The Builders of the Modern Blockbuster

by Ben Hiett

The term “blockbuster” originally referred to WWII aerial bombs capable of taking out entire city blocks. However, by the 1980’s, the word had come to be associated with the larger-than-life adventure, explosive excitement and widespread popularity of movies like “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and the like. In more recent years, we’ve seen this trend continue, with blockbusters becoming an established pillar of the film industry. I set out to determine which directors have had the biggest influence in defining the blockbuster cinema of the 21st century. Below are the four names whose influence is undeniable.

J. J. Abrams: known for “Star Wars” Episodes 7 and 9, “Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible III”

Most of Abrams’ films are good old-fashioned adventure stories told within a modern context. To draw the audience into the story, he intentionally begins all his stories with a mystery the main characters have yet to solve, hoping to incite the viewers’ imagination as to what the answer could be.

This philosophy of storytelling is evident even in his earliest work. Back in 2004, Abrams helped create the TV series “Lost,” a show defined by its ever-unfolding mystery. A few years later, he developed the concept for the found-footage disaster film “Cloverfield,” which ends with only a brief, cryptic answer to the cause of the movie’s main events.

However, the infinite potential of mystery sets viewers’ expectations extremely high, so coming up with a conclusion that meets those expectations can be difficult. This difficulty is evident in the endings of both “Lost” and the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, which left many viewers underwhelmed.

Ironically, the best qualities of his films lie beyond his “mystery box” set-ups. His directorial style is visceral and stylish but also exudes an earnest enthusiasm that’s hard not to appreciate. Abrams grew up filming short movies with his friends, and that childlike wonder and playfulness shines through in his films.

Given his childhood love for film, it makes sense that he has had a hand in rebooting or continuing the stories of his childhood, including “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and “Mission Impossible.” Regardless of your opinion of these movies, there’s no denying the unique sense of fun he’s brought to them, deftly synthesizing the best elements of these stories with his own vision in a way that feels both nostalgic and fresh.

Christopher Nolan: known for “Inception,” the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “Tenet”

Christopher Nolan is far from a typical blockbuster director. Favoring grounded realism over escapist spectacle, Nolan consistently crafts cerebral, thematic films with meticulously put-together payoffs. What he lacks in accessibility he makes up for with intriguing ideas, sophisticated storytelling, and a visceral intensity.

His high-concept stories are frequently built around a moral dilemma or existential question, and these ideas not only shape the stories he tells but also the filmmaking techniques he uses. For instance, Nolan frequently makes use of non-linear storytelling to withhold certain pieces of information from the audience until later, which impacts how the audience experiences the story on first viewings compared to later rewatches.

His scrupulous approach means that every line of dialogue, every plot point, and every visual cue serves a purpose in the greater story he’s trying to tell. This intricacy gives his films a high level of rewatchability, as there is always some new subtle detail to notice.

This attention to detail also contributes to his films’ sense of grounded realism. Theatrical, big budget adventure unfolds within an accessible, real world context, raising the stakes for the audience. Nolan’s protagonists are not invincible titans but rather human beings with real-world limitations and ever-present vulnerability, making the danger they face all the more palpable.

It was this practical sensibility that made his grounded adaptation of the Batman lore so innovative, as most previous superhero movies had emphasized over-the-top, cartoonish action. It’s a sensibility that many action movies have since attempted to emulate, most evidently Zack Snyder’s austere take on Superman in “Man of Steel.” Ultimately, Nolan has established a new standard for blockbusters, proving they can be thought-provoking as well as entertaining.

Michael Bay: known for the “Transformers” films, “Bad Boys I and II,” “13 Hours”

Bay’s movies are about one thing: over-the-top spectacle. As a result, you will never find a boring shot in his movies. He intentionally sets up shots with multiple layers of movement in order to make them feel dynamic. This means his action sequences can have so much going on that they’re disorienting, bewildering and headache-inducing.

When done right, however, this directorial style gives what would be standard action scenes a gripping frenetic energy (“Bayhem,” as he calls it) that’s hard not to get swept up in. Battles between giant robots or firefights between cops and crooks play out like violent Rube Goldberg machines filled with explosions, screaming and perfectly timed slow-motion.

Because spectacle is Bay’s No. 1 goal, he can let most of the other elements of his movies fall by the wayside. The characters are usually generic and thinly written, and his plots are typically filled with cliches and built around justifying the next action sequence.

Regardless of these flaws, his influence in the action movie genre is undeniable. Even in his early movies such as “Bad Boys” and “The Rock,” Bay established a signature chaotic style that numerous other action movies have tried but failed to replicate. His movies often feel clichéd because they established (or at least popularized) many of the action tropes of the 2000s.

He has stuck with these clichés because they work. His fourth installment in the “Transformers” franchise, “Age of Extinction,” for example, was the highest grossing film of 2014, raking in over $1 billion worldwide. Evidently, fans were still craving more “Bayhem” even after the first three movies. You may not like him, but you can’t deny his success.

Steven Spielberg: the “Indiana Jones” films, “Jurassic Park,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”

No other director has produced such an eclectic collection of iconic films that have stood the test of time. His timeless films defined the very idea of a modern blockbuster, revolutionizing filmmaking in the process. There’s a reason Spielberg has become a household name: he’s earned it.

While most of Spielberg’s films are undeniably grand in their scope and spectacle, they stand apart from other big-budget productions because of their accessibility. Essentially every creative choice Spielberg makes is intended to immerse the audience in the story, not by overwhelming them with its massive scale but by allowing them to experience the spectacle through the eyes of the characters.

This is the main reason behind the “Spielberg face,” his signature camera move of cutting to the characters’ reactions before showing what they’re reacting to. Spielberg certainly didn’t invent this technique, but he’s consistently made use of it to draw viewers into the characters’ experiences.

Besides this signature move, Spielberg’s directorial style isn’t strikingly unique, but that’s the point. He intentionally uses subtle camera moves and simple shot set-ups to avoid distracting the audience from the story that’s unfolding before them.

It’s this dedication to sweeping the audience up into the grander story that makes his films so timeless and accessible. He understands the power of film to transport the viewer to another world.

His movies are still boisterous blockbusters with larger-than-life adventure, but they invite the audience to experience that adventure through the eyes of empathetic characters, making the wonder, awe, and emotional payoffs feel genuine and earned.

Ben Hiett is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.

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