By the actual calendar, summer doesn’t officially end until later in September. But the summer movie season fizzles out every Labor Day weekend, and this year the fizzling got an even earlier start. Well before this past weekend, plenty of analysis called time of death on summer movie quality, summer movie economics, the practice of making sequels, and even the film industry as a whole. Looking over the summer’s box office charts, it makes sense: This was a season where big superhero movies, talking animal cartoons, and horror pictures made a lot of money, and not much else did. And unlike recent summer movies like Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Avengers, or Inception, few if any of the summer’s big-ticket attractions will be in contention for many 10-best lists or Oscars at year’s end.
As ever, the actual, individual tastes of critics and audience members vary, and there’s a danger in trying to assign a cultural consensus to every movie. In some sense, rating the summer as a whole is a pointless exercise; despite outdated assumptions from both industry insiders and film critics, good and bad movies alike are a year-round business. But just as older genre film fans might look back in wonder at the summer of ’82 (featuring E.T., Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Poltergeist, The Road Warrior, and Blade Runner) or the summer of ’84 (Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom), there have been some contemporary summers with robust, varied lineups of very good movies, like 2008 (Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Step Brothers, and cult favorite Speed Racer) and even the otherwise sequel-saturated 2011 (Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Super 8, X-Men: First Class, the first Captain America).
Compared to past lineups like those, 2016 didn’t really measure up, and the gap between the box-office haves (four movies that made over $300 million each) and have-nots (nothing else that will crest $175 million) is obviously cause for alarm. Maybe, though, those alarms don’t have to mean impending doom for the summer movie season. Maybe a “bad” summer of 2016 holds the keys to satisfying summer movie seasons of the future.
While there weren’t any real all-time classics hitting the multiplexes between the beginning of May and the end of August, there was a cheaper, more disreputable, and often much more fun version of the season bubbling up underneath all of the sequel bombast and yammering animals. Starting in June, the movies arrived at the end of the month, every month, with the consistency of a good B-movie rep program: The Blake Lively-versus-shark thriller The Shallows; the internet-paranoia thriller/romance Nerve; and the blind-stalker horror movie Don’t Breathe. Any of these movies could have worked in any season; smaller-scale horror and thriller pictures have often, in recent years, been relegated to “off” months like January or September (at least until The Conjuring helped bring horror back to summer in a big way in 2013).
Yet there’s a craft to these films—seemingly recognized by their studios at least on some level—that makes them work beyond their smash-and-grab cash potential. Jaume Collet-Serra, the kind of B-movie auteur often called up to the big-budget majors for drab salvage jobs, wrings sincere tension from his bargain-bin Hitchcock scenario in The Shallows, then stirs in the perfect amount of pulp nuttiness. Nerve, based on a novel, imagines a tech-invaded world of teenage dares with a propulsive and neon-accented sense of style that should have informed bigger movies like Suicide Squad. Don’t Breathe, the biggest and best-reviewed hit of the bunch, offers nastier thrills than haunted-house sequels, and lays its groundwork with a sequence where the camera roves around the site of a home invasion, poking around with, and eventually without, the characters.
These movies, unencumbered with huge budgets or climactic appearances of what one of the Suicide Squad folks memorably identified as a “swirling ring of trash in the sky,” have room to generate summery feelings that go beyond expensive, computer-generated awe. The default mode of attack in current summer movies has been to bludgeon the audience into submission; even some perfectly decent movies suffer from this directive. These movies can be sneakier and more efficient in their thrills, and more season-appropriate to boot: The Shallows builds up its dread on a sun-soaked beach, while Nerve taps into the youthful recklessness of a summer night. (Both also boast female protagonists, giving them stronger and more realistic gender balance than the many majority-male blockbusters.) Even Don’t Breathe, with its young folks ready to get the hell out of Detroit, has an end-of-summer vibe that pairs well with the similarly moody (and Michigan-set) It Follows.
Not all or even most summer-movie classics explicitly evoke the season in question, but it helps when mainstream movies evoke something besides other recent mainstream movies. The Shallows, Nerve, and Don’t Breathe all utilize gimmicks, whether in story hooks, filmmaking, or both. But their old-fashioned hucksterism, a throwback to the summer season as an exploitation dumping ground, has a strain of honesty to it. These movies may not have ascended to event status, but they deliver (or in many cases over-deliver) on their carny-barker promises of woman versus shark, teens versus internet, and young people versus blind guy. If anything, proximity to franchise giants may actually improve smaller-scale fare, which doesn’t have to play a long game. Movies like The Shallows are free to open and shut in about 90 minutes.
Movies set in established cinematic worlds can still provide their own pleasures—and summer 2016 saw the release of a sequel that could serve as an object lesson in how to make a good one. I’m not talking about the extremely entertaining Captain America: Civil War, because it made the uninspired decision to have Captain America’s genre-jumping land in the less-than-storied genre of “Marvel Movie,” or the similarly enjoyable X-Men: Apocalypse, because I apparently liked it more than almost anyone else. Rather, it was Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond that delivered franchise-movie goods with a minimum of bombast, plus nods to its series’ past that felt elegant or clever, rather than like the missing first 20 pages of some overwritten instruction manual. The movie uses familiarity with the Star Trek crew to give the story some emotional heft, but the story itself is one of the most self-contained Treks in the whole 13-movie series.
Of course, the example of Star Trek Beyond may not be heeded in the immediate future. It made less than half the haul of the heavily serialized Civil War—a multi-purpose story that functions as a sequel to as many as three other movies. Lacking a vast ongoing story, Beyond’s trailers emphasized the action spectacle that’s supposed to hook moviegoers with a more casual interest in Trek, but they were selling a movie that uses its action sparingly, with fewer presentational, clearly demarcated set pieces than, say, the Fast & Furious movies Lin made his bones directing. But then, memorable set pieces were in short supply everywhere this summer. Civil War, perhaps not coincidentally, had the best one of the season with that airport smackdown, but most of the other big non-animated releases opted for simultaneous world-building and world-destroying over great action sequences. Even lighter fare like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters spent time dutifully paying homage to its predecessor and, in its post-credits scene, setting up a sequel seemingly intended to further remake that predecessor.
When dudes frothed over the very idea of a Ghostbusters remake, they angrily insisted that it was reboot/sequel culture, rather than the film’s female-led cast, that truly rankled them. One reason this complaint continues to ring false is the sheer lack of mainstream attention paid to the summer’s smaller movies—smaller, even, than the likes of Nerve or The Shallows (which, judging by their modest if respectable box office, did not receive a gigantic portion of the anti-remake, anti-reboot crowd). This wasn’t even a banner summer for indie releases, but there are both summery and genre-y vibes to indies like The Neon Demon (a slow-burning exercise in horror) and Hell Or High Water (a modern Western with plenty of suspenseful sequences).
In other words, anti-reboots are alive and well for people who actually want to seek them out. Some arthouse movies, even perfectly accessible ones, never play beyond big cities, but for a wonderfully insane counterpoint, observe that The Neon Demon somehow opened on nearly 800 screens nationwide back in June, sadly just short of the number of screenings needed to receive what would have been a wonderfully low CinemaScore. Less strange but no less satisfying, Hell Or High Water played on over a thousand screens over Labor Day weekend.
If the chances of studios excitedly looking to imitate Star Trek Beyond are minimal, the chances of any of them learning a lesson from Neon Demon beyond “stay out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s brain” are infinitesimal. But then, there was no specific trend-chasing reason for Neon Demon, High Water, Nerve, or The Shallows to exist in the first place, and they still made it out in a summer full of remakes, rehashes, and revisitations. It’s unrealistic to expect studios to stop making sequels, or comic-book movies, or talking-animal cartoons, or any of the bugaboos that get scapegoated as signs of creative bankruptcy. But the undercard movies of summer 2016 can at least serve as reminders that not everything needs to ride on studios’ abilities to produce non-irritating franchise entries.
Incompetence in that department may, too, be a blessing in disguise. If summer movie seasons are ever to more closely resemble a raucous and eclectic series of drive-in double bills, rather than a long line to ride an endless rollercoaster at a particularly noisy and crowded theme park, a season where many of the big movies disappoint might well contribute to the cause.
The summer-movie machine is generally too big to change course very quickly, which is to say any premature summer 2017 movie preview won’t paint a rosier picture than the one audiences just finished crumpling up and discarding. The current (and very preliminary) release schedule includes additional entries in such beloved and in no way played-out franchises as Transformers, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Cars, Annabelle, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, The Nut Job, World War Z, Cars, and Despicable Me, along with presumed franchise-starters based on Barbie dolls, Baywatch, CHiPs, and emoji. These projects, and the relative paucity of few franchise entries that seem genuinely promising (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, War For The Planet Of The Apes, and Wonder Woman among them), make it easy to look at next year and beyond as aftershocks of this year’s flopquake.
Consider, though, that next year’s equivalent of The Shallows may not even have a spot on the schedule yet. Rather than lamenting the movie industry shameless enough to try making movies out of Barbies or emoji (or perhaps, a few summers down the line, Barbie Vs. Emoji: Dawn Of GIFs), watch for the movies that didn’t plant their tentpoles 18 months ahead of time. Sometimes a decent summer movie season comes out without the usual deafening hype. Audiences just have to go looking for it.