Sunday, May 11, 2014

Blockbuster Screenwriting and the New Cinema of Attractions

The question of why I don't like very many contemporary action blockbusters has been haunting me for some time now, probably ever since I realized (circa 2008) that I might be one of the few people in the world who was underwhelmed, even off-put, by the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films. I WANT to like today's "popcorn movies" and do not intend to become a highbrow cinephile who ONLY enjoys art films. Yet something about most of today's summer action blockbusters continues to displease (or at least fails to entertain) me.*

This became evident again recently when I realized that, despite my great enjoyment of The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, dir. Marc Webb) and contrary to my original strong intention to see the sequel when it hit theaters a couple weeks ago, I have decided not to bother with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The two main reasons are:

1. I noticed its two hour and twenty minute running time, and

2. I then noticed, after digging deeper, that its screenplay was penned by two of Hollywood's most incompetent scribes, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

I will return to that first point shortly, but first let me say that Kurtzman and Orci are flat-out terrible screenwriters. Red Letter Media notes this in their Amazing Spider Man 2 video review, during which Mike states (just after the 19:38 mark) that it seems like "any terrible new movie has been penned by these two." On both the story structure and character development fronts, all of this duo's screenplays are just lousy: Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Star Trek (2009), and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) are all, in Mike's words, "shit scripts." Similarly, a recent CinemaBlend article characterized Kurtzman and Orci's two Star Trek scripts as "typically-complex but still dopey screenplays," and I would call that an accurate assessment.**

To be fair, due to the huge amounts of money involved, non-creative executive production staff interfere with the development of blockbusters in many ways that probably weaken the material: as the CinemaBlend piece notes, "many masters must be served when you're working with $150 million budgets." Yet the consistency and persistence with which these two guys write particularly disorganized and ineffective scripts is hard to overlook.

A prime example of the kind of crappy screenplays Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci 
churn out for today's action blockbuster directors. 

Of course, Kurtzman and Orci are merely part of a much broader contemporary Hollywood trend toward increased emphasis on visual spectacle and intense action over considerations of characterization and script coherence.*** Hell, this trend has been trending since the late 1970s, when a synergistic combination of the multinational corporate takeover of the entertainment industry and the successful release and marketing of the summer blockbusters Jaws (1975) and especially Star Wars (1977) changed the way Hollywood did business. Nowadays all major Hollywood studios hang all their hopes for the fiscal year upon one or two mega-budgeted blockbuster films which need to be "high concept" -- that is, based upon an extremely simple premise -- in order to perform well across all global markets.

Furthermore, various critics from David Bordwell to video essayist Mathias Stork have noted the faster-paced editing, imprecise camera work, and "scattershot" video game aesthetic that has begin to permeate contemporary blockbuster cinema, especially (but not exclusively) in its action sequences. This has led to more of a theme park ride / spectacle based approach to big-budget film production, and a concomitant de-emphasis upon story and character.

This tendency reminds me of Tom Gunning's "An Aesthetic of Astonishment," which outlines the phenomenon of the "Cinema of Attractions" in early cinema:
I have called the cinema that precedes the dominance of narrative (and this lasts for nearly a decade, [from 1896] until 1903 or 1904) the cinema of attractions. Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer's curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment. This cinema addresses and holds the spectator, emphasizing the act of display. In fulfilling this curiosity, it delivers a generally brief dose of scopic [visual] pleasure.†
In his incredibly sharp and penetrating book Post-Classical Hollywood, Barry Langford discusses the push-pull dynamic between visual spectacle and the demands of narrative in Hollywood films. Although he admits that in contemporary (post-1990s) blockbusters "narrative and character are [often] handled in a slapdash and contemptuous way," he also reminds us that "spectacular elements, often highly intrusive and in strictly narrative terms excessive if not superfluous, have co-existed with more straightforward storytelling throughout much of Hollywood history" (253, 251). Langford concludes that we can therefore potentially see today's action blockbusters as "[building] on the experience of the past two decades: 'perhaps the movies of the 2000s are the movies of the 1980s, only more so'" (247).††

In any case, although today's blockbusters are surely part of a longer tradition of spectacle-intense film production, Gunning's description of the "cinema of attractions" seems particularly apt when discussing the contemporary (that is, post-1980s) big-budget action film, especially with regard to the "more so" aspect of Langford's formulation. Indeed, Gunning's comment that "the attraction addresses the audience directly, sometimes [. . .] exaggerating this confrontation in an experience of assault" squares with Stork's assessment of the assaultive, visually excessive dimension of what he calls "Chaos Cinema." I would also point to Charlie Jane Anders' satirical and yet strangely accurate evaluation of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as "a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot" that "isn't a movie, in the conventional sense," but rather "an assault on the senses, a barrage of crazy imagery."

As I have confessed before, I came of age in the 1980s and was raised on the blockbusters of Spielberg, McTiernan, Verhoeven, and George P. Cosmatos. None of these guys ever even dreamed of breaking the rules of Hollywood continuity style: their shot compositions were coherent, their editing choices logical, and their sense of character motivation and spatial legibility rarely faltered. They were trained in the ways of "classic" Hollywood, and even when their films were thinly plotted or even over-the-top silly, they nevertheless followed the aesthetic rules that had been in place in Hollywood since about the mid-1910s.

Arnold Schwartzenegger in the great, if silly, mid-1980s action blockbuster Commando.  

Nowadays, new forms of visual excess have taken hold, and today's blockbuster directors -- Nolan, Jackson, Snyder, Bay, and the late Tony Scott -- have not only diverged from the old rules of continuity editing and coherent camera work, but they (or their studios) have seen fit to expand the length of these narratively incoherent CGI-driven "attractions" to over two, often almost three hours. This is a strategy that echoes the expanded visual scope and running time of many of the "widescreen epics" of the 1950s, yet those films were still made in the classical mode: they had compelling stories and world-class stars, actors, and screenwriters on board. True, their widescreen-ness was heavily marketed in order to compete with television, which had just arrived on the scene, and it is also noteworthy that the 1950s also saw the first major rise of 3D movie technology, another parallel with the "striking but superficial imagery"-driven 2000s.††† Yet I argue that those earlier epics, despite their lengthiness and emphasis on spectacle, still hewed closer to classical Hollywood's demand for rigorous continuity, comprehensible character motivation, and tightly scripted narratives than today's blockbusters typically do.

Note that the shortest of the contemporary blockbusters in my sample,
Man of Steel, has the same running time as the longest of the
 1970s-80s blockbusters, 1978's Superman

Which brings me back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. As A.A. Dowd of the Onion AV club puts it in his review,
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci struggle to transition among scenes of city-demolishing combat, indie-rock-scored montages of Peter pouting in his room, and intrusions of corporate-espionage backstory. They’ve written a checklist, not a screenplay.
So, I am boycotting of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not because, like all other Hollywood action blockbusters, it is sexist or racist, though it's true that in general I am weary of the retrograde ideologies of our biggest blockbusters. No, rather, I am resisting it because I actually want character development and decent screenwriting in the films I watch, even the "popcorn movies," especially at their current, incredibly lengthy running times. I truly do not think that this is too much to ask.

UPDATE 5/17/2014: It looks like more or less agrees with my assessment, noting The Amazing Spider-Man 2's "abysmal script" in their rundown of 4 Bizarre Choices That Doomed 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'

UPDATE 6/18/2014: The Red Letter Media guys also seem to notice that a tight screenplay =  a better blockbuster. In their video review of X-Men: Days of Future Past, they laud the film for the coherence of its screenplay and even single out Amazing Spider-Man 2 as a negative counter-example.

Godzilla says: "Come see MY movie this summer! It's gonna be great!!"

* There are exceptions: as I have previously written, I really enjoyed The Avengers (2012), the first Iron Man movie (2008), Pacific Rim (2013), Skyfall (2012), and a great many earlier blockbusters such as the first two Die Hard films (1988 and 1990) and the great Schwartzenegger vehicle Commando (1985).
** For a more in-depth exploration of Star Trek: Into Darkness's baffling incoherence, see the Red Letter Media guys' brilliant review of the film here.
*** In fact, Kurtzman and Orci are only two of the most egregiously mediocre members of a larger group of sloppy, vapid, "high concept" screenwriters that includes David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel), Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies), and doubtless many others I don't happen to know by name.
† Gunning, "An Aesthetics of Astonishment," in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism Seventh Edition (2009), pp. 742-43.
†† This is a particularly sharp insight given how many of today's summer blockbusters are literally reboots of '80s hit films. Also, I really cannot recommend Langford's excellent history of Hollywood from 1945 to the present (published by Edinburgh University Press in 2010) highly enough. It is a must-read for any serious cinephile and/or film historian.
††† Langford, Post-Classical Hollywood p. 246.


  1. I have to agree on almost all points made in this post I've seen the amazing Spiderman two and the writing is terrible character development is silly confusing or nonexistent of course I had to watch it because Spiderman is my favorite and most beloved fictional character and I like Marc webb's the amazing Spiderman but this is just hideous I pray Godzilla isn't as vapid.

    1. You raise a key point, which is that for those of us who are invested in a particular franchise or "intellectual property," sometimes it does not matter as much if a particular film version of that property is particularly good. I plan to see and enjoy GODZILLA and probably will not be very critical of it unless it truly stinks, because I just flat-out love Godzilla, even the Roland Emmerich one. Conversely, I am not particularly invested in any superhero franchises so I expect them to be decent films in their own right and am not drawn to, say, a particular Spider-Man film just because it features Spider-Man. Sometimes fandom trumps considerations of quality, and that is as it should be.

  2. "The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1970. Print.

    1. Interesting idea -- how would this apply to the spectacular blockbuster film?

  3. The website is an institution when it comes to everything that concerns the film industry. The site is not a video streaming site, but is packed with vast amounts of movie related content.