The stench of death pervades the air. The wreckage of doomed vehicles litters the ground. Stunned survivors wander aimlessly, wounded and bloodied, wondering what happened to them. It was not supposed to be like this. God, why?
Although that may very well sound like a scene from Predators, the Robert Rodriguez-produced reboot of the Predator franchise, it's also an apt description of the summer movie season's annual bloodbath, as studio executives helplessly watch their all-star projects twist in agony before dying a quick death at the box office. Prince of Persia, meet Robin Hood. Jonah Hex, say hello to The A-Team. Let me introduce you all to Knight and Day. And has anyone seen those Sex and City 2 girls? Oh, such ignoble ends to so many executive-dining-room dreams.
Ironically, most of these pics did hit around $100 million in domestic gross (well, except for Jonah Hex)—but what was once the ultimate measure of blockbuster status doesn't even make back the budget these days. Everything—even a crappy sequel—is a high-risk venture. The international box office might save the day, and some people out there still buy DVDs, but the stakes have never been higher. If you don't make a big dent in people's wallets on opening weekend, don't expect much more screen time for your movie to prove itself. In that context, it's easy to see why studio decision-makers focus on the things they understand—stars, explosions, big budgets—rather than on the more enigmatic matters of truly entertaining moviegoers.
More than ever before, summer movies are all about the money—and watching the interstudio combat at boxofficemojo.com has become more fun than watching the movies themselves. But let us pause now amid the financial carnage to congratulate two champions of the weekend that have succeeded on the merits of their entertainment value: Predators and Despicable Me.
Despicable Me is only Universal's third stab at a computer-animated feature, and while they haven't yet scaled the Pixar/Disney ramparts, their latest effort is not nearly as irritating as DreamWorks' numerous dreadful attempts. In fact, based on its art direction alone, Despicable Me is utterly beguiling, with perfectly cute character designs, an intriguing cartoon world of bumbling supervillains, and a snappy sense of humor that comes through in its sight gags. It even looks like it could have been crafted by Pixar, which is high praise—that also reveals the ground-breaking studio's inescapable influence on the medium. Even so, Despicable Me is no mere knock-off.
Steve Carell provides the voice for fading supervillain Gru, mouthing a faintly sinister Slavic accent to match his character's Uncle Fester looks. Gru's notoriety has just been eclipsed by newcomer Vector (Jason Segel), a nerdy young punk who's managed to steal the Great Pyramid of Giza and replace it with an inflatable version. Hoping to reclaim the spotlight, Gru conspires to steal a shrink-raygun, with which he hopes to zap the Moon so he can in turn steal it. But Vector foils his plan by appropriating the raygun first, so naturally Gru must adopt three endearing orphan girls in order to get the gun back. Silly, yes, but not syrupy; the three moppets have individual personalities, and Gru's inevitable surrender to fatherhood arrives without melodrama.
But that's also Despicable Me's main problem—its story lacks emotional heft, and won't move you as Pixar's best films usually do. On the other hand, Gru's lil' yellow minions are absolutely adorable, and the 3-D effects are worth the inflated ticket price.
Predators, meanwhile, brings the science-fiction series back to its roots as a B-movie romp about musclebound dudes getting their asses kicked by Rastafarian aliens in the jungle. In fact, it's not so much a sequel as it is a remake—same scenario, same results. But what do you know? It still works. After having to put up with the unholy union of the Aliens vs. Predators series of comics, games, and movies, it's a relief just to see our beloved Predators doing what they do best: picking off hapless human mercenaries one by one with their superior technology and mondo arm machetes.
Director Nimród Antal suffers no pretensions of art here—he simply throws elite killer Adrien Brody into an alien jungle along with other elite killers, and has them go at it. Just like the original Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the horror-movie fun here is meeting the colorful cast of misfits and then imagining how each one will go down. Gruesome? Oh, sure, but neither Rodriguez nor Antal are here just to create a marketing vehicle, like the aforementioned failed competitors; instead, their goal was to make a cool Predator movie, and they got the job done. Brody's all buffed out and he conjures his very best Clint Eastwood imitation; Laurence Fishburne drops in for a loopy turn as a dazed bipolar human survivor; and the Predators look mean and scary. What else could you ask for in a Predator movie, really?
In a summer of inept adaptations (The Last Airbender), purely money-grubbing sequels (Shrek Forever After), and inexplicable phenomena (Twilight Saga: Eclipse), it's reassuring to know that the old Hollywood traditions of irrepressible cuteness and relentless blood-spilling are still alive and well.