Summer movies are the raucous, cheap dates of the cinematic oeuvre; aside from giving you a brief respite from the melanoma-threatening rays and oppressive desert heat, they let you rest your sun-stroked brain for a few hours. Sure, fall may have its heavy-hitting Oscar dramas and spring may bring bundles of bright and bouncy rom-coms, but summer is the season for CGI-stuffed spectacles and rowdy, boundary-pushing comedies, the kinds of movies that no one in their right mind would ever call “films”—in a good way.
The quintessential post-Memorial Day, pre-Labor Day flick, of course, is the big-budget blockbuster, which generally falls into one of three categories: comic-book adaptation, franchise sequel or patently ridiculous genre mash-up. And the 2011 summer season has all three—whoever said the Rapture was coming was totally right! First up is the fourth installment of the series based on everyone’s favorite antebellum New Orleans-based theme park ride: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (out May 20) promises more of Johnny Depp’s uncanny Keith Richards impression as well as a new bosom-heaving heroine in the form of Penelope Cruz. Another sequel, masquerading as a prequel, follows on June 3, with a Scotsman taking on the role of a beloved sci-fi mentor as a young man. But I already saw The Phantom Menace, you may be saying, and then I blinded myself with lye. But take comfort, gentle reader, this is a different Scotsman (James McAvoy) playing a different guru (Professor X) in a different franchise origin story (X-Men: First Class). There is no Jar Jar Binks, but there is Kevin Bacon, which I think we all can agree is a sign of progress.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1)—not to be confused with the Pink Floyd record of a similar title, which does not, to my knowledge, feature any references to Optimus Prime—is set during the space race between Soviet-era Russia and the U.S., and suggests that the Transformers (and, presumably, Shia LaBoeuf) had a role in the first moon landing. This, clearly, will be awesome. There’s also some little indie flick called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (July 15), if you care. I’m excited for the answers to many burning questions: Does The Boy Who Lived die? Will good triumph over evil? Do Voldemort’s insanely tiny nostrils cause sleep apnea? The movie is not yet rated, but if it scores a PG-13, a child born the year the first Harry Potter book was published would be able to go unaccompanied by an adult. Go ahead, cry it out. I’ll wait.
Thor already hammered his way into theaters last week, but summer brings us two more superhero epics: Green Lantern (June 17) and Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22). The former stars Ryan Reynolds as a beefcake with an all-powerful ring and a chest that lights up who sets out to save the Earth (although the most outrageous plot point may be that Blake Lively plays a pilot). The latter stars Chris Evans as a beefcake super soldier who … saves America? (I don’t know; I didn’t read comic books unless you count MAD magazine. Let me know when they decide to make a full-length Spy vs. Spy starring Clive Owen and Colin Firth).
If pirates, wizards and skintight breastplates don’t do it for you, summer can always be counted on to deliver a few movies centered around epic battles. If you like 3-D beheadings you’ll probably love Conan the Barbarian (Aug. 19). If you like James Franco and Gorillas in the Mist, you won’t want to miss Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug. 5), in which Franco, as a genetic scientist, accidentally imbues a tribe of monkeys with extraordinary cognitive abilities. And if you like your titles literal, à la Snakes on a Plane, Cowboys & Aliens (July 29) won’t disappoint—it really is about a spaceship landing in the American West of the 1870s, plus it stars James Bond and Indiana Jones (otherwise known as Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford). What could be bad?
There are also a few thrillers on the roster: a remake of the horror classic Fright Night (Aug. 19), starring Anton Yelchin and McLovin’ from Superbad, about a man who suspects that his neighbor is a murderous vampire; and Super 8 (June 10), from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, in which a train crash in a small Ohio town sets off a string of mysterious disappearances.
But blockbusters don’t only come in adult sizes. As it turns out, some of the season’s most anticipated releases won’t scare the bejeesus out of your kids. Disney and Pixar’s Cars 2 (June 24) follows its anthropomorphic autos overseas, where they compete in the World Grand Prix. Zookeeper (July 8) imagines Kevin James as a modern-day, albeit more blue collar, Dr. Doolittle who can talk to the animals. Mr. Popper’s Penguins (June 17) stars Jim Carrey and a bevy of flightless aquatic birds—a recipe for hilarity if I ever saw one. And, of course, there are The Smurfs, those topless blue Belgian commune-dwellers beloved the world over, who make their big screen debut on July 29 (Neil Patrick Harris, Katy Perry and Tim Gunn are among the celebrity voices). Apparently the movie’s plot involves Gargamel chasing the Smurfs to New York City, where, presumably, they are horrified to discover the price of subway fare. (Luckily, at a height of just three apples each, they can sneak under the turnstiles.)
Speaking of which, this summer’s big comedies are all about bad behavior. The Hangover Part II (May 26; the red carpet for the Las Vegas premiere is 2 p.m. May 21 at Planet Hollywood) sends its debaucherous trio (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakis) to Bangkok for a sequel that’s sure to up the ante on the original (which, you may remember, featured both full frontal nudity and a loose Bengal tiger). Bad Teacher (June 24) features Cameron Diaz as a kid-hating, sex-, drugs- and F-bomb-loving educator who vies for the affections of a handsome substitute (Justin Timberlake). In a similar vein, Horrible Bosses (July 8) fulfills every 9-to-5er’s fantasy when three workaday schmos (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) plot to kill their, well, horrible bosses (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and, in a bit of refreshing against-type casting, Jennifer Aniston). Paul Rudd earns his title role in the Sundance hit Our Idiot Brother (Aug. 26) by selling marijuana to a uniformed cop. Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari attempt to rob a bank in 30 Minutes or Less (Aug. 12). And Steve Carell plays the dating-challenged middle-aged wingman to Ryan Gosling’s young lothario in Crazy Stupid Love (July 29). Pssst. Nice try, Gosling, but don’t think I don’t remember Blue Valentine. I am still washing the mascara monsoon off of my sweater.
Inevitably, over the course of three months, a few films—yes, films!—squeak by that are heart-warming and/or thought-provoking. Details about Terrence Malick’s fantasy/drama The Tree of Life (May 27) have been murky so far, but I know that it starts in the Midwest of the 1950s, that Brad Pitt plays Sean Penn’s dad, and that Brad doesn’t have Benjamin Button disease again—Sean Penn is his son in the future. Penn’s character is a “lost soul” and the film will explore themes of truth, beauty, faith and other vague but admirable virtues. (The poster that’s been released shows a newborn’s foot, which suggests that the tree of life might be like the circle of life. So, like The Lion King, but live-action and without Elton John songs?) Larry Crowne (July 1) reunites the crackerjack team of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in a dramedy about a downsized executive who goes back to school to start over, falls in with a ragtag bunch of lovable misfits and crushes on his professor. The Help (Aug. 12), based on The New York Times best-seller, which from what I’ve heard is all but guaranteed to make you weep, charts the unlikely—and socially taboo—friendship between two African-American maids and a young white woman in 1960s Mississippi. (If only after aiding NASA with the moon landing, the Transformers could have traveled to the South to lobby for civil rights!) Finally, One Day (Aug. 19), also based on a popular novel, follows a couple (Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess) every July 15 for 20 years, until—spoiler alert (I’m guessing)—they finally fall in love.
That’s 25 movies—at least 50 solid hours, and this list only covers a fraction of the summer releases. So go forth, cinephiles. Avoid the sun and brave the inflation of popcorn and ticket prices. Partake of a Franco with both of his arms. And save me a seat, will you?