If the summer movie season is our annual time for escapism, last summer's audiences escaped most often with the likes of Hulk, Terminator 3, and The Matrix Reloaded. Those titles, respectively, ended in a homeless and penniless hero, the end of life on Earth as we know it, and our messianic figure sent into a coma. Was this really the entertainment we sought? Turn on CNN and you can get your apocalyptic images for the price of basic cable -- who needs it at the multiplex as well?
Of course, it takes about two years for the average movie to go from concept to completion, which perhaps is why this summer -- two-plus years removed from 9/11 -- our movies skew heavily toward nostalgia. The attacks made many people long for simpler, safer times, and Hollywood is delivering; in the coming months, the retro machine will be cranked up to virtually every decade from the past century:
From the 1930s, Universal revives its classic monsters in the all-out melee Van Helsing, while Kevin Kline does Cole Porter in De-Lovely.
Summer Movie Preview
From the '50s, Isaac Asimov's classic sci-fi novel I, Robot gets its first big-screen adaptation, as does Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder" (as the Pierce Brosnan vehicle Sounds of Thunder), which arguably inspired previous films as diverse as Jurassic Park and The Butterfly Effect.
The '60s gave us John Frankenheimer's original Manchurian Candidate, newly updated this year by Jonathan Demme. In the U.K., the same decade produced the marionette-populated TV series Thunderbirds, now headed for a live-action remake starring the equally wooden Bill Paxton.
From the '70s, we get a remade Stepford Wives and a look at Melvin Van Peebles circa 1971 in Baadasssss!
Updating mainstream '80s comedies with black actors is something of a trend these days, so on the heels of Love Don't Cost a Thing and Johnson Family Vacation, we get the Airplane! update Soul Plane. Garfield, the fat feline who hasn't actually been funny since the '80s, finally gets his own movie too -- as an inadvertently terrifying, computer-generated feline voiced by Bill Murray.
Channeling multiple decades is the latest update of the oft-filmed Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days, which worked best in 1963, when it was rendered by the Three Stooges.
Then there's director Roland Emmerich, who's double-dipping backward with the climate-change disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, a nod to both 1970s disaster movies and the late-'90s revival of same (Volcano, Deep Impact). Emmerich has pretty much built a career on trashing major American cities on-screen (Independence Day, Godzilla), so if you like what he did before but would prefer to see it without monsters, you're all set (that buried Statue of Liberty on the poster is looking mighty familiar too).
Other directors are looking well beyond the past 100 years: Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) reaches all the way back to the Sixth Century for his allegedly realistic look at King Arthur, while Wolfgang Petersen gets his inspiration from Homer for the ancient Greek war movie Troy.
Of course, it wouldn't be summer without a spate of sequels -- and two of the biggest, Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, will have touched down by just after Memorial Day. Other, longer-in-the-pipeline franchise expansions will also come to fruition: Ever since 1992's Batman Returns, there's been talk of a stand-alone Catwoman feature; it's finally here -- albeit not in the form fans were no doubt expecting. The reptilian Rastafarian hunters from another world make a third cinematic bow in Alien vs. Predator, which serves as both sequel to 1990's Predator 2 and prequel to 1979's Alien. And Pitch Black, the 2000 appropriation of Aliens that helped make Vin Diesel a star, gets a second installment this year with David Twohy's The Chronicles of Riddick, pitting Diesel opposite unlikely costar Judi Dench. Fans of unlikely royalty (The Princess Diaries 2) and an arachnid superhero (Spider-Man 2) will also get their fill.
The following previews some of the upcoming summer movies, from projected blockbusters sure to be accompanied by Happy Meal tie-ins to obscure documentaries that wield considerable promise. All dates are subject to change, and inevitably some of them will:
Alien vs. Predator
Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, and some big ugly meanies from outer space
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writers: Paul W.S. Anderson, Shane Salerno, Peter Briggs
Premise: Titular franchise thingies battle each other in Antarctica while humans stupidly interfere.
Outlook: After two pointless placeholder sequels, at least the Aliens finally get to do something on Earth. Their interactions with the Predator species are sure to fuel many a comic-geek debate, but whoever wins, the human actors are brave to participate. Note: Director Anderson did Resident Evil (and its star, Milla Jovovich) and is not "that Magnolia guy."
(Fox, August 13)
Around the World in 80 Days
Starring: Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Jim Broadbent
Director: Frank Coraci
Writers: David Goldstein, David Benullo, Michael Weiss... and Jules Verne
Premise: Chan and Coogan take to the skies in the umpteenth remake of this classic novel.
Outlook: Looks like good, old-fashioned fun -- if any market for such a risk still exists. Coogan (star of British TV hit I'm Alan Partridge) and Chan are both geniuses of their craft, and the stunt casting -- including the Gropenator as a polygamist in a fugged-up wig -- seems amusing. In the case of director Coraci (The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy), this appears to be evidence that if you survive Adam Sandler, you are allowed to make a cool movie.
(Disney, June 16)
Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Nia Long, David Alan Grier, Ossie Davis
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Writers: Mario Van Peebles, Dennis Haggerty
Premise: Playing his daddy Melvin, Mario dramatizes the trials and tribulations surrounding the making of the 1971 hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Outlook: Why the five s's in the title? Because the MPAA won't allow the word "ass" in a title. Wouldn't be a bad idea to release Papa Van Peebles' original movie in a new, deluxe, DVD format to help get the word out. If Mario can sell it to the black youth audience, he'll have a hit.
(Sony Classics, May 28 limited, expanding later)
Starring: Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt, and that French dude from the Matrix sequels
Director: Pitof (one word, like Madonna; he's a former effects guy for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro)
Writers: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3)
Premise: Jettisoning the Batman connection altogether, Berry dons a Mouseketeer-meets-Matrix stripper outfit as Patience Philips, a graphic designer who gains some kind of super cat-powers.
Outlook: Had this film come out in 1993, starred Michelle Pfeiffer, and been directed by Tim Burton, we'd be talking mega-hit. As is, Berry's costume looks stupid (can't wait for the inevitable drag-queen version, though), the trailer's lame (she likes sushi!), and Mattel recently canceled plans for a Barbie tie-in. Expect Gigli comparisons before the year is out, as well as endless puns like "Cat-astrophe." Sadly, this will probably cancel out any chance of the real Catwoman character appearing in the new Christian Bale Batman franchise.
(Warner Bros., July 23)
The Chronicles of Riddick
Starring: Vin Diesel, Colm Feore, Alexa Davelos, Judi Dench
Writer/Director: David Twohy
Premise: That bald brute from the supercool Pitch Black returns, perchance to save the universe.
Outlook: Looks like a very heavy-handed allegory for the European Crusades, writ science-fictiony in the 26th Century. Dench may be seeing Alec Guinness potential as the mystical guide of the nice-guy Elementals, whom Richard "Dick" B. Riddick (Diesel) assists in battling the probably-not-nice Necromongers, led by Feore. Pitch Black was an Alien knockoff done right, but this may be the beginning of an action trilogy done silly.
(Universal, June 11)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writer: Steven Kloves, based on a J.K. Rowling book
Premise: Boy wizard and friends must confront a scary spellcaster.
Outlook: Probably another strong installment in a quality series. Michael Gambon's a good choice to replace woefully departed Richard Harris as Dumbledore. Whether the charm of director Chris Columbus can be replaced by the rough edges of Cuarón (the teen sex exposé Y Tu Mamá También) remains to be seen, but the odds are now greater that Harry and Ron will masturbate together on diving boards at the Hogwarts pool.
(Warner Bros., June 4)
Starring: Will Smith and some robots
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Jeff Vintar (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), Akiva Goldsman (Lost in Space)
Premise: Smith plays a detective investigating a crime that may be the first-ever murder of a human by a robot. Because, y'know, according to Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, the metal guys aren't supposed to do that.
Outlook: Apparently the screenplay bears little resemblance to Asimov's book, and the teaser trailer has been laughed at by fanboy types online, mostly because the computer-generated robots aren't very convincing. But there's hope: First of all, the computer generation is far from finished at this stage. And second, while not all of Proyas' films have been hits (Dark City and Garage Days failed to make Crow-level dough), they're always interesting to look at.
(Fox, July 16)
Starring: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: David Franzoni (Gladiator), John Lee Hancock (The Alamo)
Premise: Supposed to be a more historically accurate, fantasy-free look at the legendary king of England, though Keira Knightley's tribal-tattooed warrior Guinevere looks more like a contemporary fantasy than anything else.
Outlook: There's a basic rule for Jerry Bruckheimer-produced actioners: The PG-13 rated ones usually suck, and the R-rated ones smash stuff up real good (King Arthur's rating is pending). Pirates of the Caribbean was a major exception, though, and with Disney and Knightley back on board, this could duplicate last year's formula for success.
(Buena Vista, July 7)
The Manchurian Candidate
Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears), Dean Georgaris (Paycheck)
Premise: John Frankenheimer's Cold War suspense film gets an update, with Washington stepping in for Frank Sinatra and Streep for Angela Lansbury. The actual region of Asia referenced by the title is no longer part of the story; this time, it's a big company called the Manchurian Corp. that plans to install a puppet president mentally programmed to do their evil bidding.
Outlook: A president who automatically does whatever a big corporation tells him to do? Isn't that a little far-fetched?
(Paramount, July 30)
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews
Director: Garry Marshall
Writer: Gina Wendkos
Premise: Last time around, she found out she was a princess. Now our heroine learns that she has 30 days to find herself a prince or give up the throne. There's something like seven of these books already in print, so this cinematic series has only just begun.
Outlook: The first Princess Diaries was surprisingly appealing, and all the same people are back, including Heather Matarazzo as the less-attractive best friend. John Rhys-Davies joins the cast on this outing, and he knows a thing or two about picking franchise projects.
(Buena Vista, August 11)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Michael Chabon, several others
Premise: Sony spends and recoups another shitload of money.
Outlook: Seems like a winner, reuniting the forces that capably succeeded the first time out -- although it would have been cool if Dunst replaced on-screen sweetheart Maguire with the more intriguing Jake Gyllenhaal, as in real life. Molina takes over villain's duties as tentacle-thrashing Doctor Octopus. More of the cheeseball humor of Raimi (the Evil Dead movies) would be welcome, but perhaps screenwriter Chabon (Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) will add some weird literary pedigree to this pricey pulp.
(Sony, June 16)
The Stepford Wives
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken
Director: Frank Oz (Miss Piggy)
Writers: Paul Rudnick (In & Out), Ira Levin (original novel)
Premise: Dark-comedic remake of paranoid-sexist, 1970s, sci-fi movie about suburban horror and systematic wife-replacement.
Outlook: The producers pulled a bait-and-switch on Kidman, luring her with promises of fanciful costar John Cusack, then ironically replacing him with middle-aged Ferris Bueller. Entire production sounds similarly confused, and after The Score, it's impossible to trust Yoda-Piggy in the director's chair anymore. Theme is ridiculously threadbare too: Ask your female boss to phone you from her Escalade to tell you how the movie's oppression relates to her.
(Paramount-DreamWorks, June 11)
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Bill Paxton, Anthony Edwards, Sophia Myles, and some big, colorful spaceships
Director: Jonathan Frakes
Writers: Peter Hewitt (Thunderpants), William Osbourne (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), Michael McCullers (both Austin Powers sequels)
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Premise: Live-action rendition of the 1960s U.K. "Supermarionation" sci-fi show in which wooden string puppets saved the day from danger in, yes, some big, colorful spaceships. It remains to be seen which is creepier -- a vintage marionette or Bill Paxton.
Outlook: Likely to do well in the U.K., but here? Frakes' track record is questionable: Other than Star Trek movies, the erstwhile Cmdr. Riker is best-known for directing the horrible kiddie sci-fi movie Clockstoppers.
(Universal, July 30)
-- Luke Y. Thompson and Gregory Weinkauf