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Are Blockbusters Busted?

by Paul Stokes

Photography by Lauren Fogelstrom

Transformers: Age of Extinction grossed 1.104 billion dollars worldwide. This made it one of the highest grossing movies in the history of the industry and one of the most profitable pieces of art in all of human history. But can we even call it a piece of art at all?

Many are hesitant to give a movie like Transformers this title, even though almost anyone would consider filmmaking itself an art form.

Abby Lebet (COM ’20) said that the film and others like it “[had] artistic components” but that she “wouldn’t necessarily call it art.”

Paolo Wolfsdorf, a film student at Chapman University in California, said, “When viewed through a technical lens, the film could be considered art,” but that, “because the plot is cluttered, inane, and promotes action over storytelling one couldn’t consider the film art.”

This raises the important question of how we choose to qualify art in an era where so much art seems designed to make money. A large reason for the dissatisfaction with big budget blockbusters is that they are designed from the top down to be profitable instead of poignant or interesting. Placing monetary gain over self-expression is said to make the final product less honest or real and therefore less valuable as art. It’s easy to accept this reasoning as final; however, it doesn’t explain why millions of people flock to theaters to pay for something that many consider hollow or worthless.

In fact, blockbusters seem to be worth quite a lot to the general public. This would suggest that to many people, truth or honesty isn’t what they look for in art. Rather, the dominance of special-effects-heavy action movies, instead of storytelling or deeper meaning, suggests that many go to the theater seeking entertainment above all else. Moviegoers don’t expect or want to have their horizons broadened or their lives changed by Captain America: Civil War; they’re just looking for a good time watching familiar characters engage in familiar ways.

It’s unfair to say that a movie isn’t art because it aims to be entertaining more than it tries to make a statement. Even a movie like Transformers requires the hard work and skill of dozens of people and is—as a result—a work of art.

“If a movie can have some lasting impact on its audience, then it is a success,” said Sophie Sachar (COM ’20), regardless of what that impact is.

The problem, therefore, doesn’t arise when movies seek to be entertaining or dumb fun, but rather when the returns on that entertainment begin to diminish. Right now the movie industry is so oversaturated with big budget blockbusters and superhero-action-explosion spectaculars that everything is beginning to blend together, and the lasting effect of each individual film is diminishing. This leads to instances where movies seemingly designed solely to be crowd-pleasing moneymaking machines flop spectacularly (see: Passengers). Simply put, there are so many blockbusters that more and more are beginning to slip through the cracks and into obscurity, no matter how many A-List celebrities are brought in to save them.

So, when people say that Transformers isn’t art, what they’re really saying is that it has no lasting impact, and when every blockbuster starts to blend into one money-hungry blur, the impact is lessened more and more. This is also why people are more willing to brand low-budget, high-concept movies like Birdman or Boyhood as art. The entertainment isn’t as immediate, but the statements and the impact they make are longer-lasting and more personally affecting than those of the average action film. This is to say that artistic integrity comes not from a rejection of entertainment, but rather from creating a lasting impact on the audience. Only art that is in some way new and unique can leave that impact.

It’s easy to forget how much of a breath of fresh air Marvel superhero movies were back in 2008. Now, the brand has become so omnipresent, and the franchise so massively bloated, that it is almost synonymous with modern cinema itself. When Iron Man first came out, however, the same problem didn’t exist. The movie was something new—a grittier, more character-driven and serious take on the genre, which resonated with a lot of people. Nine years and 15 movies later, the formula is starting to become stale, and people no longer consider the franchise to be as revolutionary or valuable as it once was.

Ultimately, Transformers: Age of Extinction’s status as a work of art can’t be questioned. Its status as a work of excellent art, however, can be, despite its massive popularity. The success of the movie is, more than anything, a manifestation of the state of the industry at large. All most blockbusters aspire to achieve is to successfully copy those that made money before them. So while the industry might be more lucrative than ever, the impact that each individual film has on its audience continues to plummet and will continue to until we reexamine what we value and what we search for in our blockbusters.

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