Two weekends ago, when Exorcist: The Beginning snuck its way into cinemas without benefit of advance press screenings, the irony was inescapable—an apparent loss of faith by Warner Bros. in a movie that purports to be about lost faith. But long before then, it was possible for filmgoers to feel a similar lack of confidence, not in the Creator, mind you, but in the creators—those well-paid artists and artisans whose responsibility it is to ensure our movie-watching satisfaction throughout the long hot summer.
There are few greater joys to be had, after all—when the mercury rises, the asphalt steams and the freeways snarl to a halt—than that of relaxing into the dark with one of those big, steroidal entertainments that gives your adrenal glands something to write home about. At least, that's the way it was once upon a time, before neighborhood cineplexes evolved from oases of air-conditioned pleasure into fiery temples of doom and ennui, where a ticket purchased for almost anything on the marquee was certain to result in a case of buyer's remorse. Of course, the movies aren't exactly hurting for business: the summer of 2002 alone—fueled by the success of Spider-Man and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones—set a new record for seasonal box office. And understandably, few consumers are keen to admit further defeat after having already shelled out enough on tickets and concessions to save a small army of Sally Struthers' kids. But does it come as any real surprise that even hit movies now often make significantly more money in DVD sales than in their theatrical runs—America's way of saying that today's blockbusters work best as background noise while folding laundry and emptying litter boxes?
Not that there haven't been summer movies to embrace in recent years, even if some of them—like the Lord of the Rings trilogy—have arrived at Christmastime instead. (In deference to those who live south of the equator?) Still, I wouldn't back off a word of the above, nor my long-standing sentiment that 1994 (Speed, True Lies, The Lion King, Clear and Present Danger) represented the last historical moment at which summer-movie quantity and quality approximated balance. Until, that is, the summer of 2004 left me as exhilarated as Peter Parker after learning he could climb walls and shoot spider webs out of his wrists. In short, just when it seemed as though those who run Hollywood's studios were in need of a recall election, here was a season in which one could queue up for many of the most heavily publicized films, not only without fear of disappointment, but with reasonable expectation of being dazzled. Here then, as fall approaches, are a few lessons learned over the past three months:
1. Sometimes sequels really are equals. Hot on the heels of The Return of the King came a flood of second and third helpings of popular movie franchises that were either every bit as enjoyable as their predecessors or, in some cases, more so. Certainly that was true of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, which, with its beautifully nuanced performances, complex characterizations and funny-romantic vision of Manhattan (complete with elevated train!), seemed one of the few comic-book movies to actually understand the appeal of its famous source material. Meanwhile, in The Bourne Supremacy, the expert foot and car chases erased all memory of the film's lackluster 2002 predecessor. Then there was that lyrical dreamscape known as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: not just the most extraordinary picture of the season, but one of the best of the year so far, capped by that remarkable time-travel sequence in which Harry effectively rescues himself from imminent doom—among the most wondrous flights of film fancy ever. Collectively, it was enough to make one imagine that perhaps, given the right alchemy, something might yet be made out of that long-gestating reinvention of Superman. (And if it seems like I'm forgetting something here, let me say that I thought Shrek 2 was dreck.)
2. The real really is better than the virtual. While The Bourne Supremacy is the only one of the aforementioned films that can be said to use computer-generated imagery sparingly, what all those movies do have in common is their insistence on the wizardry of good, solid storytelling over that of jacked-in computer programmers. Even to the extent that the Spider-Man and Harry Potterfilms rely on CGI, they do so in an unusually understated, tactile manner, enabling us to reach out and touch the feathery wings of the wondrous Buckbeak or the remarkably flexible steel of Doc Ock's tentacles. So, one might ask, is it mere coincidence that these were the films audiences voted for at the box office over and above such egregious CGI abusers as Troy, Van Helsing and Catwoman? Or that they were the films made by directors of real maturity and craft instead of by proficient Hollywood hacks or the latest flavors of the commercial and music-video month? This may also be the place to mention Michael Mann's Collateral, which itself employs the latest in digital imaging technology to give us a vision of Los Angeles that more soulfully captures the city's nocturnal textures—the neon haze that takes over when the sun goes down, the metallic glint of MTA trains careening through the night—than even Mann's own film-shot movies.
3. There's DC, and then there's D.C. Contrary to almost everything that has thus far been said—to say nothing of conventional movie wisdom—summer movies needn't only be about fun and games. Of course, it could be argued that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was itself a kind of sideshow entertainment, but there's no denying that the picture's success ($115 million and counting) has opened the floodgates to a wash of other—and, dare I say, better—socially conscious documentaries (The Corporation and Control Room chief among them) that might otherwise have had a difficult time securing bookings. Beyond which, Fahrenheit 9/11 may have had another residual effect: Hollywood itself seems to be catching on to the idea that politics and popcorn do not necessarily add up to box-office poison. Ergo, Jonathan Demme's spirited makeover of The Manchurian Candidate gets called up from the minor leagues of autumn to bat with the boys of summer and does respectable business with the post-pubescent crowd.
Of course, to ask whether this summer represents a trend or merely an anomaly is to pose a riddle that has no answer—at least for the time being. But as with puppies and small children, it seems to me almost impossible to praise Hollywood too much when it does something right, let alone a few things right in a row. So make of this what you will—and now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to catch Harry Potterone last time on the big screen before it dons its celluloid invisibility cape and disappears for good.