For most people, it probably feels like summer has only just begun. The days are long, the beaches are crowded, and white pants are still socially acceptable for another two months. In movie theaters, though, you can already feel the season beginning to wind down. Sure, there are more big releases on the way; Miami Vice, Talladega Nights, and even God save us Material Girls (with both Duff sisters) have all yet to arrive. But we’ve already seen the most anticipated releases. Indeed, this has been the most maddeningly safe summer in recent movie memory.
The months of May through July, and even August, are always the domain of sequels, star vehicles, and big, empty action spectacles. But more than ever, this summer’s major studio offerings have been cripplingly tame and conservative. Conceptually and artistically, they have been so spineless that there will be little surprise when they leave an underwhelmingly unmemorable season in their wake.
Think back to last summer. There was another Star Wars prequel that destroyed everything else at the box office, while the creatively DOA Fantastic Four drew strong receipts. But alongside them were big-budget tent pole movies that took real chances. Batman Begins reinvigorated the franchise with a darker, more thoughtful and character-driven vision that wasn’t merely aimed at selling toys. Mr. and Mrs. Smith put forth the most violent romantic-comedy of all-time. Even War of the Worlds, for its easy packaging of Spielberg and Cruise, had the nerve to be a $200 million horror movie. These are the kinds of movies that add necessary spice to the predictable stew of the summer Cineplex. It’s no accident, then, that Batman is the movie from the summer of ’05 that holds up best when revisited a year later.
This summer, there has been nothing of the sort. The Da Vinci Code was based on a book so popular that some airport magazine stands have created separate sets of shelves entirely devoted to Dan Brown’s religious conspiracy tome. The movie could have been laced with profanity and cast entirely with washed up comedians, and it still would have broken the bank (and you know Michael Richards would have made a great self-flagellating albino). But instead, the movie was made as conservatively as possible. It was cast with famous people who used to be actors Tom Hanks and Ian McKellan haven’t even tried since Cast Away and Gods and Monsters, respectively and directed like an episode of Family Guy without the jokes (“Hey, remember that time Sir Isaac Newton existed?” CUT TO: Sir Isaac Newton existing).
The work of Ron Howard and his team was offensive in more than just its endless, mundane flashbacks and painfully over-expository dialogue. Howard clearly directed the movie to translate smoothly to the small-screen TV and DVD market. He shot the dialogue almost exclusively in close-ups, and kept the action easy to follow. There’s something worse than cynical about taking a guaranteed box office draw and giving the impression that an insurance company could have arranged each frame. The original book was dumb and artless, but at least it was a page-turner. Howard played this adaptation so safely that it was drawn out and desperately unmemorable for such a huge-scale production.
This feeling of suffocating restraint and conservatism is typical of the summer thus far, though. With the departure of Bryan Singer from the franchise, the X-Men movies were handed off to a mere caretaker in Brett Ratner, who allowed all the series’ wonderful character drama to dissipate on his watch. Meanwhile, Singer’s overlong Superman Returns was solid, but played like a mere attempt to replicate the director’s earlier superhero work in a new environment.
It says a lot that until Superman, Mission Impossible 3 was the summer’s most memorable blockbuster, considering how Paramount and Tom Cruise timidly handed the directorial reins to a TV producer (Lost‘s J.J. Abrams). In this tepid climate, the movie stands out simply because it had a sense of humor and one interesting actor in Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a lesson July taught us again with Pirates of the Caribbean and Johnny Depp. It’s also one the producers of Poseidon should have learned before they handed a reported $160 million to a bland cast and a hopelessly tame director in Wolfgang Petersen (once of Das Boot, now of Troy).
The problem is that these movies have such rounded edges, such a fear of risk or refusal to take chances that they fail to catch us off guard by showing us something we haven’t seen or can’t see coming. You can’t thrill anyone if your approach is entirely staid. That’s why some less than stellar movies would be preferable to what we’ve been seeing of late. Last summer, for instance, saw Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory arrive in lackluster fashion. But its Veruca Salt song alone was funnier, catchier, and more cinematically inspired than just about anything we’ve seen this season.
The same is true of this spring’s genuinely lousy V for Vendetta. The movie was an overwrought swing-and-miss, but its one Benny Hill-style TV show-within-the-movie segment was the most uniquely funny scene of any big-ticket movie this year. Even The Bourne Supremacy (from two summers ago) had a tremendously awkward story arc, but compensated with bold, kinetic camerawork. These movies tried, dared, and in many ways, failed. But they set out to do more than just meet expectations. That’s what’s been missing from this summer’s biggest studio movies.
None of this will make anybody stop venturing to the theaters. We’ll keep piling into the seats and spoil ourselves with over-buttered popcorn and overpowered air conditioning. We’ll see what kind of laughs Talladega Nights can muster, and take delight as Samuel L. Jackson finally gets those motherfucking snakes off that motherfucking plane.
But when we look back on this summer a few months from now, and try to remember the blockbusters that defined the season, we’re not going to find anything that stuck to the ribs of our imagination. All we’ll have is a few dollars less, a queasy feeling of indifference, and the hope that next summer, someone will dare try to dazzle us, again.