Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: The Splitting of the Nuclear Family

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

The Godfather, as I think I might be obligated to say, begins with a wedding. It’s a violent movie, occasionally even gory and lurid, and when it detours for tenderness it’s often tinged with a great bitterness. Take Michael’s romance with his Sicilian bride in the rustic countryside, a quiet romance which ends with Apollonia blown up when a car bomb meant for him explodes her instead. Or that scene nearing the end of the film where Vito confesses to Michael that he never wanted this for his son. He foresaw Governor Corleone, not another godfather, and while this is a moment of father-son honesty that most men never have, Vito’s regret is palpable. The Godfather, baroque as it is, boils down to a fairly simple observation which one can make in life over and over again. Vito Corleone, although he’s explicitly working outside the law, bears all the trappings of greatness. He has the respect of his peers and the adulation of his inferiors, to say nothing of his bearing and wealth and dignity. But if he is a great man, then to judge by his children he is a lousy father. One hotheaded son too incompetent to live long in his father’s shoes, a weak son whose failures are so boldly manifested that no one ever considers him for an important role. A daughter who marries a contemptuous man, and foolish enough to believe that his interest in her has to do with her and not her father. And another son who, though he bears much of his father’s dignity and served his country honorably in World War II, turns out to be Vlad the Impaler for the New York Italian set.

The Godfather, our first blockbuster in the modern sense of the word, is set in a ten-year period beginning in 1945, but its concerns about the nuclear family and its insight at its fragility remain contemporary. “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” Vito cautions, but if he has spent so much time with his children, then it’s ruined them as human beings. In The Godfather, a film where father and mother remain happily married through the decades and the kids never do stray too far from home, the idea of the nuclear family seems almost healthy. But it’s only the “family business” that compels them to remain close as a group, and the film shows that the family business is a great way to wind up miserable, dead, or both. Business brings the Torrance family to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and the “miserable, dead, or both” tag works pretty well for that movie as well. One of the most frightening things about arguably the most chilling blockbuster in American moviegoing is the proof that all this has happened before. When Jack interviews with the manager of the hotel so he can get this job he badly needs, the topic of the caretaker who went psycho and hacked up his family before committing suicide comes up. Jack, once he’s far gone enough, meets that former caretaker. Delbert Grady tells Jack that he had to correct his family once they started rebelling against him and all the authority which he symbolized. Grady is dressed up in the uniform of an old-timey butler when Jack runs across him in a bathroom; it’s a signal of an antique time being appealed to, when a man was really the king of his own castle no matter what kind of hovel it happened to be. It’s also a statement of the hierarchy in which each man belongs. Though Delbert Grady has the power and the responsibility to “correct” his family, he is compelled to do it primarily because the family is an organ working for the good of the cell. It’s a position that Jack comes to believe in himself once he picks up an axe and starts hacking away at the interiors of the Overlook, Scatman Crothers, etc., though The Shining is a film which rejects this model of traditional family life as the horror show that it has the potential to become. In the midst of his quest to restore that ancient order to his modern family, Jack ices over while his wife and son manage to successfully escape.

Father knows best is a self-defeating statement in any number of films, though the consequences are significantly darker in a drama or a horror movie than in films which are primarily comic in tone. Ratatouille, although its more serious approaches slot into an animated kids’ movie as neatly as I’ve ever seen, is primarily there for the jokes. True Lies, one of the most tonally confusing movies I have ever come across in my life, feels as much like a comedy as it does anything else. And Back to the Future, the story of a guy who travels back in time only to be asked if he recently fell off a boat, is a cavalcade of giggles. In each of them, Dad is there to be subverted in some way. Ratatouille is doing it in the most traditional fashion as Django and Remy are like any other father-son pair who disagree on the son’s path. Remy’s desire to join a human world and do human things is anathema for Django, not just because it’s a new idea for this innately conservative rat to confront, but because Django has an appreciation of the danger that humans present which Remy remains willfully ignorant of. That scene where Django takes Remy to see the shop where people sell various rat-killing methods is a little forgettable, in the grand scheme of a film about a rat who loves cooking, but it’s an essential step to the ultimate rejection Remy will make of his father’s path. Remy goes on cooking despite the danger, accepting the increased level of risk which will come with taking on a human profession. Father knows best for Remy’s brother Emile, possibly, a rat without much imagination or brains. But father doesn’t quite have it down for his son who intends to strike out on his own, especially not once Remy has made himself a success. The father who knows his own path and never really strays from it is the centerpiece of True Lies rather than a minor but benevolent antagonist. And for most of the film, Harry Tasker’s fatherhood is not really what’s in question. Whether or not his wife is cheating on him is what’s at stake here (aside from some quibbles over national security, but whatever), and over the course of the film his attempts to get more information on his wife’s doings leads him to ludicrous lengths. True Lies still culminates with a scene where Harry and Helen are separate from one another, despite how much tension there is between the two of them, and puts the onus of rescuing their daughter Dana on Harry’s shoulders. They are Ahnold’s shoulders, so they’re adequately broad for the tasks of launching a terrorist via missile fired from an AV-8B Harrier. Father may know best in this highly specific situation where he has to do some combination of fighting dozens of stories up and flying a plane, but True Lies is still poking fun at the situation. Even if we hadn’t watched Harry use federal resources to interrogate Helen about her affair or tricked her into a striptease, we would still have to wrestle with the surely coke-infused silliness of father rescuing daughter.

As for Back to the Future, there are few movies which do as much to ridicule that sense of the father as the head of the household. In Marty’s life before time travel, his dad is a sniveling coward. In Marty’s life after time travel, his dad is now a successful science-fiction novelist because his son went back in time and helped his father recognize some personal bravery, thus avoiding the future of being a sniveling coward. Michael J. Fox, a preternaturally charismatic guy, doesn’t need to do much besides play this scrappy kid for us to be on his side. Crispin Glover, playing his dad, has a far more difficult part to fulfill, for we are inevitably going to see George as the elder figure and Marty as the kid, even though they are roughly the same age when the two of them get into discussions about how to talk to girls. It’s funny because George, who spits game like a man dying of thirst in the desert, will go on to turn Marty’s advice about “you are my destiny” into “you are my density.” But it’s also suggesting that father has already been eclipsed by son, and the premise of the film only swerves further into the idea that if the son wants to be conceived, it’s going to be up to him to make sure his father gets up for it. That his mother is more attracted to him than to her future husband in this iteration is the icing on the cake, for both yucky humor and subversion of the fatherly ideal alike.

While fatherhood is frequently centered in these blockbusters, whether for humor or drama, motherhood is much less often a focus of these films. (We’ll get to Terms of Endearment, which is emphatically about motherhood, in a different post.) One of the rare exceptions is a film which is as much about surrogate motherhood as it is about any other single thing, and that’s Aliens. Hicks, Ripley, and Newt form their own little family of sorts, one which goes through as much stress over the course of some hours as most of our families might go through in multiple lifetimes. And in those hours, Ripley never wavers in her defense of the last child of a ravaged colony. Newt becomes hers in those hours, and Ripley shows the devotion to a child alone which is so often befuddling for the IMDb 250 crowd. She barely knows the kid, the argument goes. So why does she put herself in so much danger for someone so helpless, who seems bound and determined to get herself into life-threatening danger. The answer is that there is a bond forged rapidly between the two of them, something almost instantaneous, a need that Ripley has to protect and a need that Newt has to be protected. The hot chocolate stands out to me in this movie, because it reminds me of the Maslow monkey experiment.

The idea is that if you give little monkeys a “mom” who is made of wire and has a bottle attached and a “mom” who is soft and has features, they’ll look to one for food and the other for comfort. Then the question is, if you scare the little monkeys, which mom will they go to? The answer, I think unsurprisingly, is that the little monkeys choose the soft one to hold onto while they’re scared. Newt is wordless and shaking, but the hot chocolate lets her know that Ripley not only means to protect her but care for her as well.

Ripley’s surrogate parenting is echoed, in far funnier measures, by everyone’s favorite gay monster couple, Sulley and Mike. Monsters, Inc. is not unlike Three Men and a Baby with one fewer man and a Chinatown-style plot rather than a bunch of drug dealers, but the basic concept of men who are ill-prepared to look after a toddler while falling for the little tyke remains. Mike, who has been blackpilled by the propaganda that children are literally toxic, is frantic with the need to return Boo to the human world. Of course, he objects to naming the girl at all, for, as he tells Sulley, “once you name it, you start getting attached to it.” Of course, Sulley is smitten with the girl once the initial panic wears off, and one of the funniest scenes in the movie is his unhinged reaction to watching part of Boo’s monster costume get turned into a cube of trash. The only reason we can laugh at Sulley’s reaction is because we know Boo is just fine—this culminates with Sulley tearfully holding up the cube while Mike, hearing the voices of children down the hall, puts his ear up to it and asks, “How many kids you got in there?”—but it’s also the proof of how devoted this short-term dad has become in such a brief time. As in Aliens, Monsters, Inc. sees the potential dissolution of the nuclear family as sad or even tragic on the front end, but rejects the idea that it has to be crippling for the child.

What the blockbusters do seem to agree on, though, is that children need family support no matter how irregular it is. Home Alone and Stand by Me both work from this basic perspective, regardless of how much frustration the boys feel towards their folks. Home Alone does not take all that long to go from Kevin resenting the way his family treats him to rejoicing in their absence to wishing desperately that they would come home. At eight, he might be a little old to still believe in Santa (especially with those older siblings hanging around) but the scene where he asks Santa’s helper to pass on a message to the big guy to return his family in lieu of toys is honestly compelling. Although Kevin boobytraps his home in order to protect himself from the robbers as much as anything else, doing so also signifies a newfound loyalty he feels for his family. He is not merely trying to keep himself safe, but to keep those last pieces of them that he can access safe as well. All of this doesn’t lead to some kind of familial nirvana, as evidenced by the last frames of the movie, but it does create a stronger sense of empathy. Something similar happens in Stand by Me, a film where all four of the boys have troubled families. Chris and Teddy can’t trust their parents any further than they can throw them, Vern’s brother is running with a group of true psychos (of whom Chris’ brother is also a member), and Gordie’s parents are too shattered by the loss of their favorite son to remember that Gordie is alive most of the time. In the absence of supportive families, the boys have to unite around one another. Chris and Gordie weep in front of one another instead of taking it home to their parents. Teddy’s defensive pride in his abusive, shellshocked father has to be met with protective skepticism from his friends and not from a brother. When the film asks, “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve…Jesus, does anyone?” it’s displaying a yearning for familial intimacy as strong as any other blockbuster of the decade.

One thought on “Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: The Splitting of the Nuclear Family

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s