How’s this idea for a movie sound: a couple of characters encounter A Big Problem, and then over the course of one or two hours (but not more than that), struggle to find a way to solve, escape, or survive it.
If you’re saying to yourself “hey, that sounds like every movie ever,” well, you’re not wrong. Yet it seems that, increasingly, that simple and generic description doesn’t quite begin to sum up the majority of summer blockbusters made over the past couple decades. Beginning sometime in the late ‘90s or early ‘00s with oversized action and disaster epics, the blockbuster began to become unwieldy and complex, and the rise of the superhero movie has taken such excess to heart.
For instance, thanks to the last few Avengers movies, it seems every Marvel Cinematic Universe entry must be treated like An Event, a prerequisite assumed by not just the rabid fanbase but the filmmakers themselves. Take July’s Thor: Love & Thunder, for instance, which is a movie saddled with a ton of elements to juggle: the wrapping up of loose ends from Avengers: Endgame, the reintroduction of supporting characters from several sequels past, the redefining of the title character’s place in the MCU and, oh yeah, a new villain and convoluted plot for the film to hang a lot of riffing on.
Thanks to this, it’s easy to miss the blockbusters of yesteryear, the ones that largely dealt with a single issue instead of several. It’s ironic that the notion of the “summer blockbuster” began with 1975’s Jaws, a movie that seems positively simplistic when compared with Netflix’s The Gray Man, a facsimile of a summer action flick that has more empty plot elements than a litter box has lumps. Even something as relatively recent as 1997’s Breakdown seems admirably old school in its construction and execution, a triumph of no-nonsense entertainment.
Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning back toward single-issue summer movie thrillers. There have been several box office hits recently that mark such a move, such as May’s Top Gun: Maverick and June’s The Black Phone, and in the last several weeks alone four releases have harkened back even further to the old school blockbuster days: Nope, Prey, Fall, and Beast. Each of these films have received favorable responses from critics and audiences alike, and in the case of Top Gun: Maverick, The Black Phone and Nope, great box office to boot. Based on this small trend, it’s entirely likely that we may be witnessing a fully-fledged comeback of the single-issue thriller.
Granted, three of the films I’ve cited—Top Gun: Maverick, The Black Phone and Nope—may not seem as bare-bones simple as the others, yet they each have a direct focus to them as narratives that don’t become clouded by excess. One of the miracles of Top Gun: Maverick is the fact that it manages to be an excellent sequel to a 36-year-old film that doesn’t feel the need to stuff in a bunch of elements immaterial to the story, all while including some fan service that feels more natural than cloying. It may even be a more direct movie than its predecessor—where the original Top Gun bookended its pilots-competing-for-a-trophy narrative with some test-your-mettle, life-or-death dogfights, Maverick constructs its tale of people struggling with (or struggling to establish) their legacy around one major mission, and the joys of its extended third act come from a Rube Goldberg-esque series of complications rather than an entire plot shift.
Speaking of Rube Goldberg, it’s to The Black Phone’s credit that it ties together several disparate characters and storylines in such a streamlined fashion. Maybe it’s obvious or unfair to label a horror movie as a “single-issue thriller” since one of the pleasures of the horror genre is its general simplicity. Yet it bears mention, especially since most recent summer horror films included the adaptation of Stephen King’s It, the Purge franchise and the Conjuring series. While all enjoyable to various degrees, those films tend to be fairly diffused in their focus, while The Black Phone (to its benefit or detriment, depending on your opinion) is far more single-minded, the movie working like a feature-length setup that leads to a crowd-pleasing payoff.
Jordan Peele’s Nope is a movie that is as multi-layered and rife with social commentary as the filmmaker’s previous efforts, yet one of its pleasant surprises is how much of a throwback it is to classic summer entertainment. While the movie is suffused with themes of sensationalism, exploitation, the role of minorities in entertainment and the pitfalls of spectacle, at its core it’s a film about a deadly creature terrorizing a localized area, forcing a small band of protagonists to attempt to deal with it. In that fashion, it’s highly akin to Jaws, an observation that many have made and an analogy that Peele appears to have intended. It’s a blend that makes Nope a successor to the heyday of classic Amblin Entertainment features without ever delving into the stylistic trappings of, say, kids with flashlights on bicycles and so on. Spielberg built his reputation as a filmmaker who could deliver themes and messages in a continually exciting package, and Peele demonstrates that such a technique can still be mightily effective.
Since Nope is an “animal attack” movie with a unique twist, it’s ironic that two “animal attack”-cum-survivalist thrillers were released this August. The more traditional of the two is Beast, which sees a widowed father taking his two children to South Africa to connect with their mother’s roots, only to find themselves stranded in a preserve with an enraged lion. Though the lion’s attacks are prompted by its abuse at the hands of illegal poachers, the film wisely keeps its focus on the father and his family trying to survive—and eventually defeat—the titular beast. Similarly, the latest entry in the Predator franchise (cheekily entitled Prey) eschews the unwieldy and vague lore surrounding the Predator series, taking things back to basics with the tale of a Comanche girl who takes on the task of defeating a single Predator as both a hunting rite of passage and as a quest to protect her people. There’s no added plot bells and whistles to these movies, no fourth and fifth act, no setups for sequels—when the beasties are defeated, the movie is over.
One of the most pleasant surprises this past month has been Fall, which brings back the survival thriller in a big way. Here, there’s no quirk of nature, act of God or mortal evil that confronts the characters—it’s the characters themselves creating and then needing to solve their own problem. The film follows the plight of two women who decide to climb a 2,000ft. decommissioned TV tower in the middle of nowhere, attempting to get their mojo back after the tragic death of a fellow climber a year earlier. Sure enough, things go south, and the film becomes insidiously simple: the women must survive long enough to find a way off the tower. Aside from a few brief cutaways to the father of one of the girls attempting to find them, the film stays tightly focused on the drama on top of the tower, making the movie that much more experiential and suspenseful.
“Experiential” is the best key word to describe this new wave of throwback thrillers. While most are close in structure and form to the average horror movie, it’s important to realize that they’re not horror films per se, and therefore have a broader, more “summer movie” appeal. They exploit the cinema’s immense power to create suspense and thrills while sacrificing little in the way of character building and emotional depth. In a culture that’s been inundated with decades of “prestige TV” and its hours of needlessly extended narratives, it has become common for films to try and follow suit. This trend of more pared-down, single-minded thrillers seems to imply that filmmakers are rediscovering just how versatile and unique movies are, how they can amaze and titillate and engage inside of a complete and compact package. Seeing such a trend rising is, for lack of a better word, thrilling.