Sounds Off: What Happened this Summer?

It was all going to be very exciting for me.

The big summer movies were on their way. The Japanese were going to attack the United States. A buxom video game babe was going to be brought to life. There were going to be more dinosaurs and a whole planet ruled by apes.

It was going to be beautiful.

The season started early, and things looked promising.

The Mummy Returns opened May 4, making a whopping $68.1 million in its first three days and staying in the top five for four weeks. It was one of those thrill-ride movies, maybe not better than the original, but certainly as much fun.

Then Shrek came to town May 18.

Arguably the biggest box office success this summer, the 3D computer animated story from DreamWorks, about one green ogre who falls in love with a beautiful fairytale princess, captured everyone’s hearts. The story was simple, sweet-and made us laugh our asses off. And we came to see it in droves. So far, the film has made roughly $255.5 million and is still a top draw.

Still, the real summer movie bonanza began Memorial Day weekend, when the mega-budget blockbuster Pearl Harbor opened to much fanfare. Oh, what a glorious time I was to be have going to the movies.

But that’s just when the summer all went to pot.

Why? What went wrong with these blockbusters? Why haven’t the huge summer movies so far raked in the money week after week? And how did those considerably smaller films make it to the No. 1 spot?

Maybe a good story actually counts

That’s always been my point. An involving plot really does have something to do with a movie being a success. Special effects are wonderful and, by golly, they are getting better every single day. I love following the bomb all the way down until it hits a ship. I love dinosaurs and statues coming to life. I love what they are doing with computer animation. Wow.

But there’s got to be a plot. The plot doesn’t have to be complicated. We aren’t always looking for The Usual Suspects or Being John Malkovich, but the story has at least got to be interesting to keep us going.

Pearl Harbor, for all its heart-wrenching action as the powerful U.S. ships sank under the Japanese bombs, was a complete dud in the story department. Every known cliché was brought out, in spades, and the story went in about 10 different directions. First, it’s a love story. No, it’s a story about two best friends. Wait, no, now it’s a story about a suicide mission to exact revenge.

Who cares?

And it was long. Way too long. The action doesn’t even get started until three-quarters of the way through. Even the pretty faces of Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale couldn’t help much (although Hartnett has got to be thanking the acting gods in the sky for giving him this exposure).

I hate to compare the film to Titanic. I know there will be some people who disagree with me, but for all its heart-wrenching action, as the powerful ship sank under an iceberg, Titanic grabbed me–and about 500,000 teen-age girls who saw the film repeatedly. Again, it wasn’t very complicated. It stayed pretty much a love story, but I cared about those people, and I certainly didn’t want them to die an icy cold death in the North Atlantic. That’s what made the film work.

Pearl Harbor was just too ambitious and too scattered. It may have made a ton of money in its first few weeks because of all the hype, but people are not talking about it now. It did not leave an indelible impression.

Things didn’t end there.

I thought, OK, so Pearl Harbor didn’t really work, but boy, now I can’t wait for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It was going to kick some major butt. Angelina Jolie was going to be perfect as Croft, and we’d get to watch a female Indiana Jones in action. The movie would surely make loads and loads of money.

And what happened? The story was dumb. Sure, Jolie looked great, and the special effects were cool, but the plot was fairly mindless. And now the movie is a blip.

And so went the rest of the summer, as far as the bigger films go. Good look, bad plot.

Take Final Fantasy. Spectacular visuals, but just as cold and boring as it could be. However, there are a few minor exceptions. A.I. was problematic–half Kubrick, half Spielberg–but it made you think somewhat, and people talked about it a lot, both positively and negatively. Jurassic Park III had some interesting new dinosaurs, and the story was simple-and short. The film only runs 85 minutes. That was good thing.

The one movie that has fulfilled my expectations so far has been Planet of the Apes. I just like the movie a lot. The look of the ape planet was amazing. The story was compelling, even if it was a little cheesy in parts. The acting by Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth was tremendous. So thumbs up from me.

The film has been getting some flack for the ending. Come on, people. It’s not that hard to figure out, and even if it is, it still makes for a great ending. Let’s hope it keeps the box office rolling (so far, it’s made about $90 million. Not bad, monkey boys).

Summer Sequels?

They aren’t working. The originals are better. Enough said. (Save, of course, The Mummy Returns).

The fast, the blonde, the cats and the dogs

In looking at the films that have done well despite their smaller stature, one thing is clear: appealing to the younger generation is an important factor in a summer movie. Makes sense, doesn’t it? They are home for the summer. The parents want them out of the house. And there, awaiting them at the theaters, are hot young bodies driving fast and living hard in The Fast and the Furious and perky blondes getting their due in Legally Blonde.

Even the somewhat silly but nonetheless entertaining Cats & Dogs beat out big films, such as Scary Movie 2, to take the No. 1 spot when it opened July 4. Why? It was funny and the parents could take the kids. And America’s Sweethearts, with the ultra-popular Julia Roberts, stands alone as one of the only romantic comedies of the summer–a very useful and distinguishing characteristic.

So, what have we learned?

That the movie going audiences are a continually evolving bunch. They read reviews. They listen to their friends. They like plots and aren’t just mindlessly oohing and ahhing over the fantastic special effects.

That young adults make up an enormous percentage of the summer movie going population.

That studio executives better pay attention on how this summer went. I’m sure they all think they have successes on their hands, especially since the movies made decent amounts of money.

But we know the real deal.

Story counts. Period. Well, story plus hot young actors and a great soundtrack. But that’s it.