The Last Blockbuster (documentary) — a review

I’ve spoken on this topic before. Ad nauseum.

You know what I mean. The secret of happiness is always looking forward to something. In my world, that something is largely entertainment choices—new seasons of television or streaming series, a new video game or book, movies, stuff like that.

However, as I’ve explored this topic with myself, through the type of self-analysis that writing without a net makes nearly effortless, I’ve discovered that looking back is also a key component of my personal pursuit of happiness. It’s the nostalgia factor.

It’s why I—and the millions of people like me—enjoy waxing rhapsodic about classic movies and television series, or comic books I loved to read when I was twelve-years-old.

Just the other day, as an example, I found my mind wandering back to the mid-1970s and the toys of my youth, such as the twelve-inch G.I. Joe and the Evel Knievel action figure and bike. The miniature G.I. Joe figures were after my time, although I’ve watched a few of the cartoons, but I was there for the Big Jim’s P.A.C.K series by Mattel. The advertisements for the toys made these figures seem like characters from a comic book series that didn’t exist.

I had the Big Jim figure, as I recall, as well as Dr. Steel, who had a steel right hand (actually plastic painted silver, but you know what I mean) and a dragon tattoo on his chest. My uncle—who was four years older than I was (still is)—and I blew up Big Jim’s vehicle, some sort of safari jeep, I think, with firecrackers and a lot of lighter fluid. It was a choreographed car crash, and a pretty spectacular one. After the pyrotechnics, the vehicle was upside down and smoking, smelling like only burning plastic can, and Big Jim’s head came rolling out from under the wreckage.

This particular memory has a certain cinematic quality about it, engaging several senses simultaneously. Through the veil of smog separating me—in the present—from events that took place nearly five decades ago, I may be reimagining the events with brighter colors and better camera angles. Certainly, the sounds of screeching tires, breaking glass and violent explosions were never really there. I’m just adding my own special effects in hindsight. There would have been the sound of firecrackers, and perhaps the whoosh of the lighter fluid igniting, plus the crunch of the plastic toy car as it made the final jump over one of the trailer park speedbumps and crashed.

My point—you knew I’d get there—is that I’m prone to bouts of nostalgia as all of us are, especially those of us who probably have more years behind us than ahead. Until this recent reverie, I hadn’t thought about Big Jim’s P.A.C.K. for several decades. Probably no one has. But, the memory was there, waiting patiently for the chance to bloom in my frontal lobe. There, not so subtly linked to generic memories about Big Jim, was the memory of my uncle and me staging a fiery art production about conspicuous consumption. Senseless destruction for entertainment, which has not seemed to affect any other part of my life since then. Even though I may have conspired to kill Big Jim, I still remember him and his team with a feeling of warm nostalgia.

That’s the same way I feel about Blockbuster.

Approximately thirty years ago, I was the manager of a store called Rose’s in a small North Carolina town. We had a video rental business at the front of the building. What I remember the most about the rental game was the times I had to go to court over money owed as late fees, or sometimes the cost of movies never returned. In those days, VHS copies of movies could cost you hundreds of dollars. Cheap VHS movies for the consumer market didn’t arrive until much later, so more people used video rental places like the one I operated.

Before then, I was more accustomed to mom-and-pop rental stores, some of which had that mysterious back room where only adults were allowed. I don’t believe I stepped inside a Blockbuster until several years after I left Rose’s, although I may be mistaken in that. I know one thing for sure: I loved Blockbuster the moment I stepped through its front doors and smelled that smell that is uniquely their own. This smell is talked about in this documentary as well. Plastic is a big component of the scent, I think, but there are undertones of popcorn and theater-sized boxes of Sugar Babies as well.

Blockbuster made that enterprise I had been involved in look like I was renting VHS tapes out of the boot of my car. They always had an ample amount of all the most popular videotapes, especially new releases, plus a fairly deep assortment of back catalogue movies. They were always clean and the staff seemed friendly and knowledgible.

I continued to be a Blockbuster customer through several moves, up until they closed their store here in my adopted hometown. I consider myself to be a bit of a movie buff. Not a fanatic, just a buff. Whenever I moved to a new town, the local video rental store was one of the first places I’d visit. Nine out of ten times, that store was a Blockbuster.

I knew that Blockbuster‘s fortunes seemed to be on the decline here in the 21st century. This made me—not sad, more like wistful, I think. What we take for granted these days with high-speed internet and streaming video was already being talked about before the turn of the century. With clunky, annoying dial-up modems and turgidly slow download speeds the norm in those days, the idea of a movie you could watch on your phone seemed like the stuff of science fiction. But, really smart tech-savvy people out there told us all what was coming. Blockbuster knew that their business model would not be a sustainable one.

Netflix was something that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The people in the documentary deny that Netflix caused the demise of Blockbuster. While this may be true, I will confess that Netflix diverted some of the money I would have been paying to Blockbuster to their own company coffers, back when I was receiving those shiny silver discs in the red evelopes at my house. Even in those pre-streaming days, Netflix eliminated two of the things that always bothered me about renting movies from Blockbuster. First, I didn’t have to leave the comfort of my house to rent movies to watch at home. Second, I didn’t have to worry about late fees. I was on the three-discs-at-a-time plan with Netflix, and I didn’t have to rush to finish a movie and return it to the rental store to avoid the dreaded fine (which we all paid at times).

Whether or not Netflix affected Blockbuster‘s revenues, what can’t be denied is that the advent of video streaming—which Netflix embraced—was probably the final nail in Blockbuster‘s coffin. Someone relates an anecdote in this documentary that purports that Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix outright in the company’s early days, but passed. Such stories always sound apocryphal to me, but this one seems to fall in line with the series of unfortunate decisions the corporation made along the way.

I knew that the number of Blockbuster stores was dwindling. Until I watched this documentary, I thought there were a handful remaining in out-of-the-way places, such as Alaska. But, no, there was only one left when I watched this doc (on Netflix, no less), and it’s located in Bend, Oregon. As far as I know, it remains open still.

While I have a desire to make a pilgrimage to this last bastion of Blockbuster-ness, it’s not because of a desire to return to the days of making my movie selections from the categorized racks, forgetting to return them on time and being shackled with late fees. At some point, movies became cheap enough in the stores that I was willing to take a flyer and purchase them outright, which was—in the long run—cheaper than the endless cycle of rental-fee/late-fee/rental-fee. After Netflix began to offer streaming movies, I ultimately gave up my dependence on physical media at all, and quit receiving those silver discs in the mail because streaming content was enough to take care of my movie/television needs.

No, I don’t really miss having a Blockbuster nearby. Truth is, like most people, I abandoned them before they disappeared in favor of something newer, shinier, and more convenient.

But, there’s that looking back thing. The nostalgia factor.

It’s a real phenomenon. Even though I was no longer a regular customer before the stores began closing, I miss the fact that Blockbuster exists in my world. Hence, the wistfulness. The same way I miss Hills Department Store (where I worked for a time) and Radio Shack (which has ceased to exist here as well). It’s also the same way I felt when my sister-in-law told me that the Winn-Dixie and Bi-Lo grocery stores had vanished in South Carolina. It’s a none-too-subtle reminder that everything has a life cycle. Blockbuster‘s cycle reached its penultimate conclusion.

It seems that we’ve been witness to the death throes of K-Mart and Sears for many years now as well. When they no longer exist—I feel it coming—I will feel the same way about their absence as I do about Blockbuster‘s. Ultimately, their closure won’t affect my life in the least, but I will still miss them, like a departed acquaintance.

This documentary shamelessly panders to that feeling of nostalgia. When director Taylor Morden began this project in 2017, there were still a dozen Blockbuster stores in the country. The company reached its peak size in 2004. That should give you some idea about how quickly the rental giant’s fortunes declined.

The doc delves a bit into the history of video-rental stores and the rise of Blockbuster itself, which colluded with movie studios with rental-sharing deals to effectively take over the market. In this, they were guilty of the charges constantly levelled at Wal-Mart: attempting to drive locally-owned, mom-and-pop stores out of business. It’s difficult to sympathize with the company too much when you consider this fact.

The Last Blockbuster includes intercut interviews with many celebrities, including: Kevin Smith, Doug Benson, Adam Brody, Samm Levine, Ron Funches, Lloyd Kaufman, Jamie Kennedy, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer, and narration by comedian Lauren Lapkus.

The protagonist of the film, inasmuch as one exists, is the indomitable Sandi Harding.

Sandi is the manager of the last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon. She is keeping a brand alive that exists in only one location, and her unit is beginning to revert to that familiar mom-and-pop feeling. Sandi shops at the local Target and other retailers for the movies which she rents out. Meanwhile, she has to cannibalize electronic equipment she has stockpiled from closing stores to keep her store systems operating. There is a pervasive feeling throughout that Sandi is fighting and winning a lot of small battles, even though she will ultimately lose the war.

Of course, publicity—such as that provided by this documentary, which I watched on Netflix—may keep this store in the black for a while longer. It’s the nostalgia factor, once again. I kinda want a Blockbuster t-shirt, in fact.

This documentary was entertaining, as well as informative. If you have memories that you associate with Blockbuster, you’ll find something to enjoy here.

Firewater’s Looking-Back-on-Late-Fees Report Card: B+

Watch it. You know you want to.


5 thoughts on “The Last Blockbuster (documentary) — a review

  1. Great post! As you point out, nostalgia is such a powerful draw. I hadn’t thought of Dr Steel in years, so thank you very much for that! Like a lot of people, I miss the old days more and more with each passing year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It does not seem that long ago when I rented movies from Blockbuster (and I pride myself in always having returned them on time…) and yet your post made me think about the speed in which our viewing habits have changed in the past two decades or so. And yet it feel almost like just yesterday…
    The Blockbuster where I used to rent those movies has been turned into a small gym: I noticed it some time ago while driving past, and I wonder when the change occurred…

    Liked by 1 person

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