For many years, I had a tradition of going to see every science fiction and fantasy movie that came to theatres. And when I say "every," I mean it literally: if it smacked of genre in any way, I was there, no judgments on quality or such beforehand. You're probably already wondering to yourself how I could do such a manifestly painful thing, and you're right. I was young and foolish. I've always had a soft spot for lowbrow entertainment, and sometimes there was even a decent flick in there. Finding the next Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, would make up for a lot of dreck.
Earlier this year, I suddenly realized that my tradition had been broken: I was no longer going to see every genre movie. This is the kind of situation that happens to me, where I obsess about something and spend way too much time on it, then I gradually lose that same persistence or commitment without too much conscious thought. Later, I find myself going, "Hey, that's something I used to be interested in."
For science fiction and fantasy movies, and summer movies in particular, it wasn't deliberate. And I don't think the realization would ever have struck me, except that I ran across a piece of writing that I did a few years ago where I reviewed that summer's genre flicks. The time was 2004 and it was definitely the summer of crap. I rated 5 movies as zero stars (out of five, if that makes a difference!) that summer—Van Helsing, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Stepford Wives (remake), Catwoman, and The Village. I was incredibly burned out—it was not entertainment at all, more like punishment along the lines of a trip into the land of the clockwork orange. It really did feel like I was experimenting on myself, and the aversion training definitely worked (at least for a while).
With that in mind, a survey of summer movies this year seems like quite a foolish project—especially since two of the major items from the last time had sequels this summer, Spider-Man and Harry Potter. But far be it from me to back down from a crazy challenge! I checked the movie listings and got busy.
I soon discovered that the buzzword for 2007 was "threequel," a coined word about as disturbing as the phenomenon it is meant to describe. The big threequels for this summer were Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and The Bourne Ultimatum (I didn't have a chance nor the inclination to see Rush Hour 3). If you wanted something so boring as only the second movie in a franchise, you could have watched 28 Weeks Later or Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but if you wanted to escalate to movie #4, there was Live Free or Die Hard, and for movie #5 it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Of the movies on my list, that leaves Ratatouille, Transformers, Sunshine, The Simpsons, and Stardust as the only non-sequels. I should add that of those, Transformers, The Simpsons, and Stardust are adaptations of previously existing material.
What does this mean? The love of sequels in Hollywood is no newsflash, but are sequels inherently worthless and/or boring? The problematic example of Sunshine aside, I wonder how much of a coincidence it is that Ratatouille, one of only two "original" movies, is also my vote for the best movie of the summer—by a mile. By contrast, the material in, say, Shrek 3 and Die Hard 4 felt completely played out.
Let's take a look at the full list and see what's happening with each movie. Onward to the sequels!
Spider-Man 3 came out at the beginning of May, as the "summer" season stretches earlier into spring. And the movie itself is a unwelcome premonition of things to come: sequels that are buried under their accumulated baggage. This movie literally recycles two prominent storylines: the murder of Uncle Ben is revisited at length, and the love triangle between best friends, also from the first movie, comes back too.
Peter Parker is trying to get through his life as a freelance photographer and the superpowered Spider-Man. He's in love with Mary Jane, and since things were going well at the end of the last movie, now the situation is mandated to fall apart. There are three villains this time around, the first of which, the son of Green Goblin, brings the movie back to its roots unnecessarily. The second villain, Sandman, is fully developed and comes with a backstory, but the movie throws in a third villain as well: the well-known super-baddie, Venom, shows up with only half an hour to go. Since the movie is long, that means an hour and a half has gone by. Much too long!
Maybe the creative team felt like they had no choice except to go big. Maybe if there was only one villain for our friendly neighborhood superhero to fight I would be saying that they recycled the idea of using only one villain. So what? The movie as it stands is a mess. The worst part: some black alien goo (the stuff that makes Venom evil later on) attaches to Peter and turns him into a butt-slapping idiot with emo hair and a "bad" attitude. It doesn't work in the least.
Apparently this movie cost buckets of money to make, but visually speaking I was underwhelmed almost all the way through. The only memorable scene happened early on with an out-of-control rooftop crane, and that whole sequence was constructed to add yet another character, a superfluous love interest for Peter. The earlier Spider-Man movies were marvels of smooth storytelling and mastery of tone, but this time around, it didn't have either.
Worst of all, several characters come out and literally speak the themes of the movie. The first movie had a famous line about great power and great responsibility, but there's nothing here to top that one.
28 Weeks Later
I have a well-developed and intense phobia of zombies, so I'm never quite sure why I subject myself to zombie movies. When even a zombie flick starring Milla Jovovich gives you recurring nightmares, then the decision to stay away from such movies should be obvious!
But I know too many people who like smart horror movies, and apparently this one verged on the brink of that category. Peer pressure wins again! In any case, I found this movie to be unbearably frightening, but for most people it will be a little empty.
Following the events of 28 Days Later, England has been wiped out by the rage virus, a killer bug that spreads via body fluids and turns you into a fast zombie within seconds. Half a year later, the country is being resettled under the watchful eyes of the American military. Allegory alert! Are the Americans going to screw things up? You betcha.
So the virus duly spreads, and everyone dies. That's been the zombie movie way for quite a few years now, and the one way to enliven the proceedings is apparently to drench everyone in blood and gore and guts. There are two scenes set in near darkness, an effective one when the virus is first spreading and a later one that's too confusing. And when we get to the threequel—28 Months Later?—the gruesome virus will have spread its way much further. I think I'll count myself out.
Shrek the Third
The Shrek series has earned boatloads of cash, and the third movie did pretty well at the box office too. But I have almost nothing to say about the movie. I found it lacking in almost every department, strangely empty. There was something going on about fear of fatherhood, and there were also some jokes about pop culture. But I can't remember much else about it; the movie glanced off my consciousness completely. I suppose it was a protective gesture on the part of my brain.
I used to think that all computer-animated movies were good stuff, but that feeling wore off a long time ago. See my comments below on Ratatouille, the one recent exception.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
I have fond memories of the first two movies, but they were not anything earthshaking. And while I didn't despise the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I find I have about as much to say about it as the third Shrek movie. Pirates 3 is busy, the favorite characters all return, and a great deal of plot business gets resolved. But three hours went by, and I still couldn't figure out who was doing what or why, and worse, the movie never motivated me to care. Yes, there's swashbuckling, and derring-do, and betrayal, and deadly sea battles, and so forth. But that certain quality that lets all this busy toing and froing add up to anything memorable . . . it's just absent. I don't think the movie deserves much more of a diagnosis than that.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
If Pirates of the Caribbean 3 stuffed too much into its 3 hours, then Fantastic Four 2 skimps in nearly every department. Paradoxically, the movie runs 90 minutes, but it still feels like a grind to get through. The Fantastic Four, a group of humans endowed with powers in the previous movie, face off against an interstellar threat known as Galactus, who has sent a scout, the Silver Surfer of the title, to do . . . scout-y stuff. It's all very unclear, and our superhero gang never figures that part out either. They do realize that the Surfer has been press-ganged, and they play on his conscience in order to get him to fight Galactus (fight that nefarious dust cloud in space, fight it!).
The Fantastic Four are a bunch of whiners in this movie; they can hardly get their act together and they make several desperate mistakes. Reviews of this movie often quote a line said by a military officer to the bunch, "What the hell is wrong with you people?" And that's entirely apropos, since that's the easiest way to boil down a sane reaction to what's happening in the story.
The movie really drove home another point for me: a lousy role can destroy the efforts of even the best actor. I'm still a big fan of Ioan Gruffudd from the days of the Hornblower series—he displayed range and charisma, and convinced me utterly about every stage in the growth of his character. Gruffudd stars here as Reed Richards, the leader of the group, and the contrast is striking. He is dull, almost depressed; he's also supposed to be the most intelligent human alive, and none of that shines through, certainly not in comparison to how we could always see Hornblower thinking and scheming and outwitting his opponents. Gruffudd simply doesn't have anything to work with.
I didn't have high expectations for Rise of the Silver Surfer and I was still disappointed.
Live Free or Die Hard
Wow! What a great start. The fourth Die Hard movie begins in a taut and unapologetic manner, jumping right into the action but still keeping up some character development. The bad guys are after this hacker kid and they're not kidding around; the firepower is astounding. Good old John McClane, New York City cop, is supposed to escort the kid safely to the federal authorities in D.C. and gets caught up in the crossfire.
Why do the assorted villains want that kid dead? That's where the movie starts to break down. In fact, it never makes it much past the initial plateau of the first 30 minutes. A few months ago, I sat down and watched the first Die Hard movie, and I was impressed all over again. Sure, it succumbed to a whole slew of the action movie cliches, right down to the clueless superior, and it sure blew up a lot of stuff. But it also had a smart protagonist and a smarter antagonist. Our good guy's one advantage is that he will throw his body into harm's way and absorb seemingly endless amounts of abuse.
Sequels, however, have to escalate the danger, and the series was long past the point of plausibility (insofar as the first movie was plausible itself) by the second or third entry. This time around a slightly ossified Bruce Willis acquits himself about as well as 50-plus-year-old can in an action flick, but the mayhem around him is amped up to silly levels. If the essence of Die Hard is one man punishing his body in the pursuit of justice, then this movie may as well have been filed under some other random action franchise.
As the movie progressed I got more and more bored. There's no human spark here, and the pace, frenetic with action, loses all sense of buildup and resolution. Even the slightly science-fictional premise of a "fire sale" (a complete shut down of computer systems across the country) gets reduced to a fist-fight here and a shoot-out there. Another disappointment.
Ratatouille is an excellent movie; the pace is perfection throughout, all the bits and pieces are smoothed into place, the characters are interesting to watch, and there's actually a philosophical point underpinning the story. In one sense, it's like every other movie this summer forgot how to craft a story at the most basic level, which makes Ratatouille's qualities all the more obvious. I'll be watching this movie again, and I'll be curious to see if it still stands up. I'm assuming it will, since it is so polished.
A rat with a highly enhanced culinary sense: how could that be a heartwarming and/or entertaining story? But that's what happens here. Remy the rat doesn't fit in so well with his tribe, and after some introductory material, gets separated from his family and ends up in the kitchen at the world-famous restaurant, Gusteau's. But Gusteau, whose cookbook proudly proclaimed that "Anyone Can Cook," has died, and his restaurant is no longer top-rated.
In an unlikely sequence of events, Remy befriends the garbage boy of the kitchen, Linguini, and helps Linguini create some culinary marvels. There's some backstory about Linguini's family and the chef currently in charge of the restaurant, but that stuff is not as important as the unusual friendship that develops. As might be expected, if Remy is discovered in the kitchen, his lifespan will be short.
So it's a form of buddy movie, with an engaging story and neat visuals. What pushes it up that one notch above other summer movies? I mentioned that Ratatouille has some philosphical underpinnings, and that's precisely where the movie makes its mark. It has to do with a food critic named Anton Ego; he's on his way to test out Linguini's dish at Gusteau's and the build-up of tension is hardly bearable. I don't want to reveal the ending, since it's worth watching—the movie definitely earns its emotional payoff in the same moments that the theme is revealed and affirmed. Quite a coup. What would be a potshot at critics and criticism in a lesser movie is something beautiful and moving here.
Ratatouille looks gorgeous visually—the detail is incredible, but I find that the animators strike a nice balance between realism and stylization. The various human characters, for example, are slightly cartoony in design, which neatly avoids the uncanny valley where generated characters are just not-human enough to destroy any empathy the audience might have with them. Scenes of Paris in Ratatouille are inspiring, while the scenes that form the core of the story, the hustle and neverending bustle of a professional kitchen, are fascinating. I'm not a chef, and from what I've seen I don't think I ever could be, but this felt like some on-the-job training.
Computer animation has come a long way since Toy Story in 1995, and Pixar is still at the forefront of the computer animated field with Ratatouille, especially in comparison to Shrek the Third. However, their much-vaunted story-producing machine has been faltering as of late. I'm possibly the only person on the planet who didn't care for Finding Nemo, and I avoided last year's Cars because the previews seemed alternately boring and annoying. Since 2001's Monster's, Inc., the only Pixar movie I fell in love with has been Brad Bird's other masterpiece, The Incredibles. Previews are already available for Pixar's release next year, Wall-E, and I'm ambivalent. I'm more interested to follow what Brad Bird is up to next.
Transformers is quite an odd duck. It's based on the seminal cartoon from the 1980s, and it's directed by action/twitch practitioner Michael Bay. Interestingly, he gets both sides mostly right: the action scenes are breathtaking, and the scenes with the Transformers acting cartoonishly are suitably goofy. But the mixture does not gel in the least, especially with some lacklustre "human interest" thrown in, i.e. characters.
And I had an odd reaction to the movie: not enough action! The scenes of conflict and fighting (at least early on) are so exhilarating and wild that I wished the rest of the movie would go away. A contradictory stance, considering everything I just finished saying about Die Hard: that action has to be mixed in with a human element of some kind, otherwise the story becomes boring and stretched out and pointless. But Bay is so good at chopping the fight scenes into their best, atomic components and then deftly reassembling them, I just wish he would forget about the stuff he's manifestly not interested in or not very good at.
Bay definitely tries hard on the character file, and the protagonist, a kid named Sam Witwicky, is a motor-mouth and an unusual hero in that regard. He's the opposite of stoic and he gets himself into some bad situations with his lip and then manages to argue his way out of a lot of them. I liked him, but there's so much else going on, and going wrong, with this movie that that sympathy is not enough.
Especially since Bay flubs the climactic battle. The human-friendly Autobots and the evil Decepticons have unleashed their full powers against each other on the streets of a human city. And I couldn't tell who was who! It's a slugfest that goes on and on, incomprehensibly. All the special effects in the world don't help if you don't know how to use them effectively.
I wouldn't call Transformers a disappointment since I was thoroughly baffled by the idea of a Michael Bay-directed adaptation of a cheesy 1980s cartoon beforehand. I'm still a little baffled now that I've seen the movie.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
This is the fifth entry in the series of Harry Potter movies, and it came out just a few weeks before the seventh and final Harry Potter book, so Potter fans have had a full summer. The Order of the Phoenix is a satisfying movie, much better than the first two but still not up to the poetry and imaginative flair of the third. In movie #3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we got our first glimpse of the way that this band of kids is going to grow up, and it was quite a revelation. Combine that with an intuitive grasp of how magic should be portrayed on screen, and the third movie is still the one to beat. The series is still turning darker, and the teens are just getting more teenager-ish. I wouldn't say that Order of the Phoenix is marking time, precisely—it's just that there are fewer revelations here. Movies #6 and #7 had better not be so complacent if the series wants to go out with a bang.
To recap briefly: Lord Voldemort, the evil dude with no nose and a serious hate for a young wizard named Harry Potter, got himself a new body at the end of the last movie. He's planning to take Harry on, but unfortunately, not everyone believes Harry. In particular, the Ministry of Magic smears Harry for his claims, and then takes over Hogwarts, that school of magic that is supposed to be a safe sanctuary and never turns out be safe at all. The group of the title meets in secret to plan a counter-attack on Voldemort, and Harry starts a similar group at Hogwarts to train fellow students in magical defence and offence.
The situation is grim, no doubt about it, and the movie reflects that. I appreciated one thing about it: the series has had many magical monsters and various other external threats, but in movie #5, the climactic confrontation hinges on Harry's mental state. He's growing up and he has to be ready for battle psychologically as much as magically. He's got a band of friends, he's got some magical knowledge, and after this turn of events, he might even be ready mentally. Good stuff.
I find that I'm in the middle on Harry Potter. I enjoy the books and I enjoy the movies, but I'm not a dedicated fan. Put me somewhere between Roger Ebert, who thinks the series is losing its innocent charm, and Orson Scott Card, who thinks Rowling has written one for the ages.
What a boring movie! I mean, really, what was going on here? It's a mood piece that tries to channel Kubrick, it's a story of a team of sun-addled astronauts who gradually lose control of their mission, and then it's a slasher flick when some weird super-baddie shows up. And all this is rolled up into a reverent and slow-going tone that seems to have no idea that this makes the seams show.
The premise of Sunshine—our sun is dying! we need to restart it with a bomb!—gave me some scary flashbacks to that movie about how the centre of the Earth had stopped rotating, The Core. In both cases, my guess is that we would be screwed, definitively.
But no, a little heroism goes a long way apparently. And I won't deny that my science-fiction spidey-sense was tingling during moments like a trip from one airlock to another for three characters with only one spacesuit between them. Unfortunately, even the best moments, like that trip through vacuum, were done much better in 2001 (a movie which is more than 40 years old now—hard to imagine!).
A few images from Sunshine remain in my mind, but the surrounding bits, basically everything else about the movie, were a let-down. Paradoxically, I would argue that Chris Evans, who struggled with his role as the Human Torch in Fantastic Four 2 (just like everyone else in that movie struggled with their role), acquits himself admirably as the hard-headed astronaut Mace. But a character can't carry a movie solo.
The Simpsons Movie
I don't have much to say about The Simpsons Movie—it was funnier than I expected, but it still had that "this is a long episode" feeling. It also had that sense of being a product late in the lifespan of a formerly mega-influential and quotable cultural phenomenon. That kind of thing doesn't get revived too easily, so I suppose I should be satisfied that the movie version is passable. It's passable, I laughed more often than I have in recent seasons of the show (which I haven't been watching that closely, admittedly), and then I left the theatre and went home. Enough said.
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Bourne series has been the one bright spot amidst all the blockbuster-sized stupidity for action movies. We're a long way from the supposed hey-day of such things in the 1980s and early 1990s—if you've ever watched any of those old movies, you'll soon realize that there are a few gems, like the original Die Hard, and an overwhelming tide of embarrassing and mediocre titles. The action movie morphed into the sci-fi blockbuster, maybe around the time of Terminator 2. But what would a smart action movie look like in today's culture? Bourne has given us a pretty good answer to that question.
All three movies have engaged heavily with the idea of the surveillance society. The Bourne Ultimatum takes that notion and provides a bravura sequence, a kind of self-contained vignette, early on when Bourne is trying to protect a contact who is naïve about the ways that surveillance can be misused for nefarious purposes. I loved this scene—and I totally understood the panic of the doomed man. We're so deeply enmeshed in these kinds of electronic systems that there is simultaneously no way out and a complete ignorance about how deeply we are watched and processed and filed away for the purposes of others.
The Bourne Ultimatum is also the movie that Live Free or Die Hard was trying to be (at least until Bourne survives a few too many unbelievable car crashes at the end of the movie). The action is at a human scale yet still exciting, the characters are smart and provide interesting challenges for each other, and the mix of realism and dramatic storytelling is very convincing. The movie stumbles a bit later on, as I've mentioned, but it's otherwise just what a summer movie should be.
By this point in the summer—Stardust was released near the middle of August—I was starting to wonder whether I'd become entirely too jaded. I enjoyed and admired Ratatouille, and generally enjoyed Harry Potter #5 and Bourne #3, but everything else left me cold, unimpressed, and verging on cranky. When I started the summer movies project for 2007, I was once again filled with optimism, but by the end, that optimism was revealed as irrational and misplaced. The blockbusters for 2007 were simply not very good.
That feeling may have colored my response to Stardust. I wanted to like it, but it felt too much like a jumble of parts that never came together. I got caught up in the storyline here and there, since there are indeed entertaining bits. But I was jarred back out again too many times.
Tristan is in love with a girl in his village; to win her heart, he promises to cross the wall that separates his town from a magical realm called Stormhold and retrieve a star that has fallen to Earth. Stormhold has its own problems, since the king is dying and succession falls to whichever son has murdered all the others. And there's a witch named Lamia who wants to eat the heart of the star. What does the star, a girl named Yvaine, have to say about all this? Tristan doesn't seem to care, at least at first, and kidnaps her. But circumstances conspire, as they tend to do when true love is in the air. Will Tristan even want to go back to his boring old village?
The movie stitches all these things together, and the plot outline sounds reasonably interesting. The pace has problems though, and there's an overpowering side role given to Robert de Niro—he solves a lot of the transportation requirements of the plot with his flying zeppelin ship, but he throws the movie out of equilibrium. I liked the murdered princes who show up as ghosts and comment on the actions of their remaining brothers, but the jokes are not quite in the flow of the story either. I hear a lot of comparisons between Stardust and The Princess Bride, but I see more of a parallel to The Brothers Grimm, another movie that had me excited beforehand but never delivered on its potential.
Neil Gaiman co-wrote the script for the upcoming Beowulf movie, and there's a stop-motion animated version of Coraline in the works. He also collaborated on Mirrormask with director Dave McKean last year. Add to that this year's Stardust, and it really seems like Gaiman's year (or two). But almost all of these projects have been in the works for years—it's one of those coincidences. I'm curious to see what Beowulf and Coraline will look like . . . I'm not completely drained of optimism, I guess!
The Rest of 2007 and Summer 2008
Maybe you've noticed too: the next trend in Hollywood is fantasy movies for kids based on popular books. We'll soon have Hollywood versions of The Golden Compass, The Seeker (first book in The Dark is Rising series), and into 2008, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Prince Caspian.
Summer 2008 looks a bit grim from this vantage point: two Marvel comic book adaptations, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk; another ancient franchise that's getting resurrected with an aging star for the fourth entry in a series, Indiana Jones IV; Pixar chips in with Wall-E; and apparently there will be . . . shudder . . . a new M. Night Shyamalan movie. Not exactly inspiring confidence at this point. The next Batman movie, The Dark Knight, is about the only bright spot, since Batman Begins was a decent movie and a sequel (dare I say it?) would be worth watching. For 2008, it looks like I'll be returning to my picky mode of watching summer movies.
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