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Summer Hits

The summer blockbuster season is here, and a trio of established franchises that have already made their way into theaters this past June.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK is a sequel that has been nearly four decades in the making. The original has emerged as one of the most beloved action films of all time, one that still gets plenty of play on cable television and streaming services. Fans of Tom Cruise and gratuitous volleyball sequences have been clamoring for a follow-up since 1986 and after numerous delays, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is finally flying high once again.

When a global threat emerges that threatens our entire way of life, the rebellious Maverick (Cruise) is called back into action. While he is as daring and controversial as ever, the prevailing thought is that he is the only man capable of training a new generation of pilots (Miles Teller, Scott Glenn, Monica Barbaro, Bashir Salahuddin) to take on the seemingly impossible mission. Though he would rather be part of the combat team, he reluctantly agrees to take on the task, even if it means putting the cadets in mortal danger. He is particularly torn by the inclusion of Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, the son of his former co-pilot and best buddy Goose. Rooster is one heck of a flier, but Maverick is worried that he will suffer the same fate as his dearly departed dad.

There are countless reasons why MAVERICK should not have worked, but it thrives on virtually every level. It is the rare movie that is better than the original in every conceivable way, even though I’m sure there will be some who think it is sacrilegious to say so. The performances are spot on, the storyline is more concise and feels as if it might actually be building to something (unlike the original), and it has the same air of playful exuberance that made TOP GUN an indelible delight since ‘86. Most importantly, the action sequences are absolutely stunning. For most of these moments, the performers were legitimately in the planes, setting up their own cameras to establish shots that place the audience directly inside the cockpit. The result is a litany of hyper-realistic, pulse-pounding sequences that truly beg to be seen on the big screen. Cruise was emphatic that audiences would be willing to wait until they could see this film in the theaters (as opposed to debuting on a streaming service) and his gamble paid off. As this article goes to print, the worldwide box office take is approaching a billion dollars and shows very little signs of slowing.

Speaking of billion-dollar franchises, JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION had the seemingly impossible task of slowing down the TOP GUN juggernaut. On paper, the sixth installment in the JURASSIC PARK catalog couldn’t possibly fail. Billed as the culmination of the gripping saga, it promised the return of original stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern and the incomparable Jeff Goldblum. It was going to pair them alongside Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Isabella Sermon to provide fans with a thrilling conclusion to this epic adventure.

Only, this isn’t exactly what happened.

The JURASSIC franchise is one that I want to love. The original film is one of the more influential movie-going experiences of my life (I was 11 years old and by the time velociraptors started opening kitchen doors I experienced true cinematic terror for the very first time) and ever since, I have longed for the chance to recapture the magic. Unfortunately, that’s not really how things played out. While I am overly enthusiastic every time an installment opens, the only chapter that has come close to the original was JURASSIC WORLD. This was the breath of fresh air that was needed, but in retrospect, this is likely because it so cleverly played off of Spielberg’s original masterpiece.

In DOMINION, dinosaurs are now a part of everyday life. They are setting up nests in skyscrapers, causing backups on the highway, and mucking up construction sites. As humanity navigates this perilous new world, dino DNA becomes even more profitable than it ever has been and this forces Colin Trevorrow’s film to venture off into far too many subplots. This culminates in a storyline about genetically altered locusts that becomes the disappointing focal point of the entire film.

It was great seeing the old crew get back together, though the dialogue provided to Neill and Dern is downright cringey at times. To be fair, even in the original they weren’t exactly spouting Shakespeare, but it was never THIS bad. The best moments and lines are saved for Goldblum, which isn’t surprising, and his performance ends up being more fun to watch than the dinosaurs. That’s great news for Goldblum, but not so great for a film whose title contains the words “JURASSIC WORLD.”

One of the other truly confounding things about DOMINION is how under-utilized Pratt became. In films like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, JURASSIC WORLD, and LEGO MOVIE, he embodied the goofy yet infallible hero that seemed like an everyman, yet could save the world at every turn. This time around, he’s a shell of any of these characters, made all the more perplexing by the fact that he’s supposed to be the same guy from JURASSIC WORLD. Sure, he can outrun raptors on a motorbike and defy death in a towering inferno as a T-Rex tries to ingest him, but the charm that has always been there was simply non-existent. If anything positive can be taken from this, it is that Howard emerged as the more believable and emotional hero, stopping at nothing to save her adopted daughter Maisie (Sermon) as an evil corporation attempts to harvest her DNA.

Perhaps none of this would have mattered if the action sequences had dazzled in the same as they did in MAVERICK. While there is still an element of wonder when watching some of these fantastic beasts grace the screen, we’ve also gotten to the point where it is difficult to introduce anything new. There were a couple of sequences that thrilled, but there wasn’t anything truly breathtaking. In 1993, the iconic moment when Grant and Sadler see the creatures for the first time was a sequence that had to be seen to
be believed. In 2022, when Tom Cruise is putting audience members in the cockpit of fighter jets, you’re going to have to do a whole lot more than deliver a CGI monster chasing a scowling dude on a scooter.

Though aimed at a much younger audience yet still hoping to emerge as one of the summer’s biggest films, is LIGHTYEAR. Before its release, many wondered how the movie would be connected to the TOY STORY universe, particularly with Chris Evans replacing Tim Allen as the voice of the titular hero. This mystery is solved in the opening seconds, when the audience is informed that “In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”

Stuffed with roughly a kajillion subtle and not-so-subtle TOY STORY references, and boasting Pixar’s typically endearing brand of storytelling, LIGHTYEAR may not rise to the level of the series that inspired it, but it is certainly a fun time at the movies.

After being marooned on a dangerous planet, Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, who blames himself for the catastrophic events that resulted in their precarious predicament, strives to get his crew back home. Unfortunately, in order to do so, he must prove that they possess the ability to achieve hyper-speed in order to make it back. There is a lot of trial and error, and to complicate matters, a four-minute trip for him in space ends up being four years in real time on the planet he is leaving. Each time he fails, he comes back to discover that his friends and crew are growing older and moving on.

Despite the source material, LIGHTYEAR has more in common with adventures like STAR WARS than it does TOY STORY. You can plainly see where the inspiration and homages were born form, but it still forges its own path. In typical Pixar fashion, the animation is remarkable and there are laughs abound. The majority of these are derived from the fantastic robot companion cat SOX (Peter Sohn) but plenty are reserved for cadet-in-training Mo Morrison (the perfectly cast Taika Waiiti). The action sequences are engaging in a way that many in DOMINION were not, and by the time Zurg (James Brolin) makes his first appearance, audiences will have already decided if they have bought in to the spin-off or not.

In its first week in theaters, the box-office numbers for LIGHTYEAR have fallen below expectations, and it seems impossible not to draw a direct correlation between this and the now infamous same-sex kiss that occurs between two characters in the film. The controversy has been immense, with a theater in Oklahoma going so far as to “fast forward” through the moment in their showings. It is worth noting that after the justifiable backlash, they are no longer doing so, but the fact remains that at one point this was a policy they actually implemented. Ironically, as is often the case in overblown freakouts such as these, the kiss is a blink-and-you-will-miss-it moment that many may not have even realized was there if it weren’t for the absurd ruckus that it has caused. It is an absolute travesty that something so innocuous could be the reason that many won’t end up appreciating what is an entertaining animated adventure that would be beloved under any other circumstance.




All films now showing in theaters.

Brian Miller