by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
I just watched the trailer for Independence Day 2 (I know you’re asking, why?). While watching it, I thought to myself, this movie looks like the guy who is desperately trying to find a date—it’s trying way too hard. Jeff Goldblum’s character, at the end, literally says about the ship that we can clearly see, “that’s definitely bigger than the last one” (referring to the mammoth ship from the original film). I thought, is going bigger actually necessary? Is that all the filmmakers could come up with? Then, I asked myself the most important question of all—have movies become too big?
So what do I mean by big? Simply put, every acton scene is so crazy that you cannot comprehend it. The last big action movie I was able to watch and enjoy was Return of the King. The set pieces of blockbuster action movies after that point became progressively chaotic, to the point where, for the first time in 2009 with Transformers 2, I did not care about any of the action happening. So many equally crazy things were happening, one after another, that my senses became numb halfway through. Fellowship of the Ring is one of my favorite movies, mainly because there are only two amazing action sequences. Neither of them is massive, but has enough to satisfy the audience. Sure, the Balrog is big, but it’s not like there are five of them. And yes, each action sequence is at least eight minutes, but that’s nothing compared to ones that last twenty-minute-plus nowadays. Fellowship was not a blockbuster that tried to outdo anything before it, unlike modern blockbusters. It simply set out to do its own thing. Alien is another great example of such a film. Released two years after Star Wars, and also a sci-fi film primarily set in space, Alien did the noble thing of not trying to compete with Star Wars. Instead, the filmmakers made it a small film by setting it in one main location; plus, they added a great deal of suspense and horror. As a result, it became one of the best sci-fi films, alongside Star Wars, on its own merits; it didn’t try to copy and one-up Star Wars.
Today, it seems that we are under the impression that bigger makes the movie better. In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, Shredder looks fifty times bigger than what he was in the original, yet he is much cooler in the original. Why? Less is more. The most iconic monsters are hardly in their best movies: Michael Myers in the original Halloween, the shark in the original Jaws, and the Terminator endoskeleton in The Terminator. Yet, the idea to show MORE MORE MORE is actually hurting movies. Why does the T-1000 still work today? What makes him so menacing compared to most threats? The answer to both questions is that when we see him change into other people, form his own weapons, and rejuvenate from being shot, we only see it in a small dose, and it doesn’t happen every time we see him. Also, he seems threatening because he is virtually indestructible, and we feel afraid of him because we see how frightened the human characters are of him. You don’t need a billion scenes to show the audience that a villain is awesome. In a lot of ways, Terminator 2 set both a good and bad example for future action films. It showed that a movie can be full of action, but also full of character and plot development, tension, emotion, and anticipation for the next action sequence. Unfortunately, a lot of action directors misinterpreted the film as merely a giant action movie that was successful because it one-upped its predecessor by including more action and visual effects.
What filmmakers should learn from films such as T2 is that set pieces only work if the audience has had a chance to wait a while for it, and be given context for the scene in the meantime. Also, filmmakers must understand that a set piece should have only one big thing that happens (most of the time). In the Cyberdyne take-down scene, the big moment is the minigun attack; in the first chase scene with the T-1000, it’s the truck blowing up; and in the final chase scene, it’s “Hasta la vista, baby” with the shattering of the frozen T-1000. Yes, a lot happens in this movie, but all of it makes sense and does not last for thirty minutes. Granted, in Act III, there are three action sequences, but each one is, at most, eight minutes, and are broken up long enough for the audience to catch their breath, and are interspersed with moments of build-up. Now, I just talked a lot about Terminator 2, but make no mistake that my favorite genre is martial arts; so, the type of action sequence that I love most is a good long fight scene. But even I get bored with a fight scene that runs too long (The Raid final fight, for example). Even Mortal Kombat (1995), a movie about fighting, takes breaks in between a thirty-minute-long scene that shows all of the tournament fights. If a mediocre movie can do it, then why can’t we do it today?