Being on the other side of Labor Day weekend means the departure of the summer movie season (and summer, for that matter). Ideally, I’d reflect on the last three months of popcorn flicks and parse out engaging themes and social commentary, but the big-budget bombast of the summer blockbuster resists deep analysis. This is not to say that CGI-spectacle obscures some larger meaning, but rather that most of this summer's movies were all spectacle, and little else. Yet unlike in previous summers, this summer all that sound and fury simply failed to impress audiences. True, one peek at the indispensable BoxOfficeMojo.com shows a 2.5% improvement in ticket sales over last summer, but most of the top grossing blockbusters offered more than the usual inane destruction. This summer audiences grew bored of by-rote action sequences and cancelled apocalypses and instead paid to see films that focused on delivering plain and simple entertainment.
Looking back at this summer’s top-grossing films reveals an increasing demand for more eclectic fare. A recent PolicyMic piece argued that studios should follow their own successful example from 1999: give audiences romantic comedies next to superhero films, and action films alongside historical dramas. Looking at this summer's successes shows that audiences seem to agree. The surprise success of blockbusters like The Heat or The Conjuring proves not every weekend needs Roland Emmerich destroying New York City or M. Night Shyamalan destroying his artistic credibility. Certainly, as World War Z displayed, we want to see tragedy writ large on even larger screens, but we also want smaller tragedies, like the one on West Egg. Whatever the season, we attend movies for catharsis, for wish-fulfillment, for escape, for an experience. We want to be awed, certainly, but more than that, we want to feel – and that requires humanity in a movie. The films can be fast, they can be funny, they don’t even need actual humans, but they certainly need more than leveled cities and overcooked fistfights.
Sure, three out of the top 10 movies this summer spent more time rendering crumbling skyscrapers and superhuman slugfests than ensuring their plots made sense. However, all three of those movies had built in cache working for them. One of those movies, Iron Man 3, featured Robert Downey, Jr., and audiences would likely pay to watch him sell smartphones.
Similarly, The Man of Steel won the box office bronze medal this summer solely on audience desire to see America’s most iconic superhero get the Christopher Nolan treatment, albeit from a producer’s chair. Audiences and critics lauded Nolan’s Batman films for their attempt to inject psychological realism into the superhero genre, and perhaps, went to Man Of Steel looking for the same thing. These films succeeded, but only on the strength of their franchises.
Audiences were less interested in other films that trafficked in the same vacant, computer-generated bluster but lacked high-profile franchises. Terrorists invaded the White House twice within six months and no one cared. Audiences are tired of Gore Verbinski wrecking outdated forms of transportation while Johnny Depp slathers on make-up and acts weird. Even well-crafted, bravura action sequences, like those found in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim failed to gin up any significant excitement at the box office.
So why did these movies bomb? Certainly sky-rocketing production costs play a role here –The Lone Ranger’s $225 million price tag (plus marketing costs) meant that the movie had to be a smash hit to even be considered successful. Audiences also likely feel like they've seen this all before, so why fork over $11 dollars to watch another giant robot brawl?
To understand what went wrong in Hollywood, I turn to the original CGI summer blockbuster, Jurassic Park, for wisdom.
Though 20 years old, the 1993 movie predicts Hollywood's current warped perspective through the sagely-if-smarmy Ian Malcolm. Speaking of John Hammond’s careless approach to wielding undeserved power, Malcolm admonishes, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Likewise, filmmakers and studios have become obsessed with the power of the image, and their ability to deliver an unparalleled scope of destruction, but they no longer pause to wonder if their movies need such trite spectacle. This year, audiences provided Hollywood with a resounding answer: we are tired of the computer-generated carnage. Give us something more, give us something human.