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.
It’s a well-worn bit of trivia that the Death Star trench run in Star Wars, which I think would get my vote for “the most exciting twelve minutes in movies,” was inspired by The Dam Busters, a British film based on the true story of a bombing mission set to blow three dams in industrial Germany. If World War II weighs so heavily on Star Wars in that way—and judging from the imagery from Triumph of the Will that sneaks into the medal ceremony, for example, I’d say that’s a fair bet—then the Death Star’s unannounced destruction of Alderaan must be a Hiroshima. The purpose of the destruction of a planet which we understand to be peaceful and defenseless, just as Hiroshima was not a military target, is the cruelest display of military might. Tarkin is looking for a way to send a message to rebellious individuals, planets, and systems. When Leia offers an alternate planet rather than Alderaan, Tarkin laughs it off, explaining that “Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration.” The order is transmitted, Leia fights weakly against the person holding her back, faceless men in helmets push buttons and pull levers, a green laser fills a corridor, and Alderaan swallows the laser and regurgitates an enormous, double-barreled explosion. For a population of billions, to say nothing of culture or flora or fauna, this is all. There is no readiness, no preparation, no evasion. And then, like the Enola Gay flying to its next mission, the Death Star trundles on.
In search of greater spectacle and greater stakes, the blockbuster has grown addicted to this idea of the world’s end. There had been movies about The War of the Worlds or responding to that idea for decades, but the Atomic Age, coupled with increasingly lifelike special effects, accelerated that concept. In 1964, you have competing forces in the hilarious Dr. Strangelove and the merely risible Fail-Safe; beings from outer space from Triffids to Body Snatchers to Blobs to Things had already attacked the Earth in the ’50s. It’s a logical conclusion to smash the two together, and thus the Death Star. For a short time, there is a great existential crisis in the galaxy, as any planet might be obliterated at any moment by this single blast from a single ambulatory weapon. It turns out that the Death Star is a false armageddon, given the huge outpouring of sequels that have followed this original film, but the eschatological bent of Star Wars remains with us not just in its several reimaginings but in blockbusters generally. In 1975, it was enough to send a shark to terrorize a beachfront community. In 1977, Star Wars brought a nuclear weapon to a knife fight.
Since then, there’s been an arms race of sorts in showing how spectacular the end of the world would be. The following year, Krypton was destroyed in Superman, probably the only sequence in the film which wouldn’t feel out of place in a contemporary superhero movie. To be clear, this is a compliment for Superman, a movie which has the bravery to have silly characters and an even sillier conclusion. But there’s nothing silly about the end of Krypton, which is, first of all, like watching someone unthinkingly crush a firefly. In an effort to make a world with humans look fundamentally inhuman, the contrast has been amplified. Everything glows in that slightly dark place, down to the whites of the robes which are alarmingly luminescent. Krypton is a beautiful world, but it’s also a frightening one. Once things start to fall apart on the planet which is the collateral damage of a dying sun—populated by a doomed race too arrogant to evacuate themselves before the cataclysm—the soft, insistent glows turn into siren reds, the kind of lurid Day-Glo color that is more at home in giallo than anywhere else. One of the primary compliments of the blockbuster is that you can tell where they spent the money; the beautiful last moments of Krypton, infused with the horror that come with facing the void, lets you see every penny. The same is true in a film like Independence Day, a film which chooses models over primitive CGI in almost all cases and which as a result has taken on a cult delight not unlike that which one might feel for a Ray Harryhausen effort. Independence Day is not even a better movie than something like Jason and the Argonauts, but it is a relentlessly entertaining picture which understands how well we love destruction on the biggest screens with the loudest sounds. In Los Angeles, there’s a wasteland where there used to be a major city; Houston gets nuked; New York is filled with the sounds of people screaming and the unnatural sight of cars flying. But it’s Washington, D.C. which gets the most loving detail, for the most recognizable anything which gets blown up in this film is the White House. A 10 x 5 model was exploded for the film, and frankly, that shot looks incredible to this day, at once symbolically chilling and visually mesmerizing.
Interestingly, neither Superman nor Independence Day nor Star Wars, for that matter, really emphasize the human toll of the end times. Between the three movies, the body counts of those pictures must number in the several billions, what with the prejudicial obviation of two homeworlds and the serious ravaging of another. But short of some choice shots (like poor Harvey Fierstein getting crushed) or some dialogue (“as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced”), the hugeness of the death tolls are basically left aside. We came for the Clark and Lois show, not for the winking out of the Kryptonians; the pageantry with which Krypton is destroyed matters more than the people who die.
That’s not the case in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a film in which the terror of Saruman’s war on Rohan is felt over and over again. “They do not come to destroy Rohan’s crops or villages,” Aragorn scolds Theoden during a scene at Helm’s Deep. “They come to destroy its people, down to the last child.” The children of Rohan, in all their yeoman Aryan beauty, are depicted in the caverns below the fortress of Helm’s Deep. Some of them cry and clutch their mothers. Other boys, more awfully, are taken from their mothers and fitted with armor and helmets that don’t fit the frame of a preteen but which they will need to wear to help defend those mothers they’ve been separated from. There are such faces on the walls of Helm’s Deep, a battle which is probably unmatched in the 21st Century for scope mixed with personal feeling. The same is true when we watch Rohirrim peasants killed or driven away in multiple scenes, not least among them the terror which sweeps the line of refugees from Edoras when Warg-riders are spotted. Over the course of the night, it seems like Saruman’s prediction—”There will be no dawn for Men”—will come true, and the world will end as individuals are killed. The fears we might have for our heroes are ultimately deflected in The Two Towers, for as many of the people of Rohan and elves of Lorien are lost in the battle, the rump members of the Fellowship survive the night. Something not unlike that rapturous experience happens to our friends from Toy Story 3 as they look into the furnace that, by all rights, should vaporize some of the most beloved animated characters of the previous two decades. This is hell, one which the toys are being condemned for that most relatable sin: dissatisfaction with their situation. What’s most incredible about that scene is that, after some initial shuffling and clambering, resignation sets in. You can see it on their faces as they try to scramble up to the top of the pit, which dropped them off via belt a few moments before. Jessie holds out, but it’s Buzz who extends the hand and who starts the chain of understanding, of fearful acceptance. The death that Woody has been trying to stave off since 1995 has come, and there’s nothing to do but clasp Buzz with his left hand and Slinky with his right and look down to wonder how long the pain will last.
I mean, spoiler alert, they make it, but Toy Story 3 is hardly alone in showing us what the end of the world might look like if you asked a child what that term meant to them. On the most facile level, the first three Toy Story movies are really about that gutpunch that any six-year-old recognizes of not being able to find a favorite toy. More difficult to cope with is another classic fear from childhood that, for too many, carries on into adulthood. Both The Lion King and Finding Nemo both work from the initial premise of “I’ve lost my dad,” although what that means is obviously very different. Simba’s world ends on the day that his father is thrown from the side of a cliff after having rescued him from a wildebeest stampede. As he wanders off into the desert to die, convinced that he is personally responsible for his father’s death, he has given up. The spunky cub who was riding around on an ostrich and seeking out elephant graveyards has been reduced to a “brownish gold” one who would become vulture food in the desert without blinking an eye. Fittingly, it requires another world’s end to set this one right. Just as the desert yields to Timon and Pumbaa’s buggy jungle oasis when he was a boy, the desiccated savannah opens up to a thunderstorm after Simba defeats Scar in single combat and restores order to the Pridelands. The plot of Finding Nemo is less affecting than the melodrama of Simba’s emotional journey, but it’s probably a more creative approach to showing what the end of the world is like. Marlin, who goes looking for the son who he guarded so aggressively to make up for the loss of his wife and many unborn children, feels the world drain out from under him when he sees his son taken away by a diver. In the calculus of Finding Nemo, it’s more meaningful to show what it’s like for Marlin’s world to end. He’s watched the world end before, when he thought that eel had managed to successfully take everything from him in a few minutes that he was mercifully blacked out for. He’s reclaimed the world when he picked up the egg in his hand that would become Nemo. And the world ended again when he could see his son being taken away by an animal even bigger, stronger, and more invincible than the eel that put his life on the edge. Like Woody and Buzz and Simba, there’s a reprieve from this seemingly hopeless world, but all this goes to show is that in the blockbuster, the only thing as entertaining as watching the world end is seeing it remade again.
The Matrix does something unusual for a blockbuster in that it skips over the end of the world. The climactic sequences of the film are about Neo acceding to the messianic powers that he possesses; the opening sequences, after we watch Trinity escape from some agents, have to do with Neo living his dull life and being asked to make a choice. The end of the world, the defeat of human beings by the machines, takes place quickly and in a single scene which falls well short of classically representative; it’s exposition instead of an exploding White House or a falling lion. The Matrix is a film more chiliastic than apocalyptic, believing in an end of the world which will be interrupted by the appearance of a savior who will free the humans from being used as batteries, triggering a time when humans can live for themselves again. (The timing of The Matrix‘s 1999 release, a year which had its own slew of millenialist concerns, has to be the most serendipitous thing to happen to a film’s release since The China Syndrome premiered almost simultaneously with Three Mile Island.) And although the film has sequels, the ending of the original is about as optimistic a shot as you can expect from a film that’s all black and green and gray and tan: Neo, who has to be unscrambled yet to become the One, calls up the machines, tells ’em what for, and then literally flies away, untethered by the rules they have for him any longer. It’s the same message that Marko Ramius gives to the Soviet Navy, only he lets them figure it out for himself before he starts making a bumrush for America’s Atlantic coast. The Hunt for Red October was released sixteen weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, and it’s celebrating the chiliastic future which appears just around the corner for American and its fellow first-world brethren. The film stops short of total triumphalism—it has enough grace to recognize that Ramius is the best sailor in the film by a nautical mile, to say nothing of the Soviets developing the superior submarine first—but it still relishes a future which it assumes will be a golden one for the United States. At the end of the movie, the NSA prods a Soviet functionary, knowing a Soviet submarine was sunk in combat: “Andrei…you’ve lost another submarine?” Even when the film is making fun of the American Dream a little bit, as when Borodin hypothesizes about living in Big Sky country with a pickup truck and multiple wives, it still treats the dream as something desirable; Borodin’s death ends the possibility that he might have a chance of this comic dream that turns out not to be quite so comical in the end. The new beginning is reserved for Ramius and a few others joining him, sailing into the waters off Maine and into, as Ramius’ quote of Columbus signifies, a New World.
Some eschatology tells us that after the end of the old world there will come a new one. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the Broccoli family needs to keep making movies with the 007 handle as long as they keep living in the top 10 at the year-end box office, and that’s how we end up with Daniel Craig taking up the mantle in Casino Royale, albeit with names and situations which are intimately familiar to us already. We’ve seen Judi Dench as M before, and people like Felix Leiter and Vesper Lynd and René Mathis and, of course, the villainous arms dealer and card sharp Le Chiffre are familiar even to people who never did come to the movies to see Bond. Casino Royale makes a further decision to write this Bond as a man who has just gotten his license to kill, earning it with an assassination he commits in the pre-credits scene. The world is not ending for James Bond in this movie no matter how much testicular trauma he sustains or who he watches when she chooses to drown in front of his eyes. But in our world of blockbusters, a world where people know what “IP” stands for, we have to recognize that the movies answer to the one who sits at the right hand of the Father and judges the rebooted and the dead. Occasionally, this even comes off marvelously, for Casino Royale is very likely the finest Bond movie ever made, with some genuinely thrilling action sequences and (almost) never crossing the line between a character’s personality and some cheap interiority. If the world ends every now and again, it’s nice to hope that the world to come has some panache of its own.