The moist fizzle

Boosted by inflated 3-D/IMAX ticket prices and an unending string of “brand name” franchise flicks, 16 of this summer’s would-be blockbusters have tallied or will tally $100 million in domestic receipts. Among the inane dreck are some films that moviegoers and critics genuinely connected with, but the watchwords for this summer have been “mediocre at best” and “mediocre at worst.”

With Hollywood execs insanely focused on each movie’s opening weekend, every new release arrived with an explosion of hype, which, upon actual arrival, departed with a moist fizzle. Everything blurred into one gelatinous CGI blob of tangled narratives and pointless 3-D effects. Thor already feels like an ancient relic, but it came out less than three months ago.

It’s not that every movie released this summer was terrible, it’s just that everything was utterly interchangeable and unmemorable. I didn’t care enough about the films I liked to recommend them, and I didn’t care enough about the ones I hated to work up any real venom (though that could be because I avoid brainless kiddie films such as Zookeeper, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and The Hangover Part II).

The problem is that the modern blockbuster costs $150 million to $250 million to produce and promote, and that’s before you factor in above-the-line talent like actors and directors. These films are so prohibitively expensive and yet so crucial to their studio’s bottom lines that they have to be all things to all people, and end up as nothing to anyone.

Even the “good” movies arrived with built-in compromises: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 treated J.K. Rowling’s words with a reverence historically reserved for W.H. Auden; Super 8 consciously recalled Steven Spielberg’s Always, unfortunately; Captain America at least offered a coherent visual concept and a sympathetic hero, but it was just Joe Johnston remaking The Rocketeer for the CGI age and comedies such as Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses offered little besides cheap laughs and pulled punches.

The outright duds weren’t any more memorable: The new Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were soulless cash grabs, but played like Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons compared to their preceding franchise entries; the listless Cars and Kung Fu Panda sequels would be more offensive if we weren’t culturally inured to serving our children garbage; Thor and Green Lantern were insipid and miscast messes, yet ultimately harmless and watchable; and Priest could be dismissed as a poor man’s Book of Eli—if not for its fascinating insistence on remaking John Ford’s The Searchers.

Some have suggested that summer 2011 is a historically bad movie season, but these people haven’t peeked ahead to the summer 2012 slate, which has enough apocalyptic potential to embarrass Roland Emmerich. If this is the year that Hollywood hit bottom, then summer 2012 is when the dirt will be shoveled on its corpse. Men in Black 3, GI Joe 2: Retaliation, Battleship, a Total Recall remake, and The Expendables 2 are among next year’s “highlights.”

It’s almost enough to make you root for the rapture.