Spectacle And Sentiment in Films Are Not Mutually Exclusive

From John McClane to Snake Plissken, Ellen Ripley to The Bride, we need characters to lead us through the spectacle.

With the recent releases of "John Carter", "Wrath of the Titans", "The Hunger Games" and now "The Avengers", we are now moving firmly into blockbuster season. Over the next few months, we will see a steady number of studio films dominate our cinemas, particularly the highly-anticipated €œThe Dark Knight Rises€, €œThe Amazing Spider-Man€, €œPrometheus€ and €œThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey€. Blockbuster films are very popular, and usually draw out casual moviegoers in great numbers. They are often genre movies or high-concept comedies, and are regularly sequels or adaptations of pop culture institutions. Such films are designed to offer an emotional rollercoaster for their viewers, so that the audience feels truly entertained for their duration, and this is reflected in their marketing. Spectacle is put front and centre, rather than the characters themselves, or the journeys they will undertake during the film. Few moviegoers go into films with their primary focus being to relate to the protagonists. Connecting with the characters of the story is an obvious expectation, which means that it is not a conscious attraction for the majority of the viewers. What sticks in the audience€™s mind will be the elements that are alien to their daily lives, the car chases, explosions and the like. Watching a brachiosaurus eating from a tree is an awe-inspiring sight, something that movies can provide in a such a vivid way that the audience may not be able to visualise by themselves. But spectacle alone does not work. It is not watching the brachiosaurus that the viewer is truly connecting with €“ as, on some level, they will still be aware that they are observing a moving picture of it on a screen. The real connection comes from identifying with the reactions of Sam Neill and Laura Dern€™s characters, and their astonishment and elation at seeing in the flesh one of the creatures they€™ve studied for years. Spielberg is particularly aware of this factor, and in his films, you will always see a reaction shot of a character in response to an alien or supernatural event, almost like a guide to help key the viewer€™s subconscious to specific emotions. The "Jurassic Park" example is just one of many. A well-written and well-acted character should resemble a real person. Connecting with people, and therefore, realistic characters, is a subconscious activity, and unless audience members are aware of the processes, it will not be that element of the film that they realise has even happened. Viewers will attribute the feeling of watching the brachiosaurus to their own emotions, and remember that as the defining moment, when actually, it has been their own empathetic relation to the characters on screen that has informed their feelings. But when you boil them down to their key elements, any example from the list of highest-grossing films of all time is based around a specific human element €“ from just the top three, "Avatar" (a man comes to embrace a culture that was previously alien to him), "Titanic" (star-crossed lovers whose relationship is put in jeopardy) and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" (a boy grows up as he faces the demons from his childhood) €“ even though "Avatar" is set on an alien home world, "Titanic" is a period-disaster movie and "Deathly Hallows" is about stopping a magical dictator from enslaving the world. From John McClane to Snake Plissken, Ellen Ripley to The Bride, we need characters to lead us through the spectacle. They don€™t have to be completely nuanced, real characters that could actually exist in the real world in order for a viewer to empathise with them on a very basic level; although the more stereotypical or unrealistic the characters become, the easier it is to lose the audience €“ the brain knows when it is being fooled if the process is not subtle. A regular criticism levelled at poor character work is that they do not have their own motivations or flaws, a trait that no real person can personify. The term €œtrash€ is often used to refer to movies that often fall down on the basics of storytelling, but if they completely failed to present anyone that had any recognisable human elements, empathising with them would be impossible. A film that has an ironic or amusingly-bad appeal to it has still succeeded on a basic level of presenting some sort of character that can be connected with, even if it is because it inspires a burning hatred against them. A film that has failed completely is one that can be switched off or walked out of before the ending, because there is no drive to see what happens to the characters at all.
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Freelance filmmaker, writer and proud geek. Mike is obsessed with film and television, and often stalls real-world conversations with the phrase, "This is actually a lot like something they did in ...". He also blogs at http://mikehiston.tumblr.com/.