Documentary Releases: The Last Blockbuster (2020) - Reviewed

For most Americans in the 1990s, the video rental store chain Blockbuster Video was a household name.  In fierce competition with mom-and-pop independent video rental stores as well as chains like Hollywood Video and Family Video, Blockbuster Video was a dominant force in the home video rental and sales industry.  Dubbed ‘the perfect high school job’, one which I myself worked in throughout my college years, Blockbuster Video was where everyone would go to rent movies and videogames both old and new.  In the last decade however, with the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix and compounded with the 2008 economic crash, Blockbuster Video suffered great financial losses and began closing nearly all of their stores. 

Though by now the presence of the video rental giant has receded into the wilderness, one final Blockbuster Video in the world still remains open in Bend, Oregon.  Managed by Sandi Harding, a resident ‘Blockbuster mom’, she has fought tooth and nail to keep the one and only Blockbuster left still alive and well, eventually cementing the last surviving store’s status as a novelty item, a nostalgia piece and thriving tourist attraction from people all across the country.  Which brings us to the recent documentary The Last Blockbuster, released on demand at a time when the film business itself was shaken to its very foundations.  Seen now, the film is both a heartwarming nostalgia piece chronicling a bygone era of film consumption as well as a cautionary tale explaining what filmgoers lost when video stores began to go away.

Featuring interviews with Kevin Smith, Ione Sky, Brian Posehn, Lloyd Kaufman and Jamie Kennedy, the film is a love letter to the fallen video rental giant as well as a forward look ahead at the film renting landscape in our ever-changing era.  In addition to covering the rise and fall of the video rental franchise before tracking the final store’s place in an arena largely dominated by streaming services, the film speaks volumes to what society in general lost by going from an interactive personal environment for renting movies to the impersonal streaming programs.  For modern viewers who didn’t grow up with VHS tape, the prospect of renting out physical media seems remote but for those who did, watching The Last Blockbuster is a bit like taking a trip down memory lane. 

While I don’t miss standing in lines or, on the other side of the cash register, managing long lines with now dormant computer systems shown in the doc, I do miss the communal aspects of interacting with customers as they rent films, offering suggestions or finding ways to afford customers with free rentals.  Watching The Last Blockbuster took me back to those years of working there, getting access to pre-release movies and being able to rent 5 free films per week.  In a way you could argue people today are getting the short end of the stick not growing up with video stores as part of their lives.  

While technology has caught up and made things extremely easy for consumers now, the human interaction presented by going into a video store and renting something is more or less an artifact of the past and that’s a real shame.  Though this won’t reverse the flow of how people watch movies today, The Last Blockbuster will make you yearn for the days of renting, rewinding and returning videotapes.  It’s strange to think those days are over. 

--Andrew Kotwicki