It’s easy in September to look back on a summer blockbuster season and contemplate the mess, divvy up the winners and losers, and count how many dollars you wasted for two hours of air-conditioned comfort and little else. But going into the summer, even now in 2009, I can’t help but look forward to a few summer spectacles, knowing historically that some will disappoint (see below), some will meet lowered expectations, (Transformers, The Day After Tomorrow) and some will better even the highest expectations (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight).
But was upsets me more than anything is to actually allow myself to get unreasonably excited about a summer movie — to give in to the hype — only to come out at the other end massively disappointed. It used to happen more, of course, before I got beat down by a series of disappointments. I learned to temper expectations. But it still happens — it’s no coincidence that this Guide coincides with the release of a certain post-apocalyptic blockbuster today (Dan’s review is forthcoming). I buy into the trailers, the clips, the interviews, and to the blockbuster hysteria. I find myself walking into a big summer movie with something akin to hope only to walk out two hours later — ears ringing, senses beaten — absolutely crestfallen.
That’s the focus of today’s Guide. These aren’t necessarily the worst summer blockbusters of All Time (we covered those elsewhere). They’re just big summer movies that I actually allowed myself to get pumped up to see only to discover that I’d been duped by the Hollywood studio system once again. The lesson: Always expect the worst. And sometimes you might just be pleasantly surprised.
10. Ghostbusters II: Ghostbusters II wasn’t a terrible movie. Bill Murray was still gold, the rest of the cast was — as always — likeable, and the movie as a whole might have been somewhat mediocre as a stand-alone film. But it was following Ghostbusters, one of the greatest action comedies of all time. However, instead of building off of the original, they merely rehashed it, dumbed it down, and took the focus away from the characters and put it on the effects, including a walking Statue of Liberty. It lost its edge — it was too PG. It was too much Slimer and not enough coherence. But worst of all, it felt like a cash-out, something they threw together because they knew it’d make $100 million. It did, but at the cost of the franchise’s integrity.
9. The Last Action Hero: This was one of my first experiences with massive cinematic letdown (though some still defend this movie, for reasons I can’t explain). Arnie was coming off of Total Recall and T2, and even his comedic missteps ( Twins, Kindergarten Cop) were watchable. We were talking about The Terminator, here. And he was being paired with the director of Die Hard and Predator. It had to be great, right? It was a meta movie (Schwarzenegger, in parts, was playing himself) before I really understood what a meta movie was. And they advertised the holy living hell out of it. But it was atrocious — bad enough that even as a teenager I could appreciate how truly horrible it was. It was muddled and incoherent, and the scenes were seemingly stitched together from other movies. It was all over the place, suffering from too many subplots and too many villains and not an ounce of soul. Truly an artificial, empty experience.
8. Batman Forever: After Tim Burton’s great Batman and a pretty good Batman Returns, I had assumed — even after Michael Keaton and Tim Burton dropped out — that Joel Schumacher couldn’t mess up the material too bad. He’d directed The Lost Boys and Flatliners, after all. And it was Batman. How much could he screw it up? Plenty bad, over-camping an already campy-ish franchise. Schumacher also made the same mistake that too many sequels make: He introduced too many new characters and expected the talent on hand (Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Drew Barrymore) to bring in the crowds, instead of the story. It was boring, gaudy, over-the-top, and completely brainless. Val Kilmer wasn’t a bad Batman, but Schumacher — essentially a studio hired hand — was the absolute wrong person to take over the franchise. He didn’t look at the comic books for inspiration — he looked toward the 60s television show. And he basically wrecked a franchise that he’d completely run into the ground two years later, requiring a ten year hiatus before we could move past it. The best thing that Batman Forever did, in fact, was to prepare us for just how awful Batman and Robin would eventually be.
7. The Matrix Reloaded: Four years removed from one of the most surprisingly good, inventive, original, influential movies of the last 25 years, there was a lot of expectations for the sequel. Who went into The Matrix on opening weekend and expected to walk out in awe of a Keanu Reeves film? Surely, with complex idea in place, a bigger budget, and certainly more freedom, the Wachowski’s could deepen the mythology, right? Boo! The Matrix Repeated. Just another empty popcorn flick, folks. A meandering bridge movie to an even worse third movie. Granted, they improved upon the effects, but The Wachowski’s dropped the ball in trying to advance the storyline, though they were limited by the middle-child syndrome. It just meandered and stalled, mired in its pseudo philosophical bullshit. Unfortunately, however, the biggest problem with The Matrix Reloaded was that the Wachowski Brothers had created something new, and by the time Reloaded came around, the allure of that newness had worn off. It was like topping your first kiss — you can try it as many times as you’d like, but you can never duplicate the mystical magical sensation of the first one no matter how much more technically proficient it is.
6. Godzilla: I probably shouldn’t have gotten as excited about this one as I did. But come on: A huge goddamn monster descending on New York City — one of the most iconic monsters in movie history, no less. And it starred Ferris freakin’ Bueller. The marketing blitz at the time for this movie was insane — remember “Size Does Matter”? And the trailer featured two minutes of shit just getting destroyed — that huge foot obliterating everything in sight. And the only way to see the actual monster was to go to the movie (a trick that Cloverfield duplicated years later). That was a mistake. Unfortunately, destruction was pretty much all the movie entailed. They apparently forgot to actually build in a story — it was just a series of crumbling set pieces. The monster was big all right, but everything else in the movie was shitballs idiotic. It was cheesy and bloodless — nobody important actually dies in the movie. It turned out to be a monster movie for adolescents. Roland Emmerich didn’t even bother to bring in the campiness of the old-school Godzilla — it was a dull movie that might have actually benefited from some of Joel Schumacher’s gaudiness. There was nothing insidious about the monster — he was just annoying. And stupid.
5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Nineteen years we waited. Nineteen years! And during much of that time, we’d heard rumors that they were eventually going to bring the franchise back. But Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas were adamant that they wouldn’t come back unless they got the perfect script. It was not a perfect script — far from it. And it featured the worst aspects of George Lucas scripting tendencies. Sure, after nearly 20 years, there was really no way that they could make a movie that would meet expectations. But I never anticipated that they’d miss the mark as badly as they did. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was less a new movie for a new era than a recycled one from an old era infused with cheesy CGI and the horrible addition of Shia LaBeouf. It all felt very workmanlike — Harrison Ford lacked energy (somewhat expected for a guy as old as he is, I suppose). It had its moments, but it was a pale imitation of the first three movies, almost a bad parody of them. It was weak, tired, and tedious. A nuked fridge? Come on. Spielberg is better than that, and after two decades of waiting, Harrison Ford deserved better than he was given.
4. Armageddon: Ah, Michael Bay: The man who practically introduced me to summer blockbuster disappointment. But this was back before I knew any better. He’d done Bad Boys, which I dug. And he’d directed The Rock, which I’d willed myself not to hate (at the time). But Armageddon. I couldn’t wait. Bruce Willis, not that far removed from his Pulp Fiction resurrection; Ben Affleck, right after Good Will Hunting and before we knew he couldn’t pick a decent script to save his life; Billy Bob Thornton, still riding high after Sling Blade and Liv Tyler, during her Aerosmith video heyday. Sure, the premise was completely crackpot — a crackerjack team of astronauts and fighters pilots, which also included Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi, was going to prevent a Texas-sized asteroid from destroying the Earth. That’s a blockbuster, folks. And the move called upon us, not as an American, but as a citizen of humanity! How could we resist? But of course, anybody who sat through Armageddon got burned, as Bay really buried his storyline underneath a lot of rubble and his trademark patriotic frenzy. It was a disaster, compounded a little while later by another bad asteroid movie, Deep Impact.
3. Independence Day: It was the summer of 1996. Will Smith had made Bad Boys and was just finished his run on “Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It opened on the 4th of July weekend. The blockbuster to end all blockbusters. It was going to feature a big-ass spaceship that destroyed the Empire State Building and The White House. I expected a huge popcorn movie. I expected dumb movie full of explosions. But nothing could prepare me for just how unbelievably dumb it was. I couldn’t turn my brain off enough to enjoy it. I’d need a brain transplant with an ant to appreciate any of it. It was overly earnest. It was cheesy and belabored and melodramatic and completely incoherent. Alien men in the form of Octopi? They defeated a massive alien spaceship by introducing a computer virus? With a Mac? Really. And even the President of the United States decided to become a fighter pilot? No. Just no.
2. Star Wars I — The Phantom Menace: I suspect for many of you, The Phantom Menace would top a list of biggest disappointments. But I was never really that much into Star Wars to begin with. That didn’t stop me, of course, from getting my hopes up. I looked very much forward to a new generation of Star Wars. And with Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, and Ewan McGregor, I expected the best. What I never expected was a dull kids movie. Or Jar Jar Binks. Or uninvolving characters who looked like they were standing in front of a green screen. It had no sense of humor. There was no joy or passion. I didn’t want a movie that spoke to my inner child, and besides, not even my inner child could’ve enjoyed it. It was the bare minimum, a disaster only good enough to draw an audience back to Star Wars Episode II to see if Lucas could do worse. Turns out, he could.
1. Spider-man 3: Two words even more painful than Jar Jar: Emo Spidey.