In an age of uninspired adaptations and pointless remakes and reboots, the blockbuster movie tradition is looking a little tired. You would think there would come a time when these big budget snooze fests would stop pulling audiences, and someday soon that’s exactly what may happen, leaving the blockbuster extinct as their cost effectiveness wanes. But what if the blockbuster changes – evolves into a new creature for a new time? Marvel, of course, has things pretty well in hand with the unprecedented scope of their movie franchises. Aside from that, there are a select few filmmakers out there taking a refreshing approach with their blockbusters – they trust the audience to be smart enough to understand and enjoy a smart, thoughtful, and unique movie. Imagine a Hollywood that doesn’t cater to the largest possible common denominator. These filmmakers did – and perhaps it’s no surprise that every movie on this list comes from the science fiction genre.
The Matrix (1999)
It may not be the movie that started it all, but its pretty close. Released just before the turn of the millennium, the Wachowski siblings brought us a movie that would change the way a lot of us saw blockbusters – a new formula for a new age. Not only did it use photographic technology in new and exciting ways and had an unusual and compelling storyline, it also spoke to a young generation entering a new century. It did more than entertain, it made us think about how we perceived things and about what hidden potentials might lie within ourselves. And it made us demand a smarter, more genuine product from the Hollywood machine, no longer satisfied to sit through condescending exposition and pointless explosions.
As with any change in their audience over the years, Hollywood is a little slow to catch up to current demand. Eleven years after The Matrix, Christopher Nolan’s mindfuck of a movie Inception turned the tables again. Unlike so many mindless blockbusters, Inception has a smart and complex script that doesn’t pull any punches with its audience. Nolan wrote a twisted, complicated, ambiguous movie and trusted his audience to follow it, enjoy it, and come to their own conclusions. And it paid off big time. Inception was the hit of the summer and one of the most debated movies in recent memory. Add to that some fun, creative special effects that look awesome in IMAX and you have yourself a blowout success.
While Ridley Scott’s space epic Prometheus is a prequel to his Aliens series, the similarity is pretty hard to see. Prometheus is a harsh, barren movie that purposefully leaves a lot of story threads open ended and unexplained. There is very little in the way of exposition and an awful lot that goes on that remains mysterious. It is the ultimate in puzzler movies, leaving the audience to come up with their own backstories and conspiracy theories for certain character actions and events. It really is almost as if Scott has a disdain for the audience, aiming to confuse and compel them, leaving them almost obsessed with wonder.
Rian Johnson has a fascinating talent for placing genre pieces in unusual settings. His Brick (2005) was a slick, hardboiled film noir detective story set in a suburban high school – certainly not the first place that springs to mind, and consequently makes the film both extremely funny and deeply suspenseful. The majority of Looper – a futuristic time travel story about assassins from the past who get sent targets from the future – takes place on a solitary farm surrounded by corn. The incongruity is delightful and somehow familiar. Add to that a plot about time travel, and you already have some loopy plot points to keep up with. And Looper isn’t just about time travel, as much as it is about a man finding himself and coming to love something more than the money he covets and the hedonistic lifestyle he enjoys. There’s a lot to like about Looper and its stylish, pseudo-scientific, thoughtful, and complex script.
I have Gravity on a lot of my lists this year, partly because I was so very impressed by it when I saw it. There’s not a movie out there that can compare with Gravity and its harrowing, awesome, epic, and exultant story, with the production design to match. There aren’t many movies that can capture the vast emptiness of space so effectively, and director Alfonso Cuaron manages to slap us in the face with it without ever leaving Earth’s orbit. Almost immediately we are awed and cowed by that terrifying emptiness as Sandra Bullock goes spinning helplessly through the frozen vacuum, nothing to cling to and nothing to stop her momentum, just thousands of miles of nothing.
It’s no mistake that Christopher Nolan is on here twice. The Guardian recently haled him as the man who rebooted the blockbuster, and rightly so. The films that Nolan puts out have a vibrancy to them, a certain genuine and passionate dedication to an idea and the determination to deliver on it. Interstellar has been getting amazing reviews for months, some calling it the best movie of the new century. Those are pretty strong words – but if that’s true, Interstellar could be another turning point in the evolution of the blockbuster.