January 6, 2014

Human-scale vs. Earth-shattering stakes in movies

Here is an article about how movie audiences these days require the entire universe to be at stake, or else BORRRING. The counter-trend is for banal or saccharine kiddie flicks to take up more and more market share, catering to those viewers who don't feel like yet another cataclysmic war this weekend, yet who still feel that personal + sincere = awkward. The optimal middle level of sincere human-scale stories has been squeezed out. They still appear in serial television dramas, but I mean a format with a dramatic beginning, middle, and end.

To figure out what's gone wrong, we need to trace this trend back to its origins. It turns out to track the rising or falling trend in the crime rate -- more personal and local during rising-crime times, and over-blown and remote during falling-crime times. When violence and crime are rising in the real world, everyday settings, characters, and events are interesting enough. When the world around us keeps getting safer and safer, we have to overload our senses with the threat of danger in order to shock our sleeping security cameras into operation.

If it's a recent loathsome cultural trend, it must have started in the '90s. Well, the top-grossing movies of 1992 don't have any where the entire race, nation, world, universe, etc. is at stake. In 1993, there was the historical epic Schindler's List where the entire Jewish race is at stake. In '94, the epic and Earth-shattering becomes more popular still -- The Lion King, Forrest Gump, Stargate, Star Trek: Generations all landed in the top 20 at the box office.

Click on the 1992 link above to navigate around other "years in film" entries at Wikipedia, and you'll see how non-existent these kinds of movies were as recently as the late '80s and early '90s.

Even when the stakes were large, the sheer size of the existential threat did not dominate the storytelling -- like, "Yeah, we get it -- after 90 minutes, world still at stake." In Ghostbusters, you don't see the gigantic threat materialize until the end of the movie, when the Gozer babe opens up the portal of evil on top of the apartment building. Most of the movie is about the seemingly mismatched characters forming a team, and tackling smaller threats in order to gradually convince skeptics and gradually become experienced enough for any large threat that may come. And that large threat is only hinted at before the end -- when Dana opens her fridge and sees the other dimension and its hellhounds -- not foretold as a prophecy that stops everything in its tracks and re-directs them toward The Final Battle that's still two hours away.

When the Stay Puft marshmallow man does come striding down crowded streets, his damage is still limited in scope -- it's not like he's wrecking skyscrapers across all of Manhattan. So it doesn't even feel like, at that moment, all of New York City is at stake. Damage to the rest of the borough, city, and nation are off in the future, and we sense that trajectory without having to see it take place. We're familiar with the idea that much broader destruction may follow if the heroes don't win this smaller battle. For audiences in 1984, a crucial battle, not the entire war, was important enough to hold their attention.

Go through the other hit movies of '84 and you see the same thing:

Beverly Hills Cop -- a circumscribed series of crimes are the threat. The main motivation for the protagonist is revenge against one or a few enemies who killed his best friend.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom -- like Ghostbusters, the threat is local, although it could possibly spread if the heroes don't stop it here and now. Ditto for Gremlins.

The Karate Kid -- a single individual is threatened by bullies. He strives to improve himself in order to restore his honor and get the girl.

Police Academy -- urban crime broadly is the threat, but it wasn't over-blown. Crime was higher in the '80s, but it wasn't apocalyptic. And just one group of new officers are the heroes, not the entire police department.

Footloose -- the majority of young people in a single town are the target of repressive laws against music and dancing. Mostly, though, the struggle is between individual representatives of both sides (the newcomer rebel and the fiery preacher), who share much common ground. It's not one of those bratty movies about Youth vs. Fogies. The audience understands that these events could take place "in a town like yours," but only by extension and through inference. The movie doesn't actually show the same events playing out across different towns across the country. The threat to young people in general is tacit, not explicit and over-blown.

Splash -- rom-coms are never epic in scale, but these days they try to push them as far as possible. Splash tells a tale about an unlikely couple who had been down on their luck before they met each other, and who may get broken up by a non-apocalyptic group of antagonists. Today, "down on their luck" would have to be the most pathetic sob story ever, and they wouldn't just have fun and click as a couple -- they would have to be spinning head over heels in love, blocking out the rest of the world. Any threat to their being together would be ruinous to their very well-being.


Movies from the '70s are also more personal in scale and sincere in tone. Even in the paranoid political thriller genre, they don't directly show the entire world (or free world) being at stake. Folks understood that if the conspirators can get away with some smaller feat, they can probably do a little better. And if they can get away with it in some local, circumscribed part of the world, they are probably at work elsewhere. We're witnessing the tip of the iceberg -- we don't need to see the whole damn iceberg to appreciate that.

Movies from the '60s are emerging from the most recent peak of epic-scale narratives, during the mid-century. As late as 1963, the top three movies were still all epics -- Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Already by '68, movies that could have been overblown epics are more personal and local in scale, with the broader implications left as inferences for the audience to draw -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby, Planet of the Apes, Night of the Living Dead.

Here are the top movies from 1953, many of which are gigantic-scale, epic, "the fate of the world hangs in the balance" kind of movies. The Robe, Salome, Julius Caesar, The War of the Worlds. At least back then, helicopter parents had their children watching kiddie TV shows or listening to corny radio programs, rather than demanding Hollywood provide as many kiddie as grown-up movies to choose from every weekend. That left open a niche for the occasional small-scale rom-com like Roman Holiday or thriller like Rear Window (from '54).

Jazz Age movies were like those of the '80s, more personal in scale, lots of comedies, and a couple of larger-scale epics that were nevertheless told mostly through interpersonal relationships among the characters (like the Star Wars movies). Here are the top 14 from 1927, for example, and only The King of Kings and Metropolis can be considered large-scale. I haven't seen the former, but Metropolis does not have an oppressively large scope at any given moment -- not like the two endless battle lines in the Lord of the Rings movies, all racing toward each other at the same time. The large scope of Metropolis is achieved by a nested series of human-scale relationships that have links between them (again like the Star Wars movies). It shifts from this sub-group of characters in this location to that sub-group in that location, without overwhelming us by focusing on the entire Good Side for a long stretch, then the entire Bad Side, etc., until the epic showdown where both entire sides duke it out.

Horror and monster movies make a good case study, because all of them have a clear villain or threat and a clear group of targeted victims. What changes is the size of the monster and his pool of victims. Starting at the beginning, classic horror movies of the '20s and early '30s are all local and personal in scope -- Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and so on. The last great example is King Kong from 1933, where the monster is like the Stay Puft marshmallow man, only threatening the stretch of streets and cars along his path toward a single target building, where his girl is hiding. Perhaps he could wreak havoc across all of New York, but they don't even hint at that, let alone show it.

Mid-century monster movies go so over-the-top that they become desperate and cheesy. Returning to 1953, the #10 movie at the box office was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms -- I guess "from a Thousand Fathoms" didn't sound epic enough. The next year saw a movie version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as the #2 movie, and the novel was from the Victorian era (1870). Back to the first 20,000-named movie, Wikipedia summarizes the plot like this: "The film is about an atomic bomb test in the Arctic Circle that unfreezes a hibernating dinosaur, the fictional Rhedosaurus, which begins to wreak havoc in New York City."

By the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, they've returned to human-scale and local threats -- Halloween (and all in the slasher genre), Alien, Predator, The Silence of the Lambs. Either the threat could expand beyond the setting of the movie, or there could be others like it already in other places. We don't need to zoom out in order to appreciate that something big is at stake, beyond what is seen.

Starting in the mid-'90s, the Earth-shattering monster / alien movies were back by popular demand, starting with Stargate and Independence Day and continuing through War of the Worlds and Cloverfield in the 2000s. Most of the genre, however, has been absorbed by the comic book movies, such as the X-Men and Transformers franchises.

Horror / monster / alien movies show the link to the crime rate more clearly than movies in general. When the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th series dominated the genre, viewers felt like evil was lurking in their own neck of the woods, and that it would only take a single enemy to do them in, not an army of them. The crime rate was rising toward its peak at the time, making audiences more aware of the reality of violence. As crime rates have fallen so dramatically, to where you no longer read about murders, kidnappings, and Satanic cults on the front page of every newspaper, viewers wouldn't buy the "killer next door" premise of the slasher movies. It has to be legions of zombies threatening to wipe out the entire planet, or at any rate a threat that comes so far outside of the audience's own community that they'd only see the threat in a movie: the stalker weirdo from Saw, the Central European torturers preying on tourists in Hostel, and so on.


  1. I'm not a huge movie-watcher, but The Blob from 1958 is about destruction on a large scale. I also enjoyed the 1988 remake.

  2. I have been complaining to my wife about this issue with movies today.

    Too many movies to mention which involve the end of the world. The actors are playing super hero type roles, with no true character development and no basis in reality.

    Being born in 1969, I remember well the films of the 70's and 80's. In the eighties the cop movies became more like comedies with some criminal element.

    Started with Beverly Hills cop, another good one was 48 Hours which started the white/black partner scenarios like Lethal Weapon.

    Does anyone remember when cop movies had more drama, like To Live and Die in LA (this was one of the last old school cop films)

    Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood did a bunch. Another favorite crime film, Charley Varrick (directed by Don Siegel)These movies had macho, tough male characters which are missing from films of the last 20 years.

  3. Perhaps new special-effects technology tend to create "Earth-shattering" movies? Because the directors (or the studios) want to use the "new techniques" and movies in "big events" are better for this.

    Not that my point is not about the absolute level of special-effects technology (who is been rising since the times of Meliés and of the brothers Lumiére), but about the "growth rate".

  4. Makes sense. 80s movies were more about heroes trying to overcome their personal struggles. But even when it was about "saving the universe"(as in Star Wars), the tone was kept lighthearted and joking.

    And as you say, the magnitude of everything is ramped up. The villain in Saw constructed elaborate traps and dungeons, whereas in Halloween, it was just some guy with a mask and knife in one town.


  5. Also the burglar movies have become more extreme.

    In the 70s and early eighties the criminals would plan to steal 100 to 500 grand. While today these theft movies entail steeling at least 10 million.

    A good James Caan movie from 1981 is Thief.
    The Hot Rock was another great 70s theft film with Robert Redford. These older films had more character focus, more realistic crimes and no special effects, but are more enjoyable than the newer versions like Oceans 11 and the Italian Job.

  6. A growing theme is Americans overseas being preyed on by evil locals with their dark, strange customs. "Hostel" is one you mentioned. Two more examples are "Turista" and "The Ruins." These could be influenced by falling crime in the U.S., so that Americans are attacked while in more dangerous places with rising crime rates.

  7. " These could be influenced by falling crime in the U.S., so that Americans are attacked while in more dangerous places with rising crime rates."

    That is a good point. Since America has become so safe, the outside world is seen as menacing and barbaric.


  8. This immediately made me think of the show 24, where the first season started out as a pretty solid (if somewhat over-the-top) action-drama about a terrorist plot to assassinate a US Senator. The next season was a bit cheesier, centered around a plot to blow up LA with a nuke, and the 3rd season was worse yet, with a rogue British agent threatening to detonate dirty bombs all over the country and kill pretty much everyone. I stopped watching at that point but I hear it got even more ridiculous as the schemes became more and more grandiose.

    On the other hand, take a movie like Heat, which brings together good acting, cinematography, music, etc. to create a really epic feel even though the stakes are pretty standard cops-and-robbers fare at bottom. Or even The Dark Knight, where the climax of the movie is about trying to stop a terrorist from blowing up a passenger ferry (a lot smaller than even Batman Begins, where the plot was to poison everyone in the city). Inception is ultimately about a group of people taking a nap on a long flight, and a businessman deciding to change his strategy as a result.

    If the director and actors do their jobs well then trying to save a single life can feel incredibly urgent and intense (see David Mamet's Spartan). Defaulting to end-of-the-world threats seems like a lazy way to motivate the minimum level of audience involvement to get asses in seats. It also makes for boring, one-dimensionally evil villains.

    That said, Man of Steel comes to mind as a good example of the world-class stakes done right, and makes an interesting contrast to The Avengers. Both climax with a huge alien attack on Manhattan, but Man of Steel's feels genuinely horrifying and desperate (and correspondingly cathartic when Supes intervenes) whereas the Avengers scene is just a generic opportunity for the heroes to show off their powers against faceless mooks.

  9. Die Hard is another great terrorist / heist movie where the scope of those threatened is limited enough that we can see their faces and get to know them as people before they come under attack.

    Although on the decline, there were still some human-scale stakes action / thriller movies into the mid-'90s -- The Fugitive, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Seven, among others.

    Christopher Nolan is like Alfred Hitchcock in providing personal-scale movies when the growing trend was toward the epic.


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