‘ in order to work out. Basically, there is so much plot that it does not matter. It might be argued that there is no plot at all. As British film critic Mark Kermode argues, in an incredible condemnation of the film (check it out on youtube), it is three hours of ‘stuff happening’, and its success signified the inevitable downfall of Western civilization.
I disagree with Mark Kermode. I think that Pirates at the Carribean: At World’s End is, intended or not (probably not), as a modern reincarnation of Once Upon a Time in the West. Not in that it is as good, which it of course is not, but in that it is about a) the end of the age of piracy (Jack Sparrow actually contemplating eternal damnation just to be ‘the last pirate’) and b) the end of this series, the ultimate end of this type of movies as a major blockbuster potential. The no-content-all-action blockbuster was already displaced with the epic one when Gladiator and The Matrix came along, but Pirates 3 is its definitive salute, its ‘in memoriam’. From now on, this type of film can only exist in the b-league, honourably alongside From Paris With Love or last year’s Taking of Pelham 123 remake (what does it say that John Travolta is in both?). It is a full round circle back to Jaws, because the machinery of the Black Pearl, in its final battle, in a maelstrom, did not have to work in the water. The water was computer generated afterwards.
To seal the closed gate between major blockbuster and b-rate action film, one year after Pirates 3 there was The Dark Knight. Taking in over a billion dollars worldwide (which are just its cinematic earnings) it finally set the mark for the new type of blockbuster movie: action packed and with sequel potential, certainly, also but dark, ambiguous and socially or philosophically relevant. This is why there may very well be a Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides, and it may even be very succesfull, but it will inevitably be a b-movie, or a genre-flick. And of the major blockbuster films to look forward to this spring and summer, the ones that will stand out are probably not Clash of the Titans or Prince of Persia and the Sands of Time, but a politically charged Robin Hood, and the darkly tinted Iron Man 2.
Hell, there is even already a stream of commemorative films, dedicated to and reinvoking the ‘all-action-no-brains-required’ summer film: The Expendables, The Losers and of course, The A-Team.