Robots, spandex and Christian Bale hit screens this summer

Someday in the not-too-distant future, when the ravages of industrial pollution have permanently destroyed the planet’s ozone layer and driven global temperatures up to cataclysmic levels, the survival of the human species will depend on plentiful air conditioning. Dry land and a steady food supply will be tough to find, of course, but such concerns are best pondered from the confines of a comfortably chilled environment. And what better place for throngs of overheated humans to congregate than inside the temperature-controlled embrace of the multiplex? For the price of a movie ticket, audiences can enjoy a reprieve from summer heat, while simultaneously experiencing a barrage of audiovisual stimuli administered in crisp two-hour installments.

This phenomenon is known as “the summer blockbuster,” and it’s about to become the cinema du jour for the next several weeks. Before global warming makes the summer season a year-round phenomenon, Hollywood has graciously confined its popcorn programming to four months of the year. From May to August, the film industry unleashes a logjam of big, noisy action movies, populated by iron-skinned supermen and sumptuous bombshells in spandex. The objective here is twofold: first, to stimulate the adrenal glands of movie fans the world over; and second, to squeeze every available dollar out of their wallets by doing so.

This year’s season of summer fun began with the release of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on May 1. Early reviews suggested that the movie’s execution was even more atrocious than its mangled title; in spite of this critical consensus, however, “Wolverine” has managed to earn $129.6 million in a mere 10 days. By the time audiences lose interest, the film will have likely garnered a sum roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of a small country. All this over the spectacle of Hugh Jackman in a muscle shirt.

“Star Trek” opened this weekend to earn a cool $72.5 million, ensuring that the titular franchise will continue to live long and prosper for the immediate future. I was astonished to realize that this was the 11th feature film to be spawned from the original television series, to say nothing of the countless ancillary shows and merchandising campaigns. This latest space odyssey promises to be the cash cow of the franchise, a fact attributable to the producers’ decision to replace the stiff, middle-aged heroes of yore with a buxom young cast whose muscular bodies threaten to pop the seams of their skin-tight jumpsuits. In Hollywood parlance, this is known as “re-branding.”

Compared to these nubile creatures, Tom Hanks looks positively geriatric as the Harvard University professor who uncovers yet another global conspiracy in “Angels & Demons,” opening May 15. The advertising campaign has offered little to distinguish this film from its predecessor “The Da Vinci Code” (2006), which may be intentional; after all, the earlier movie made nearly $220 million at the domestic box office, so why tamper with the formula? I use the term “formula” loosely, as the entire series (adapted from Dan Brown’s wildly popular mystery novels) seems to rely solely on campy religious iconography and expensive cars. Picture “The Exorcist” in a Ferrari, and you’re almost there.

Fans of the spooky existentialist nightmare that was James Cameron’s original “Terminator” have expressed some concern that the franchise has been handed over to somebody named McG — a director whose resume includes such auspicious gems as “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” (2003) and “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy): The Music Video.” Fortunately, when “Terminator: Salvation” opens on May 21, it will have a secret weapon up its mechanical sleeve. Christian Bale, that handsome Welshman whose facial muscles seem hardened into a permanent grimace since “Batman Begins,” has doffed his bat-suit and donned the mantle of the anti-robot crusader John Conner. Whether Bale’s protagonist will survive this latest scrap remains to be seen, though given its unprecedented PG-13 rating (a horror for the fan boys), the film may not have the guts to kill him off.

Speaking of robots, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” will arrive on June 24, marking the second installment of Michael Bay’s saga about giant mechanical monsters stomping all over the Midwest. I remain unconvinced of these films’ insistence that Shia LaBeouf is somehow charismatic (his co-star, the feisty Megan Fox, could outman him any day), but there is still something undeniably entertaining about watching this slip of a man dodge the barn-sized fists of mechanized titans.

A potentially more mature showdown will arrive one week later, when Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” opens on July 1. The film stars Johnny Depp as the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, a crooked folk hero of the 1930s. Fresh from his exertions in “Terminator: Salvation,” Christian Bale trades his AK-47 for a Tommy gun as the FBI agent assigned to bring Dillinger to justice. The presence of a highbrow genre director like Mann is a hopeful indication of the film’s artistic promise, though the sight of two Hollywood icons chasing each other in fedoras will likely be worth the price of admission.

Which brings us to the only summer blockbuster that can legitimately be termed an “event.” Without the attraction of robots, spandex or Christian Bale to lure audiences, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” might not seem like a traditional summer blockbuster, but tell that to the legions of fans who have been awaiting this movie with the feverish anticipation of a religious cult. On July 15, these impatient throngs will witness the latest installment in Harry’s ongoing adventures, as he battles off evil wizards while struggling through the anxieties of teenage life.

When you consider the budget of a film like “Harry Potter” — which, including the marketing costs, will likely reach $200 million — it’s astounding to imagine that all this sound and fury is being expended on a story that began its life as a minor work of adolescent fiction. Indeed, many of this summer’s more bombastic blockbusters have emerged from similarly humble roots: short-lived TV series (“Star Trek”), dime-store pulp novels (“Angels & Demons”) and children’s action figures (“Transformers”). It’s a marvel of pop culture that such inconsequential doodles are periodically re-packaged into gargantuan media events, complete with red carpet premieres and worldwide advertising campaigns. A cynic might say that such regurgitation is the hallmark of a society starved for ideas, in which novelty and innovation are cast aside in favor of an easy buck. But a movie fan will merely shrug, grab a handful of popcorn, and nestle into the air-conditioned darkness of the theatre waiting patiently for the next big explosion.

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