Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie, part three

Many’s the time I’ve left the cinema with friends and said “Wasn’t that movie brilliant?” only for them to respond, “Yeah, but I really wanted to know more about that guy/that machine they had/what happened when they met first twenty years ago.”

And it’s only just occurred to me that this is not the sign of a bad movie – it’s the sign of a very good one. It’s the sign of a fully-realised story world, a universe that’s not a picture that only looks real from one angle, but a hologram that holds up from every angle of scrutiny.

If a minor plot point or a walk-on character has such depth and such emotion invested in them that you want to know more, then the writer has done their job very well indeed…

Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie part one

As you’ve probably all realised by now, big Hollywood movies are my natural sphere of interest. If it’s being described as high-concept, a tentpole, a blockbuster, a ‘genre’ movie, then I’m probably already in the ticket queue.

Some people think that crowd-pleasing movies are inevitably predisposed to be terrible. That they have to shoot for the lowest common denominator, that trying to please a mass audience automatically sucks the originality, the wit, the thematic richness and the character complexity out of a movie.

But I don’t believe that’s true. Tentpole movies can be fantastic, on the emotional and intellectual level as well as on a visceral level. And I believe the great ones have qualities in common that we can learn from and apply to our own writing. Which is what this new occasional series of posts will be about.

Today’s quality that I think all great blockbuster movies share:

Characters interact with each other rather than just reacting to a situation. Bad characters – in any kind of movie – ignore one another, or treat one another as interchangeable pieces on a game board. When you’re watching a horror movie and you can’t remember which of the characters is which? That’s probably because the characters don’t treat each other as individuals. They may occasionally say that they hate Sue and love Kirsty, but their actions towards those two characters don’t reflect that.

Good characters don’t lose their feelings for their fellow characters when things get tough. Indeed, a life-or-death situation tends to amplify your feelings for those around you, good or bad. Social rules are abandoned and inhibition go out of the window. You say and do what you’ve always wanted to. That person who rubbed you up the wrong way will be the first person you’ll leave behind for the zombies. That girl you always fancied; you’ll opt for her plan of escape, not the more logical one your boss is proposing.

So both the dialogue and the decisions made will reflect who these characters are and how they feel about one another. Four interchangeable horror movie teenagers running from a monster will act as a group, reacting only to the threat. But  if, say, Indiana Jones, Marion, and Belloc are running away from bad guys – three characters with complex interpersonal relationships and very different outlooks on life – then everything they say and do will be driven by the richness of who they are and how they relate to each other (yes, even in mid-crisis!)