Zack & Nick's Culture Cast

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The Use and Misuse of Massive Carnage in Hollywood Blockbusters

There seems to be a growing trend in a lot of these Hollywood summer blockbusters in that they tend to feature massive destruction and implied (and some more-than-implied) high body counts.  This summer, Man of Steel was highly criticized for its gratuitous use of city-wide destruction.  I suppose in action films, destruction along these lines is not unexpected, but this type of carnage is starting to pop-up in the most surprising places such as in the climax of this summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness.  In some circles online, this has been referenced as “9/11 Porn” – clearly hyperbole, but I understand the sentiment.

But here is the strange thing: some movies are heavily criticized for it (such as in the aforementioned Man of Steel) while other films seem to get a complete pass (as the recently released Pacific Rim).  Why is there a discontinuity?  Isn’t massive destruction simply massive destruction?  How can one movie get away with it, and another can’t?  Well, I’m going to see if I can explore that issue and see if it can be sorted out.

Personally, I think it has a lot to do with expectations.  When you go to see a movie like Independence Day or Pacific Rim, you sort of expect that sort of carnage.  Those films have centerpieces dedicated to show off destruction.  And, in Pacific Rim’s case, most of the “horrific” destruction happened already (the film takes place years after the monsters’ first attacked).  So, in essence, when you go and see something like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow (or any Roland Emmerich film), you know from the get-go what you are getting yourself into.

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Did we really need this in a Star Trek movie?

Conversely, when you go see something like Man of Steel, massive destruction to the point where you see bodies being lifted and slammed into the ground by an alien device, this is not as expected.  Sure, you are probably going to see some destruction in the action sequences, but the expectation of seeing two cities nearly destroyed are not necessarily going to be there.  Is that the movie’s fault?  Not necessarily, but if your audience isn’t expecting that, don’t get upset if they end up turned off by it.

For me, I see another problem with this beyond simple expectations.  Sometimes, you need to look at the destruction and see how well it is weaved into the narrative and if the consequences of such destruction are mentioned.  I think this was the problem that Man of Steel, Green Lantern, and, to an extent, Transformers: Dark of the Moon had.  Those films featured the massive death/destruction of a city, but the repercussions are never mentioned and/or glossed over.

I actually feel bad for continually bringing Man of Steel up, but it really fell victim to this.  In the film, we see everything destroyed (including the Daily Planet building), but during the coda, everything is back to normal (including an apparently rebuilt Daily Planet building) like nothing happened.  It was like an alien invasion that destroyed the city never happened.  This is a narrative problem!  Filmmakers really cannot do that and expect the audiences to buy into it.

And don’t give me “Oh, they will deal with that in the sequel” garbage.  No.  A movie needs to stand on its own.  And, as we saw in the case of Green Lantern, a sequel may never come.

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In Green Lantern, this goes unmentioned and is largely forgotten by the end.

Now, I have an idea of what you are thinking: what about all those other films such as The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers which also featured lots of destruction.  How come they didn’t get blasted?  To be honest, those are examples of how to do it right.  In those two films, they acknowledged the destruction.  They acknowledged that things got bad.  In The Avengers’s case, characters were actively saying during a news montage at the end “Who is going to clean up this mess?” and “Where are the Avengers now?”

Also in The Avengers, the film goes out of its way to be bloodless and shows the aliens rounding up humans instead of killing them.  You can argue whether or not that is a good filmmaking decision, but it lessens the impact of all the city destruction and its consequences.

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Avengers at least acknowledged that New York was attacked.

I am not saying that in Man of Steel, we needed to see Superman rebuilding all the skyscrapers or something like that.  Instead, we could have easily had a line or two mentioning how city is recovering or that it’ll take some time to rebuild.  In other words, that the destruction had some lasting impact.  Yes, I know my “suggestion” might make me sound like an arrogant armchair critic, but am I wrong?

I suppose the best remedy for all of this is for Hollywood to steer away from this kind of storytelling in something that isn’t a monster/disaster movie.  I suppose it was novel in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it is looking like the novelty is wearing thin with audiences.  Maybe it is time to move on to a new trope.

What do you think?

~N

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5 responses to “The Use and Misuse of Massive Carnage in Hollywood Blockbusters

  1. JD August 5, 2013 at 10:16 am

    I agree that some movies have more of an expectation that there will be mass destruction which makes it easier for audiences to swallow and that they way it’s presented can make a big difference on how its received too. The escalation of visual effects and spectacle in movies comes from the increases in computer effects technology as well as the desire for films to separate themselves from television by doing things that are bigger than most television shows can do with their budgets. I think the trend of mass carnage in movies is a side effect of this visual effects arms race and film makers are still trying to figure out how audiences respond to the different ways this material can be presented.

  2. Ben August 20, 2013 at 3:44 am

    I think one of the biggest examples of this and one that stood out for me was the “Tank scene” in Fast and Furious six. I haven’t seen the whole movie but I was “treated” to a sneak peak during the trailers for another movie and seeing a tank just roll over dozens of cars along a motorway, without anyone really acknowledging how nasty and gruesome that was, seemed reckless and irresponsible.

    • Nick! August 20, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      I totally forgot about that in F&F6! That one didn’t bother me as much as some of the other examples, but yeah, it goes completely unmentioned. Not even in as throwaway line which is all it needed.

      It is stuff like that when just random innocents are killed off. It goes unmentioned, and it makes the sequence hold little weight.

  3. Pingback: I Saw Transformers: Age of Extinction | The Culture Cast with Zack and Nick

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