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A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“As a matter of cosmic history it has always been easier to destroy than to create,” observed Mr. Spock back in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when the only actor who played him was Leonard Nimoy. But in the modern landscape of CGI-driven event moviemaking, the possibilities for both creation and destruction have become almost limitless. Suddenly, the imaginative landscapes of science fiction and fantasy that fired our imaginations as children — from Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the futuristic battle school of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to, well, The Avengers — have become possible to realize on the big screen in all their breathtaking scope and detail.
Given that potential, it’s a little depressing to see how to an increasing extent Hollywood seems only interested in taking the collected talents of screenwriters, directors, animators, and previsualization artists and using it to … blow stuff up.
To be sure, destruction always has been on the menu in moviemaking — explosives were a special-effects staple decades before the first computer rolled off the line — but this summer in particular the urge to explode, implode, and collapse real and imaginary landscapes seems to have crowded out all the other forms of large-scale storytelling. We’ve already seen half of tomorrow’s San Francisco plowed through by a starship in Star Trek Into Darkness; central London get destroyed in G.I. Joe: Retaliation; Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis go boom in Man of Steel; and human civilization fall to hordes of antlike zombies in World War Z.
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Even comedies are getting in on the act, with This Is the End and the upcoming The World’s End alike playing Armageddon for laughs. In a 2013 movie, if you see a wide shot of a beautifully rendered cityscape, be assured that it’s about to get violently wrecked for your viewing pleasure.
So why has destruction become the default mode in constructing a summer event movie? Some of it is certainly on the filmmakers themselves. Any kid who’s knocked over a sibling’s block tower knows that it’s just fun to destroy things. And a $200 million tentpole film? Well, they don’t call them blockbusters for nothing.
And, yes, it’s an easy storytelling shortcut to creating “stakes” for the hero. All too often, widespread devastation is the very manifestation of throwing money at a perceived storytelling problem. If the audience — or, more likely, the studio exec — isn’t feeling a sense of escalation, of big-bigger-biggest, the solution is to pummel with rubble. Though, paradoxically, the more destruction you see, the more hollow it feels.
But truth be told, a lot of it comes down to audiences and what they’re consistently paying to see. Summer after summer, American and global audiences have been rewarding bloated, thinly told movies where stuff blows up real good while rejecting flawed but interesting movies like The Lovely Bones or What Dreams May Come, where the CGI toolkit was used to create imagery to be savored rather than incinerated.
Certainly the earnest predictions that post 9/11, audiences would reject lighthearted scenes of urban destruction that felt too much like real life are looking more absurd with each film that features falling skyscrapers, crushed urban infrastructure, and dazed, ash-covered survivors and strikes it rich at the box office.
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Still, I have to think that the pendulum is about to swing away from monotonous mayhem on an industrial scale, if for no other reason than because it’s become so repetitive. Are there any major American cities or landmarks that haven’t yet been subjected to the stunt-pyrotechnics-CGI wrecking ball? And how many different ways are there to show a skyscraper falling over, anyway?
My fondest hope is that filmmakers and studios will try to get out ahead of the market and try harder to fill their big movies with grand vistas and imagery that invoke awe and wonder in their audiences. All of us who grew up reading science fiction and fantasy can think of amazing images that we’d love to see realized onscreen: the telepathic dragons of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, the dolphin-crewed starship of David Brin’s Startide Rising, or the 90-million-mile-long inhabited ribbon of Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
It’s one reason the film I’m most excited for this summer is Elysium. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp already showed a great ability to marry striking imagery with rich storytelling in District 9, and his upcoming tale of futuristic class warfare in a beautifully realized orbital habitat looks to be both visually stunning and intellectual provocative.
Let’s just hope he can restrain himself from blowing that space station up.
With his writing partner Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz co-wrote the films Thor and X-Men: First Class, wrote and produced for television shows such as Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and wrote the young-adult novel Colin Fischer.
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