The current state of the modern blockbuster can be a bit tricky to pin down at the moment. Due to the fact that most big-budget projects have been pushed back into the next couple of years, only a handful of blockbusters have been released over the past year or so. But those few releases are still able to key us into where the genre is headed. Almost all were sequels to or remakes of existing films, and the reception settled around a consensus of something like, “it’s good to distract from the world, but it could be so much more.”
This has been a trend for a while now. Of the 30 most expensive movies ever made, just one is not based on a pre-existing property (though you could say two if you don’t count the Rapunzel fairytale). It is very clear what Hollywood’s money is being pumped into, and from a business perspective, it makes sense. If you’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making a film, you want to be sure people want to see it, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by basing it off on something that already exists and people enjoy.
It’s worked out well so far for the studios, as only about three of the films could really be considered failures (all by Disney, who has more than made up the profits). They don’t really care that the reception among critics and audiences ranges from “that was bad” to “that was surprisingly good.” As long as the money keeps rolling in, they’ll keep putting most of their eggs in safe baskets.
Not to re-spark the Scorsese vs. Marvel debate, but his criticisms are relevant to discussions about the medium of film as an art form. Most of the money in the film industry isn’t currently going into art; it’s going into products. Studios aren’t interested in telling meaningful stories or pushing the technical limits of film — they are solely interested in making money. And when you’re solely interested in making money, you’re much less likely to take chances on films that don’t satisfy the largest demographic possible.
But original films that take big risks can be very successful. Up until 2019, the two highest-grossing films of all time were “Avatar” and “Titanic,” two original films that pushed the boundaries of what was possible with film technology at the time. Sure, the hit rate might not be as high, and the return isn’t always going to be as much as an Avengers film, but if invested in and marketed well, these riskier films can be very successful commercially and critically.
Unfortunately, at the moment, these films and potential filmmakers aren’t being given the chance. Apart from James Cameron — who directed the aforementioned highest-grossing films of all time, and who doesn’t appear to be working on any non-Avatar sequels in the foreseeable future — there’s really only one filmmaker who can get risky, original, big-budget films made: Christopher Nolan.
Whether he can still do that after the pandemic-induced failure of his latest release “Tenet” is to be determined, but his track record suggests that the big-budget features that Hollywood doesn’t want to make can be extremely successful at the box office, as well as thought-provoking pieces of art. After the success of his Dark Knight trilogy, based on the characters from Batman comics and previous movies, Nolan was given a blank check to make whatever he wished. The first was “Inception,” a heist film that dealt with ideas of dream states and alternate realities. It was a smash at the box office, and it even found itself among that year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture, indicating that despite its large budget, it was able to garner a sense of prestige not typically associated with bigger, blockbuster features.
“Inception” is a fantastic film, but it probably falls a bit more on the side of “The Avengers” than “Citizen Kane.” That’s not a bad thing necessarily and was probably part of the reason it was so successful, but despite all of the interesting things Nolan and his crew do with structure and visual effects, it still lacks the emotional resonance of something that Martin Scorsese might describe as “cinema.” However, if we look at Nolan’s next non-Batman film, “Interstellar,” we start to see what Hollywood blockbusters can achieve artistically if just given the opportunity to succeed.
“Interstellar” is Nolan’s attempt at a “2001: A Space Odyssey”-esque space epic. The two films aren’t that similar apart from the setting of space and a few visual similarities, and structurally they are very different. “Interstellar” is much more plot- and character-driven than “2001,” no doubt a reflection of what modern audiences crave and what studios would be willing to finance in this era. But that doesn’t stop Nolan from tapping into some serious thematic depth with his story.
Though the specific hows and whys aren’t the primary focus of the film, climate change and its environmental impacts are a big theme in the film. The solution of what to do when we get to a point where human life on Earth is unsustainable is the big dramatic question of “Interstellar;” that was an incredibly bold, complex idea to center your $175 million blockbuster around at that time. But Nolan makes the clever decision to ground the film’s big ideas in very relatable human drama — specifically the father-daughter relationship between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”) and Murph (Jessica Chastain, “Molly’s Game”). That relationship provides the film with a strong emotional core — perhaps the strongest in any Nolan movie and certainly stronger than most modern blockbusters. That dynamic allows the audience to understand the film’s message even when the science elements get a bit confusing.
You may groan at Nolan’s decision to have love be the key that “saves” humanity in the end, but it makes Nolan’s statement clear: If we’re going to stop (or at least minimize) climate change, we need to have compassion for people, even those we don’t know.
Most modern blockbusters don’t have much to say at all, much less something important. Studios don’t want to risk alienating audience members who don’t agree with the message and as a result, hurt the potential profitability of the film. But there is a world in which films with something to say can be hugely profitable. “Interstellar” made $700 million at the box office. “Avatar” is currently the highest-grossing film of all time at $2.8 billion (and has 4 sequels in the works) while having a strong environmentalist message. Complex, thought-provoking art can come out of big-budget blockbusters — it just needs to be given the investment.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached email@example.com.