Evolution has always been a key element of filmmaking. On a technological level, new cameras, mounting systems, special effects, and more constantly work to change the way films look, but these only illustrate a starting point. Building on this foundation is the culture surrounding films, and how society’s shape gives form to movie expression. Taking a look at how two popular genres have evolved, we want to explore why this is, and what it could mean for the future of the movie industry.
Height movies like 1969’s The Italian Job and 1973’s The Sting are considered classics for good reasons. They’re clever, they’re thrilling, and they pit the protagonists against the odds of the best technological security of the time. These ideas come with inherent problems, however, in the way security systems have developed over time. Heavy bolts and guards are just the surface of the way modern systems operate, and this has necessitated a shift in the way filmmakers approach the heist genre.
Perhaps the best illustration of how these movies evolved was in the 2001 Ocean series of remake films. While these newer movies still leaned on thrills and ingenious solutions, they also understood the necessity of including far more technological hurdles to overcome. Laser grids, advanced scanning technologies, computer codes, and many more advanced systems drove heist films forward and were celebrated for that fact. As a double-edged sword, these types of films then required a greater emphasis on special effects, requiring an even larger investment in technological innovation. As noted by Chris Van Dyck in our HNMag interview, this is an involving pursuit.
As illustrated by 2021’s Free Guy, special effects have developed to a level where it’s now far more easily possible to create digital worlds, as explored by Indiewire. This is especially relevant owing to how a common target of heist films, casinos, are increasingly shifting into the digital frontier. With new online casinos like Betway, the entire landscape is now digital, while still hosting all the classics like a range of roulette games without compromise. Since it would be near impossible to make a movie about just code visually appealing, the developed use and acceptance of CG worlds as in Free Guy and Alita: Battle Angel would make new films on this topic infinitely more viable.
The Action Change
Before the year 2000, most action films tied themselves to the names and muscles of a few big stars. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2 and Total Recall in 1991 and 1990 are some of the biggest standouts here as Rolling Stone agrees, though appreciation also has to go to Stallone’s Rambo series. While it was only natural that the actors in these films would mostly age out of such action-heavy roles, what would replace them was not something many saw coming.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, the macho attitude was in full swing. While we still had a ‘good guy’ to root for, the views towards his targets were based on cultural attitudes of the time. Russians were commonly placed as the antagonists, owing to the fear and popularised in the Cold War, which readers can brush up on over at History in case they’ve forgotten. As tension with Russia eased, and society moved away from such an open celebration of guns, bullets, and bad guys who never took cover, action films needed a new target.
While the filmmakers couldn’t have known it at the time, it was 2002s Spider-Man that set the tone for the decades to come. Superhero movies weren’t new at this point, but those that did exist tended to be lower budget or poorly received due to the set-piece action reach exceeding its technological grasp. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time that a big filmmaker wanted to work on Spider-Man, as we reveal in this HNMag article. Eventually, the released Spider-Man changed our attitude towards the superhero genre, while also giving us villains who everybody could root against, regardless of nationality.
Compounded by ever-improving tech, and a society who had grown up loving the inherent silliness and camp of superheroes, it was only natural that the action genre would morph into the superhero genre. It also doesn’t hurt that many of these films hit the ball out of the part, as our HNMag coverage of Shang-Chi shows. Of course, traditional action movies still exist, but the hits of the ’80s and ’90s were usurped by a new breed, and as the nearly $23 billion in earnings for Marvel movies show, this isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Considering the totality of changes to film culture over the last few decades leaves us with two inescapable conclusions. Firstly, better technology is going to raise the limit of what special effects and scale can accomplish. Secondly, the films that leverage this technology are going to be filtered through the greater lens of the evolving zeitgeist. Who know, this might make us eventually look back on the hits of today with the same asterisk of enjoyment with which we judge the movies of old. Until then, let’s just sit back and enjoy the ride.