Universal Pictures via Everett Collection/Walt Disney Studios via Everett Collection
As Memorial Day approaches, American moviegoers prepare for an onslaught of summer blockbusters. Whether it's the latest edition of a franchise like X-Men: Days of Future Past or the possible beginning of one like Guardians of the Galaxy, everyone has gotten used to big, expensive films hitting the multiplex when the weather gets warm.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. The mid '70s work of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas helped usher in the current model that studios use in setting their summer releases. While the work of the two directors is iconic, what's followed hasn't always lived up to the term "blockbuster." Our writers argue whether things were better in the days when Lucas and Spielberg ruled the roost or if we're in a new golden age of big budget extravaganzas.
The Spectacular Spielberg (Jon Lisi)
Let’s just assume for a second that Jaws was never released in the summer of 1975.
Cynics might claim that the brilliant New Hollywood films of the 1970s like Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, and The Conversation would continue to be made as a result, but we all know that this so-called “American New Wave” was on the inevitable decline. Instead, we’d have to imagine a cinema in which the first major summer blockbuster from Hollywood was not Spielberg’s terrifying monster movie.
Is it possible to picture the summer blockbuster without Jaws? I don’t think so. For better or worse, Jaws is the gold standard to which all future summer blockbusters have been judged. The question that is asked as a result, then, is whether or not contemporary summer blockbusters like Transformers, Iron Man, The Avengers and other superhero amalgamations compare in quality to past summer blockbusters like Jaws, E.T., Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters?
If we are to answer this question honestly, we need to remove any consideration of money. After all, plenty of movies do well at the box office, and the massive success of the Twilight franchise shows how few of them are actually good. Instead, we need to focus on what the first summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars had that contemporary ones like Transformers and Iron Man lack.
The most significance difference, I think, is that a summer blockbuster like Jaws isn’t about a shark, whereas a summer blockbuster like Transformers is about alien robots. That is, Jaws uses a series of shark attacks to investigate small-town mentality in an entertaining way. You can certainly sit back and enjoy the film literally — as a monster movie — but Spielberg wants you to think about what the shark reveals about American community and the ways individuals work together to solve a common problem.
Transformers, by contrast, doesn’t offer anything interesting beyond the initial spectacle. The digital effects may lure you into the theater, but after the stuff blows up, you aren’t left with anything to ponder. This may not matter to prepubescent boys, but for those interested in mainstream fare that is also intelligent, the contemporary summer blockbuster doesn’t suffice.
I’m aware that there are exceptions. For instance, the films by Christopher Nolan merge commerce and art quite successfully, as do most Pixar films. However, these are anomalies, and for the most part, contemporary summer blockbusters have failed to live up to the standard Jaws set nearly 40 years ago.
A Marvel-ous New Era (Brendon McCullin)
The passage of time tends to lend a glow to the early blockbusters of Spielberg and Lucas. In reality, Spielberg went the Hitchcock route with Jaws because he was forced to by external conditions. And we can argue how much the performances by Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw had to do with his directing. Lucas, for his part, might have been great at story concepts but he always had a tin ear when it came to dialogue (leading to the famous Harrison Ford rant, "You can type this s**t, but you sure as hell can't say it").
That's not to denigrate what Spielberg and Lucas did — they each authored cultural phenomena that altered American filmmaking and the movie industry as a whole — but let's not go too crazy. Some of their contemporaries, particularly screenwriters like John Milius and Robert Towne, may have liked them personally, but didn't always love how they handled their craft.
The fact is there has always been and will always be a place in Hollywood for big, crowd-pleasing popcorn movies… and there have always been good and bad ones. Just because Jaws was better than The Towering Inferno and Star Wars was better than Airport '77 doesn’t necessarily kick into the same strata of cinematic history as The Godfather.
If we were having this argument 15 to 20 years ago, I would be completely on board. Back when Michael Bay was unleashing a steady stream of trash like Armageddon and The Rock on audiences and what amounted to good storytelling was Will Smith making wisecracks while fighting aliens in Independence Day… well, yes, that was a low point for summer blockbusters. Heck, that was a low point for film in general.
Since then, however, a new group of filmmakers who value story as much as visual pyrotechnics have taken the lead on some of the biggest tent-pole movies in recent years. Some of them, such as Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) come from the writer dominated domain of television. Others, like Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Kenneth Branagh (Thor) are themselves actors and work to make their stars look good.
Combine that group with the aforementioned Nolan (The Dark Knight) and the Pixar team under John Lasseter and really, you would be hard pressed to find another period that matched the number of talented, conscientious, and literate filmmakers that are willing to helm blockbusters.
The nice thing is that many of these directors — particularly Whedon and Abrams — clearly gained some of their sensibilities as youngsters watching the films of Lucas and Spielberg. You're never going to get rid of people like Bay and movies like his Transformers franchise, but blockbusters are in as good of hands now as they've ever been.
CBS has the fewest new shows coming this fall and why screw around when you’re number one? They’re already an incredible ratings juggernaut, so most of their five new shows run along the lines of your basic CBS series. We’ve got cop shows with gifted officers, medical dramas with a supernatural feel, and comedies that are, well, they look like comedies. Check out the videos below to find out what your parents will be asking if you’ve seen in about two years.
And while you're at it, check out our previews for ABC, NBC, and FOX.
Two Broke Girls
Starring: Kat Dennings, Beth Behrs
Basics: Two waitresses from two different sides of the tracks: one is blue collar, working her whole life while the other is a former heiress who has never worked a day in her life. They meet at their job and begin scheming to open their own restaurant.
Why: This show comes from Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) and comedienne Whitney Cummings. Even though Cummings has her own show on NBC that looks terrible, this show seems to have more of her voice. Kat Dennings is a fantastic actress, though how she’ll handle a traditional sitcom remains to be seen. This could be a great female sitcom or it could be like other CBS sitcoms and waste oxygen. We’ll have to see.
How to Be a Gentleman
Starring: David Hornsby, Kevin Dillon
Basics: An uptight magazine columnist reunites with his slobbish high school friend.
Potential: Probably, despite the premise
Why: Notice a theme with CBS’s new comedies? Pairing up odd couples? It's not exactly the newest concept ever, but the talent behind this show is quite impressive, Kevin Dillon withstanding. Hornsby is a writer for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia so he brings a bit of anarchy to a very rigid CBS and Rhys Darby was the breakout star of Flight of the Conchords. It’s got potential, let’s see how it does.
Starring: Poppy Montgomery, Dylan Walsh
Basics: A police officer has near-perfect memory and uses her disorder to help solve crimes. Except the one that haunts her memory.
Why: It's the millionth crime procedural about an officer with a supernatural gift, and this one was at one point called The Rememberer, so that should tell you something about it. While it does have a somewhat interesting premise, it will undoubtedly get lost in the horrible exposition dialogue and terrible acting. Yet it will have higher ratings than Community, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad combined.
A Gifted Man
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Ehle
Basics: A doctor is haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife who wants him to help her achieve a sense of closure.
Why: It’s about a doctor. Who sees a ghost. Of his ex-wife. Absolutely not, no matter how many Oscars the people behind the show have (which is a surprising amount).
Person of Interest
Starring: Michael Emerson, Jim Caviezel
Basics: An eccentric billionaire has somehow found a way to predict if a person will be involved in a violent crime. So he hires a rogue former CIA agent, long thought to be dead, to do the dirty (but justified!) work for him.
Potential: Oh, please let it be good
Why: The show comes from J.J. Abrams (squeal!) and re-teams him with the best actor from Lost, Michael Emerson. That alone would get me to watch, but Jonathan Nolan (yes, the brother of Christopher Nolan and his frequent writing collaborator) scripted the pilot. So, we have a great cast, great team behind the show, and an intriguing premise. Please don’t screw this up, CBS.
The Coen brothers could be adding a third Writers Guild of America Award to their impressive trophy case next month if they can nab best original screenplay for their quirky comedy Burn After Reading. The WGA, who announced their nominees today, presented Joel and Ethan Coen with best adapted screenplay last year for No Country for Old Men and best original screenplay in 1997 for Fargo.
Rounding out the contenders this year are Dustin Lance Black for Milk, Woody Allen for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Tom McCarthy for The Visitor and Robert Siegel for The Wrestler.
The WGA’s best adapted screenplay noms include Eric Roth for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with story by Roth and Robin Swicord; Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight with story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; John Patrick Shanley for Doubt, based on the stage play; Peter Morgan for Frost/Nixon, based on his stage play; and Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire.
WGA members will meet simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles for the award ceremony on Feb. 7.
Burn After Reading, Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Focus Features
Milk, Written by Dustin Lance Black, Focus Features
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Written by Woody Allen, The Weinstein Company
The Visitor, Written by Tom McCarthy, Overture Films
The Wrestler, Written by Robert Siegel, Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Screenplay by Eric Roth; Screen Story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord; Based on the Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures
The Dark Knight, Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer; Based on Characters Appearing in Comic Books Published by DC Comics; Batman Created by Bob Kane, Warner Bros. Pictures
Doubt, Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, Based on his Stage Play, Miramax Films
Frost/Nixon, Screenplay by Peter Morgan, Based on his Stage Play, Universal Pictures
Slumdog Millionaire, Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, Based on the Novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, Fox Searchlight Pictures
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, Written by Stefan Forbes and Noland Walker, InterPositive Media
Chicago 10, Written by Brett Morgen, Roadside Attractions
Fuel, Written by Johnny O'Hara, Greenlight Theatrical / Intention Media
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Screenplay by Alex Gibney, From the Words of Hunter S. Thompson, Magnolia Pictures
Waltz with Bashir, Written by Ari Folman, Sony Pictures Classics
Dramatic Series Dexter, Written by Scott Buck, Daniel Cerone, Charles H. Eglee, Adam E. Fierro, Lauren Gussis, Clyde Phillips, Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, Tim Schlattmann; Showtime
Friday Night Lights, Written by Bridget Carpenter, Kerry Ehrin, Brent Fletcher, Jason Gavin, Carter Harris, Elizabeth Heldens, David Hudgins, Jason Katims, Patrick Massett, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, John Zinman; NBC
Lost, Written by Carlton Cuse, Drew Goddard, Adam Horowitz, Christina M. Kim, Edward Kitsis, Damon L. Lindelof, Greggory Nations, Kyle Pennington, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Brian K. Vaughan; ABC
Mad Men, Written by Lisa Albert, Jane Anderson, Rick Cleveland, Kater Gordon, David Isaacs, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Marti Noxon, Robin Veith, Matthew Weiner; AMC
The Wire, Written by Ed Burns, Chris Collins, David Mills, David Simon, William F. Zorzi, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos; HBO
30 Rock, Written by Jack Burditt, Kay Cannon, Robert Carlock, Tina Fey, Donald Glover, Andrew Guest, Matt Hubbard, Jon Pollack, John Riggi, Tami Sagher, Ron Weiner; NBC
Entourage, Written by Doug Ellin, Jeremy Miller, Ally Musika, Steve Pink, Rob Weiss; HBO
The Office, Written by Steve Carell, Jennifer Celotta, Greg Daniels, Lee Eisenberg, Anthony Farrell, Brent Forrester, Dan Goor, Charlie Grandy, Mindy Kaling, Ryan Koh, Lester Lewis, Paul Lieberstein, Warren Lieberstein, B.J. Novak, Michael Schur, Aaron Shure, Justin Spitzer, Gene Stupnitsky, Halsted Sullivan; NBC
The Simpsons, Written by J. Stewart Burns, Daniel Chun, Joel H. Cohen, Kevin Curran, John Frink, Tom Gammill, Valentina Garza, Stephanie Gillis, Dan Greaney, Reid Harrison, Ron Hauge, Al Jean, Brian Kelly, Billy Kimball, Rob LaZebnik, Tim Long, Ian Maxtone-Graham, David Mirkin, Bill Odenkirk, Carolyn Omine, Don Payne, Michael Price, Max Pross, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, Matt Warburton, Jeff Westbrook, Marc Wilmore, William Wright; Fox
Weeds, Written by Roberto Benabib, Mark A. Burley, Ron Fitzgerald, David Holstein, Rolin Jones, Brendan Kelly, Jenji Kohan, Victoria Morrow, Matthew Salsberg; Showtime
Breaking Bad, Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Patty Lin, George Mastras, J Roberts; AMC
Fringe, Written by JJ Abrams, Jason Cahill, Julia Cho, David H. Goodman, Felicia Henderson, Brad Caleb Kane, Alex Kurtzman, Darin Morgan, J.R. Orci, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, Zack Whedon; Fox
In Treatment, Written by Rodrigo Garcia, Bryan Goluboff, Davey Holmes, William Meritt Johnson, Amy Lippman, Sarah Treem; HBO
Life on Mars, Written by Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg, Becky Hartman Edwards, David Wilcox, Adele Lim, Bryan Oh, Tracy McMillan, Sonny Postiglione, Phil M. Rosenberg, Meredith Averill; ABC
True Blood, Written by Alan Ball, Brian Buckner, Raelle Tucker, Alexander Woo, Nancy Oliver, Chris Offutt; HBO
Episodic Drama - any length - one airing time
“Don’t Ever Change” (House), Written by Doris Egan & Leonard Dick; Fox
“Double Booked” (Burn Notice), Written by Craig O’Neill & Jason Tracey; USA
“Gray Matter” (Breaking Bad), Written by Patty Lin; AMC
“Pilot” (Breaking Bad), Written by Vince Gilligan; AMC
“Pilot” (Eli Stone), Written by Greg Berlanti & Marc Guggenheim; ABC
“There’s Something About Harry” (Dexter), Written by Scott Reynolds; Showtime
Episodic Comedy - any length - one airing time
“Believe in the Stars” (30 Rock), Written by Robert Carlock; NBC
“Cooter” (30 Rock), Written by Tina Fey; NBC
“Crime Aid” (The Office), Written by Charlie Grandy; NBC
“Crush’d” (Ugly Betty), Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally; ABC
“Succession” (30 Rock), Written by Andrew Guest & John Riggi; NBC
“Vote for This and I Promise to Do Something Crazy at the Emmys” (My Name is Earl), Written by Greg Garcia; NBC
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