Why Must Blockbusters Be Dumb?

A few years ago around this time, Mark Harris wrote the following article for GQ:

In which he shifted the blame away from those erroneous suspects on to a later film: Top Gun.

In the article Harris wrote the following:

Then came Top Gun. The man calling the shots may have been Tony Scott, but the film’s real auteurs were producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two men who pioneered the “high-concept” blockbuster—films for which the trailer or even the tagline told the story instantly. At their most basic, their movies weren’t movies; they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.

Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-’80s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?

Food for thought there. I’m more sympathetic to this argument than I am to the worn out Jaws and Star Wars one. If nothing else, the basic fact is that Jaws and Star Wars both still hold up as legitimately good movies while Top Gun does not. It’s a piece of pop culture ephemera that comes off nowadays as rather silly and jingoistic.

But I don’t know if I can necessarily say that Top Gun alone led to blockbusters becoming pointless noise machines. Harris, to his credit, more or less admits that it is an arbitrary selection. So let’s say that Top Gun did play a role. But two later movies did just as much if not more. Those two movies: Twister and Independence Day.

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Posted on March 2, 2014, in Movies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. daffystardust

    Interesting article.
    I have to admit that I’ve never seen Twister or Independence Day.
    But I increasingly find that nowadays when I look at movie listings between early March and late November, I’m often left with nothing I really want to see. That’s 2/3 of the year!
    Usually there will be 1 or 2 super hero or animated films to help tide me over during these months, but I sure wish I felt like I could go to the movies almost weekly like I did back in the late 80s and feel like I stood a chance at not regretting it more often than not.
    Of course I saw a lot of bad movies back then too.


    • You have never seen Twister or Independence Day?!? We talked about pop culture blind spots in relation to Love Actually. Those are two pretty big ones. The thing is, I can’t actually recommend going back and watching either one of them. Twister was passable largely due to the effects which are dated now. Independence Day is actually pretty awful. Any entertainment value it might have comes from its awfulness. Still, those feel like movies everyone should see just because.


      • daffystardust

        The general critical consensus, not only from actual critics, but from trusted friends who have seen the films, has convinced me that this constitutes 2 dodged bullets. I’m not looking to reload those particular chambers.


        • I can’t say as I blame you. And yet, a part of me feels like everyone should share in the awfulness.


        • daffystardust

          In other words: You want me to drink the Beverly.


        • lol

          Pretty much.

          Neither one is truly offensive. They are just aggressively mediocre movies. They aren’t even trying to be good. Which often equates to popularity. Each one has about 5 minutes of entertainment buried in there somewhere. For ID, it’s Will Smith being Big Willie. For Twister, it’s a cow.


  2. Another great article. Did you ever read the overrated book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”? The author basically lays all the blame on “Jaws” & “Star Wars” for how he thinks the golden age of American filmmaking in the 1970s ended. Never mind that there were blockbusters (like the James Bond films) long before that or that idiots who tried to duplicate “Jaws” &/or “Star Wars” were just too dumb to put some originality into such films.
    I agree that “Top Gun,” “Twister,” & “Independence Day” haven’t aged well. The same can be said for the 1989 “Batman.”


    • jeffthewildman

      I did read it. On one hand I liked a lot of it. On the other hand, a lot of it seemed based on hearsay, he bought into that aforementioned myth and I did not agree with his implication that once the 70s were over, all those filmmakers were wiped out. Not quite.


    • I actually have quite a bit to say on this subject. It may have to be an article as opposed to a comment here. I honestly disagree with you more than I agree. But you do have a point. Star Wars and Jaws didn’t do anything wrong. But their success did lead us to where we are today.


  3. Why, you ask? Because to be “blockbusters” the studio bigwigs NEED THEM TO APPEAL TO THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR/widest demographic(s). Let’s face it, America isn’t exactly over-breeding rocket surgeons these daze.


  4. The economics dictate that a big (i.e., expensive) production must appeal to the widest possible audience in the most number of languages. So the simpler the plot, the more special effects and the less dialog to be translated, the better. Studios make up to 80 percent of their profit from international distribution.


    • That 80% number seems a little high. International is important. And more important all the time. But I have seen some people overestimating the significance of international box office. 80% doesn’t sound right yet. The biggest movie of the year last year, Iron Man 3, did 42% of it’s business in the US. Just an example, not proof one way or the other.

      Other than that, you’re dead on target. It’s all about the money.


  5. So, I just finished reading the article. Apparently, I am part of the problem. Without the “click to read more” button, I didn’t realize there were 4 more pages and stopped reading after the first one. D’oh!

    I agree with most of your points. No one movie destroyed cinema. But over time, the studios have begun chasing the “summer movie” year round. Why? Money. That’s the short version.

    If you want to track the history of it, you almost have to go through every summer from Jaws to Iron Man 3. And expand to include spring and the X-Mas movie season. There are dozens if not hundreds of movies that have paved the way for the current cinematic landscape.

    The most upsetting thing, to me, is the death of the mid-budget movie. We no longer have sleepers any more. Which is a shame. Studios don’t want to make those movies any more. Disney, for example, has been very up front about the fact they are now in the “tent-pole business.” This is a terrible, short-sighted business model. But it’s the way things are going.

    When Spielberg gave that interview about Lincoln, he and George Lucas predicted that eventually, the tent-pole model would implode on itself. I hope they are right.


    • I know I’m a little late to the party, but please explain the term “tent-pole movie.”

      Why be blockbusters dumb? Because modestly budgeted intelligent films generally DON’T MAKE LOTSA MONEY. People (seemingly) want silly spectacle, good-looking humanoids blowing-up stuff real good.

      Say what you will about Bill Maher, but I give the man points for saying what’s on his mind: On his Politically Incorrect TV show, the one where Robert Loggia, one of the stars of “Independence Day” was ONE OF HIS GUESTS, he said that movie was dumb, adding [SPOILER] “oh, so the aliens are Mac-compatible!”


      • jeffthewildman

        Tent Pole Movie generally means one that the studio will know is likely to keep it in business. In general, that means established franchises IE: Pirates, Transformers, Fast and Furious etc.


    • Its about money- I’ll make a Moneyball comparison.

      Moneyball (use of statistics over the opinions of scouts) became popular because baseball players became too highly paid. When you gave Mickey Mantle a $5000 bonus- you could go off of a scout’s opinion. When it became Tim Salmon- and a $2,000,000 signing bonus- well the banks/backers wanted a bit more than the opinion of a 60 year old alcoholic who had a cup of coffee in the bigs.

      Same with blockbusters and Hollywood. Star Wars budget was initially $8,250,000 (it went up- which is a longer story)- so you could let a “Kid with a beard” run with it.

      50, 100- 200 million bucks? The studios, backers, etc want a bit more than hearing what a genius you were back in NYU. So they put in a ton of management and hire directors they can control and/or have a record of getting movies done on time and under budget. That’s why Chris Columbus got the Harry Potter movies- not because he was some Sundance stud.

      Does it suck? Sure- I’d like more adult oriented, intelligent, or artistic films- but frankly- I can’t sit through The Cotton Club or Heaven’s Gate- and I’ve tried.

      And the Marvel films are pretty good. Of course- Joss Whedon is no hack, either.


      • Good point. The stakes are higher.

        Although, I would point out that in the case of the Hollywood studios the stakes are higher because the studios raised them. They lost interest in midrange movies. They only want to play at the high stakes table now.

        Also, unlike baseball, we’re not dealing with statistics here. Sure, there’s test screenings and all that. But a big part of the problem is that the people who run the studios believe that good marketing and the right release date are more important than a good script. I think that is where they are backwards.


      • re: That’s why Chris Columbus got the Harry Potter movies- not because he was some Sundance stud.

        Are you implying that CC is a Hollywood hack? (Well, he probably is.)

        re: The studios, backers, etc want a bit more than hearing what a genius you were back in NYU.

        GASP! The implication that almost no one in the post-college world gives a crap about what a wizard you were in college?!? Scandalous! [more sarcasm]


        • re: Are you implying that CC is a Hollywood hack? (Well, he probably is.)

          Probably? I didn’t know that was up for debate. 😉


        • Its easy to beat up Chris Columbus-

          Two good points- he directed Adventures in Babysitting- which is a very entertaining movie- and its pace must have meant he did some decent directing-


          He wrote Gremlins- AND his original script was much darker.


        • Gremlins scores him some points.

          Adventures in Babysitting is a wash in my book. I love Elisabeth Shue. The movie is inoffensive and kind of fun. Maybe I should give Columbus more credit for it than I do. But it just feels so John Hughesy. Yes, I’m coining that term.


  6. Is the reason that the Iron Man films do so well partly that they’re not so dumb, courtesy of RDJ’s charisma? He has a spark that’s always served him well, and I know an awful lot of women who briefly go all detached & distant when he’s mentioned. Which sure as hell ain’t coz he’s tall & classically chiselled, but rather because he’s clearly a very very intelligent bloke (+ sense of humour).

    Daffy makes an excellent point regarding release dates. I’ve barely left the cinema over the last few months with the Oscar bait films on release. But after next month it’s going to be a long cold summer. 😦


  7. “If nothing else, the basic fact is that Jaws and Star Wars both still hold up as legitimately good movies while Top Gun does not.”

    I assume you are referring to the original 1977 cut of Star Wars rather than the God-knows-how-many revised versions George keeps putting out.


    • Still have my widescreen VHS copy in which Han shoot first. Suck on that, Georgie!


    • Top Gun was always regarded as being a bit stupid. The weirdly homoerotic, oiled volleyball game, the paint by numbers plot, the heat-deprived love story, the moronic machismo-

      What saved the film was the real jets flying- they were the stars-


      • At the time the movie was released, critics pointed out its flaws. But most audiences didn’t notice. Over time, popular opinion has shifted somewhat. Separated from the jingoism of the Reagan era, more people are able to see that Top Gun was never really a very good movie.


        • They can also get all the jet fighters they want from the Military Channel, etc-

          Top Gun was basically the beginning of the Military/Entertainment industry that took off with Tom Clancy, cable TV, POV shooter video games, even gun sales.


        • re: Separated from the jingoism of the Reagan era, more people are able to see that Top Gun was never really a very good movie.

          Do you mean to imply that war isn’t exciting fun? [That was sarcasm.]


      • “The weirdly homoerotic, oiled volleyball game”

        NB: this film was not only seen by heterosexual men. For some of us girlies (who still loved the jets, don’t get me wrong), that volleyball game was actually a bit of a glistening highlight. And still is. 🙂


  8. Steven Soderbergh’s address about the current state of movies-

    He has a good point that the big grossing movies usually cost a lot:

    ” Psychologically, it’s more comforting to spend $60 million promoting a movie that costs 100, than it does to spend $60 million for a movie that costs 10. I know what you’re thinking: If it costs 10 you’re going to be in profit sooner. Maybe not. Here’s why: OK. $10 million movie, 60 million to promote it, that’s 70, so you’ve got to gross 140 to get out. Now you’ve got $100 million movie, you’re going spend 60 to promote it. You’ve got to get 320 to get out. How many $10 million movies make 140 million dollars? Not many. How many $100 million movies make 320? A pretty good number, and there’s this sort of domino effect that happens too.”


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