Ah, action movies! The thing that takes you to the edge of your seat and makes you devour overpriced popcorn by pounds if done right. Or laugh at the hilarity of the characters and the improbability of their actions if written or acted poorly. There’s probably no other movie genre as polarizing and entertaining as action. And it’s really hard to find a successful director or actor who doesn’t owe his or her fame, at least partly, to action movies. It’s the most accessible movie genre, appealing to the broadest audience due to its sheer entertaining nature. So, no wonder, the majority of blockbusters hitting the theaters and streaming services belong to this particular category.
Today, action movies are strongly associated with superhero films and science fiction. The advancements in CGI and the successful migration of graphic novel heroes from geekdom to pop-culture have both provided a fruitful base for action movies to thrive upon. Just look at the list of highest grossing films in history: the top is dominated purely by action films (with secondary genres ranging from sci-fi to animation), while 7 out of 20 are based directly on comic book franchises. And while some may disagree on the classification of ‘Frozen’ or ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the Kind’ as pure action movies, there’s simply no denying the fact that the success of these works owes a lot to the action-packed scenes that made our hearts jump from the adrenaline boost they were so meticulously designed around.
But the early action films were far from the calculated CGI fests we’re all used to these days. Some movie scholars state that the 1903 silent film The ‘Great Train Robbery’ is actually the first action film to be made. Clocking in just over 10 minutes long, this black and white flick may seem like a bad joke to modern viewers, who are used to iMax resolution and all-surround sound effects that immerse you in the scene. Still, the 110+ years old movie carries all the essentials of the genre: jam-packed scenes, a resourceful hero and a task that most of us wouldn’t be able to accomplish. Consciously or not, most of the thousands of action movies that were produced since ‘The Great Train Robbery’ until these days all share the same essential blueprint and traits, serving the only purpose that matters in moviemaking. Suspending the viewer’s disbelief.
The way the action movies grab the viewer’s attention is quite entertaining in itself, and has been the topic of multiple theses by psychology scholars, and is something that can make or break the movie. Experts agree that the root for the way we are engaged with action scenes lies in the inherent empathy we share as human beings. Just as you get aroused by simply seeing someone engaged in a sexual act, or find yourself drooling while watching someone eat on TV, scenes where the character is forced to take radical physical action make your heart pump faster, elevate your blood pressure and narrow your field of view. Just as if you were engaged in the same circumstances. Like it or not, that’s just the way we humans work, and that’s exactly what makes action movies so engaging and thrilling.
Today’s action flicks rely heavily on certain staple aspects the were first introduced during the 1960’s and 70’s. Owing largely to the movie adaptations of Ian Fleming’s books, which revolve around the character ‘James Bond’, the blueprints for a successful action movie haven’t changed much during the last 50 years: fast-pace editing, larger-than-life challenges, a resourceful hero who can take on an entire army at improbable odds and still succeed. If that sounds like a description to every other action movie you have ever seen, it’s only proof to the fact that the framework is truly successful despite being so old.
The 1970’s have given a new flare to the old tale by incorporating different elements and switching the settings from glamorous supervillain hideouts and posh casinos to the gritty city apartments and Chinatown settings, the viewers were so familiar with. This change of background didn’t alter the essence of action movies, but made them all the more credible and thus engaging.
When watching Clint Eastwood in ‘Dirty Harry’, you actually see a real person, doing a real job in a real city that may have actually been your hometown. This degree of association makes the entire setting all the more approachable and easier to believe in. This could have been your neighbor he was chasing all the time, and this introduction of commonness made the genre even more popular.
At the same time, the 1970s have brought an entirely new level of improbable settings with successful sci-fi titles that were jam-packed with action scenes, advanced technologies and dangerous foes that required radical measures. Think of the first instalments of sagas such as ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Alien’ to get the general idea. These franchises have proven that blending action with science fiction can be fun, entertaining and financially successful. And if the mere fact that these franchises still have new instalments coming out four decades after their initial launch isn’t a testament to the concept’s success, then it’s hard to find one.
The 1980’s are perceived, in general, as the golden era of action movies. It’s a decade when all things got really weird and blown out of proportions, and movies were no exception. The spread of movie theater and rental chains has brought in a torrent of cash to Hollywood, and so the production budgets for action movies have rocketed sky-high. Progress in visual and computer effects has found its way into the movie industry by then, but everything was still mainly done the good old way: by using stunt crews and lots of mechanical tweaking with props.
It is this very decade that has brought us titles that are perceived today as classics of the genre. Movies like ‘First Blood’, ‘Terminator’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘48 Hrs’, ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Raiders of the lost Ark’ are just a few of the many successful titles hailing from the era, when masculinity, violence and lack of political correctness were the norm. The consecutive sequels, some of which have actually grown into full-blown franchises of their own, have proven that this new formula of explicit action and tough-guy protagonists is what the audience needs right now. But it wasn’t for long.
The 1990’s have seen a steady degradation of the 80’s action film formula. While the production budgets were growing further, the resulting movies were steadily turning into downright parodies of the original concept. That’s exactly when the term ‘dude-fest’ was coined, used as a general descriptor for the kind of action movies that depicted over-masculine protagonists with rather primitive motivations and poor storyline. Unfortunately, this period has seen a lot of such instalments, including the originally successful franchises. A crisis in the genre was apparent, so the industry has shifted to new settings and started exploring new venues, which were becoming more accessible with the development of CGI.
That is why the latter half of the 1990’s is characterized by the resurgence of sci-fi in the realm of action flicks. Movies such as ‘Men in Black’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Jurassic Park’, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’, as well as the animated classics like ‘Toy Story’, ‘Toy Story 2’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’, have proven that computer animation is here to stay and that it can be effectively and almost seamlessly incorporated into action movies in order to create a broad range of fantastic settings that were previously inaccessible.
The 2000’s have only been a testament to that trend. That’s when the Marvel’s cinematic universe was launched with franchises like ‘X-Men’ and ‘Iron Man’, DC Comics made their move with ‘Spider Man’ and Christopher Nolan’s take on the ‘Batman’ comic book, as well as successful titles such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy, ‘Transformers’, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘Shrek’ hitting the screens. The amazing success of these franchises that were all based on the heavy use of CGI and often incorporated sci-fi, fantasy and adventure elements, was a definite proof that the overall trend in action movie genre was to make the movies as entertaining and exciting as possible, and taking the viewer into a fantasy world that has nothing to do with their everyday life.
However, it is also interesting to note the success of nostalgia-driven franchises like The Expendables and Fast and the Furious among others during the same period of time. While also leaning heavily on the use of CGI, these movies, at the same time, were aimed at an audience who wished for sheer adrenaline-driven action and the joy of firing hundreds rounds per second without any legal consequences. Some may state that the success of these titles is only a reactionary effect to the global drift of action movies towards sci-fi. And judging by how things have evolved during the 2010’s it’s very hard to disagree with this observation.
‘Iron Man’, ‘Avengers’, ‘X-Men’, ‘Deadpool’, ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Captain America’, ‘Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Transformers’ – these are some of the top-grossing franchise titles of the last decade. Notice anything peculiar? Yes, these are all based on successful comic books of the past. And their success wouldn’t have been possible without the enormous progress of computer generated graphics. We can all debate on the fairness of it, but the fact is that most of the movies that have grossed over a billion of dollars worldwide each were mostly filmed against a chroma key green screen and owe their amazing visuals mainly due to the skill of 3D modelers and animators and the sheer calculating power of their mainframes. The widely successful ‘Avatar’, which earned over $2 bn alone, written and directed by James Cameron (who also did the second most successful movie in history – ‘Titanic’), used only a handful of actors, half of which have only provided motion capture for further computer processing and rendering. If a man, who built a life-sized replica of the ship Titanic only to sink it in a giant pool and film the whole process, has opted do you an entire movie digitally 20 years later, then you can safely say that digital has become the new norm for action movies.
Is it good, is it bad? That’s up for debate. Some people complain that they lack realism in today’s movies and wish for something as honest and direct as the action movies from the 1980’s. Others claim that the modern level of technology allows them to explore the universes that were only open to imagination before. And taking in the fact that today’s adults are the kids from the 80’s and 90’s who were reading comics and wishing for their favorite superheroes come to life, it’s not hard to guess why the large movie studios are placing their bets on the blend of action and sci-fi/superhero genre.
Where will the evolution of the action movie genre will bring us in the future? No one knows. But it’s easy to speculate, taking note of the current technological trends and exponential growth of calculating power even the tabletops showcase today. The VR is making its first steps into the world of computer gaming, and it’s easy to imagine movies adopting the new technologies to provide a deeper immersion and engagement with the plot line. In other words, someday soon you may find yourself being part of a movie as it were in real life, either as a spectator or the protagonist. And being able to switch between points of view at will. Sounds fantastic? Sure! But it will definitely the good old action of epic proportions that most of us would want to experience like that.
We all love action movies. Whether you prefer the old-school grit of macho protagonists shooting everyone and killing only the bad guys. Or the head-spinning visuals that take you to completely different worlds of today’s superhero movies. Or the rising suspense of spy and thriller action movies produced during the 1990’s. Or the meticulously crafted depictions of the Wild West shootouts that were so popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Regardless of our preferences we all share the love for action in a movie and hope that the hero will finally get that bad guy in the end and will walk into the sunset victorious. Simply because we want to be that hero.