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What Movies Were (Unwittingly) The Last Of Their Kind?

Over at the excellent movie website The Dissolve, Nathan Rabin has a terrific writeup on Eraser, the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick that did pretty well financially but nobody much remembers today. (The piece is part of Rabin's "ForgotBusters" series, chronicling blockbuster hits of the past few decades that failed to gain traction, either as cultural signifiers or long-lived franchises. The whole thing is worth reading.) I myself recall this movie fondly, having seen it and many other dopey action flicks and comedies that summer in the cool sanctuary of my neighborhood theater in Chicago. (My apartment had no air conditioning, so I spent most of my free time either at the movies or in the Starbucks across the street.) What I remember specifically about Eraser was that it was really the last of its kind — a silly, unironic movie designed as a vehicle for a guy who'd made his career as a pure "action star" in other silly, unironic movies that were not too dissimilar in terms of plot, visual style, one-liners, or thematic content (i.e., shooting people and blowing up stuff). Basically, you can draw a straight line from Commando through Raw Deal, Predator, and True Lies to Eraser. Even the more ambitious action flicks like the first two Terminators, Total Recall, and Last Action Hero are part of the same overall career trajectory.

But in the summer of '96, there were a number of changes afoot in what had constituted the blockbuster for the last decade or so. First of all, there was Twister, an action movie without an action hero. Presumably, the stars were Helen Hunt and Bill Pullman, but really the big draw of the movie was the eponymous CGI tornadoes. Roland Emmerich revived the kid-friendly '70s/'80s ensemble SF adventure with Independence Day, effectively paving the way for The Phantom Menace, as much as George Lucas would be loathe to admit. And maybe the biggest change of all came with Michael Bay's The Rock, an all-out action flick that, rather than starring an ex-bodybuilder or martial artist, featured a cast of respected, serious actors engaged in spectacular cartoonish violence. (I know it sounds hard to imagine now, but in the '90s, Nicolas Cage was thought of as one of the great leading men of the era, having just won the Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.)


Seen in that light, Eraser was pretty much the twilight of the '80s-style action movie. Schwarzenegger could no longer be content to be just a government agent fighting terrorists; he had to fight Satan (in End of Days) or himself (The Sixth Day), neither of which did very well. And sure, there were plenty of low- and mid-budget flicks that tried to imitate the Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Van Damme formula, but none of them caught on (Double Team, anyone?). As the '90s came to an end, action movies ceased to be vehicles for big muscular dudes and began to return to tropes from the '70s and early '80s, like superheroes (X-Men) or science fiction/space opera (The Matrix, Star Wars, Armageddon). And as the '00s wore on, the focus was less on the stars than the brands — Tolkien, Rowling, Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, etc. 1996 was the last time Schwarzenegger could just play a regular Schwarzenegger character without seeming self-consciously ironic, as in The Expendables, or like a dated self-parody out of The Simpsons' McBain movies. My mighty heart is breaking, I'll be in da Humvee…

Lots of other examples come to mind. The Greatest Story Ever Told pretty much ended the Biblical epic, at least until Noah. (Yeah, there was Passion of the Christ, but that's not technically an epic in the traditional Hollywood sense.) Sweet Charity nearly sank Universal and probably helped end the traditional big budget musical, along with a bunch of other expensive musicals from the end of the '60s, including Wall-E's favorite, Hello Dolly!. Meteor ended the '70s disaster flick. Dune and 2010's failure to perform marked the end of the industry's post-Star Wars obsession with expensive SF movies set in outer space. Heaven's Gate killed the Western (and United Artists), and Wyatt Earp killed the Western revival of the early '90s. Lone Ranger may have killed it forever. There's probably some big budget extravaganza on a studio's drawing boards right now that will probably doom its genre forever, or at least the better part of the next decade. What other examples can you think of, and what do you think will be the next genre or subgenre to disappear?

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