Blockbusters this summer

More than ever before, a trip to the cinema this summer is likely to instil a sense of déjà vu. Say hello – again – to teenage wizards, maritime ne’er-do-wells, men behaving badly on a stag night, and a portly panda with “awesome” martial arts skills.

In tough economic times, the studios’ determination not to throw away a couple of hundred million dollars unnecessarily is leading to an increasing reliance on established franchises.

Which means that, by the end of 2011, one in five film releases will have been a sequel, prequel or remake. And the keenly fought box-office battleground in the middle of the year promises a particular concentration of “refreshed” ideas.

The chief protagonists in the coming months are extremely familiar to audiences – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is the eighth instalment in the highly lucrative franchise, while Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the fourth go-around in a series originally inspired by a theme-park ride.

Worldwide, the first half of the Deathly Hallows diptych – released last November – took just under $1 billion at the box office. Part II should do similar business, even if fans could be forgiven for thinking they are having to pay twice to see one film (albeit a very long one). Meanwhile, the new Pirates adventure is very likely to rake in a figure somewhere near its predecessor’s treasure chest of $961 million.

Though audiences flocked to see them, the second and third Pirates voyages were greeted with decreasing enthusiasm by the critics. Yet sequels, prequels and remakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

Back in the Seventies, the first Godfather was monumental; its sequel was an even greater achievement. Currently in cinemas, the Coen brothers’ reworking of the classic True Grit, with Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role, is as good as if not better than the original.

It’s debatable whether Kung Fu Panda 2, another of this summer’s potential big hitters, falls into the same category of cinematic greatness, but the 2008 original was an utter delight: funny and fast-paced yet also mystical and visually stunning. More of the same will be very welcome. (The studio responsible, DreamWorks, is so certain of the appeal of the franchise that a further four instalments are planned.)

The other big animation this summer is Pixar’s Cars 2. The 2006 original made a healthy $420 million, but, for a studio where runaway success is the norm, that sort of figure almost counts as disappointing. It was not an obvious choice for a sequel, but simply the fact that it is co-directed by the master of modern animation John Lasseter – co-founder of Pixar and chief creative officer at Disney – makes it an intriguing prospect for family viewing.

Aimed at a strictly adult audience, The Hangover 2 follows the surprise hit of 2009, which won a Golden Globe for Best Picture and became America’s highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever. A profitable, long-running series may well lie ahead.

However, Hollywood isn’t playing it safe with every new big-budget release. In addition to all the sequels, a number of exciting newcomers are in prospect.

The first of two promising releases from the Marvel Studios is Thor, in which the eponymous warrior-god (played by Chris Hemsworth) is cast out of the realm of Asgard for misbehaviour by Anthony Hopkins’s Odin. Next thing he knows, he’s waking up on Earth to find an anxious Natalie Portman peering into his eyes.

Also bolting from the Marvel stable is Captain America. Set during the Second World War, it stars Chris Evans who, as a volunteer in an experimental military programme, is transformed into a super-soldier. This is essentially a prequel: next year, the Captain joins Thor in Marvel’s superhero supergroup The Avengers.

There’s more testosterone flowing in Green Lantern, in which top-gun pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is recruited by an intergalactic law enforcement agency. The director is Martin Campbell, whose impressive CV boasts not one but two James Bond reboots: he oversaw Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the role and Daniel Craig’s.

Craig crops up in the intriguing Western/sci-fi mash-up Cowboys & Aliens as an amnesiac bewildered to find himself in the middle of the desert with a mysterious techno-bracelet clamped to his wrist; before long, spaceships start to appear in the night sky.

Also on the horizon is Super 8, directed by JJ Abrams (who rebooted Star Trek in 2009) and produced by Steven Spielberg. The title gives nothing away, but the trailer reveals a train heading away from the top-secret Area 51 facility. After a spectacular crash, something not of this world can be heard desperately trying to escape from the wreckage

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