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Films for Thought: The Evolution of the Blockbuster

Although nothing this summer seems slated to re-create the Barbenhemier effect of 2023, there are a lot of big-name releases planned for summer 2024! FEMSPEC has set out to see these summer releases on the big screen and to reflect on the ways that the blockbuster genre intersects with our journal’s foci: science and speculative fiction, fantasy, and myth.

To start, let’s review the history of the summer sizzler.  The term blockbuster promises big stars and big budgets. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 action/horror film JAWS is considered the first summer blockbuster because of audience appeal and earnings. It earned over one hundred million dollars in theaters. Two years later, George Lucas perfected the blockbuster formula with his first installment of STAR WARS (1977). Several franchises like ALIEN (with its initial 1979 release) and Indiana Jones (with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in 1981) successfully followed the same formula, with early promotion and heavy merchandising. A new record was reached with Marvel Comics’ AVENGERS: END GAME. The film grossed almost three billion worldwide and earned critical praise as well as commercial success.

Once the worst season for film, summer is now an exciting time for films that are both commercially viable and thought-provoking!



Please join us as we view and review select summer films through a feminist and sci-fi lens: CIVIL WAR, ABIGAIL, TAROT, KINGDOM of THE PLANET OF THE APES, IF, and FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA. We’d also love to know what you’re watching, so comment when you can! And remember, you can always catch the films on VOD or streaming once they leave the theater.

                                                                                 Merry L. Byrd

CIVIL WAR Showcases Journalism’s Importance

CIVIL WAR, Alex Garland’s April 12, 2024 dystopian film depicting a U.S. political coup, deserves a good deal of its initial hype. Still ranking in the top five films in its fifth week, the movie’s appeal is undeniable.

Although it is viewed (and reviewed) largely as a sign of our schismatic times and as a preview of the future, the film serves as an allegory about politics and political reporting more than a warning of a rebellion or a commentary on our era alone.

CIVIL WAR offers Kirsten Dunst a powerful female leading role as Lee Smith, a veteran war photographer, who grudgingly takes both her infirm, aging mentor and a rash newbie (or wannabe, depending on one’s perspective) on an important, but dangerous assignment. Dunst’s strongest supporting actor is Julliard-trained stage actor Stephen McKinley Henderson who plays Sammy, a wise and witty seasoned reporter with THE NEW YORK TIMES.

The film’s best scenes appear in the road trip from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia. Yes, it’s a road trip movie!

The dynamics between the young, hungry-for-fame-and-action Reuters reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) and the experienced journalist Sammy (Henderson) refract the complicated relationship that develops between Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny) and Smith (Dunst).

There is both comradery and conflict--the latter based mostly on personality and lifestyle rather than professional competition.

Mostly, there are close calls, especially as the group gets closer to the front lines. They must find food, shelter, and gasoline, and each of those tasks requires interacting with both locals and other travelers who may or may not be friendly.

Smith holds the group together. Her instincts with people and photography are spot-on. Her upper lip is stiff, and her commitment to her craft is impeccable. However, Smith is far more traumatized and much more compassionate than she lets on.

In contrast, Smith’s unwanted apprentice Cullen repeatedly tests boundaries and picks the seams of the safety net holding them together. Impetuous, untrained, and selfish, she puts the team in danger on more than one occasion.

The road-trip cinematography is startlingly beautiful, shifting from stark urban scenes ravaged by conflict to softly depicted deserted rural roads ultimately running into picturesque towns.

In contrast, the later battle scenes seem over-blown and drawn-out, offering spectacle for its own sake rather than serving the plot.

And the plot’s structure does need help. With an opening scene of a somber president preparing a victory speech, the film seems to side with the standing government. Only later does the movie reveal he is a democratic leader turned third-term dictator.

The opposition is awkwardly imagined as well: the military alliances are oddly arranged, with inexplicably well-armed forces challenging the central government from the far West, the Southwest, and Florida.

Without giving away the plot, it should be noted that the “good guys”—if there are good guys—kill an unarmed Secretary of State while she is trying to negotiate surrender.

These contextual/background holes and plot weaknesses are the reasons I suggest CIVIL WAR is less about a dystopian future and more about representation and reporting. It follows earlier films like SALVADOR (1986), THE KILLING FIELDS (1984), and THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982) in marking both the essential role of war coverage and the sometimes-thin lines between reporting and exploiting and between objectivity and agenda.

In short, CIVIL WAR re-visits the popular eighties war correspondent film sub-genre and is worth a watch!

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