By Louis Allred

Prince of Persia

This past weekend, one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, Inception, opened to over $60 million, while another big ticket movie, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, barely squeaked in (relatively speaking) at $17 million. One could say it was an artistic triumph; a well-made, smart, original film crushing a tired retooling of a Disney property. (Seriously, it’s a reboot of… a segment from Fantasia?) One might also extrapolate that this is one of the first signs of a sea change in Hollywood; that the public is tired of retreads, reboots, and sequels.

But that wouldn’t be accurate. Look at the biggest moneymakers so far this summer: four sequels (Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and Toy Story 3) and a reboot that proved to be a surprise contender (Karate Kid). And that’s apart from the stuff that didn’t perform as the studios hoped: A-Team, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The Last Airbender, and Marmaduke (despite the presence of both Owen Wilson and George Lopez). The only truly original works have been Inception, Despicable Me, Knight and Day, Killers, and Get Him to the Greek. So the public seems fine with recycling.

Jonah Hex

However, there is some form of Hollywood fatigue setting in this season. The blockbusters Hollywood has released this year haven’t been setting the critical world on fire, nor have many really been breaking the bank. What makes news in a time like this are the flops (and “flops” is also a relative term this time of year, since something can collect a total of $80 or $100 million and still be seen as a disappointment). Robin Hood was first on the list, barely making half of its $200 million budget back. Knight and Day, despite decent reviews, has made about $70 million against a $120 million budget, and is already at the bottom of the charts. Prince of Persia may take the flop cake this year, having been unable to crack $100 million against its own $200 million budget. Killers, with an almost-modest $75 million budget, hasn’t crossed $50 million, which could mean the downfall of Lionsgate. And Jonah Hex… well, Jonah Hex.

Two of the biggest turkeys, critically speaking, were franchise films the studios really had their hearts set on. Sex and the City 2 had no reason to fail; it was a sequel to the massive first film adaptation of the show. Reviews were bad, but many thought it could be the Transformers 2 of the adult female demo and transcend the reviews to huge box office. Then the reviews got really bad, and they seemed to scare off the audience Warner Bros was hoping for. It opened almost 50% down from the previous movie, and lost half its audience every week thereafter. Despite almost making its budget back, if the studio envisioned a series of films, those dreams are pretty much dashed.

Which brings us to the latest, and probably worst, offender: The Last Airbender. M. Night Shyamalan has been batting significantly less than 1.000, with a string of films each more poorly-received than the previous. But, there might have been a glimmer of hope: he was adapting an established, and beloved, cartoon. Hopefully, the restraints of an adaptation could keep the film decent. But critics destroyed the film, and fans – hardcore fans already in the tank for this – complained that M. Night did a terrible job adapting a story he claimed to know and enjoy. Opening numbers were decent, but only three weeks later, the film is already #7 on the charts (and, incidentally, opening at my local dollar theater this Friday – not good).

Even the moneymakers (or the ones breaking even) aren’t drumming up a lot of enthusiasm. Iron Man 2 did well, but despite its massive build-up, the adulation for the first film didn’t carry over to this one, leaving critics and fans somewhat cold. Get Him to the Greek made more than its budget, but it was a minor hit; not quite the Hangover the studio seemed to want. And despite being shoved down America’s throats promotionally, Grown Ups just came and went.

The Last Airbender

So what happened this summer? My friend Erik made a good point when I wrote a little something about summer movies earlier: it seems like there’s no pop culture relevance with this year’s films. Last year gave us The Hangover, a film from which people would banter lines and scenes back and forth, Up, a very unique story with the most quotable talking dog in a long time, and The Proposal, which was a surprise hit and seemed to propel Betty White back onto everyone’s radar. Even something like Transformers 2, which was also excoriated by critics, got people talking because of the trashing.

This summer, though, had a series of films that few people seemed truly excited about. I don’t think The A-Team or Prince of Persia really wowed moviegoers with their previews (nor did the films themselves impress them). The trailers for Marmaduke and Jonah Hex looked horrible. And this summer had some ideas that seemed out of touch with what audiences want now. Neither Ashton Kutcher nor Katherine Heigl had a hit in a while, so putting them together in Killers was a match no one asked for. An overly-serious take on Robin Hood with Russell Crowe (whose last big success was A Beautiful Mind, over eight years ago) didn’t register. Tom Cruise as America’s Leading Man hasn’t worked since War of the Worlds; this was proven with Knight and Day‘s low gross. And Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince of Persia?

The simple answer to “What happened this summer?” is that audiences weren’t jazzed about a lot of this summer’s films. So, the real debate behind Inception v. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of inspiration, for lack of a better word. The big successes were the films that, even if they weren’t entirely original, appealed to audiences in unique ways. Toy Story 3 managed to inject new life into a franchise that hadn’t been visited since 1999, presenting some shockingly adult concepts along the way, and Despicable Me tweaked the usual supervillain archetype by saddling him with kids. Marmaduke, on the other hand, was a generic talking-dog movie. Inception, whether you enjoyed it or not, gave the heist movie a vibrant psychological twist. The A-Team had stuff blowing up. This is not to say that unique and inspired films succeeding is something that only happened this summer. Rather, it seems like a lot of this summer’s films were aggressively uninspired, and America responded in kind. Maybe that’s the real lesson Hollywood can learn; if they can be less cynical about the product they release, we might be more willing to come to the theaters.

And enough with the 3D. As my friends and I agree: if your defense of a movie is “it’s better if you see it in 3D,” then you don’t have a movie, you have an amusement park ride.