The Sure Thing

A summer's worth of proof that Hollywood hates us.

Summer Movies - KRISTEN BLACK
Kristen Black
Summer Movies

Jack Sparrow has a love interest. It is a girl. When Pirates of the Caribbean 4 drops on May 20, Johnny Depp will be searching for the fountain of youth and chasing after Penelope Cruz.

So there you have it. Johnny Depp’s hilarious, sexually ambiguous, drunken anti-blockbuster-hero is at least bisexual, and probably (this is Disney, remember) just plain straight. Sparrow used to confuse people. Depp told Vanity Fair that Disney execs asked him, “Is he, you know, like some kind of weird simpleton? Is he drunk? By the way, is he gay?”

Now everything is much clearer. It’s too bad. Sparrow was the rare blockbuster hero who had never condescended to the lusty embrace of neither man nor woman. Sex was irrelevant for three films (each half as good as the last). Sparrow only had eyes for adventure. The franchise was better for it, and now it is worse.

But what else should we expect?

The last unique summer blockbuster was probably the first one, Jaws — about a bunch of amateur Ahabs trying not to get eaten by a relentless, toothy id (though 1982’s ET was pretty unique too). Since then, the vast majority of blockbusters have been variations on a theme.

Killer shark becomes killer alien, becomes killer aliens, becomes killer dinosaurs, becomes more killer aliens. This summer is bookended by two killer aliens movies, Super 8 (May 10) and Apollo 18 (Aug. 26). One is bound to be pretty good (the former). The other is probably not. Both have been done before (see our writeups on pages 38 and 39).

Jaws made $100 million dollars on a budget of less than $10 million, which was unique at the time, but more so, it was the first film to be hyped by a national television advertising campaign and the first to open nationwide simultaneously. This has become the industry standard. In 1973, The Exorcist ($89 million) had opened in 26 theaters. Jaws opened in 464. Films now routinely open in 3,000 theaters and can be considered flops despite grossing $100 million if, like last year’s Robin Hood reboot, they cost $200 million to make.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 27) will reportedly have to clear $160 million to break even.

That’s the other thing: sequels.

Within two years of Jaws, proto-franchises like the Star Wars trilogy taught Hollywood the value of stacking blockbuster upon blockbuster. In the last decade, this has escalated dramatically. Studios will release a record 27 sequel films this year. Fourteen of them will come in the next three months. Pixar, the gold standard for 3D animation, only released one sequel in its first 15 years making features. When Cars 2 hits theaters June 24, they’ll have released two back to back.

Marvel Studios has made a $4 billion business out of sequels and spinoffs and reboots of its comic book franchises (X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, etc.).

Avi Arad, the architect of Marvel’s strategy (now gone from the company), told Newsday in 2007, “This is a business of precedence.” It’s easier to take gambles on things that aren’t really gambles. “Movies make sequels,” he said. “Therefore, it’s a big economic luxury to know that a movie’s going to get a second and third.”

It’s naive to think that films aren’t about making money, but The Hangover was green-lit for a sequel before it ever even came out. Hangover Part II assails us May 27. The question of whether any of these are good films — some are, most are not — has become moot when everything is predicated on “precedence.”

So franchises get bigger. They’re drawn out longer. They spin off secondary characters into lead rolls (2009’s Wolverine). They reboot themselves endlessly (X-Men: First Class, June 3), sometimes after only one failed film. (The last Superman reboot didn’t take, so a second will hit in 2012.)

These reboots undercut, if not destroy completely, the story arcs that preceded them. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug 5), the seventh film in the series, is a feature-length spoiler that renders Charlton Heston’s raucously campy original performance irrelevant.

Where once we valued suspense, we now value torture porn. Where once we valued mystery, we now value unambiguous exposition. This summer, a gang of misfits will save the world at least six times, in Super 8, X-Men, Kung Fu Panda 2, Transformers 4 (July 1), Harry Potter 8 (July 15) and Spy Kids 4.

Sure things bring us back — which brings us back, as all things Hollywood must, to Star Wars.

Lucasfilm announced last September that they are spending approximately $12 million dollars — about the cost of the original film — to digitally “upconvert” all six films to the fake version of 3D on display this summer in Spy Kids 4 and The Smurfs (July 29).

What is a surer thing than re-releasing a mega-grossing series (Titanic, the second highest grossing film of all time will also get fake 3D upgrades in 2012) with a fake digital process that allows you to pay an extra $5 to watch a half-dozen films you probably already own?

More importantly, 2012 may be the year Hollywood finds itself answering a question so daring that almost no one (well, except George Lucas and James Cameron) had the courage to ask it: “What happens if we stop making new movies altogether?” The answer, young Skywalker, is they’ll make billions and billions of dollars.

— Luke Baumgarten

R • May 13
Dir: Paul Feig; Star: Jon Hamm, Rose Byrne, Kristen Wiig

Producer Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin), who has shepherded a number of dude-centric rom-coms, tries his hand at a girl-centered one, teaming up with Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig and SNL’s Kristen Wiig (who wrote the screenplay) on a film about a woman who becomes her best friend’s maid of honor even as her own love life (and thus, because Hollywood equates relationships with happiness, her life-life) falls apart. (Luke Baumgarten)

PG-13 • May 27
Dir: Terrence Malick; Star: Pitt, Penn

When Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World) makes a movie, people should pay attention. In a career spanning over 30 years, he’s only made four movies, Tree of Life being his fifth. Heavy on long shots, Malick’s films are composed as if they were photographs. Their slow but steady pace lets the audience soak up the emotions. (Joseph Haeger)

Not yet rated • June 3
Dir: Matthew Vaughn; Star: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender

It looks like X-Men: First Class will be based around true events (JFK makes appearances in the trailer) and with the addition of James McAvoy (Atonement) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds), we can expect a tightly made comic book movie. Could this be The Dark Knight of 2011, focusing on the inner workings of society, as opposed to helicopters blowing up? (JH)

Unrated • In June, at Magic Lantern
Star: Rutger Hauer

The second film (after Machete) to be made from the fake trailers that played before Quentin Tarrantino’s Grindhouse double feature, this one is, quite literally, about a vigilante shotgun-wielding hobo. There’s some story about drugs and the way crime lords victimize junkies and prostitutes and whatnot, but it’s really just an excuse to create as much over-the-top Troma-esque carnage as possible. (LB)

R • In June
Dir: Richard Ayoade; Star: Craig Roberts

Like with Little Miss Sunshine, we are going to be thrown into a world of emotions while Oliver tries to lose his virginity. Life is funny, so why not take advantage of it? Especially when it’s told from the perspective of a 15-year-old. This is an English import — which leads us to believe there will be dry, uncomfortable moments ending with a giggle. (JH)

Not Yet Rated • June 10
Dir: JJ Abrams; Star: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning

Steven Spielberg produces a JJ Abrams film that looks like War of the Worlds meets Goonies meets The Wonder Years? Seriously. A bunch of kids in the late ’70s are making a film when they inadvertently capture a train derailment and what looks to be … some sort of alien? Dogs run away, people start disappearing, and the kids — natch, with the help of their sheriff dad — have to save the day. Blockbuster dorks can die happy after this one. Real life will seem completely stripped of color in the face of such good-natured destruction. (LB)

Not yet rated • June 17
Dir: Martin Campbell; Star: Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard

A CGI suit on a man who has the body of a superhero? That was the one detail that has confused me since I read about the film. Visual effects will take the front seat in this comic-book movie while we see the CGI overtake Ryan Reynolds’ near-perfect body. We’ve seen him as the hero before, but Peter Sarsgaard’s villain should be a first. (JH)

PG-13 • July 1
Dir: Hanks; Star: Hanks, Julia Roberts

Tom Hanks does what he wants. He could be a captain in WWII or a man stranded on an island or a wandering man-boy. Now he wants to be a guy who gets laid off from his low-level position at a big box company. So what does his character do? He goes back to college to better himself, and makes out with his professor! (JH)

Not yet rated • July 15
Dir: David Yates; Star: Radcliffe, Fiennes

Quite possibly the most anticipated movie of the summer. We’ve seen these kiddos grow up before our very eyes, and now they’re ready for a final battle with evil. Yates, who has directed the last three films, has set up a dark and gritty backdrop for this final movie. If the Deathly Hallows Part I was any indication, we should be in for a treat. (JH)

G • July 15
Voices of: John Cleese, Craig Ferguson

Cell animation, the G rating ... This may be the gutsiest animated film of the year. Though it is “an all-new story,” this Pooh seems very faithful to the original cartoons, and also to AA Milne’s classic, meandering books. A throwback in the best sense of the word. Compare this against the forthcoming 3D Smurfs film, where they take Manhattan. (LB)

Not Yet Rated • July 22
Dir: Joe Johnston; Star: Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones

We’ve been living with Iron Man for a few years, and Thor just dropped, but here the Avengers mega-franchise begins in earnest. It’s World War II, and Steve Rogers really wants to go off and kill Hitler, but he’s 90 pounds soaking wet. So he enlists in a super-soldier program that — with science! — beefs him up to the size of Chris Evans. Iron Man’s dad, Howard Stark, does the sciencing. The Nazis, though, have super soldiers of their own. (LB)

Not yet rated • July 29
Dir: Jon Favreau; Star: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford

It’s like Ron Howard went to a 6-year-old and asked him what movie he wanted to see. Of course, he would say a bunch of roughneck cowboys fighting an alien invasion. Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) has harnessed his inner child with this latest effort. This new take on the summer blockbuster looks like a Coen-Spielberg hybrid. (JH)

Not yet rated • Aug. 5
Dir: Rupert Wyatt; Star: James Franco, John Lithgow

James Franco is a brilliant scientist? Well, summer movies are all about suspending reality. We won’t be seeing humans thrown into primitive cages, but instead the beginnings of why Tim Roth was so damn smart in Tim Burton’s 2001 movie. The effects are from the same place as Avatar, so we should see some real-looking monkey faces instead of clunky masks. (JH)

Not Yet Rated • Aug. 26

Paranormal Activity, meet this revisionist history of the American space program. In real life, Apollo 18, the final moon mission, was scrapped — or was it?! What if they actually took off but found something so horrible that we decided that ashy gray rock floating above us wasn’t worth the risk anymore. Shot with handheld and mounted cams (digitized with fake film grain to make it seem old) in the vein of Blair Witch Project, the film promises to show us fake real footage of “why we never went back.” (LB)

Documentary Detox

If you’re getting too bogged down by Michael Bay’s studded robots or 3D super heros flying at your face, then try the Magic Lantern. This summer they’ve already confirmed a few documentaries that should spike the interest of art-house junkies.

The godfather of grunge, Seattle poet Steven J. Bernstein, is the focus of the film I Am Secretly An Important Man (May 27). It studies Bernstein’s angry lyrical exploration of the rejects of society and the man’s integral role in the music scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Looking at the world from a wider scope, they are going to be playing My Perestroika (May 27), about five perspectives during the fall of the Soviet Union and the political landscape change through post-Soviet Russia.

If you want obscure, The Elephant in the Living Room (May 20) is a look at people keeping exotic — sometimes dangerous — animals as pets and the legal battle they fight in order to do so. These docs won’t have a constant drone of explosions, but you may feel like you’ve learned something. (Joseph Haeger)

Visit for more information.

Hollywood of the North: North Idaho and the Film Industry @ Museum of North Idaho

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Continues through May 29
  • or

About The Authors

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.