This is nothing new, of course. We're all very aware of Hollywood's need for mega-expensive sequels and reboots in their effort to compete at the global box office, especially with China swiftly rising as a world film power (in box office if not necessarily in production, though they are catching up there too). But looking back at three films in particular - Goldeneye, The Rock (1996), and Independence Day (1996) - provides us with a fascinating look at the historical context of the blockbuster in the mid-1990s, as well as a glimpse into just how different the form is today.
Historical Implications: Wither the Red Scare?
Notably, all three of these films are action films beefed up with big-budget spectacle. All three of them also represent the biggest challenge this particular genre faced in the 1990s: who are the villains?
More after the jump.
The end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union greatly affected the world order in the early 1990s, establishing what is known as the United States' "unipolar moment:" a time in which the US was the only superpower (and arguably is, depending on your view of China). Among the many consequences of this dissolution was the loss of the action genre's go-to villain of the 1980s. Red Dawn to Rocky IV, the Soviet Union was the ideal villain for American heroes to defeat, especially during the rah-rah patriotism of the Reagan years. Even if the villain wasn't explicitly Soviet, they were at the very least Communist, from Die Hard's Hans Gruber (German, presumably East German) to the Vietnamese soldiers in Rambo: First Blood Part II. These films made the Cold War hot, depicting a violent confrontation of the United States and the Soviet Union, or at least the principles of "democracy" versus the principles of "communism," rather than the stalemates, proxy wars, and diplomacy that actually occurred.
Yet when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the "threat" of communism subsided, Hollywood was left without a clear popular villain for its action films. Some film franchises from this period, such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, continued to succeed precisely because they avoided playing Cold War politics, instead focusing on loose-cannon cops who fought smaller-scale fights. The studios began experimenting with superhero films as well, as the success of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 promised an alternative to the real-world based (or at least adjacent) action film. Most of these efforts, however, flopped, and the superhero film would need another decade before it could take off. The villain gap was still very much an issue in the mid-1990s.
This is perhaps no more evident than in Goldeneye, the first James Bond film since the end of the Cold War. The James Bond franchise seemed particularly ill-equipped to handle this problem precisely because Bond himself was so steeped in the Cold War mindset. Ian Fleming's novels, and the subsequent film series, cast Bond as a spy who was not active in warfare but in espionage, fighting in the shadows rather than on the battlefield. Bond may have been British, but he fought on the same side as the United States against the threat of communism. This made Bond exceedingly popular during the 1960s, when the Cold War seemed primed to break, and every villain Bond faced on some level echoed the fears of Communist influence on the rest of the world. Bond was the perfect Cold War hero - a one-man army who embodied both the dark paranoia and the swingin' sexuality of the time.
So what happens to Bond when his context no longer exists? What purpose does espionage serve a world without a clear threat? Goldeneye attempts to work this out by making the villain the enemy within. Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is up against Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), a former MI6 agent who Bond believed to have died on a mission years prior. Trevelyan and his Janus syndicate plan to use a former Soviet satellite to attack Britain, and Bond - with help from programmer Natalya Simonova (Izbella Scorupco) - must stop him before he succeeds.
In fact, the four Bond films starring Brosnan epitomized the crisis that the Bond series faced, as all of them were produced in the limbo period between the Cold War and the War on Terror. All four films - Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World is Not Enough (1999), and Die Another Day (2002) - feature villains who are not necessarily Communists themselves, but are associated with the ideology in some way. For Tomorrow Never Dies, that means basing the stateless villain in Vietnam (though, oddly enough, Bond is given a Chinese ally, played by Michelle Yeoh). In The World is Not Enough, Bond fights a terrorist who is a former KGB agent. And with Die Another Day, Bond takes on the threat of North Korea in a patently ridiculous way just months after President George W. Bush included the nation in his "axis of evil." The Brosnan Bond films, in a way, bridge the gap between the Cold War and the War on Terror, the latter of which the Daniel Craig films explored en route to breathing new life into the franchise.
The Rock, Michael Bay's reverse prison break film, also attempts to solve the villain gap by looking inward. The film is emblematic of the stand-alone action film that thrived in the 1980s, in which seemingly ordinary men found themselves in extreme situations that they needed to fight their way out of. This type of film didn't always rely on the Soviet Union to provide a villain, but the ideological conflict of these films almost always fell along the lines of "freedom versus oppression," and thus was often coded as "democracy versus communism." Die Hard (1987) set an early template for this form of film, but Lethal Weapon (1987) and even Beverly Hills Cop (1984) could arguably define it as well.
What sets the film apart from its contemporaries, however, is that the terrorists aren't working for any post-Soviet Bloc state or sympathize with the Communist cause. Rather, they're rogue US Marines, led by a colonel (Ed Harris) disenchanted with the military's covert operations that result in men dying anonymously. His demands are not for control of the world or the destruction of the United States, but rather money that he can then distribute to the families of his deceased brothers in arms. The enemy, then, is not the enemy in the Cold War, but rather Cold War espionage itself and the havoc that many experienced without any fanfare or commemoration. Of course, this being an action blockbuster from Michael Bay, these ideas aren't developed beyond the surface, but it is one of the few such films from this era to not just sidestep the lack of a Cold War villain but to even slightly criticize the policies of the conflict.
Independence Day, however, set the template that future blockbusters would follow for the next 20 years: create villains that aren't even human. Rather than pitting East against West or democracy against communism, Roland Emmerich's film sees humanity fighting aliens that seek to destroy the world. After the spaceships arrive and destroy much of the world's major cities, a ragtag group of Americans - President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), computer scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), ace fighter pilot Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith), and disgraced cropduster Russell Cassee (Randy Quaid) - lead the charge in fighting back against the invaders, a seemingly impossible task given the aliens' technological superiority.
"Technological superiority" also describes the precedent this film set for the action blockbuster. Paired with the summer of '96's other gargantuan hit, Twister, the films found a winning formula in putting the heroes in conflict with some unstoppable force, where survival is the key rather than ideology. Independence Day is informed by Clinton-era optimism for unity and cooperation, turning globalization into a palatable "we all want the same thing" narrative of fighting off non-human foes. Just listen to Whitmore's "today is our independence day" speech and try not to imagine the "unified" world of the Clinton administration, one in which NATO and UN peacekeepers are sent to war zones to end intranational conflicts and free trade agreements create linked economies.
The rest of the decade would be peppered with such films. 1997 saw the release of two separate films about volcanic eruptions (Dante's Peak and Volcano), while 1998 would feature two films about celestial collisions with the Earth (Deep Impact and Armageddon, the latter directed by none other than Michael Bay). Titanic put a historical spin on the disaster genre, and science fiction exploded with Emmerich's Godzilla (1998), the re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy (1997) and release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999), and The Matrix (1999). Will Smith would establish himself as the king of the summer blockbuster with the success of Independence Day and Men in Black (1997), and he was capable of even turning detritus such as Wild Wild West (1999) into, if not a hit, then a film that still finished with over $100 million at the box office. The success of these films set the stage for the explosion of the superhero film in the 2000s, which in turn set blockbusters down a special effects-heavy road to colossal box office receipts.
Building a Better Blockbuster: The Format and Form
Earlier this summer, Todd VanDerWerff wrote an article for Vox about Independence Day: Resurgence, the sequel to Independence Day, that addressed a major problem with the modern blockbuster. Namely, the modern blockbuster lacks a middle act, setting up the conflict of the film and then swiftly cutting to the climax without resolution so that a sequel can be teased. Vanderwerff lists several theories for this phenomenon, including the predilection for franchising in Hollywood and the idea that scenes of character development won't translate well to international audiences. These are valid points, and looking back at the films of the mid-1990s, there is a marked difference in the format of these films.
Independence Day, for example, features a distinct three-act structure divided by the date (note: I have not seen the sequel as of this writing). The film's first act, "July 2," establishes the characters and their relationships and features the arrival of the invading force as well as their attack. The second act, "July 3," finds the characters tested and tried by near-certain destruction, as the spaceship that destroyed Los Angeles makes its way to their Area 51 hideout. The third act is the retaliation by humanity and the ultimate defeat of the alien invaders, wrapping up the story on a triumphant note of victory, cooperation, and mutual respect.
To build on VanDerWerff's argument, the second act proves to be crucial to the success of the film's third act. It's at Area 51 that the characters discover this isn't the first contact the Earth has had with these aliens, and the information they learn here directly leads to the plan to defeat the aliens. This act also further develops the interpersonal conflicts between the characters, such as Hiller's disappointment at being rejected by NASA, Levinson's rivalry with Whitmore over his ex-wife and White House Communications Director Constance (Margaret Colin), and Russell's complicated relationship with his oldest son Miguel (James Duval). These conflicts deepen the audience's understanding of these characters, and thus make the climax even more satisfying when, for example, Russell commits a heroic act or Hiller joins Levinson on a mission to the alien mothership.
(Also crucial to the film's success: a sense of humor. The modern blockbuster is almost uniformly humorless, save for the Marvel films to an extent, relying on brooding heroes who cross ethical and moral boundaries. Though this is very much connected to the films' position within post-9/11 cinema, the lack of a sense of humor is a problem.)
The Rock also has a competent script that, while rather ridiculous, includes a three-act structure that allows the characters to develop over time. But, even more than Independence Day, the film succeeds because it is the work of an action auteur who knows the beats of this kind of film, both following them and adding their own unique touch to them. Yes, I am making the "Michael Bay is an auteur" argument that so much of the Internet retches at. This isn't an argument that Bay is a great director (a piece of the popular "auteur" definition that needs to be done away with immediately), or even a good director. This is an argument that Bay knew exactly what kind of film he was making, and the film is better for it.
The Rock draws from multiple inspirations: the setting recalls Escape from Alcatraz (1979), while the dynamic between Goodspeed and Mason is borrowed from Lethal Weapon, and even the military entry into the prison is reminiscent of the Marines landing on LV-426 in Aliens (1986). But the style of the film is distinctly Bay's, and the film is arguably Bay's best work as a director. Visually, the film is reminiscent of the music video aesthetic that Bay honed before making the jump to features. Dark colors are notably darker, allowing brighter colors to pop against them. The camera moves almost constantly, whether following characters around the space of the scene or dramatically sweeping across the actors in conflict. Every image crackles with energy and urgency, even though some scenes don't call for it. And there's no doubt that Bay can construct a captivating shot: Goodspeed kneeling with flares in each hand as fighter jets fly over him is exactly the kind of bombastic image this film deserves.
Thematically, the film fits within Bay's filmography of what Roger Ebert once referred to as the "swinging dick" genre. Bay's films are characterized by a dedication to pumped-up hypermasculinity built on macho posturing, tough-guy talk, and mutual respect for (but most certainly not attraction to) male partners. Goodspeed and Mason, despite both of them having no military background or history of violence, are the kinds of cool guys who don't turn back to look at explosions. It's ridiculous and more than a little aggressive, certainly, but it's also a hallmark of this type of film. The Rock is, like all of Bay's films, a male fantasy of violence, patriotism, and heroism, a machine gun with an emphatically long barrel draped in an American flag.
Compare this sense of authorship to the blockbusters of today. Many studios call up indie directors to helm blockbuster projects, sometimes off the relative success of a single film. This has produced mixed results: Colin Treverrow, for example, parlayed Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) into the huge hit Jurassic World (2015) and a gig directing Star Wars Episode IX (2019), while Josh Trank failed to capitalize on the success of Chronicle (2012) with the enormous flop of Fantastic Four (2015). In both cases, there may be other facts contributing to the success or failure of the film, but neither film comes with a distinct authorial voice. Bringing in acclaimed directors hasn't worked well either: Kenneth Branaugh's Thor (2011), for example, seemed lost in its own effects, while bringing in Pixar's Andrew Stanton for the live-action John Carter (2012) turned out to be a huge bust. The auteurs who are given blockbuster franchises, on the other hand, too often have their unique voice scrubbed out by studio interference and a need to stay "on brand" with the franchise. And the auteurs that have experienced success in the past in the genre have struggled as well, as recent films from Roland Emmerich (White House Down, 2013), Brett Ratner (Hercules, 2014), and even Steven Spielberg (The BFG, 2016) have flopped.
The James Bond franchise is notorious for running through filmmakers: since Goldeneye, six different directors have taken the helm of the eight films produced, saying nothing of the sixteen films that preceded it. What's notable in Goldeneye is the way the film continues the franchise's formula without a sense of staleness and tells a complete story in one single installment, both a rarity in today's blockbuster landscape.
Goldeneye was the seventeenth film in the Bond franchise, and by then fans knew what to expect with each new film. Bond will begin each film on a separate mission from the film's main narrative, providing an opening dose of thrills before the stylized credits - and their unique theme song recorded by a major music star - roll, introducing the film. Bond will face a major threat, get the girl (or two), toss out a few quippy innuendos, defeat the villain, and drink a martini (shaken, not stirred). There will be Aston Martins and spy gadgets, globe-hopping and daring-do. The women will rotate out with every film, as will the villain, the gadgets, and sometimes even the actor playing Bond, but the character and the formula remain the same (for the most part).
In fact, one of the defining characteristics of the franchise is how Bond does not change with each film. Brosnan was the fifth actor to portray the character with Goldeneye, following the less-than-revered two-film run of Timothy Dalton. There are few biographical details given to Bond throughout the films, but that's not really what matters to these films. In Goldeneye, Bond is essentially the same man he was at the beginning of the film; the only major difference is that he has a few more cuts and bruises. And though there is some history provided in his relationship with Trevelyan, this episode goes unremarked upon in subsequent films. For most of the franchises' history, every film ended with a concrete ending to that particular story, with the credits-only promise that "James Bond will return in..."
But Brosnan's Bond was still the same Bond in all four films - the Bond introduced in the opening scene of Goldeneye is the same Bond seen in the closing scene of Die Another Day, and both of them are essentially the same Bond introduced in Dr. No (1962). In 1995, serialization in sequels was just beginning to take hold of Hollywood, but had not yet become the norm. The mere fact that the Batman franchise released its third installment - with a new creative team and new Batman, no less - was treated with astonishment, and it was a true anomaly on the blockbuster stage. But even then, the Batman franchise was telling self-contained stories in each installment; there was no guarantee that there would be another film, and so each film was given a definitive conclusion. This was the Bond model: the hero gets into a conflict, prevails, and then waits to see if the audience wants to see another round. Bond may have always announced its intentions for a sequel, but they were never treated as sure-things; in fact, the mere existence of Goldeneye as a film qualified as a miracle for the franchise at the time as United Artists and MGM struggled with legal issues.
The modern blockbuster, however, struggles with keeping formulas fresh, namely because every franchise follows a similar formula. Most modern blockbusters are treated as the first film in a franchise, and thus are designed as feature-length first acts to a larger story. As a result, characters are introduced but barely developed and, as VanDerWerff notes, climaxes are rushed and resolutions suspended. Very few modern blockbusters attempt to tell a complete story anymore; instead they are structured as teasers for more to come, asking audiences to wait for more films to complete the story. This makes it difficult for the modern blockbuster film to stand alone, as it must instead be contextualized within a larger narrative framework. Even the Bond franchise isn't immune to this trend: the Daniel Craig films featured recurring character development between each film and even attempted to tie together the events of all four films last year in Spectre (it remains to be seen if this will continue with whoever fills Craig's shoes in the role).
Even more than the franchising effect, however, is the basic formula of the narrative. Most superhero films (or action films in general) have a standard "hero's journey" narrative in the first film: the hero first acquires his powers/abilities, then sets on some sort of quest (almost always revenge), ending with his acceptance of his new mantle as superhero. Animated blockbusters introduce their world, tell some jokes, then end with a chase scene of some sort (for everything Pixar does right in their films, they are notorious for sticking to this model in every film). All of this, of course, comes without the second act, as mentioned above. Again, there's nothing wrong with formula, but in these instances there's so little variation that it feels repetitive at best. Even Deadpool, which went to great lengths to lovingly mock the tropes of the superhero film, ultimately follows the very narrative it seeks to upend.