With next year’s big releases debuting their teaser trailers this week (namely Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it seems an appropriate time to look back at the traditional summer blockbuster period this year and assess the damage. But looking through the box office rankings seems to suggest that 2014 will hardly go down as one of the all-time-greats for popcorn movies. Only comparative underdogs Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie felt like genuine break-out successes that will enjoy a long shelf life, critically acclaimed and universally liked (if you only saw Chris Pratt or Scarlett Johansson films this year, you’d have a pretty good success rate of most talked about/popular/very good movies). And let’s hear it for Edge of Tomorrow. Only through consistent good write-ups did I give it a chance, and I’m glad I did – funny, inventive, different, and Tom Cruise’s best performance since Collateral, with great support from Emily Blunt and Bill Blooming Paxton.
Apart from that, there were few films I didn’t feel bad about giving a miss. At least until a couple of long-haul flights and some recent DVD releases came along so I could catch-up. So here’s my blockbuster round-up, filling in the gaps of those I didn’t fancy seeing first time round.
First up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the preboot (that’s a reboot that works as a prequel) that did a very good job of making rampaging apes seem exciting and not so very silly (a feat in itself). The world’s population has been decimated by simian flu, though once again, we’re back in the San Francisco area, so it’s hard to say if other parts of the world are experiencing similar primate problems. Caesar and his chums are back, and Andy Serkis and co, plus the fantastic work of the computer graphics team, do a terrific job of tricking you into not necessarily believing what you are seeing is real, but not caring that it isn’t. Sadly, the human characters are in no way as well-drawn as their ape counterparts (Gary Oldman does a very good bit of crying, but that’s about as three dimensional as anyone gets), and as interesting as their clashes are, I wished I could have cared more about what was going on as it all reached its inevitable conclusion/cliffhanger. A triumph more of technology than writing.
Superheroes set most of the rest of my catch-up agenda, with Marvel in its various forms (via Fox and Sony, plus its own studio) basically unchallenged. Maybe not the obvious choice, but Captain America: The First Avenger was probably the film out of Marvel’s first wave I enjoyed the most thanks to its interesting spin on perhaps the character that seemed most out of place in the 21st Century (by having him do just that, after gallivanting around in WWII and finding his status as a propaganda tool problematic). But while Captain America: The Winter Soldier was popular with both audiences and critics, it did very little that wowed me. Given Captain America himself as more conventional superpowers than most, it was impressive how creative the action sequences were, taking stock-and-trade car chases, fist fights, and stealthy sneaking scenes and adding something different or unexpected to them. However, so much of the plot hinges on you giving a solitary toss about S.H.I.E.L.D., so come the twists, reveals and conspiracies, I really didn’t care, likewise with the titular Winter Soldier. I even fell asleep a bit during the climax (okay, I was on a plane, but still). Guardians of the Galaxy remains the only Marvel Studios film I’d give more than three stars.
Not a great deal better was X-Men: Days of Future Past. Billed as the ultimate X-Men movie, given it unites the cast of the original trilogy and the First Class prequel, but even with original director Bryan Singer returning, the future dystopia sequences felt as ropey as anything in Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, while the main narrative thread in the 70’s didn’t play as much around with the period or have quite as much fun as First Class had with the 60’s. It’s weird how, much like The Expendables, the prospect of seeing a big cast sharing screen time ends up being more interesting than the finished product. Not bad by any means, but given the stakes (trying to prevent a future in which everyone, human and mutant alike, are enslaved or killed by giant murder machines), it all feels disappointingly inconsequential.
Weirdly, it was two of the summer’s more divisive blockbusters I ended up enjoying more, especially impressive as one was the sequel to perhaps the least necessary reboot in recent memory. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while still not maybe quite yet justifying Sony’s revived attempt to ‘Cinematic Universify’ the Marvel brand they still hold onto beyond simply renewing their rights, is at least a step in the right direction. Compared to the dull retread of Marc Webb’s first attempt, the sequel remembers that Spider-Man should above all else be fun and sparky and vibrant. The main draw is Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and their interactions feel natural and genuine, to the extent you could probably remove the big action set-pieces and it would still be worth watching. The threat of adding too many villains to the broth (which apparently killed Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, along with Emo Peter Parker, but you’re WRONG IT’S PERFECT) in the end doesn’t work out that way, and both Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan handle tricky roles well. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 knows that it can be alternately serious and goofy and still be entertaining. It doesn’t need to be po-faced like Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Man of Steel, nor does it have to be smug and quip-laden like Iron Man or The Avengers. That’s not to say it’s better than any of those films, but it finally felt like its own thing.
But altogether more surprising was how much I found myself liking Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a film I had little to no interest in seeing, and put off for the longest time once the rental DVD arrived at my door, despite Aronofsky’s track record being actually pretty good, or at the very least interesting. Well, lo and behold, so too is Noah. From the get-go, you can imagine they wanted the tagline to be: “This Ain’t No Bible Story”, for while it does feature a whole heap of biblical reference and backstory, it does a lot to divorce itself from the Sunday School imagery that immediately springs to mind. Although the world of Noah is pre-apocalyptic, it looks and feels closer to post-apocalyptic. It’s Mad Max B.C.. Plus, thrown into the mix are The Watchers, fallen angels turned giant rock monsters that despite being CG creations move and behave somewhere between stop-motion animation and a Jim Henson puppet. And they are great. In fact, the animals of the ark play only a small part in the story, with the focus on Noah (Russell Crowe, doing his patented mix of gruffness and sensitivity) and his family, and in particular Noah’s determination to follow God’s plan, come hell or high water (ba-dum tish). And boy, when that water comes, it is pretty damn horrifying. You wonder what the studio execs must have felt, bankrolling a big Bible epic and expecting a Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments and ending up with something so dark and downright weird, but kudos to them anyway. I still don’t know what Noah really is, or what it is trying to be, and if there’s an antecedent, The Fountain probably comes close, though this has far more drive and urgency. But it’s fascinating, engrossing and worth watching with an open mind.