A little more than a month into summer-movie season, something’s off. It’s not that this year’s crop of would-be blockbusters is particularly bad. So far, truthfully, it’s been a typical 21st-century summer at the multiplex: one Pixar cartoon that will spur months of probably fruitless talk of a Best Picture nomination and questions about why the best grown-up summer movies are always cartoons (Up), one raunchfest that’s a ”surprise” hit because it didn’t cost $150 million to make (The Hangover), one popular reboot (Star Trek), virtually no leading roles for women, and four unnecessary sequels. We’ve been here before.
Overall, though, these movies feel especially inattentive to and disconnected from the particular moment in which they’re arriving. Most of this season’s offerings aren’t timely — and they certainly aren’t timeless. They’re just there, created because they sort of resemble something we sort of liked a few years ago. And they’re all stamped with labels reading, EXPIRATION DATE: YESTERDAY.
One of the biggest frustrations of the film business is that movies take so long to make. Even if everything goes smoothly, you’re still looking at two years from the day a script is conceived to the day you can buy a ticket for the finished product. No wonder so many movies lag behind public taste, behind YouTube, even behind television. To make a film today is to take a wild guess at what will captivate audiences years from now, and that’s hard in an era in which the real world is moving breathtakingly fast. Only 12 months ago, we had a different president, a different economy, a different 401(k), and the luxury of not caring who Jon and Kate were.
For most Americans, the summer of ’09 is not interchangeable with the summer of ’02 or ’04 or ’07 — so why are the movies? Perhaps because their creators were busier looking backward than forward. Land of the Lost was bought as a vehicle for Will Ferrell four years ago. Somewhere between ”Hey, let’s stick him in a retread of a terrible Saturday-morning show!” and ”Okay, here’s the movie,” Ferrell made many more films, so overexposing his developmentally arrested persona that by the time Land of the Lost trundled into theaters, it felt old. Terminator Salvation probably looked like a smart idea in 2007, just before Fox’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles provided brutally clear evidence that the franchise needs a long rest. X-Men Origins: Wolverine went into development way back in 2004, approximately 300,000 comic-book movies ago, and everyone involved apparently ignored the commonsense reality that an origin story just wouldn’t be that compelling nine years into a summer-movie series. (Speaking of which, just in case there’s a Da Vinci Code prequel on tap for 2014 in which all is revealed about how Tom Hanks’ character got his postgraduate degree and learned how to straighten his hair, spare us. I’m begging you.)
Even Star Trek got caught in a mild time warp. The reimagining of James T. Kirk as a hard-partying brat who needs to pull himself together to don the mantle of his famous father is the George W. Bush story in a Barack Obama moment. So the movie’s hothead-with-daddy-issues plotline may feel a little dusty now that we’ve seen variations play out in everything from W. to last summer’s Indiana Jones installment to Fringe (brought to you, not coincidentally, by Star Trek‘s director and writers). But overall, this very deft revitalization stands as one of only two movies that play as if they were made for this summer rather than just any summer. (The other is The Hangover, about a bunch of morons who wake up one day in huge trouble without knowing how they got there, then proceed to lie about it. They could have called it Wall Street 2.)
Trek is the optimist’s version of a current-events movie: It’s about a new beginning, the energizing spirit of purposefulness, and the importance of building a team of people who aren’t afraid to disagree with you. Clearly, back in 2007, J.J. Abrams and his crew were thinking ahead. That’s always a gamble; you might guess wrong. But if you’re embarking on a project that could turn into a five-year mission, trying to predict the future, even while you scavenge the past, is a very good place to start.