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The biggest problem with modern blockbusters, explained by Independence Day: Resurgence

Too many popcorn movies are ditching their second acts entirely, to the detriment of everybody.

Independence Day: Resurgence
Empty spectacle adds up to nothing in Independence Day: Resurgence.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There is perhaps nothing more indicative of the biggest problem facing blockbusters right now than the difference between 1996’s Independence Day and its 2016 sequel Independence Day: Resurgence.

In the earlier film, the basic structure of the story is simple, and typical: In the first act, aliens arrive. Their intentions are mysterious, until they start blowing up American landmarks. Alongside the aliens, we’re introduced to a bunch of different characters from several different walks of life (including everybody from the president to a kooky old man).

In act two, the humans band together in the wake of the aliens’ devastation. There are a few more action sequences (or, more accurately, destruction sequences), but the point of the act is to allow the characters to get together, swap stories, and figure out how to save the human race.

In act three, they launch their completely improbable plan, and it works. The aliens are defeated, and everybody goes home happy.

But in Independence Day: Resurgence, that second act is almost completely absent. Yes, there are bits and pieces of it scattered here and there — mostly melded with the first and third acts — but by and large, the aliens destroy stuff and then humanity fights them off.

Without that second act, there’s no time for the story to build momentum, for the characters to actually define themselves as individuals, for conflicts to develop. Instead, a bunch of stuff just sort of happens, and that’s that. If the three-act structure is "Send your characters up a tree. Throw rocks at them. See if they climb down," then eliminating the second act destroys any chances of seeing how your characters react to new obstacles — and, thus, fails to reveal what makes them who they are.

But Resurgence is far from the only recent big movie to have this "no second act" problem. In fact, it’s everywhere.

This problem goes way beyond Independence Day: Resurgence

X-Men: Apocalypse
X-Men: Apocalypse also lacked a second act.
20th Century Fox

I originally planned to write this article based on 2015’s fantastic flop Fantastic Four, but I figured the film’s lack of a second act was the result of a badly botched editing job more than anything else.

Then in February, Deadpool suffered the same problem: Just when the movie was starting to ramp up in terms of story momentum, it abruptly transitioned into its conclusion. The same happened with Batman v Superman, The Angry Birds Movie, and X-Men: Apocalypse. These movies don’t build their stories; they just sort of stop when it’s time to do so.

I suppose this is the point where I should mention that in many ways, the three-act structure is a straitjacket that can make otherwise good movies feel predictable and formulaic. If you’ve ever watched a film where you more or less enjoyed the actors and other elements but found the story much too easy to predict ahead of time, well, blame the three-act structure. (My personal story format of choice? The five-act structure, which allows for greater character development.)

But here’s the flip side of the three-act structure’s familiarity: Because it’s the story structure we perhaps know best, when it’s poorly executed, it’s easy to tell that something isn’t working. In the case of most of the second-act-lacking movies I listed above, the audiences I saw them with rarely reacted to major story events. There weren’t cheers or gasps or sobs or laughter.

Compare Independence Day: Resurgence (or any of the other films I’ve listed as missing a second act) with Finding Dory, the movie currently dominating the national box office. Finding Dory is predictable. It’s formulaic. Its scenes that make you cry feel as if they’ve been dropped into the story with an "insert tears here" sign attached.

The difference is that even though you can see what’s coming from a mile away, you cry when you’re supposed to. You laugh when you’re supposed to. The characters build relationships and have adventures together and come into conflict with each other. Those conflicts might be simplistic — Dory is a forgetful fish who wants to return home, so of course she squabbles with Hank, an octopus with a long memory who wants to run away — but they exist, and the film gives them room to breathe.

Hell, the three-act structure is so ingrained in our psyches that it can hold together movies that otherwise feel like they’re about to fly off the rails. Every Marvel movie to date has roughly the same structure — right down to when and where in the story the characters fight — but using that basic template allows the studio to keep cramming more and more characters into its ever-expanding universe.

Three theories for why second acts are disappearing

Finding Dory
Finding Dory might have a predictable story, but at least it has one.

In contrast, the "long first act, no second act, long third act" structure removes the time that’s necessary for building character and reduces everything to empty spectacle. Why is it popping up in so many big movies (particularly ones from 20th Century Fox, for some reason)? I have a few theories.

My first theory is that filmmakers increasingly seem to be turning toward a franchise model that stretches out their stories beyond the confines of a single film. Something like X-Men: Apocalypse may think it only needs to do the most perfunctory moments of character development because there have been so many other X-Men films.

But this approach neglects the fact that a truly successful film, even if it’s part of a franchise, can function on its own. That’s why each individual entry in Marvel’s rapidly growing web of interconnected movies (by far the most successful example of a "cinematic universe") tells a self-contained story, right down to re-expressing the characters’ motivations and drives. (It’s also why Captain America: Civil War spent much of its first hour rehashing how much Cap and Bucky cared about each other.)

My second theory is that anytime you start trimming back a film from some ungodly lengthy run time, you’re going to be less likely to trim out the scenes you spent the most money producing. Scenes with two characters talking to each other in a room are almost always going to be axed before a scene where a spaceship crashes into London.

And finally, my third theory is closely related to my second one. When it comes to sending American movies overseas — where many of them make more money than they do in the US — the dialogue scenes aren’t what sells. What sells are the scenes where spaceships crash into London.

Why spend lots of time crafting quieter, more personal scenes where the Independence Day characters reconnect, or talk about how the aliens are back, or whatever, when you could just immediately throw them into an alien war?

The answer, whether movie studios like it or not, is that without an element of human connection — without the sense that a film’s characters are real people with emotions and wants and desires — it becomes impossible to really feel anything for the characters beyond the same dull horror at the endless bombast and destruction that we get from dozens of other modern blockbusters.

Pixar’s movies, like Finding Dory, are successful for a reason. Even when they’re not as good as the studio’s best works, they always take care to make audiences understand just what their characters want and how they’re going to get it. And for as much as we can mock both Pixar and Marvel for relying on formulas, at least those formulas leave time for characters to talk to each other, and to experience real, human moments.

And to all those who fear their movies won’t fare very well internationally because of those smaller, quieter scenes — hey, have you seen how well Pixar and Marvel do overseas? Human drives are just that: human. Empty bombast can be fun every once in a while, but when that's all there is, it’s easy to tune out.

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