Back to the Future, E.T., and the Wonder of a Non-Violent Blockbuster

In this piece for Consequence of Sound, Andrew Bloom looks at three films that brought us wonder and suspense, plus made gobs of money, and didn’t rely on violence as a crutch. His point is that these films are a dying breed, but they don’t have to be. We could take their DNA and bring them back from extinction, if you will.

But there’s a model, in movies like Back to the Future, Mary Poppins, and E.T., for exciting, special effects-heavy films that don’t rely on high-powered scuffles to create their spectacle and awe. Big problems that must be solved, eye-catching showcases, and great escapes can all provide a means for cinema’s auteurs to wow audiences along a different dimension. In the process, these types of movies provide an alternative to the monotony of the standard third-act action sequence and call for more imagination than the usual collision of fists and firepower.

I wrote briefly about this recently, as part of a discussion of a piece in the Guardian about how The Suicide Squad signals the beginning of the end for superhero movies. The piece argued that the over-the-top violence was one of the signs that the genre was starting its death throes. One would like to hope that the violence has reached a saturation point and movie makers will have to turn to other means with which to elicit excitement from the audience.

A few weeks ago, my sister was asking about WandaVision. She was thinking about checking it out, but more drawn in by the style of the decades of sitcoms than the prospect of fight sequences. She’s not a big Marvel or super hero movie fan. When my brother and I told her about the third-act action sequence, she seemed to lose interest.

But there should also be room for alternatives. You don’t have to be a pearl-clutcher to worry about the consequences of our culture’s biggest films consistently culminating in violence, especially when that violence is often sugarcoated and bloodless. The answer isn’t to blame violent films for every societal malady, let alone ban them entirely. It is, nevertheless, worth considering the likely effects of so many tentpole films increasingly fitting the same, battle-heavy mold.

Bloom acknowledges that popcorn movies can be great, but they shouldn’t monopolize the big screens. He relies on the old adage that “variety is the spice of life.”

Blockbusters as a whole are a reminder that the bombastic and incredible can be made possible. That type of wonder is not limited to the realm of firefights and fisticuffs. It also runs through the breathless getaway, the brilliant solution, and the fanciful places where ink and paint meet flesh and bone.

​It would be great to have at least a few alternatives, even if the big-budget action flick is not going to disappear entirely anytime soon.

Robert Rackley @frostedechoes