Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Fragments and Hyperlinks

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.

As anyone who has ever pored over Tolkien minutiae will know—heck, as anyone who has ever stared at a Lord of the Rings Risk map will know—Frodo and Sam get reasonably close to Mordor by the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. It takes a gargantuan effort from two small men and their even shrimpier guide to get them into Mordor and to THE FIRES OF MOUNT DOOM, but the Fellowship leaves off at the point where things break. Gandalf is already “dead,” and Boromir lies with three arrows in him, unable to protect Merry and Pippin any longer. Frodo tries to leave on his own; Sam intercepts him. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take up the trail of the Urak-hai, meaning to rescue Merry and Pippin. There are multiple shots in this film which emphasize the togetherness of the Fellowship, whether it’s the junior soccer team picture they take at Rivendell or the slow-motion climb where, one by one, they appear climbing over a ridge while Howard Shore’s music thunders about them. The picture ends on this feeling of fracture, creating hyperlinks out from Parth Galen, edging east to Mordor and north to Rohan. Yet it began that way as well, when Galadriel feels it in the earth and smells it in the air. The events of a millennium before Frodo was born are brought out so that we may know the backstory of Sauron and the One Ring, of Isildur who took it, and of his ignominious end that dragged the ring to Smeagol and ultimately to the pockets of Bilbo Baggins. Fellowship begins at the beginning, but for such a long movie it is rapid in turning that beginning into mere prologue.

Other blockbusters have used fragmentation to effect in terms of showing the process of a mission. In Inception, this fragmentation is the reason people came to the theater. The first half of this film is pure gobbledygook, and I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult to the wild exposition which is taking place between Elliott Page and about a gazillion other human beings. But the second half does not need the gobbledygook so much. This is not Lost, where the psycho bananas lore became the raison d’etre for the program. Inception simply pushes aside environments which are no longer useful and then brings them back in once they’re necessary again. That van falls in slow-motion for so, so long, and in the meantime there is a frenetic fight in a spinning hallway, and skiing down a snowy mountain, and guns firing and Hans Zimmer’s unearthly BWAAAAM and it’s just an awful lot all at once. That Inception, which is made in sleek seal grays and, again, begins with psychobabble like you wouldn’t believe, can still be exciting is a credit to the way this film is cut, believing that we’ll follow the pace of the hyperlinks or we’ll die trying. All the President’s Men, which is as factually rich as Inception is theoretically deficient, also gives its heroes a mission without giving them much of a clue about where it’s headed next. The team in Inception cannot know precisely where they’re headed, or otherwise Dom will poison the dream labyrinth with the memory of his dead wife. The team in All the President’s Men are being pushed away from the hoop as Deep Throat and the Nixon cover-up alike move the ball toward the baseline rather than the bucket, and simply making this comprehensible makes this William Goldman’s screenplay with the highest degree of difficulty. He has one advantage, which is that everyone knows that the Watergate investigation by the Washington Post will end with Richard Nixon’s resignation. The real question is how Woodstein manages to make it there, and they do it via a process which feels an awful lot like hopping around Wikipedia. One thing leads to another, one interviewee drops a name or a contact, some check or payment is revealed, and it all turns into the toppling of a president in his second term.

Some films use their hyperlinks to send us backward in time to another type of movie entirely. Taxi Driver, regardless of how essentially American it is—it’s hard to imagine a vigilante gunman like Travis Bickle in any other country in the world, but it is simplicity itself to imagine him in Pocatello or Paducah rather than New York City—is a film which wears its French influences on its sleeve. Take that Alka-Seltzer dissolve which is a pretty plain reference to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and the coffee. Or there’s the basic premise of a seriously troubled young man in a horrid environment clinging to some goodness in the face of iniquity: Pickpocket, one of the several Robert Bresson movies that Paul Schrader has repurposed. Taxi Driver is all about homages. You’ll find other blockbusters more concerned with spoofing the original material as opposed to trying to slip past the old as new. Two Mel Brooks pictures in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles—what a time when Mel Brooks could be responsible for two of the four biggest movies of the year!—lead the way, followed by Airplane! several years later. Airplane! is a shameless ripoff of Zero Hour!, down to the punctuation, and the fact that Airport and Airport 1975 both exist only gives Abrahams and the Zuckers more material to mess around with. Blazing Saddles is goofing on any number of western tropes, whether it’s a riff on “authentic frontier gibberish” or the insistence on calling any gunslinger “the Kid,” but it’s mostly making an awfully salient point about the westerns Mel Brooks and you saw on TV as kids. Why were all those towns so white? It’s a fair point, since historically those Wild West towns were emphatically not as white as they’ve been depicted, and Brooks manages to work down this remarkable line which not only recognizes the presence of Black people in the West, but which recognizes the reason we didn’t see Black people in those movies is because of old-fashioned racism.

I grew up on Young Frankenstein, and a couple months ago I watched it for the first time after seeing both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It turns out that Young Frankenstein is doing a way straighter parody of that first film in particular than I would have ever guessed, down to the use of the original equipment used four decades earlier in filming Frankenstein. The Monster doesn’t toss a little girl into a pond without realizing she’ll drown in Young Frankenstein, thank goodness, but there is this marvelous moment where the girl says, “Oh dear, what shall we throw in now?” and Peter Boyle gives the camera this absolutely incredible look.

He pauses for a moment. And then he looks at the camera and makes this face that clearly says two things. First: “I am Frankenstein’s monster and I am not necessarily good at understanding that little girls can’t float the same way as flower petals.” Second: “I know you guys saw that movie, too—whaddaya think I’m going to do with this girl?” Things end happily enough, albeit with this child in pigtails whizzing through the air like a cruise missile. The same is mostly true for the scene where Gene Hackman, uncredited, plays the blind man. In the original, that scene is so filled with hope, and to watch that hope blistered into oblivion is genuinely heartbreaking. Gene Hackman as a guy who spills everything and the Monster as the world’s most polite houseguest is just about the only way around the pure pathos of the original.

There’s a very different kind of hyperlinked blockbuster which I’m fond of, entirely self-contained but focused primarily on island hopping. The further it goes, the more isolated the characters become, so much so that important characters can meet for the first time in the final stretch of the picture. The gold standard here is American Graffiti, which focuses on four guys in late summer as they prepare to either go to college or stay home. Steve chases his girlfriend off and then tries to chase her back into going with him; Terry the Toad loses Steve’s car but picks up a girl and some beer; Curt spends the night in search of a beautiful blonde and accidentally gets inducted into a local gang; Milner cruises the strip with a preteen in tow before having his climactic final race against the dubiously named “Bob Falfa.” These stories have loose magnetic connections, but they are more than capable of escaping that pull and going well off into their own directions. The awkward comedy of Terry’s story cuts the melodrama of Steve’s, and the self-seriousness of Curt and Milner’s stories veer in opposite directions. Clicking from one short story to the next keeps each one of them fresh, for there’s certainly not enough material in any one of their tales to satisfy a feature, and in the end it doesn’t matter if only Milner knows Carol, or if Curt is absent from the legend of Bob Falfa.

That same logic applies to A Fish Called Wanda, where an increasingly tangled web tightens around Wanda, Archie, and Otto, who are involved in one of the kookier love triangles in film history. Meanwhile, Ken, the animal-loving criminal who has been enjoined to murder an old woman who can finger his accomplice George in the jewel heist, is kept from most other character’s sight. Thus, while Wanda’s affair with Archie becomes more serious and Otto’s deranged competency becomes more hyperactive, Ken’s Rube Goldberg murder attempts end up injuring him and killing the old lady’s dogs. In the end, he gets her via heart attack—very hard to trace, that—and it seems we might have seen the end of him. But A Fish Called Wanda, which had for so long kept John Cleese’s Archie and Michael Palin’s Ken entirely separate from one another, finally reunites the Pythons in what is arguable the film’s funniest scene. Archie is desperate to get the location of a safety deposit box from Ken, but unlike everyone else in the film does not know that Ken suffers from a brutal stutter. The sequence that follows is suffused with the long years of comic timing that Cleese and Palin have together, and it is literally breathtaking. “Cathcart Towers Hotel” is something of a mouthful even for those of us with nimbler tongues than Ken’s, and as his attempt to share this information with Archie devolves into birdsong (“the Caaaa…the Caaaa!…”), we can see Cleese alternately trying to be patient and completely losing his marbles. It’s a sequence which would be funny no matter what, but it’s made even more wonderful by the fact that this is the first meeting between these two men and neither one of them is making a good impression on the other.

For movies which use hyperlinks to connect us between people who don’t know each other at all, surely there can’t be a more iconic one than Sleepless in Seattle, a beloved romantic comedy in which the lovers spend, what, three minutes on screen together? (As perfect as this film is for this concept, part of me thinks this ought to go up around Taxi Driver for its reliance on An Affair to Remember, its throwaway reference to When Harry Met Sally, etc.) Sam and Annie get together at the end, much to our relief, and yet it’s not sensible that we should be relieved. Here’s a film which doesn’t attempt to convince us that Sam and Annie would be good for each other based on their actual interactions with one another, which are first of all sparse and second of all actually pretty creepy! After all, Baltimorean Annie flies out to Seattleite Sam in the hopes of getting to see him in action, and it’s a little funny to watch her watch him from across the street but also more unsettling than funny. The film shows that Annie is looking for a man with more romance in him than Walter, which I think can be fairly said about Sam. (I love that Sleepless in Seattle never makes Walter a villain, especially because if anything Annie is the one doing him wrong in their relationship. They’re both decent people, and there are many decent people who just aren’t right for each other romantically or sexually, and that doesn’t have to reflect badly on either.) Instead the movie finds ways to show that Annie has things in common with Maggie, the mother of Sam’s Jonah; for example, there’s the way that both of them peel apples with a knife, circling the apple and making one long string of peel. Or there’s the way that Jonah wants to show that Annie, an Orioles fan, has a potential connection with Sam because they both like Brooks Robinson. Less nebulously, the film also gives Sam and Annie similar voices with their friends, comfortable in showing us that these two adults are perfectly good at having adult friends, which makes them likely candidates to do well with better-than-friends down the line.

These aforementioned films all hyperlink in one way or another, emphasizing a fragmentary approach to storytelling or meaning-making. But if there is one blockbuster film from the past fifty years which has truly exemplified this hyperlinking style of narrative, it has to be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The entire premise of the film is based on this concept that Miles’ world is a hyperlinked one, one where there are many Spider-People who have each been bitten by some radioactive spider which has gifted each with spidery powers. (The fact that Miles’ dad works for the “PDNY” instead of the “NYPD,” or that there’s a popular zombie comedy called From Dusk ’til Shawn, is proof that Miles’ hyperlinked world is not truly our own.) The gateway to these other worlds opens and closes with the use of a giant MacGuffin machine being operated by Kingpin and Doctor Octopus, and it’s up to Miles and the other Spider-People to succeed where a different Spider-Man has already failed. The original Spider-Man of Miles’ world is killed in battle. Another one, overweight and self-loathing, is ‘ported in. A Spider-Woman, a Spider-Ham, a biomechanical Spider team-up, a noir Spider-Man…these are the agents of good in Miles’ world, at least for some hours until the crisis has passed. It’s a film which refuses to be bogged down by its premise, much to its credit. The way that each Spider-Person is introduced is the same, until all of a sudden they start to really fast-forward through these origin stories, understanding that we get the gist. Spider-Verse, appropriate to its hyperlinked DNA, is also such an online film. On one side, it recognizes the eternal complaint of “WE GET IT, WE KNOW WHERE SPIDER-MAN COMES FROM.” On the other, it closes with the pointing Spider-Man meme. A hyperlinked film prepared with its own memes, to borrow one more Internet catchphrase, understands the assignment.

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