Spectacular Narratives: Twister, Independence Day, and Frontier Mythology in Contemporary Hollywood

Article excerpt

Big-screen spectacle has become increasingly important to Hollywood in recent decades. It formed a central part of a post-war strategy aimed at tempting lost audiences back to the cinema in the face of demographic changes and the development of television and other domestic leisure activities. More recently, in an age in which the big Hollywood studios have become parts of giant conglomerates, the prevalence of spectacle and special effects has been boosted by a demand to engineer products that can be further exploited in multimedia forms such as computer games and theme-park rides, secondary outlets that can sometimes generate more profits than the films on which they are based. These and other developments have led some commentators to announce, or predict, the imminent demise of narrative as a central component of Hollywood cinema. But the case has been considerably overstated. Narrative is far from being eclipsed, even in the most spectacular and effects-oriented of today's blockbuster attractions. These films still tend to tell reasonably coherent stories, even if they may sometimes be looser and less well integrated than classical models. More important for my argument, contemporary spectaculars also continue to manifest the kinds of underlying thematic oppositions and reconciliations associated with a broadly "structuralist" analysis of narrative. This very important dimension of narrative has been largely ignored by those who identify, celebrate or more often bemoan a weakening of plot or character development in many spectacular features.

Strong evidence for the continued existence of such underlying narrative structures is found in the continued saliency of elements of the myth or ideology of the American frontier to many contemporary Hollywood films. Arguably the archetypal American narrative, the myth of the frontier offers a series of thematic oppositions that continue to underpin films, or even entire genres, whatever the state of their surface plots. The traditional generic Western may be in a state of near-terminal decline, but the mythic or ideological narrative that animated it remains alive and well in Hollywood. Focusing on two of the summer blockbusters of 1996, Twister and Independence Day, this essay will aim to demonstrate the part it plays in structuring many films, particularly in terms of an opposition between the "frontier"-or its contemporary analogues-and a version of technological modernity.

To assert the importance of narrative structures such as these need not be to disregard the role of spectacle. Narrative and spectacle can work together in a variety of changing relationships and there is no single, all-embracing answer to the question of how the two are related. One of the reasons for the hasty dismissal of the importance of narrative in contemporary Hollywood may be the overstatement by influential theorists such as David Bordwell of the degree of its coherence in, and dominance of, the "classical" Hollywood of the studio era. Narrative coherence was important to "classical" Hollywood, but only as one of a number of competing dynamics. Other attractions-such as distracting star performances or other spectacles-might be thrown in at almost any time.' The connotations of the term "classical" are part of the problem, including as it does in Bordwell's account an emphasis on "decorum, proportion, formal harmony" (4)--characteristics that were not always given priority. Numerous commentators on contemporary, "New" or "post-classical" Hollywood seem to rely at least in part on such implicit assumptions about the cinema that went before.z The point is not to doubt that there have been changes in the precise relations between narrative and spectacle from one period to another, but to question any suggestion that there was a point of departure at which "classical" narrative existed in anything like a "pure" state, uncontaminated by various kinds of evasions and distractions. From the very start, throughout the "classical" era, and today, narrative and spectacle have existed in a series of shifting relationships in which neither has ever been entirely absent. …