The Last Blockbuster (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although Taylor Morden’s “The Last Blockbuster” does not reveal anything earth-shattering about the former largest video rental empire in the world, boasting 9000 locations with one location opening every 17 hours in its heyday, it shows just enough to tickle the nostalgia bone. It wastes no time placing viewers inside a Blockbuster with its blue carpet, yellow walls and distinct scent, it establishes a warm and friendly tone, the pacing is brisk and assured, figureheads interviewed are full of personality, and it answers important questions, like how the company came about, how the majority of mom-and-pop rental stores were forced to close and, perhaps more intriguingly, how some these small, local businesses actually became part of the chain. It even provides a thorough answer on whether Netflix truly was directly responsible for Blockbuster going out of business. The answer might surprise you.
The documentary is on top form when it gets personal. We meet Sandi Harding, the general manager of the remaining Blockbuster on the planet located in Bend, Oregon, and within seconds we feel her passion for the job. She need not speak and tell us how much she enjoys working in Blockbuster or how it is a family business and so it means a lot more to her than a job. All the picture has to do is to show this woman—who is funny, energetic, always sporting a smile in her eyes—stacking movies on shelves, cleaning glass containers, being happy to answer questions (questions that I’m sure she had answered a thousand times on radio, television, newspapers, and other media), or going on a trip to a nearby Target to buy new movies so customers can have the latest to rent at the store.
When the camera is on Harding, it feels like spending time with a cool aunt. (We even meet her Blockbuster family at home and at an annual barbecue.) By the time this film was made, she has been with the company for fifteen years—and it shows. And it’s funny because, in my eyes, she manages to outshine commentators like Kevin Smith, Paul Scheer, Jamie Kennedy, and others. These artists may have something interesting or funny to say once in a while, but there is not a single moment in which Harding comes across forced or inauthentic.
Having Harding on film is critical not just because she’s the manager. She is the conduit between the filmmaking world and people like you and me; she makes the work that much more relatable without having to result to one-liners, quirks, or exaggerations like a few of the interviewees. While I doubt that the final Blockbuster standing still has ten years left, I wish that Harding gets to do what she loves until the day she decides to retire.
The film also has a knack for indirectly asking what Blockbuster means to the viewer. I came late to the party. It was around 2003 when I signed up to become a Blockbuster member. It was summertime and, in order to compete with Netflix (which I was also a member—mail back a DVD, get another the very next day… those were the days!—no streaming services just yet), Blockbuster offered unlimited rental—two or three movies at a time—for a fixed rate.
I lived about half a mile from the rental store and so imagine how many movies I watched just that one summer. I must have seen about 5 movies per day; I became such a regular that employees in every shift knew me by name until 2006 when I cancelled my membership because I had to leave home for university. Between 2003 and 2006 was the time when I fell in love with the movies. I can say with utmost confidence that had it not been for Blockbuster, you wouldn’t be reading these words today.