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The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster


The blockbuster hit of 1991 was James Cameron's Terminator 2, which offered audiences some of the most spectacular special effects since the Star Wars era of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Formally, Terminator 2 also resembled the blockbusters of that period in its extremely fast pace and its emphasis on plot over character. Ideologically, like those earlier movies its motivating anxieties were rooted firmly in the Cold War. Although the film made a passing reference to the fact that the Russians were now 'our friends', the story concerned the chilliest fear of the previous forty years, the destruction of humanity in a nuclear holocaust (spectacularly simulated in a dream sequence within the film). Finally, Terminator 2 recalled the Star Wars era blockbusters in its faith in the capacity of human beings to control their destinies on a grand scale, since its team of heroes succeed in altering future history and preventing nuclear obliteration.

However, considered in relation to its blockbuster predecessors, Terminator 2 also showed how much had changed. Like many other popular movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the film was dark, brutally and routinely violent, and preoccupied with issues of sheer survival. Just whose survival was in question was suggested by the fact that the two adult white male stars of the film (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick) both played killing machines that only superficially resemble human beings. The sequel added a twist to the original film ( 1984's The Terminator) by having Schwarzenegger's Terminator work on the side of the good guys this time around, and the film played for both comic and sentimental effect the subplot in which the white male killing machine is reeducated to be a responsible, protective caretaker. But just when the Terminator has been reformed enough to understand why people cry, he insists that he must be destroyed if the world is to be saved. The film thus suggested that his identity was too closely tied to his origins as a killer, something which even sensitivity training could not overcome. In short, like so many films of its time, Terminator 2 was a meditation on the problem of the white man.

The period of which Terminator 2 is representative is often called the era of the modern blockbuster, and stretches from George Lucas's 1977 state-of-the-art space opera Star Wars up to and beyond Steven Spielberg's 1993 state-of-the-art dinosaur epic Jurassic Park. As many critics have observed, the period is 'post-generic' in the sense that, while films belonging to the traditional Hollywood genres were still being made, they coexisted with an explosion of emerging new categories which made use of the older elements by recombining them in various ways. One example of such a 'hybrid' genre is, of course, the special-effects oriented blockbuster. It is also a period marked by an unusually strong and self-conscious convergence between American popular culture, especially Hollywood movies, and American political culture. The era was defined by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a former minor Hollywood star who used lines from blockbusters to promote his national policy initiatives (including Back to the Future's 'Where we're going, we don't need roads'; Star Wars's 'The Force is with us'; and Sudden Impact's 'Go ahead, make my day!').

The most highly successful and broadly popular movies of this era are best understood as ideological fantasies about the relationship of the American nation to the realities and implications of its own recent history, which included the assassinations and social upheaval of the 1960s and the political scandal and corruption of Watergate in the early 1970s. But even more important for the purposes of this discussion, that history included on the one hand America's traumatic experience of defeat in Vietnam, and on the other the emergence of newly militant demands by women and 'minorities' (racial, ethnic, and sexual) for greater representation and equality at all levels of American society and culture.


The big blockbusters of the late 1970s and early 1980s responded to these historical developments by denying them, in fantasies which sought to escape or otherwise transcend present realities altogether. In the case of the Star Wars trilogy, the story was set 'a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away'. Raiders of the Lost Ark ( 1981) offered the nostalgic moral certainties of 1930s Nazi villainy, while Back to the Future ( 1985) found nostalgic refuge in the simpler world of 1950s American suburbia. A different group of movies, most notably Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind ( 1977) and E.T. ( 1982), held out the hope of extraterrestrial intervention to redeem and rescue us from our everyday lives (as did the mid-1980s films Cocoon and 2001). Such films were significant in their straightforward confessions of the wish to escape from present-day realities. However, in their reliance upon rescuers from outer space, they displayed their doubts about whether the American nation was capable of escaping, on its own, the implications of its recent history.

The shaky confidence of the ET-intervention films coexisted with a much more 'triumphal' sensibility in most of the period's blockbusters. In one way or another,


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