I have a friend who often bemoans the decline of the action genre since what you might consider its heyday -- the period from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. (He's the very same friend who helped me send Paul Walker off in the right way. Respect.) I've always wanted to write something about it because, well, I think he's absolutely right. They don't make action films like they used to -- with big explosions and gratuitous nudity and R ratings and brash, superhuman stars like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Or at least they don't make as many. This is borne out by the fact that no new action stars have been minted in the last decade other than Jason Statham, a singular talent, who, with a seeming willingness to appear in as many films as he can per year whether they are blockbusters or straight-to-DVD releases, has managed to corral an entire genre for himself.
But I've never been able to pull this idea in to something more. I don't have a solution for action fans like my friends. The genre has been mostly swallowed up by comic book adaptations and PG-13 disaster porn. It's OK if international landmarks are destroyed so long as a teenager doesn't see a nipple, I guess.
What's left are Statham films, winky, self-aware crap like The Expendables, gritty, independent pictures in the Drive mold, which replace big budgets with more thematic substance (losing broad appeal in the process), and, of course, The Fast & The Furious franchise. I don't think it will change anytime soon, either. It's simple economics. When the budget is outsized, you minimize risk with a softer rating that can get the whole family to the cineplex.
What's more, I'm not sure this is such a terrible development. This is the part where I offer my sincere apologies to my friend. (Sorry, Neal.)
I don't fully trust my childhood nostalgia for films like The Rock and Con-Air. I suspect I'm more fond of their sheer boldness -- their all-in approach to moviemaking -- and the way it felt just a little bit like I was breaking some rule when I first watched them than any material affection for the movies themselves.
But if we've lost anything more than a few new Stallones or Willises as those R-rated action films have been gradually replaced by PG-13 comic book adaptations, maybe Alexander Huls' piece on the degeneration of blockbusters is the place to start. Writing for RogerEbert.com, Huls builds on a piece from Damon Lindelof over the summer that detailed how mass destruction has become almost unavoidable in the modern blockbuster.
You really should read the whole piece (and then come back here), but, to highlight what I'm getting at, Huls writes:
Given free rein to imagine massive stakes (and the "appropriate" destruction to convey them), it's no surprise filmmakers regress and succumb to childish destruction fantasies. Guillermo del Toro—whose "Pacific Rim" is a perfect example—has unknowingly verbalized this phenomenon best, noting that "there's [a] primal fantasy, certainly for a male child … where you give them a robot and a dinosaur, and the instinct is just to have them fight." Hollywood is doing just that: giving filmmakers CGI dinosaurs and robots, and the encouragement to let those primal fantasies get triggered. The result is a model that asks directors to lower their inhibitions and pursue their childish "wouldn't it be cool if…" instincts. And so we get "trailer moments" like Vin Diesel being launched off a car, a space laser buckling London into oblivion, an invading force of digital army men toys mowing down the White House, an entire fake city demolished by super-powered people.
So what's the problem with all this? The fallout is not just the inherent lack of sophistication in movies where filmmakers pursue their inner-kid. There's the storytelling—already endangered in blockbusters—that's being squashed by the Darwinian ascent of "required" destruction. There's the fact that stakes and disaster can only go so far, and that dead-end will come really quickly—if "Thor: The Dark World" threatening the entire universe hasn't already hit it. Then there's the much discussed lack of concern blockbusters display for the hypothetical collateral damage their hypothetical disasters would cause. But the real problem is that filmmakers are not thinking about the audience anymore. They're out to capture their own inner child, not ours.
I think Huls is on to something in a big way, but, whether it's an alternate explanation or just another contributing factor to where we are now, the marginalization of the kind of action films my friend pines for has to be a part of this equation. CGI opens up a world of possibility to filmmakers. The simple fact that you can make the destruction of an entire city look believable -- something that wasn't really possible just a few decades ago -- makes it easy to understand why filmmakers would want to push those boundaries.
But the economic realities of getting big-budget picture made these days -- the pressure to give it broad, international appeal -- also makes the CGI route the safe one. In a vacuum, blowing up a CGI version of the Eiffel Tower is almost certainly more expensive than destroying a real helicopter or riddling a bad guy with bullet holes. But the latter pushes your film closer to an R rating, shutting you off from a larger audience by default.
Childish impulses might be at the root of the recent spate of disaster-happy blockbusters, but so too might some realpolitik.