It happens every year.
In summer of 2007, I saw every science fiction or fantasy movie that came out, and walked away greatly disappointed (see my column here on Strange Horizons). Only one movie, Pixar's Ratatouille, kept my respect—not a surprise considering Pixar's record, but some big talent worked on all the other summer movies too. I had done the 2007 thing because I had discovered a previous project of mine, the movies of 2004, where again I came away with my hopes for two hours of entertainment dashed time after time.
Then 2008 rolled around. I swore up and down that I wouldn't be a completist again this year. Why did I do this again, after the painful experience of 2004 and 2007 (and avoiding summer movies in 2005 and 2006 as much as I could)? I'll speculate about this, at perhaps greater length than the subject warrants, but first a few words about the big flicks of 2008, with two titles as the most interesting of the year.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, number four in the series after a decades-long gap, did well enough to warrant another sequel, so I suppose its mission was fulfilled. I found it stale beyond bearing; ditto The Incredible Hulk, Edward Norton notwithstanding. Prince Caspian fell into a weird crack between its source material and the Peter Jackson all-war-all-the-time approach. I would say that Iron Man was probably the most successful popcorn flick, glossy, sure-footed, but strangely weightless. A passel of sequels were underwhelming, like the second theatrical outing for The X Files, and the third for The Mummy. Stop making these movies that undercut my affection for the earlier material! I missed Hancock and Hellboy 2; I suspect I'll probably watch them at some point. Of these, only Hancock and Iron Man were not sequels; Iron Man of course is based on comics going back to 1963, so what we're left with is . . . about as many sequels as last year.
Ok, so I definitely saw most of the summer movies! That's because I also saw The Dark Knight and Wall-E, the two movies actually that give me something to say. I didn't agree with the crowd (and apparently most of the world) about The Dark Knight, while Wall-E was the best movie of the summer, despite a deliberately narrower appeal than previous Pixar flicks.
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is an odd bird.
For one thing, it seems to have the opposite problem of most summer movies: it's weighed down with a metric ton of philosophizing, as opposed to the weightless and uber-glossy approach of something like Iron Man. The Dark Knight's approach was not a successful one as far as I can tell. Why is a genre movie worth watching? I would generally argue that it's because there's more going than appears at the surface level. The Dark Knight simply runs with that idea, but there's something about the pretentious approach here that got on my nerves. My fondness for Batman or superheroes doesn't let me excuse something this shoddy and grandiose.
I've never heard the theme of a movie reiterated so many times, out loud, by so many of the characters in the story. "If the Joker can take down the best of us, that means he's won!" Sure, sure, that might be interesting, but not if everyone constantly says it! Over and over again. I'll draw an example from the classic The Godfather, a comparison which the heated rhetoric about The Dark Knight often took in favor of the Batman title. Imagine if Michael Corleone said multiple times during the movie, "If I lie to my wife, that means my transformation from good guy to Godfather is complete." He says it to his henchmen, he says it to the cops, he probably even says it to his wife. Then in the final minute of the movie, he lies to his wife. The film-making made that unnecessary (and the point is probably over-obvious as it stands in Coppola's version). Maybe The Dark Knight falls prey to the comic-book habit of declaiming grandly. It's no way to make a movie.
One thing in the movie's favor: the casting is terrific. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are background characters in a busy storyline, but they both get at least a few great lines. Freeman in particular shines in a scene where he confronts someone who has the idea to blackmail Bruce Wayne/Batman. The big draw of the movie is the late Heath Ledger. Ledger as the Joker is a performance that manages a difficult feat: distinguishing himself from a long line of previous portrayals. He's probably also the grimmest thing in a deeply grim movie.
I was glad that they provided no explanation of the Joker's backstory, since he's presented as a force of pure mayhem, maybe not even human. Unfortunately, the way that the Joker is treated in the movie makes no sense. For someone with a love of anarchy, the Joker was sure capable of pulling off one intricately-planned caper after another. And with his habit of offing all of his sidekicks, was there really anyone around to carry barrels of explosives for him?
I'm glad I saw it, all said and done, and it would have been a well-made movie if not so long and episodic. But while I can that I may not have admired it, I definitely didn't love it. It was a struggle to find any other negative reviews of the movie, but both New York Magazine and The New Yorker bucked the tide. I guess I feel the influence of Frank Miller's Batman here, long past the sell-by date for his take on this particular character (see comments below).
Wall-E is an odd case. It has a bravura opening, but it can't sustain the same level of film-making later on. The sheer brilliance of the opening unbalances the movie—the following sequences in the movie are nothing like the opening at all. I picked Pixar's Ratatouille as last summer's best flick, and Wall-E doesn't compare on the same basic appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The movie is a risky thing, which I confess I was not expecting from Pixar. Their movies are brilliant, but generally milled to precise specs, like a car part.
Wall-E is a robot and his name stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class. In the first 15 minutes of the movie, he is completely alone on a devastated planet earth. Then he meets another robot called Eve, and the next 15 minutes are wildly slapstick as Wall-E falls in love and lays his feelings bare, in one inadvertent pratfall after another. I can't quite claim to know how the regular audience would see this, or the kids in the audience, but as a science fiction fan, I found this stuff absolutely thrilling.
Later on, there are also quite a few nice SF moments, but the movie settles down into what feels like a more standard kids movie, at least in tone and look. Wall-E discovers where all of the humans have gone, and the social satire gets laid on fairly thick. Unusual for Pixar.
Something about the story left me with nagging doubts. Ratatouille is filled with insane things—a rat who likes to cook, controlling a clumsy kitchen boy with precision by pulling his hair—but it gets sold effortlessly. I think it's an emotional thing; something about Ratatouille engages my emotions, while Wall-E (specifically in the second half) feels a bit colder. He's in love with Eve, but that doesn't seem to be enough. On paper, it all looks perfectly fine: a lonely opening, set to emphasize how much he wants love, followed by the pursuit of that love through thick and thin and zero g. I will say that I liked the movie better the second time I saw it. It's worth checking out again, if only for all the little touches in the animation. I still give the movie full marks, especially since it's miles better than any other movie this summer, flaws and all.
The Rest of 2008, Looking Ahead into 2009
My predictions last year, as per usual for such things, are odd to look back at (see Summer Movies 2007 and scroll all the way to the bottom), a good laugh. I did have high hopes for The Dark Knight and I was dubious about Wall-E.
In that spirit, let's look ahead again. For the rest of 2008, a few titles jump out at me. The less I say about Twilight, the less of a fool I'll make of myself. The sacrilege of all sacrileges for old-school SF movie buffs is clearly the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves! Good times, good times, insert Bill and Ted joke here for the cynical. I dunno, I thought Reeves was effective in The Matrix; his range is small, and since I'm expecting a remake along the lines of what happened to I, Robot—famous and cerebral science fiction tale becomes lowbrow action film—he will fit the project as a whole. Other upcoming titles of interest to SF/fantasy fans: The Spirit, which is an adaptation of Will Eisner's famous comic title directed by Frank Miller (which I'm expecting to become a Sin City clone, looks-wise and maybe even plot-wise), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which reteams director David Finch with Brad Pitt. As someone who sat through Zodiac, Finch's looong examination of a famously unsolved crime, I can only hope he's discovered the concept of brevity and applies it to a movie which examines an entire life (albeit a backward one).
The big titles that have already been announced for 2009 are high-profile sequels, with a few exceptions. Christian Bale stars in another summer flick, this time with McG directing, Terminator Salvation, which takes us into the future of the war against the machines. I'm a Terminator fan, all three earlier movies to my surprise, so I see the bar as fairly high. I was also a fan of the TV show, which has been lowering the bar lately (unfortunate, but that's a separate story—I agree with Abigail Nussbaum on this point).
I predict Night at the Museum 2 will be a fun popcorn flick, since the first installment was not bad. Ice Age 3 . . . Transformers 2 . . . X-Men Origins: Wolverine . . . Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6 in the series). . . all sequels as well, all quite low on my list. I suspect I'll see Harry Potter since I've been keeping up with the movie versions.
As for those exceptions to the batch of sequels, there are at least three that I can see. Pixar extends their run on original titles with a movie called Up. It's another oddball premise: an old man teams up with a kid to live a life of adventure. Pixar had trouble selling me on Wall-E, and I'm having trouble buying into this one—the teaser trailer is admittedly clever. I don't know what to expect from this one; Pixar will follow it with two sequels, Toy Story 3 and Cars 2.
Technically speaking, Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams project, is not a sequel, it's a prequel: James Kirk and crew as young officers. Star Trek encapsulates a lot of my thinking on summer movies. Firstly, it's a reboot of a durable franchise, which is actually a note in its favor. I like how Batman, for example, finds his way into a movie or show that suits the current age (although I think the Frank Miller approach, from the era of The Dark Knight Returns, is bizarrely overdue for a clean wipe), and Star Trek, before being run into the ground, seemed to operate in the same way. When something has lasted this long, there's a kind of battle-tested quality to it, as well as the inherent permission to push the story in a direction that didn't exist beforehand. Sequels in their strictest, most Hollywood sense are exercises in diminishing returns because they are an excuse to do less work in expectation for more money. When you're dealing with something at the level of Batman or Star Trek, the sequels don't kill it, they just raise the possibility of an eventual, and potentially interesting, reboot. To me, The Dark Knight, while a movie I will likely never watch again, is still far more interesting to think about than, say, Indiana Jones #4 or Ice Age #3.
My other angle of approach for summer movies relates to the sheer level of money involved: the hype. I used to think that big budgets destroyed summer movies simply because they had to be relentlessly steamrolled into the lowest-common denominator to earn the money back. Now I'm seeing that having to sell a movie as the greatest thing ever, well in advance of its release, is corrosive as well. Should I really know about ten different movies that are coming out 8-12 months from now? Does that improve them? No, they are still just two frakkin' hours of entertainment, nothing more, and expectations otherwise are just going to burn you. I see this more often in books, since long series bring out the biggest expectations; I always remember the story of a dying fan who wrote in to Stephen King and wanted to know the ending of the Dark Tower series. The fans who lived long enough to read book seven seem remarkably split, since nothing could live up to 20 years of "What will happen when Roland reaches the Dark Tower?"
(On that note, don't you think James Cameron's Avatar, a work that the master of action SF has been toiling away at for years and likely released in late 2009, will be awesome? I can't wait!)
And finally, movies that exist as fan service, in the pejorative sense, have a track record of variable quality. The Harry Potter movies, for example, have had their ups—excellent casting, stellar FX as of #3—and their downs—storylines that are incomprehensible in movie terms, again as of #3, and a sense of marking time, just like in the books, until the ultimate confrontation. Will Star Trek be obsessed with recreating "Star Trek-ness" or will it be a good movie in its own right? This angle lets me mention one last upcoming movie: Watchmen. Or rather: WATCHMEN!! The famous graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons has been attracting obsessive fans for over two decades now, and the prospect of a movie adaptation has caused no small amount of controversy, with Moore himself asking to have his name removed. Fine, but why the fuss? Changing around the elements of a story to suit the next medium is not a crime against humanity! All the same, if you just change things around willy-nilly, then why bother calling it an adaptation of a specific work? I go back and forth on this one. Currently, I think that a judicious amount of changes, in the interest of making a coherent movie, is a good thing. Unfortunately, the Hollywood track record for "judicious changes" is an appalling one; witness my earlier complaints about I, Robot. I'm not fond of absolutes, but maybe J.K. Rowling's approach—the books, the books, the books—is the right one in the face of such a history.
I guess I'm also trying to figure out, personally, why I still go to see these big blockbusters when I've been burned so many times. A curiosity to see what a sequel will do with an existing franchise, a generous helping of hype, and then the natural inclination of an obsessive fan to see all the versions of favorite items: not a bad set of reasons. I would add to the third reason that the big budget version is what most everyone else will know. The historian who complains about people getting their understanding of the past from cheesy Hollywood epics or historical romances has still gone to the theatres to see the abomination of the day, even if only to see what the non-experts are going to be talking about. I may hate the Star Wars prequels with a passion, but if I've seen them, at least I'll be forewarned when mentioning SF to non-fans and the response comes back, "So you like Star Wars?" In the interests of appearing non-deranged, it's always best to have a rational response to that line of conversation. And I have a fondness for appearing sane!
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