Spotlight : October 1997

Summer Roundup
By Todd Vaziri

Colder weather is beginning its descent onto North America, which means the summer movie season is long gone. All the effects-filled action extravaganzas are entering the second-run theatres and preparing their debut on home video. With all the noise and excitement of the summer completed, it is much easier to take an objective look at the summer movie season. In a span of only a few weeks, 13 major effects-filled films were released in North American theatres.

Did visual effects enhance these films? Were these films worthy of the visual effects included within them? Were the summer effects films any good? The answers to these questions are quite clear: 'yes,' 'no,' and 'for the most part they sucked.'

The apparent lack of quality in this summer's effects films could be a result of the lack of originality stemming from Hollywood producers. Of the 13 major films, only four were truly 'original' ideas created by screenwriters. The other nine films were either sequels or were adapted from other media.

CONTACTLet's start with the films popularly regarded as the finest of the summer: CONTACT and MEN IN BLACK. CONTACT's script was based on the novel written by the remarkable Carl Sagan, and directed by one of Hollywood's finest directors, Robert Zemeckis. The film was part "Cosmos", part FORREST GUMP and part CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; its appeal was due to its very human story and its portrayal of the never ending argument between science and religion. The effects were also widely regarded as exceptional, provided by Sony Pictures Imageworks, Weta Ltd., and ILM (among others).

MEN IN BLACKMEN IN BLACK featured some powerhouse actors and a fine director, Barry Sonnenfeld, and a ton of ILM effects. The INDEPENDENCE DAY of 1997, MIB was good-natured and unoffensive, while still being a very funny film. MIB was based on the comic book of the same name, and ended up being the box office champion of the summer.

The best family film of the summer, GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE, featured some brilliant effects by Dream Quest and CIS Hollywood (et al). GEORGE, of course, was based on the old TV show, and had some really interesting characters and many good laughs, although the movie used age-old gags such as fart jokes, wise-cracking apes and adults slamming into trees at 60 miles per hour.

THE FIFTH ELEMENTThe rest of the satisfying films of the summer included AIR FORCE ONE, CON-AIR, THE FIFTH ELEMENT and MIMIC. All of them were good pieces of entertainment... not terrific, but fun. MIMIC was the year's finest horror film so far (based on a short story), CON-AIR had some great action and good laughs (original, but call it THE ROCK II for all intents and purposes), THE FIFTH ELEMENT had some wildly original riffs and was generally enjoyed (original story), and AIR FORCE ONE was the usual Harrison Ford thriller (original, but come on, it was DIE HARD with the President on a plane).

The rest of the big summer films were dismal--generally accepted as entertainment failures. A lack of character, plot, believability and common sense plagued these films, and for the most part, these films suffered at the box office because of their absence.

Two late-summer offerings were KULL THE CONQUEROR and EVENT HORIZON, both initially promising films that sank to new lows. Although the effects for these films contained some wonderful, original work, the shots that surrounded the effects were pretty worthless. These movies depended on goofy characterizations, slow plotlines and borrowed concepts from other films. While EVENT was an 'original' film (ha!), KULL was originally written to be part of the CONAN series, and is considered to part of its world.

SPAWN was both loved and hated, but fared reasonably well at the box office. Some criticized Mark Dippe's direction and the sophomoric script (filled with effects by ILM, Santa Barbara Studios, and a couple of dozen other companies) for SPAWN's simplistic storyline and one-dimensional characters. The popular comic book inspired the feature film.

BATMAN & ROBINThe three films that were regarded as the worst effects-filled films this summer were all sequels... what a shock! Incredible that studio executives and filmmakers decided not to inject any originality into their sequels.

BATMAN & ROBIN was universally hated. Period. Joel Schumacher produced an effects-filled piece of garbage; as a result, Schumacher probably won't be involved with another Batman film. After flocking to BATMAN FOREVER in 1995, making it one of the year's biggest films, audiences shunned BATMAN & ROBIN after its first weekend, and its $100 million take is regarded as a big disappointment.

SPEED 2Jan De Bont's SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL was laughably poor. A complete disregard for continuity and character plagued this sequel, which died a quick and horrible death at the box office. The movie cost over $70 million (ugh) and earned a fraction of that at the North American box office. It didn't deserve a dollar more than it earned.

THE LOST WORLDUnfortunately, the biggest disappointment of the summer was directed by one of Hollywood's best directors. THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK was a mind-numbing, lifeless thriller; director Steven Spielberg crafted a shallow film with none of the life of his previous effects-filled films. Moviegoers flocked to this movie to see ILM's dinosaurs, not to be bored out of their minds with the further adventures of Dr. Ian Malcolm, and his troupe of hapless fools. THE LOST WORLD contained the single worst moment of the summer effects films... Ian Malcolm's daughter using her gymnastics abilities to thwart the attacking velociraptors. Did anyone enjoy this movie?

It is clear to see that this summer was saturated with unoriginal, mindless movies that had some brilliant visual effects. 1997 will go down in history as having the most bloated visual effects slate of films in one season, most of which were initiated for visual stimulation only (BATMAN, LOST WORLD, etc.) Studio executives, with the success of 1996's triple play of TWISTER, INDEPENDENCE DAY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (the three most successful movies of that summer), decided that visual effects=box office success. Story and characters took a back seat during the greenlighting of such dismal films as SPEED 2 and EVENT HORIZON. Perhaps these same studios have learned their lesson--creating visually and emotionally interesting films lead to box office success.


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