The long, complex evolution of the blockbuster

Nearly 50 years since Jaws changed the shape of cinema, the term 'blockbuster' has come a long way – but not always for the better.


Paul Risker

We all know the story of how Steven Spielberg’s 1975 box office hit Jaws was the birth of the movie blockbuster, closely followed by George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977. This narrative is a fictionalised history, because “blockbuster” had been used as early as the 1940s to describe big-budget productions with mass appeal. Popular lore, however, credits the Movie Brats of the New American Cinema as the fathers of the blockbuster film. It has become an accepted history, despite cinema having pursued high budget and lavish spectacles long before that.

Jaws and Star Wars, however, were a turning point in the history of the blockbuster. The grainy aesthetic and raw sense of feeling of Jaws’ B-movie plot thrilled audiences, while Star Wars’ opening shot of Princess Leia’s ship fleeing the Imperial Star Destroyer captured the imagination of its audience – amongst them actor Samuel L. Jackson, who would go on to play Jedi Master Mace Windu in Lucas’ eventual prequel trilogy.

1975 – 1989: The imperfect origins of the blockbuster

The charm of the early blockbusters was that they were raw and imperfect. The stories about the agonising limitations that confronted Spielberg and his crew have become part of the film’s lore, while clumsy effects shots and spaceships that look unfit for space travel, let alone spectacular battles amongst the stars, relied on the audience’s suspension of disbelief for Lucas.

These imperfections are worth celebrating because as technology has improved, the movie blockbuster has lost something that made it truly special. Star Wars was able to echo our inner child’s imagination – think about kids at play with toy cars and figures, and how their mind is the engine to escape the trappings of reality. What we see in Star Wars is a metamorphosis of that very process. Only Lucas, his crew and cast were able to dream bigger, and escape the limitations of child’s play, imagining in a form that, when combined with the audience’s suspension of disbelief, creates a world that feels emotionally authentic, despite contrived.

Through the 70s and 80s, beyond the original Star Wars trilogy, successive blockbusters echoed this idea of children at play. The technological limitations of the form honoured the “imagination as improvisation.” With improvements in computer-generated imagery and effects, filmmakers have been able to capture what once would have been impossible, and improve the authenticity of their onscreen world-building. From something as simple as Lucas removing an effects shadow in the Star Wars Special Edition trilogy, successive filmmakers have been able to create more authentically elaborate visuals.

The technological limitations of the 70s and 80s, while far from perfect, imbued the world-building with a certain improvised hands-on aesthetic. This is a world away from today’s use of computer-generated imagery and green and blue screens, which purport to increase immersion, but in reality, feel more artificial. Once, films mimicked our physical play – now technology has allowed them to appear as dreams, almost without limitation.

Back to the Future, produced by Spielberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis, emphasises this idea of playful imagination, with the eccentric Doc Brown played by Christopher Lloyd, building the Delorean in his garage. Brown and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) are spiritual children at play. A year after the release of Back to the Future came James Cameron’s Aliens, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s haunted house movie in outer space, Alien. Both films occupy an important place in the blockbuster canon, by taking the family-friendly Star Wars and Back to the Future and plunging the idea of children at play into a darker and ominous universe. While Scott’s film doesn’t convey this idea, its industrialised and authentic aesthetic laid the groundwork for Cameron’s Aliens. The film’s production design, from the marine transport vessel, USS Sulaco, to the P-5000 Power Loader Walker, have the feel of grown-ups filling their world-building with things they’d love to play with if they were kids.

1989 – present day: The modern blockbuster

Nearly 50 years on, has the blockbuster lost its original charm? Ironically, Cameron’s cinema still holds onto the idea of a child at play, despite being at the forefront of technological advances. The world-building of his Avatar universe has required him to develop new technology, but despite this, its aesthetic continues to resemble a mish-mash of cinema and toy design. One can look at his world and visualise characters and set pieces as toys on shop shelves even without the movie. It’s a reminder of the diversification of the blockbuster, which is no longer a purely cinematic entity. From Star Wars and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park to Marvel and DC superhero films, the sole focus is no longer on creative storytelling and the cinematic experience, but on diversification of revenue. What we’ve witnessed is a cross-pollination of films mimicking children at play, and in turn providing toys for children to play with.

The polished aesthetic of the Marvel spectacle, a metamorphosis of the blockbuster, has a different energy. Marvel and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have evolved dramatically over the years. There has been a tendency to offer a grounded fantastical interpretation of these worlds, from Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Even Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man felt more grounded, at least in its emotional story arc, than its recent sequel, which was more of a disorientating spectacle.

We’ve seen a raising of the stakes visually, with the universe expanding and trying to outdo itself, without questioning the need for limitations. This shift still requires the audience to suspend their disbelief as the early blockbusters did, but to older generations, it signals something more.

Technology has dehumanised the blockbuster in how they relate to our inner child. Whereas earlier blockbusters shared an intimacy with the physical expression of play, now there’s a distance. These CGI-heavy films have dehumanised this intimate connection that cinema once shared. It’s not only technology that has stimulated this decline of the blockbuster, but the lack of creative ambition and commitment to a series. The superhero genre, notably Spider-Man and Batman, has seen numerous reboots. Couple this with a reliance on a limited number of franchises, the lack of courage to develop new stories, characters and world-building in favour of tapping into established fan bases, and the result is a decline in quality for the blockbuster.

What grew the blockbuster into the titanic force it is today, is the creative use of technology to bring ambitious worlds to life, but also quality storytelling, with memorable characters and emotional arcs, as well as attention to well-plotted stories. The focus has drifted away from this, reliant not on suspension of disbelief, but on the audience’s acceptance of familiar and tired stories and tropes, garnished with big-name stars.

The Mission: Impossible series is a prime example of star power, memorable, partly at least, for Tom Cruise’s obsession with escalating the spectacle of his daredevil stunts. However, these are effectively underpinned by compelling characters and emotional arcs. The series has developed a humorous self-awareness that sees Cruise and his team of covert operatives – especially those played by Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg – infuse Hunt’s daring feats with comedy. Humour aside, Christopher McQuarrie’s attention to developing ongoing storylines, such as The Syndicate and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, shows his creative commitment to storytelling, which has been a frequent casualty of technological innovations in other blockbusters.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has come the closest to indulging the nostalgia for the physical expression of play in cinema, where his cinematic world-building, through a technological advancement, doesn’t make that sense of children at play redundant. Of course, there are scenes that rely on special effects, but where possible, Nolan and his team executed action set-pieces practically, such as Batman flipping Joker’s LGV upside down. The strength of the films was Nolan’s emphasis on thematic storytelling, constructing a trilogy where each film built on what had preceded it, notably the theme of escalation and its consequences running through the trilogy. Nolan understood that the strength of the blockbuster is never purely the visuals, but the narrative soul – the ideas expressed that the audience engages with long after the film has ended. With his Batman films, Nolan tapped into an existing fan base and an existing cultural history on screen, but found a new way for the superhero to connect with the contemporary audience.

This is indicative of Nolan’s wider work, where technology is an essential tool in his world-building, but is counterbalanced with an emphasis on character, emotion, ideas and themes (the heart of his early films: Memento and Insomnia), to create a more tangible type of grand-scale filmmaking. His ideas range from invading a person’s subconscious to extract knowledge and secrets in Inception, to the extinction crisis and search for another habitable planet in Interstellar, to the high concept manipulation of time in Tenet, and this year, the creation of the atomic bomb in Oppenheimer.

The shift from hands-on to “imagination as dream” has been motivated by a long-held ambition to create fantastical visions that feel real – even by the 70s directors of the New American Cinema. Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy is a cautionary tale of how technology may allow a filmmaker to transcend previous limitations, but it replaces one type of mimicry with another. By many the original trilogy is considered superior in creative vision, despite its visual shortcomings. The question remains, do we need this shift to imagination as dream to have its limitations, in order to safeguard future blockbusters from being completely dehumanised by technology, or does some happy middle ground exist?

Published 28 Aug 2023

Tags: Avatar Batman Blockbuster Cinema Mission: Impossible Star Wars

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