In movies, does summer mean dumber?

Not necessarily. Still, this summer’s crop of films does look, ahem, strangely familiar

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge

“The horror! The horror!”

It’s been over two decades since Marlon Brando uttered that trademark line as Vietnam War renegade Colonel Kurtz in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Since then, it’s become a challenge to keep a straight face while watching the reclusive icon’s scenery chewing, especially after witnessing Elmer Fudd tackle the same material—“Da hoe-wa! Da hoe-wa!”—in a cartoon parody. In August when Francis Ford Coppola releases his director’s cut of that metaphorical journey into the heart of darkness into theaters, we Looney Tunes fans will, again, face that challenge.

As terminal optimists, we hope that the visionary brilliance and gurgling humanity of Apocalypse Now Redux—rather than Kurtz’s despairing utterances—provide fitting closure to a season fattened with remakes, sequels, computer effects and at least one marquee war epic, Pearl Harbor. Summer movies are supposed to be the cash cows of the industry (nine of the 10 all-time highest grossing films were released between May and September) but last year’s attendance dipped about 14 percent. Maybe a successful release of Redux, with its added 53 minutes of footage, will help convince studio suits that summer does not mean dumber and that art and entertainment can go hand in hand in any weather condition.

Dr. Dolittle 2

Then again, maybe not.

Last year, Hollywood gave us dinosaurs (Dinosaurs), talking animals (Chicken Run), a live action comic (X-Men), Woody Allen (Small Time Crooks), hot cars (Gone in 60 Seconds), animated adventure (Pokemon: The Movie 2000) and an updated drive-in classic (Shaft).

This year, the platter looks similar: Jurassic Park III, Cats and Dogs, Ghost World, Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, The Fast & the Furious, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Planet of the Apes. The major difference is that there are no TV-show rip-offs. Instead, we get more movie sequels.

Pre-season entries in this summer’s sweeps include Shrek, a computer-animated fairy tale based on William Steig’s storybook. It stars a lonely green ogre, a donkey and a cursed princess. It’s very funny, exciting, fresh and warm. A Knight’s Tale is a game but an overly long and uneven medieval adventure that sets an anachronistic tone, using Queen’s “We Will Rock You” as jousting tournament anthem. The Mummy Returns is a textbook example of how special effects can overwhelm the heart of swashbuckling adventure. Some of the other many movies headed our direction are noted below.

Pearl Harbor

Boffo box office? Perhaps

Pearl Harbor (May 25). A stunning trailer, which includes an aerial close-up of a dropping bomb without Slim Pickens in the saddle, has revved up the anticipation for this war drama. Two navy pilots (Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett) fall for the same nurse (Kate Beckinsale) during the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Hawaii. Writer Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and director Michael Bay (The Rock) know the action genre, but a history-imbedded love story à la Titanic may be their Achilles heel.

Tomb Raider (June 15). When the world is in trouble, who ya gonna call? Bra buster Lara Croft, of course, Details magazine’s 1998 “Virtual Girl of the Year.” Angelina Jolie as Croft, with her sensuous, bee-stung lips and padded bosom, brings an added dimension to the term “action figure.” A new franchise is born if she can turn the cyber-chic English archaeologist and world-class ass kicker into a flesh-and-blood love child of Ripley and Indiana Jones. In a cool casting coup, Jolie’s real-life father, Jon Voight, plays her dead screen dad. Directed by Simon West (Con Air) on location in England, Iceland and Cambodia.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (June 29). Just give Steven Spielberg two alphabet letters to name a movie and they will come. The cast and crew signed secrecy vows but this we know: a child android (Haley Joel Osment) longs to be a real boy (not just a latex and microchip Pinocchio). He is abandoned by his human parents and befriended by an older android (Jude Law) in a Manhattan flooded from the effects of global warming. Love is all he needs. And maybe a pair of galoshes. Spielberg passed on Harry Potter and took the torch from fallen Stanley Kubrick to adapt Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” into “a tale of humanity in an age of intelligent machines.”

Tomb Raider

Planet of the Apes (July 27). Such diverse showmen as Oliver Stone, James Cameron and Arnold the Barbarian wanted to leave their fingerprints on this return to simian civilization. Tim Burton, who has re-imagined such classics as Batman and Sleepy Hollow, led the development of a new plot, art design, characters, premise and surprise ending for 1968’s socio-sci fi yarn. Charlton (“Take your filthy hands off me, you damn dirty ape”) Heston passes his astronaut helmet to Mark Wahlberg and plays one of the beasts. Helena Bonham Carter in full gorilla gear stirs the film’s romantic embers.

Don’t like bombs dropping?

Moulin Rouge (June 1). Flamboyance is the only reasonable thing to expect when Aussie Baz Luhrmann directs a picture. He set Romeo and Juliet in modern Miami, turned Strictly Ballroom into a cultish hit and now explores the love between an 1899 Paris can-can dancer (Nicole Kidman) and a poet (Ewan McGregor). The icing on the story is Luhrmann’s florid art design and an anachronistic soundtrack that includes music from Fatboy Slim, Christina Aguilera (with Pink, Mya and Lil’ Kim), Bono and Jose Feliciano. Kidman mixes “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” with “Material Girl” while perched on a trapeze, Beck reinvents David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” and David Bowie trips to the Eden Ahbez-penned Nat “King” Cole hit “Nature Boy.”

The Score (July 13). Robert De Niro, Ed Norton, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett star in a crime story in which a career thief is forced to make one final robbery with an untested hothead. The plot is a familiar cover tune, but the cast can rock. After years of working with Muppets, this should be a cakewalk for director Frank Oz—even though Brando reportedly kept penciling “The heist! The heist!” into his final soliloquy.

Planet of the Apes

Ghost World (August 3). Two bored, cynical high-school grads, played by Thora Birch (American Beauty) and Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer) pursue romantic interests and use their friendship as a shield against a lame and intrusive outside world. Crumb director Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary about underground cartoonist R. Crumb, won several prestigious awards. Early buzz says this, a live-action adaptation of a serial story from cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ alt-comic book series Eightball, may do the same.

Sequels? We’ve got sequels

Doctor Dolittle 2 (June 22). Eddie Murphy talks to the animals as a contemporary San Francisco veterinarian who attempts to save a forest by finding a mate for a reluctant bear. Expect director Steve Carr (Next Friday) to easily meet the film’s flatulence quota.

Scary Movie II (July 4). Keenen Ivory Wayans directs another gross, profane spoof of horror flicks. This outing is set in a haunted house with James Woods as an exorcist. Kids bugging you to go? The original included a penis that went through both ears of a murder victim.

A.I. Artifical Intelligence

Jurassic Park III (July 18). Actor Sam Neill returns (he was AWOL from JP II) while Joe Johnston (Jumanji) takes the directorial reins from Steven Spielberg. The story begins with a crash landing on an island. Prehistoric beasts then stalk the survivors (Téa Leoni, William H. Macy, Michael Jeter). The new food chain includes flying pteranodons and a spinosaurus larger than T-Rex. …

and at least one remake (not counting Planet of the Apes)

Rollerball (August 17). Futuristic blood sport in which contestants risk their lives and evil corporate owners conspire against their own players feels shopworn after witnessing the XFL and Al Davis. James Caan played the lead in the 1975 original. The producers missed the boat by not casting his actor-son Scott in his role. Directed by John McTiernan (The Thomas Crown Affair). Oh, and the cast does include LL Cool J, who wasn’t in the original.

If none of these—or the other scheduled popcorn pictures—lure you to a theater, then take a tip from Kurtz: read a good magazine. That’s exactly what he does to relax in a new scene in Apocalypse Now Redux: He reads a copy of Life to the agent (Martin Sheen) sent to kill him.

The hoe-wa, indeed.