Why We Should Expect More From Summer Movies
Since Jaws became the first blockbuster in 1975, a culture has grown around big budget studio releases. Every summer, audiences flock to see something grand up on the screen. What draws in an audience has changed of course, from space opera to shoot em up, dinosaurs to superheroes. Blockbusters have been made from just about every genre, but they’ve also become something of a genre in themselves. We all have certain expectations for the big summer films that come out each year, whether positive or negative. They’re supposed to wow us, blow us away, show us something we can’t see anywhere else, and generally they deliver, at least on some level. There are always a few duds, but even the blockbusters that get raked across the coals by critics can often annihilate the box office, Transformers for example. But Transformers is a perfect example of what’s wrong with blockbusters, and the stereotypical "dumb" summer film.
Despite films like Captain America: Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy that draw positive reviews, they still seem to fall into their own category as a summer film. Summer films, no matter how acclaimed, are almost never Oscar contenders. They’ve been lumped into their own category, they aren’t treated as the same caliber of film. But it wasn’t always this way, Ben-Hur holds the record as one of the three films to win 11 Oscars. It’s a classic film, and provided the same spectacle that Marvel does today. Lawrence of Arabia similarly provided both grandeur and quality. Yet over the years, this divide between crowd-pleaser and awards season darling has grown, with only a few exceptions like Lord of the Rings or Batman: The Dark Knight.
This year there have been several films already that transcend these expectations. I, however, think the one that stands above the rest is War for the Planet of the Apes. If any film is going to be an antidote for this divide, it should be this one. At first glance, War for the Planet of the Apes has all the trappings of a big summer blockbuster. It could have just been another sci-fi action flick like any other, but it’s much more than that. This is a film that manages to combine both the large scale spectacle of the summer with the emotional depth and nuance that’s to be expected of an awards contender. And that’s just what it should be. Unfortunately, I don’t think this film is going to have a lot of buzz at the end of the year, and that’s a shame, because it deserves to. Few films are so elegantly crafted, let alone one of this size and scope. It manages to feel enormous, while never sacrificing any of its characters or story for the sake of its size. It’s dark, intense, morally ambiguous, story driven, with incredible performances (Andy Serkis in particular), and it’s just what we should all expect from a summer film. Instead of tired, formulaic films like Jurassic World, audiences should hold their summer films to the same standards as the end of the year awards fare. Before the advent of the blockbuster, spectacle was just as worthy of praise as anything else.
Instead of separating our big films and our prestige films, we can have them be one and the same. Audiences deserve quality in their films, big or small, and critics shouldn’t look down on films like War for the Planet of the Apes when it comes to awards season. Films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark used to get nominated for Best Picture. Instead of the oscar bait films that come every year, we ought to hold every film to the same standard. Instead of “turning our brains off” for summer films, they should be able to affect us emotionally, and tell morally complex stories. There’s no reason film goers should have to lower expectations for a movie just because of its subject matter or the amount of money that went into making it. The Oscars might feel a little more relevant to the public if they took more films seriously.
Summer films are meant to entertain first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also be great films by any standard. Instead of looking movies as being “great for what it was”, we should be able to take them at face value. Big films can be great films, and they can do more than just entertain. And that’s exactly what we, as an audience, have a right to expect when we go to the theater.