My 2015 Movie Summer (part 1)

So, we’re past Labor Day. The summer movie season is at an end, even if the season itself doesn’t end for another two weeks.

The movie summer season currently runs from the first weekend in May* through Labor day. That’s a good four months or so, which dwarfs the other three movie seasons, all of which clock in right around two months apiece.

*A notable exception should be given for 2011, when Fast Five opened over the final April weekend and was a much stronger summer starter than Thor.

(For the curious: Winter runs from the post-New Year’s weekend through the final weekend in February. Spring from the first weekend in March through the final weekend in April. Fall from the post-Labor Day weekend through the final October weekend. And Holiday from the post-Halloween weekend through the New Year’s weekend.)

Since it’s a big movie season, I tend to see a fair number of films each summer. Due to some viewing choices and life events, I may have seen fewer than average this year. But even so, I’d like to rank all the ones I saw from worst to best.

11. Jurassic World

God, this movie was such a disappointment. For a film that everyone apparently went to see and mostly enjoyed, it’s just a turgid slog. The action is lackluster, the science is deplorable (more on that in a bit), and the humor is lacking. Even the parts that I was excited about, like Chris Pratt’s presence, were underwhelming. I should make a special note for the score, which had one of the least inspired efforts from the usually fantastic Michael Giacchino and also used the cues from John Williams’ brilliant original in egregiously terrible moments.

Beyond that, it was especially galling that the science was so bad. When the original Jurassic Park came out, it used most of the best paleontological information of the time in its presentation of the dinosaurs. Jurassic World is entirely beholden to the image of the original film while betraying the spirit. In fact, the presentation of dinosaurs is WORSE than the original.

I’m not going to lie. Trevorrow’s selection as director of Star Wars Episode 9 has dampened my enthusiasm for the entire franchise, including the incredibly hyped The Force Awakens.

I’d go so far to say that Jurassic World is the worst film I’ve seen this year, but not by a huge margin, because…

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron

A few years back, in the middle of Phase 1, I posited that Iron Man may mark the high point of Marvel’s cinematic endeavors. After all, Iron Man 2 had, despite a larger opening, not even been able to match the first in the domestic box office (to say nothing about the quality) and Thor and Captain America had done strong but not spectacular efforts. Incredible Hulk was, even at that early date in the franchise history, mostly forgotten. Despite the selection of geek golden boy Joss Whedon to direct the promised team-up film, it certainly felt like there was a ceiling on the properties.

Obviously, I was wrong about that. Avengers exploded in a way nobody predicted, and Phase 2 films Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy both eclipsing any of the earlier films. Marvel has gone from interesting movie experiment to industry trendsetter. EVERYONE is getting in on the cinematic universe game, even if their properties don’t allow it.

Of course, while the success is sky high, the quality has been taking a hit. The Phase 1 films felt fresh and interesting. They had a system, of course, but you could feel that there was some original voice. In Phase 2, they started to feel like a formula. There were the quips, the action beats,  the pretty standard directing, the actors named Chris.

Age of Ultron feels like the film where the wheels finally came off. Even if I didn’t particularly care for the first Avengers, it worked as a Whedon vehicle, because it did all the things he does well. Ultron, in contrast, felt like all those things getting sanded down, leaving just the formulaic shell. Despite the quips, the characters felt largely out of character. Despite the action, it felt like a yawn.

It’s not quite as infuriating as Jurassic World, but it’s still a shrug of a film. What happened during it? I don’t really remember, but worse, I don’t even care.

9. Fantastic Four

The story about Fantastic Four has pretty much moved well beyond the film itself. The behind-the-scenes rumors. Director Josh Trank’s implosion just prior to release. The absolutely awful box office response. There’s really no good way to spin this.

Yet, despite all that, I kinda liked it.

Even if I allow that as constructed and presented, Fantastic Four is pretty terrible, I do appreciate the interesting ideas it was trying to tackle. We may never know what the film Josh Trank wanted to make was like, but for those few bits in it where those efforts shone through, I was captivated.

And that alone sets it above the lazy, by-the-numbers efforts of Trevorrow and Whedon.

8. San Andreas

I could probably flip this with Fantastic Four. There really isn’t anything interesting here as far as premise, but The Rock is pretty damn entertaining, even if he can’t quite lift the film beyond passable. Still, in the context that I saw it – a summer night at a drive-in – it grabbed me.

The science is notably bad, but the big destruction scenes are quite enjoyable. It probably just needed to feel a bit more perilous. The advertising made it feel a bit more doom-worthy than it actually was.

After I saw it, I said that if they do a sequel (likely, given the success), they should set it in the Pacific Northwest, which has a subduction fault and has the potential for much bigger earthquakes than California. Then a few weeks later we got that article about how much damage could happen if such a quake did happen and everyone was abuzz about the danger to Seattle.

The article was a bit scare-tactic-y, but I felt exonerated.

And, hey, if they do it, they can keep the same Spanish naming convention. Juan de Fuca is right there.

7. Tomorrowland

Sometimes I get a story idea and think “this is going to be amazing!” It’s got setting and action and character and a whole heap of potential. But then I sit down and start trying to work out a plot and find that it’s just not there.

Tomorrowland feels like that, except someone spent $200 million dollars. It’s got potential up the wazoo, but ultimately it’s half baked.

The setup is actually pretty good. For a couple acts, Tomorrowland runs along at a good, enjoyable clip. The acting is fine. The visuals are amazing. But then it hits the third act and things just start screeching to a halt.

I don’t know exactly where in the process things went wrong. Maybe Brad Bird just never figured out what makes the concept click. Maybe Damon Lindelof really can’t write a third act to save his life. I don’t know. Something didn’t work, and that’s readily apparent on the screen.

If nothing else, Jurassic World showed that you can make a complete mess catch on if you’ve got one great moment in the third act for people to latch onto. (Even if everything surrounding that moment was stupid as all getout.) Tomorrowland is like the polar opposite: impeccable craft and decision-making ruined because there’s never a moment to fist-pump.

It’s hardly the worst film of the summer, but it’s possibly the most disappointing. Bird’s given us some absolutely great films. And after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol it really seemed like Tomorrowland had promise. Bird wasn’t going to completely fumble and pull a Stanton, right?

Well, now it looks like Pixar is 0-2 in getting their directors to transition to live action. The screwups are so bad they’ve basically killed any effort at Disney to make original live-action fare. The studio is completely in the established franchise tentpole game at this point.

I think movies as a whole are worse off because of it.

 

Well, I’ve gone over a thousand words, but I’m only about halfway through. This is a good point to take a break, though. I’ll get the finale up in the next day or two.

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