On “destruction porn” in summer blockbusters, and in praise of the third-act downshift

World-War-Z

I was reasonably depressed by this article from New York magazine’s Vulture site last week, an interview with Damien Lindelof about the “new rules of blockbuster screenwriting.” The paramount rule seems to be to wage a war of escalation against every other blockbuster out there, going for splashier effects, bigger stakes, and even grander scale of destruction. That’s why the Earth has been destroyed or nearly destroyed a dozen times over at the movie theater this summer.

“We live in a commercial world, where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct,” Lindelof says. “Did ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ need to have a giant starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”

Lindelof, who co-wrote “Into Darkness,” seems to have at least mild misgivings about this approach, especially the proliferation of what he called “destruction porn” in movie trailers. But he should have even bigger misgivings, because this seems like an unsustainable model to me.

First of all, and most importantly to Hollywood, it seems unsustainable from a pure business perspective. At some point, you can only go so big. At some point, one smashed building pretty much looks like another. And we seem to be seeing audiences getting exhausted at the prospect of box-office apocalypse week after week — they turned out big for “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek” earlier in the summer, but bailed on “R.I.P.D.” and even “Pacific Rim” to some extent as the months wore on.

Secondly, and more importantly, it seems unsustainable from a creative perspective. If your focus is only on getting bigger and louder moments in your film, you run the risk of exhausting or turning off your audience. You start pushing out things like character or story or humor, and in the end, it’s still those things that hook audiences. “Man of Steel,” which I liked more than a lot of critics, is a quintessential example of this. It had a great battle in Smallville, then moved to the large-scale destruction of Metropolis, with skyscrapers falling down all around Perry White and Co. It was a big, epic, barnburner of a climax.

And it wasn’t enough. We still had another protracted, landscape-wrecking fight between Superman and General Zod to go. Maybe there are moviegoers who love that kind of excess, nonstop action and CGI destruction, but that’s not the vibe I felt from that “Man of Steel” audience. The vibe I felt was “Geez, enough already.” There’s nothing wrong with a little meaningless spectacle, but meaningful spectacle is preferable.

Which is why I’m happy to see something of a backlash brewing in some blockbusters — not a big one, but enough to make me think that there are some filmmakers that are tired of being stuck in an arms race of constant, endless escalation at the movies. Instead, I’m starting to notice more “third-act downshifts,” where big summer movies build to a climax that’s unexpectedly low-key.

This summer, that movie was “World War Z.” Here’s a movie that had some big setpieces — the zombies scaling the walls in Israel, the attack in Philadelphia — and was supposed to end on the biggest one of all, a battle between humans and zombies in Moscow. Instead, that ending was scrapped and “Z” went another way. The climax was instead a protracted, rather elegantly executed piece of suspense, where Brad Pitt slips into a World Health Organization lab where all the scientists have gone zombie to steal a potential cure.

After all the large-scale, top-down carnage throughout the film, it was an absolutely unexpected and refreshing way to end a big summer movie. And “World War Z” ended up being one of the big hits of the summer.

daniel-craig-skyfall3

Another franchise that has perfected the third-act downshift in recent years is the James Bond franchise, which is weird, because Bond films always used to end with 007 saving the world, usually by infiltrating the villain’s secret base. But look at how the Daniel Craig 007 films have ended, with a gun battle over a briefcase of money in a collapsing Venice apartment building (“Casino Royale”), a gun battle in a highly-flammable hotel (“Quantum of Solace”) and a showdown at Bond’s ancestral home, where the only thing at stake is the lives of Bond and M (“Skyfall“).

All exciting sequences, all action-packed, but none of them have the expected fate-of-the-world-at-stake hijinks. The Bond films have realized, especially with “Skyfall,” that the smart movie is to escalate the personal stakes, not the global stakes. You can still have your excitement and good-versus-evil struggle, but it will mean something to the audience.

Because, honestly, Damon and company? Part of being entertained is being surprised, and audiences have come to expect that “destruction porn,” like the last big hill on a roller coaster. And while both might provide a momentary thrill, it dissipates awfully quickly.

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3 thoughts on “On “destruction porn” in summer blockbusters, and in praise of the third-act downshift

  1. “The vibe I felt was ‘Geez, enough already.'”

    Did I say that out loud in the theater? Couldn’t agree more. I can understand why “Skyfall’s” third act downshift threw off some people, but I loved that stripped-down attention to character, how it played into exploring more of Bond’s back story.

    I would add “Looper” to the list of third-act downshifts. The farmhouse left turn was a legitimate surprise and felt, as you say, “refreshing.” There’s likely not as much spectacle potential in a Rian Johnson film when compared to the likes of “Man of Steel,” but it’s all too easy for me to imagine a gigantic shoot ’em up free for all in those Iowa cornfields — especially if “Looper” were a Zack Snyder or Len Wiseman joint instead. Nice work, Rob.

  2. Ken: You have to admit, that would have been awesome in 3D.
    David: Thanks! And Looper is an excellent example. I saw The Wolverine after I wrote this post and would also add it to the list, although it doesn’t downshift in the third act so much as keep the action contained and focused on character throughout.

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