Light at the End of the Tunnel? – The Summer Blockbuster Season Review (2005)

It was the summer when Anakin embraced the dark side, the Caped Crusader returned to Gotham City, and Tom Cruise just wouldn’t shut up about Katie Holmes. As far as unique experiences go, however, Summer 2005 may be most notable for Michael Bay greeting the release of his latest full-tilt, maximum volume blockbuster The Island by exclaiming “It’s a debacle! It’s the worst opening weekend I’ve ever had!”

It has, in short, been a long, weird and baffling summer. Mega-budget productions touted as cast-iron hits have seriously underperformed, and the whiff of disappointment has remained in the air despite plenty of films raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. Stranger still is the fact that, in terms of quality, it’s been one of the strongest summers we’ve seen in years. Movie standards have generally been higher, the bigger films have been getting better reviews, and even box-office underperformers like Kingdom of Heaven and Sahara turned out as flawed but genuinely interesting and entertaining movies rather than simply rubbish that deserved its fate.

When it comes to the winners, of course, there’s no surprise in who came out on top. George Lucas’ traditional bizarre pessimism proved again to be completely unfounded, as Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith overcame a higher certificate and some of the creakiest dialogue known to man, conquering the box-office to the tune of $800 million in worldwide grosses. Cranking up the violence level and featuring kiddie-unfriendly footage of a crispy-fried Jedi, Episode III’s tone of doomy betrayal did little to slow its success, and also sparked off something in other filmmakers, resulting in a surprisingly provocative shift towards darker Summer movies with harsh, downbeat edges.

Who could have predicted that Steven Spielberg would deliberately traumatise Dakota Fanning with quite so much gusto in his gritty take on War of the Worlds? Or that Christopher Nolan’s sharply made Batman Begins would turn a bloke in a bat costume into the kind of multi-layered character you’d normally find in an arthouse flick? Taken separately, these were all daring films that amazingly managed to triumph financially- but arriving together over a two-month period, they stamped a level of darkness onto Summer 2005 that’s been more of a curse than a blessing.

The trouble is that when three of the top films of the summer are all at the extreme end of the 12A certificate, there’s little around for one of the biggest sections of the audience- the family. “Blockbusters by their nature are pitched mainly at adolescent boys” says Screen International’s Box-office analyst Robert Mitchell, “but the batch we’ve had this summer haven’t been so good at crossing over to the general family audience, and that’s where the big money is. Combine that with the fact that there’s been fewer genuine family films, only one Summer CGI animation, and no big sequels like Shrek 2, and it’s certainly been a contributing factor to the slump.”

Proving this firmly are the strong showings of the few family films that have been around during the Summer. There’s been big success for CG cartoon Madagascar, and also for superhero romp Fantastic Four, whose $53 million US opening weekend raised Marvel’s fortunes and managed to briefly turn the tide of the slump. Nobody could claim that FF is anything but a weak entry in the recent batch of superhero movies (especially compared to the storming Batman Begins)- and yet, it won through thanks to being family-friendly popcorn entertainment in a summer where the competition was virtually non-existant.

Tim Burton’s candy-coloured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also scored big-time, reaching nearly $150 million after just 17 days in the US alone, while Johnny Depp’s charmingly bonkers performance proved that while Hollywood may be struck with doubt and uncertainty, it can still rely on good old-fashioned star power to bring home the money.

Earlier in the year, things had not seemed quite so certain, with rumours of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s alleged marriage-wrecking affair on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith casting the unwelcome spectre of the Ben Affleck/J.Lo disaster over the movie’s chances. And then, there was everybody’s favourite diminutive Scientologist, as Tom Cruise turned into a publicity hungry lunatic in record time and found it impossible to restrain himself from leaping onto sofas, getting engaged to women he’d only just met, and lecturing talk-show hosts on the insidious evils of psychiatry.

A major celebrity backlash was expected, and yet what we got was a surprisingly happy ending, with the frothy cocktail of Mr and Mrs Smith scoring over $300 million worldwide, and the re-teaming of Minority Report’s Spielberg and Cruise proving even more profitable, with the combined gross of War of the Worlds smashing the $500 million barrier. Will Smith showed that his usual charming streetwise shtick hadn’t yet worn out its welcome in Hitch, while even the lower-level stars have shown staying power, with frat-pack regulars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan propelling sleeper hit Wedding Crashers over the $100 million mark in the US.

Of course, these ‘talent’-heavy successes can’t always be guaranteed, as proved by the weak US showings of Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man or Nicole Kidman in Bewitched. It’s worth remembering, though, that two of the most recent flops- The Island and Stealth- are movies where the concept was supposed to be the star, instead of less-known performers like Scarlett Johansen or Josh Lucas. The consecutive failure of both films could be a sign that the appetite for the patented Big Dumb Blockbuster(tm) with low-level actors and high-level special effects may be dying out after a decade of prosperity. On the other hand, it could simply be that both were misconceived from the get-go, and they’ve helped define the biggest Studio losers of the season, with Sony and Dreamworks’ live-action division fighting it out for the wooden spoon award.

So, with the Summer all but over, what does the near-unbroken slump and the poor showings of so many movies mean for the future? In practice, if you look at the big picture, all it really means is that 2004 was a bonanza year for cinema that 2005 was always going to find nearly impossible to beat. “Last year,” explains Robert Mitchell, “you still had a Lord of the Rings movie in January and February- and then, of course, there was Passion of the Christ. A foreign language movie opening in March and earning $370 million- that’s a completely unrepeatable fluke, and it’s meant that 2005’s been lagging behind almost from the start.”

The one lesson that should be learned from Summer 2005, however, is don’t underestimate family audiences, and try not to put all your eggs in one basket. “We’ve ended up with a weird situation this year where two of what should be the biggest movies of 2005- the new Harry Pottter, and King Kong- aren’t opening till November and December,” says Mitchell. “That’s a gigantic chunk of this year’s cinema-going that hasn’t happened yet, and despite the slump, that could well put the industry back on track. Yes, the summer blockbuster season is always supposed to be the biggest earner in theory, but it’s often the other parts of the year that are the deciding factor. You can lose the summer, and still win the year – it’s only a battle, not the whole war.”

What Summer 2005 has taught us…

Evil aliens who’ve been planning to invade Earth for millions of years will still forget their vaccination shots.

Be nice to that pouty, grumpy Jedi Knight- otherwise, it’ll come back to bite you in the end…

Angelina Jolie couldn’t look unsexy if she tried. Very hard.

Having your body transformed into an unconvincing (and decidedly bendy) mass of orange rock will play merry havoc with your sex life.

Knocking a helicopter out of the sky with a vintage 19th century cannon is surprisingly easy.

A family-friendly Will Ferrell is a bland Will Ferrell.

Nobody, but nobody, wanted to see another XXX movie.

An underdog team with no chance of winning will, amazingly, make it all the way to the finals and triumph over adversity. Who’d have thought it?.