Our Winter of Discontent: Where Have All the Quality Blockbusters Gone?

The first quarter of the year is a good time for studios to experiment — but it still feels like a drought

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Kerry Hayes / © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman star in Columbia Pictures' "Robocop."

A few weeks ago, I walked out of Jack Ryan: Shadow Pursuit: Kenneth Branagh’s mildly hyped retelling of Tom Clancy’s storied hero was about as exciting as staring at C-SPAN on mute. Granted, when it comes to the spy genre, I’m partial to Bourne and Bond, and yet I thought, Hey, I haven’t seen Kevin Costner in years, so why not? — but really, I just wanted to see a movie. Any movie.

If you’re like me and quickly gobble up the films generating Oscar buzz within a week, you’ll find it’s traditionally slim pickings at the box office this time of year — industry types refer to this cinematic graveyard as Q1. The thing is, Hollywood knows this better than anyone else — at least I think they do. How else do you explain this season’s collection of atypical blockbusters? I point to three: Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, Warner Bros.’s franchise-in-the-making The Lego Movie and last weekend’s big-budget reboot of RoboCop.

Berg’s military drama about the failed 2005 Navy SEALS mission Operation Red Wings received a nationwide release on January 10th, a dreaded dead zone. Yet the film’s done well critically and commercially, notching a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and grabbing over $118 million at the box office. This happened to be the film I snuck into following the Jack Ryan debacle, and I left feeling as if I’d seen one of those rare summer blockbusters that manages to win over both the heart and mind.

Then, there’s the latest CGI moneymaker: The Lego Movie. My friends (all in their 30s, mind you) won’t shut up about this film, and I keep seeing posts on Twitter like: “Wow. The Lego Movie was hilarious,” or, “You really, really, really need to see The Lego Movie,” or, “I can’t believe I’m seeing The Lego Movie again.” No surprise, then, that it sits at a godlike 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and has already roped in $130 million in less than two weeks.

Only one film around this time last year rocked the box office and that was the miserable Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy comedy Identity Thief. Despite an abysmal 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film conned $134 million dollars out of American audiences — by and large, that’s a winning blockbuster. Kudos to them. Still, that was a road comedy doing gangbusters amidst a season of severe dramas and tepid action films; if anything, it was more about being in the right place at the right time, since the movie was panned by critics.

Naturally, this year also has its share of successful embarrassments (see: Ice Cube and Kevin Hart’s critically derided Ride Along, which has since sped off with over $116 million of your dollars.) But if you really look at the box office numbers for Q1, it’s a matter of quality vs. quantity, and the former’s winning out. Already, several pictures have shuffled aside with bruised elbows and skinned knees: George Clooney‘s The Monuments Men was un-monumental with critics and filmgoers, That Awkward Moment proved too awkward for teen dollars, Vampire Academy failed to enroll, and Labor Day was as eventful as the holiday itself tends to be.

Translation: America’s starting to catch on — which leads me to the troublesome RoboCop. This film is a tough example, namely because it proves two separate points. For one, the $100 million dollar production validates the idea that studios are taking a risk in releasing tentpole films for Q1. Though, on the other hand, its opening weekend numbers — ahem, a measly $22 million — indicate that moviegoers might be growing weary of reboots. Or they’re just too obsessed with Legos to care. Either way, they weren’t rooting for Detective Alex J. Murphy, and that’s a shame.

Sure, the film looks like a blatant cash grab on the violent ’80s franchise. But a closer look reveals an intriguing cast of both relative newcomers (Joel Kinnaman, Michael K. Williams) and veterans (Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson), a slick young director in José Padilha and an arsenal of sexy alterations from Paul Verhoeven’s bloody cult classic. All of that makes the film’s underperformance such a disappointment; RoboCop could have been the smart, savvy blockbuster to further vindicate the season at hand. Instead, it’ll likely go down as this year’s A Good Day to Die Hard — only with half the box office take. 
Still, if Q1 represents an experimental time for studios to test out a variety of blockbusters, then maybe they’ll come to discover that you can’t dust off any ol’ franchise and expect everyone to pop open the Twizzlers. That being said, the dismal returns of RoboCop prove the soil in Q1 is stonier than we think.
Here’s hoping the studios decide to keep digging.