If the summer of 2007 were a movie, they'd call it Thr3e. Ignoring for a moment the actual titles, we have Spider-Man 3, Pirates Of The Caribbean 3, Shrek 3, Ocean's Eleven 3, The Bourne Identity 3 and Rush Hour 3. Sure, there are some movies that aren't the third in a series. There's Hostel: Part II, 28 Weeks Later... and Evan Almighty, and just for variety Die Hard 4, Harry Potter 5 and Halloween Whatever.
This is one reason why, at this time of year, critics' start writing articles projecting what the box office will be for the biggest pictures out there. Why speculate about the most interesting movies of the summer when script writers, by the time they get to the second sequel, have generally run out of ideas?
Film prognosticator Dave Poland (www.moviecitynews.com/columnists/poland), who's as astute as anyone, predicts that 2007 will be the first summer when six films will gross more than $200 million domestically - apparently now the standard for a blockbuster. ($100 million? That's so 1997.)
Browsing through the summer listings in search of movies to look forward to becomes an exercise in exasperation. Of the films listed above, I can honestly say that I eagerly await only Ocean's 13 and The Bourne Ultimatum, to call them by their rightful names. Neither, I hasten to add, is likely to hit the $200 million mark domestically.
The Hollywood summer blockbuster has a curious history. In the dark ages BL (Before Lucas), blockbusters were generally middlebrow cultural events - large, expensive "prestige" films, often with a literary or theatrical pedigree, rolled out for the edification and enlightenment of the masses.
With a few exceptions like Gone With The Wind, they were the product of the 50s and early 60s, when Hollywood was looking to draw people out of their living rooms and away from the TV.
So there were the Biblical epics "filmed in the Holy Land, with a cast of thousands," the elephantine musicals always shot, as the song says, in "glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound," and the films based on bestsellers and inhabited by Academy Award-winning actors.
Star Wars, of course, changed everything - except the fact that film producers are still trying to pry audiences out of their living rooms. That's a lot harder than it used to be, given that TVs are bigger and better than ever and that three to six months after its release they're able to see the summer blockbusters on DVD in their living rooms, if they haven't already downloaded bootlegs of the movies from the Internet.
Now summer blockbusters are one of two things: large-scale action adventure fantasies (like this summer's Spider-Man 3, Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix and The Transformers) or expensive computer animations (Shrek The Third and Ratatouille, which is hampered by a hard-to-pronounce title and the fact that previous lovable rat movies haven't done that well. But it is Pixar, and, heck, it's gotta be better than Cars.)
I suspect that this quick survey of titles includes five of the six that could gross more than $200 million.
What can be said about these movies beforehand?
One, they'll be bright and shiny. Anything that's spilled on them will clean up with a damp cloth. They will not venture into the horrible territory of the R rating, because the kids are out of school and the studios want the kids.
(We now have a generation or two of young moviegoers who have grown up on home video and instant replayability. In the words of a friend with two preteen children, "What did parents do before Pixar?")
Two, they won't do anything particularly interesting with narrative or form - at least, not intentionally. If the audience is scratching its head wondering, "Where did that come from?" someone has made a mistake.
Indeed, it struck me during Lynch's headscratch-worthy Inland Empire (see review, page 98) that if you want to know what summer blockbusters do and look like, you should imagine the exact opposite of a David Lynch movie.
Three, they will be packed with narrative incident, which is a fancy-pants way of saying "lots of stuff happens." This can be exhausting, as in last summer's biggest hit, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, but it also means you're almost never sitting around waiting for things to happen. This is, without question, preferable to about half of all film festival movies, in which nothing continues to happen for two or three reels at a time.
As a result, the blockbuster makes for a series of contradictions: new but familiar; edgy but unthreatening; well crafted but artless; ingeniously constructed but meaningless. It's the product of adults labouring mightily to entertain children - or, as studio marketing departments like to say, "children of all ages."
Mean-spiritedness aside, when people say, "Turn off your mind and enjoy the ride," I suspect they've neglected to turn their minds back on when the ride ended.
Four (and I'm not sure how this works, but it's something I first noticed in Star Wars), these blockbusters don't change from viewing to viewing.
The things you felt when you watched Star Wars the first time are pretty much the same things you feel every time you watch it. I saw it a couple of years ago after the DVD release and was amazed - it found the exact same buttons and pushed them again.
Annie Hall, which beat Star Wars to win the best picture Oscar 30 years ago, is a different movie every time. It changes with your age, your mood, probably with what you had for lunch.
Great films do that; summer block-
busters almost never do. The ones that work offer a guaranteed and wholly repeatable experience, which is what children want. They don't want you to change the way you tell the story - ever.
SUMMER 2007's BIG 5!
SHREK THE THIRD
Mike Myers? Check. Cameron Diaz? Check. Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas? Check. Happy Meals? Most definitely check. Opens May 18.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLDS END
Simultaneously filmed with POTC: Dead Man's Chest. Keith Richards plays father to Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. Opens May 25.
Steve Carrell replaces Jim Carrey as "ordinary jerk who gets to be God." Rumoured to be the most expensive comedy ever made; it needs to be a blockbuster. Opens June 22.
Pixar's rat movie. The rats are French, which makes them more cuddly. Opens June 29.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
Or, old British actors' retirement fund. They've given the series to a TV director. Opens July 13.