Imagine the Golden Gate Bridge: beautiful, iconic, a wonder of the modern world. And then imagine its destruction at the hands of an impossibly large, impossibly realistic extra-dimensional alien. Thus begins one of this summer’s most hyped movies, Pacific Rim, which has everything a contemporary action film needs to be successful: a seemingly unbeatable bad guy; a handsome, lovable lead; daddy (and, in this case, brother) issues; a thirst for revenge; a love story; and, of course, the destruction of major international landmarks. The bad guys in Pacific Rim are aliens from another dimension and, as the film wears on, they destroy landmark after landmark. At one point, the entirety of Hong Kong is attacked by an alien.
Pacific Rim cost roughly $190 million to make, and brought in barely half that domestically. Internationally, it made around $404 million. It is considered a flop—it didn’t do as poorly as it could have at the box office, but it certainly did not live up to prerelease expectations. It was a summer action movie, directed by Guillermo del Toro, a director famous for making visually stunning works (among them Pan’s Labyrinth), and it featured the commercial theme of humanity triumphing over evil. By all accounts, it should have made massive amounts of money, just like 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($1.12 billion) or 2012’s Skyfall ($1.11 billion).
Damon Lindelof, who helped revise the ending of this summer’s World War Z, and whose credentials include writing for Lost and Prometheus, spoke to Vulture about the current summer blockbuster climate—specifically, the slow death of Hollywood’s current action movie recipe. “The most important part of the story is that [the good guy] dies—[and that] he is victorious, he beats the machine. It’s the triumph of the human spirit over technology,” he said. “But in later drafts, this changes: the good guy does not die. It is not merely human spirit, but human technology that triumphs in the end.”
Pacific Rim’s climax comes when an alien causes a blackout, thereby curbing the electricity powering the good guys trying to stop Hong Kong from being completely destroyed. As a result, the good guy must (and does) defeat the alien with no help from technology while backup power generators are turned on. However, at the end of the film, when it seems that the hero is about to die, his life is saved by the technology of his exit pod, and we are treated to the fruition of his romance with the female lead. And so maybe Lindelof has a point: Though the humans survive in the end, they do so only thanks to technology. Contemporary action films show the triumph of the human spirit with the help of, rather than over, technology.
We love watching our heroes fight for their lives until their dying breath. We love watching our most iconic structures collapse under the weight of aliens from other dimensions, what Lindelof calls “destruction porn.” There’s a reason cinemas are flooded with high-budget action movies every summer, and there’s a reason studios keep making the action bigger and the destruction higher-stakes. The Transformers movies make hundreds of millions of dollars, regardless of Michael Bay’s penchant for making movies devoid of emotion and full of explosions. We watch movies like World War Z and The Avengers (the third-highest-grossing film of all time) to see the entire world destroyed. Titanic, the second-highest-grossing film of all time, is literally named after a disaster. The ending of the movie depicts the ship crashing into an iceberg and sinking, killing most of its passengers in what was—for 1997, at least—spectacular, larger-than-life detail. The sixth Fast and Furious movie made $787 million this summer, and the entire movie is based on cars that are very fast crashing into each other.
And yet this summer’s highly anticipated blockbusters mostly flopped: White House Down made $72 million, while The Lone Ranger made $88 million. Even Pacific Rim made only $104 million domestically—and all of these movies cost over $100 million to produce. Man of Steel and Iron Man 3, the latest films in two beloved franchises, both did well, relatively speaking: Man of Steel made $657 million worldwide, while Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion worldwide.
Beloved director Steven Spielberg told a panel at the University of Southern California that film studios “would rather invest $250 million in one film ... than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal ... projects that get lost in the shuffle.” He did not blame movie studios for this—rather, he thinks the fault lies with the lack of time that most people have to consume media combined with the easy and cheap availability of movies and TV shows, courtesy of services like Netflix.
Both these claims seem to fit: since the release of Avatar (for which three sequels have been announced with release dates from 2016 to 2018), film studios have invested more and more money into making their movies as out-of-this-world as possible. It is clear now that something has been lost in the creation of one huge-budget action movie after another: Spending $250 million on a movie no longer guarantees an audience. The high-budget, flashy action movie has lost its appeal—not even one directed by Guillermo del Toro could break even domestically.
Last April, Stephen Soderbergh (director of Magic Mike and Contagion) gave a keynote address at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. In it, he discussed the state of cinema, which he differentiated from the “movies” that we see in theaters every summer. “A movie,” he said, “is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made ... Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience.”
Perhaps Soderbergh is right—maybe there is something to be said for cinema, this higher form of art that doesn’t consist of mass-produced action flicks that hit screens every summer. But even if there’s nothing to be said for the superiority of cinema as an art form, it is clear that these “generic or arbitrary” movies have lost their appeal. Unfortunately, audience ambivalence toward studio juggernauts has greater consequences than just unimpressive visits to the movie theater—while studios throw millions of dollars at these projects, we’re seeing more and more directors, from Spielberg to Spike Lee, struggling to finance their considerably smaller projects and being forced to consider airing their films on TV. It is with this disillusionment that Spielberg predicted last year that “there’s going to be an implosion ... that’s going to change the paradigm.”Maybe this change in the paradigm can save us all from Avatar 5.