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Monday, July 27, 2015

5 Things that make a Big Blockbuster Work


Hello everyone,

Lately, it seems like I've had the fortune and the misfortune of watching a myriad of Big Blockbusters. Some of them were pretty good (Kingsmen, Mad Max: Fury Road), others were somewhere in the middle (Jurassic World, Fast and Furious 7) and one was absolutely abysmal (Jupiter Ascending).

The funny thing is I watched all these Big Movies right after I attended the Nantucket Film Festival where I saw countless indie movies. I realized I can put into words what makes a good, high-brow drama but when it came to blockbusters I was limited to "Dude, it was fucking awesome!" despite it was obvious I enjoyed Kingsmen considerably more than, say, Jupiter Ascending. I feel like this lack of vocabulary is something that creates the rift between the critics and the audience, because an esteemed, scholarly film critic can't just write: "DID YOU SEE THAT GUY WITH THE FLAMING GUITAR?! THAT WAS COOL!" and print it. Despite this though, they know a good blockbuster when they see one. Notice Jupiter Ascending has a 40 metacritic score, whereas Mad Max has a solid 89.

So I decided to do some thinking and come up with some elements the good Blockbusters shared and the bad ones, thankfully, didn't.

1 - Make sure the Cool Shit in your Movie is Actually Cool

"Cool" is a pretty elusive concept. Dictionary.com has 29 different definitions for it, but just like bad acting, we know it when we see it. Case in point: A car jumping from one skyscraper to the next or the Dino WWE at the end of Jurassic World was cool for me, whereas Channing Tatum rollerblading on air (?) while being a dog (??) was decidedly not cool. And it's a weird thing because the line between "cool" and just plain "goofy" is a very, very thin line.

Case in point: Definitely goofy.
Obviously you need to give it to the Wachowski's, The Matrix is one of the best blockbusters ever made and the whole bad-ass trench coats and crazy karate aesthetic could have easily been goofy as fuck. But they pulled it off. Here is what it looks like when it is NOT pulled off properly. (That clip is from the Turkish TV Series Mr. Cloud. Not one of our proudest moments.)

In Jupiter Ascending though, they have a half dog rollerblading on the air. If you can't type it without being self-aware about how stupid it sounds, perhaps you shouldn't do it.

2 - Give Me An Action Sequence I Haven't Seen Before!

These types of movies are style over substance unless they are done by Christopher Nolan. And that's completely fine. The audience doesn't want a deep theme or characters, but that doesn't mean the screenwriter's job is easier. They have one job: Give us big set pieces we haven't seen before.

That sounds easier than said. How do you write a car chase that is different than the thousands of other car chases in the history of cinema. Well, see, that's where Fast and Furious 7 succeeded with their jumping through the skyscrapers sequence or the Drone Chase sequence.

Or how do you do a fight scene we haven't seen? Set it in the Westboro Baptist Church and have Freebird play over it!
3 - Stylish Characters 

Nobody in their right mind expects deep character work from a big Summer blockbuster. A lot of time you would spend on building characters interaction  are spent on the aforementioned car chases and such. And yet, some characters are obviously... better than others. Han Solo isn't more "deep" than the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels -- I would even argue that Anakin Skywalker is deeper than Han Solo -- but Anakin Skywalker is the cinematic equivalent of getting a root canal and Han Solo is a best friend/big brother/President for Life rolled into one.

I think the word is style. Galahad, for example, might not be a deep character, but the movie is very clear as to who he is: He's the ultimate old-school gentleman, both in the action sequences and during his interactions with the other characters. ("Manners Maketh Man") Here's maybe a choice that's more controversial: Vin Diesel's Dom in Fast 7 has style to spare. He's a cool, macho guy but we don't get this only from Vin Diesel's performance, but also from surprising character work. For example, when his lover Letty goes to her grave and ruminates about her lost memories... what does Dom do? He shows up with a motherfucking sledgehammer to destroy her headstone.

Strong choice. Strong style. Obvious in every character interaction and action sequence.

Weirdly, Eddie Redmayne's Balam Abraxas in Jupiter Ascending definitely has a lot style as well. He's the only interesting part of the movie, over-acting at an operatic frequency only by whispering and screaming at the top of his lungs. Does it work? Maybe. But both the screenplay and Redmayne definitely commit to the insanity of the ten thousand year old character.

Poor Balam only gets to poop once every ten thousand years!

4 - Know Your Style

Fast and Furious is aware of how goofy is and runs with the over the top action pieces. Mad Max: Fury Road attempts to deliver an adrenaline shot of insanity directly into your veins and peace out afterwards. The very meta Kingsmen can get away with (spoilers for Kingsmen) killing its main character half way through the movie.

Some movies can't nail what tone they are supposed to be. Avatar Last Airbender, a.k.a. shit in its cinematic form, is unrelentingly grim whereas Jupiter Ascending probably could have had less levity.

And then there are movies that have no idea what tone they are supposed to be at all. On that end, I give you Jurassic World that's 4 different movies for each quadrant of the audience. It's sometimes a sentimental Spielbergian drama about two brothers who discover how boring they are, sometimes it's a romantic comedy about a polar opposite couple, sometimes it's heavy conversations about what it means to weaponize animals and, during the Lauren Lapkus and Nick from New Girl segments, is an improvisational Judd Apatow comedy.

5 - Bonus Points for Something Unexpected

This is really tricky because Blockbusters need to be for everyone, so you can't ruffle too many feathers. Creative risks are discouraged, but, at least, on the visual front, directors can take on interesting visual challenges and give people something "they haven't seen before" -- see the insane single takes of Gravity or the weird dream imagery of Inception. But, on the content level, it's very rare when a hero does a morally dubious thing or the movie ends in a dark place. Because of this, personally, while I find myself liking blockbusters, I'm rarely surprised by them.

(Following paragraph is a spoiler for the Kingsmen) 

So imagine my surprise when Galahad got executed by the villain halfway through the movie. I love moments like these and, I assure you, there is nothing that delights a reader more than being surprised. I read for major studios and, %95 of the time, things went exactly as how I thought they did. So, if you can throw a curve ball... Do it.

This is especially great if you're writing a spec script. See, Spiderman isn't going to die halfway through the movie. Harry Potter is never going to be defeated. There are constraints to writing a piece that is connected to an IP (intellectual property) but, in a spec script, you can do things those big movies can't do! So experiment! Do crazy shit!

But nothing as crazy as the costumes in Jupiter Ascending, please.
Can you think of more elements/variables I missed? Have any favorite blockbusters that break these rules? Feel free to discuss these in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Levin

1 comment:

Dick Lowry said...

Other than the opening few shots of Jurassic World, the rest of it left me bored to tears. It was just one sequence after the other -- like 8 or 10 theme park ride advertisements all strung together, which is common to a lot of poorly structured blockbusters. The core story never properly builds (of course that assumes that there is a core story that we actually give a damn about, which is not the case with JW...). The result is my bag of expensive popcorn was a more interesting topic than the movie. Should I have asked for that second shot of butter??? JW makes a huge mistake in putting the two yappy kids at greater risk around mid-point of the movie (the gyro-car bit), rather than at the end. I was, like many others, rooting for the dinos ;) I also got confused (my age, perhaps...) over which dino was which. I should have bought that dino-guide. Anyway, nobody, including me, really cared. Amanda Silver and her partner are credited with the original script I believe, which I bet is much better than the final -- likely, director-tampered version. A review I read summed it up: ...it whipped itself into a "bewildering dither".