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Ready, Aim, Think – The Intellectual Potential of Action Movies

The ‘action movie’ genre is reaching a whole new level of success these days. Thanks to advances in computer-generated effects, stunt doubles and higher budgets, Hollywood is able to bring fantastic spectacles and awe-inspiring moments to the big screen. It’s no wonder that they’re so popular. Audiences can relax on a Friday evening, recover from a stressful week, sit back and watch muscled-up guys shoot aliens in the face (or Dwayne Johnson saving someone from a burning building…whilst on fire…on top of a gorilla).

However, with these new opportunities, there now comes a type of action movie that, whilst focusing on providing the impressive hand to hand combat and gun flights, also attempts to engage with their audience on an intellectual level. There appears to be more focus on themes that aren’t always associated or expected to be connected with this genre. Despite all the usual expectations, the themes tend to be explored in a fascinating way that ordinary dramas, thrillers and sci-fi films aren’t which has allowed this genre to compete with such films regularly at the box office.

the audience then are encouraged to think about each and every move or counter move that either character makes

One of the ways this is done is through providing a hero and villain with some depth to their character as opposed to just displaying their onscreen motive. The relationship between the hero and villain in most action movies is always bigger and more intense than in other genres because it has to be that way in order to differentiate the two opposing sides. There has been such a strict contrast, such a profound difference between the two that they have no choice but to battle each other to the death in order to resolve their conflict. But when action movies start having more depth, the lines of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ become far more symbolic and can be often blurred. The audience then are encouraged to think about each and every move or counter move that either character makes.

A perfect example of this would be the dynamic between ‘Furiousa’ and ‘Immortan Joe’ in George Miller’s 2015 film, Mad Max: Fury Road. The initial dichotomy with each character is clear from the beginning (Joe representing a literal extreme patriarchy and Furiosa representing direct-action Feminism). But through this, the actions of their respective characters take on deeper meanings that become more interesting to the viewer, such as the character arc that Nicholas Holt’s character, ‘Nux’, undergoes through opening up to emotional communication rather than just consistent aggression. The deeper layers become far more intense through the lens of an action film and make the audience engage and think about those themes more than if it was just a straight drama.

both films were able to create scenarios that brought up some really interesting questions about the nature of epistemology and choice

Two films that excelled at this were The Wachowski sisters’ Matrix trilogy (though admittedly the first one more than the others) and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. Both films were able to create scenarios that brought up some really interesting questions about the nature of epistemology and choice. By delving into forms of reality that are connected to ones that we recognise but that we are distanced from (due to the nature of the plot such as the way that the version of reality is, in both The Matrix and Inception keeps changing) force the audience to engage with the ideas that the films are talking about. For example, the audience watching Inception has to think about the logical progression of the originality of thoughts and ideas and how it can affect an individual on a subconscious level. Those ideas engage the audience, and make them remember the film not just for the action set pieces, but for the ideas and concepts explored within the location the action is happening.

The advantage of having these action films genuinely choosing to engage with bigger and more interesting ideas and themes is that it makes the ideas more accessible to audiences who might not have engaged with those themes before. Audiences who go see these blockbusters and who are looking to be entertained rather than to be engaged intellectually at that time, might pass on a drama or biopic that explores some complex themes. They would likely see one of these action films that provide the cool action and effects they were looking for however; it is now the case that filmmakers are getting them to also pay attention to the underlying themes and ideas. This is something that, in recent years, the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have become very good at.

that’s a theme it’s likely no one expected when walking in to the cinema

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok was advertised on its lighter tone. The 1980s sci-fi visual aesthetic and a quirky sense of humour were of course incentives to watch the film but whilst it did succeed in providing all of this, it also explored the idea of legacy, the lasting impact of colonialism, how it affects both the way a nation tells its history and how it buries their own sense of guilt. That’s a theme it’s likely no one expected when walking in to the cinema. Similarly, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 advertised itself on the large space battles, fun soundtrack, and the cuteness of ‘Baby Groot’, but then began to tackle some really intense subjects surrounding parental abuse, male egoism and misplaced anger/defence mechanisms, leading to arguably the most emotional ending sequence of any Marvel film. That is going way a further than anyone expected a movie with a gun wielding raccoon and a blue alien slaughtering people to the sound of 1960s rock music has any right to go.

Action films have always had their place in the film industry. They most likely will continue to do so and that’s totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with lying back and watching people shoot at each other out of cars or fight giant creatures with other giant creatures. There’s clearly a market for that and people have every right to enjoy that. But that’s not all the genre should be known for. Action films have the potential to be intellectually stimulating and thematically relevant and, when done well, they should be praised and given due credit for having gone down that road hopefully leading a wider variety of action films going forward.

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