Rehashed summer smashes
Movie studios try to craft a winning formula
By Greg Botelho
(CNN) -- From mutants to equines, gigantic green men to extraordinary gentlemen, legal blondes to a certain Bronx-born brunette, Hollywood's titans will duke it out this summer for box office bucks.
Flush with big budgets and big box-office expectations, studios are trying to master the movie game -- hoping proven franchises and well-scheduled openings bring in big-time receipts.
As a result, film critics expect few surprises and plenty of rehashed story lines and characters this summer. Although some lament a dearth of Oscar contenders, experts don't believe that will keep moviegoers at home.
"Star salaries are rising, production costs are rising, and [major] studios are owned by media conglomerates that are not necessarily doing well," says Christopher Null, an expert in media, business and technology, and the founder of Filmcritic.com. "But the audience doesn't have a diminished appetite for entertainment.
"There's always people who want to go out for a laugh, and there's always people who want to go out for a good cry."
Or a good virtual butt-kicking, as will often be this case this summer.
More of the same
Leading the pack is "The Matrix Reloaded," the second of three films in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) heads a group trying to save the human race from evil cyber-beings.
Half the respondents in a poll by Moviefone -- like CNN a unit of AOL Time Warner -- selected "The Matrix Reloaded" as the season's most anticipated movie, echoing the sentiments of many critics.
"There's a whole coolness aura around [The Matrix]," says Daniel Davis, senior editor of Movieline Magazine. "People are really dying to see it."
The "Charlie's Angels" trio -- Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu -- also returns this summer to exercise girl power with style. In a similar vein, Angelina Jolie is recast as the video game siren Lara Croft in the second "Tomb Raider" movie installment.
Another sought-after leading lady, Reese Witherspoon, reprises her role as Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde." Yet more good-looking twentysomethings look for laughs in "American Wedding," the third film in the "American Pie" series.
Does all this leave you seeing double (or quadruple, in the case of the fourth Exorcist film)? If so, it's not just you: It's the sequel fever that's sweeping Hollywood this summer. (Full story)
"There's almost nothing coming up that's not a sequel [or] that's not connected to something already out," says Glenn Kenny, senior editor and chief film critic of Premiere Magazine. "Sequels, particularly in genres like action and sci-fi and [films] with epic story lines, are no-brainers for studios."
It might all seem "Dumb and Dumberer," the title of this summer's follow-up to "Dumb and Dumber" (one of two sequels, "2 Fast and 2 Furious" being the other, to be released this season without their originals' stars). But Null said it makes financial sense, predicting that five of the year's 10 top-grossing movies will be sequels.
True to his promise, Arnold Schwarzenegger will be back in "Terminator 3" -- a movie decision made solely for monetary, not creative, reasons, Kenny contends. "Bad Boys 2" will be anchored by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, both of whom have become much bigger stars since the original came out in 1995.
Even the kids are getting into it, with the Rugrats and Spy Kids franchises spitting out new movies this summer.
For those yearning for novel ideas, Null offers hope.
"Once 'Lord of the Rings' is finished [in winter 2003-4], I'm hoping to see a mellowing down from the sequel mentality," Null says. "There are only so many movies that you can remake and only so many times you can remake them."
Even many "original" movies coming out this summer have a franchised flavor.
Like "Charlie's Angels," "S.W.A.T." is inspired by a 1970s action television series -- this one centers on men (including Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J) with guns.
The greenest franchise of the bunch may be "The Hulk," an Ang Lee-directed drama based on the comic book and television series. "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman" takes a similar tack in bringing a comic book -- about literary characters, from Dr. Jekyll to Captain Nemo, out to save the world circa 1898 -- to the silver screen.
Two pirate films -- "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (based on Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" book and the Disney theme park ride) and the animated "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" (an "Arabian Nights" story) -- also have been presented and retold again and again.
Alas, a few of this summer's most anticipated flicks are fresh.
Another Nemo, this one a cute, disoriented fish, stars in Disney and Pixar's latest animated offering, "Finding Nemo." In another animal (though not animated) adventure, Dreamworks is betting Tobey Maguire will ride "Seabiscuit" -- the true tale of a 1930s-era racehorse -- to the winner's circle.
Or take "Gigli," a love tale of two gangsters played by real-life lovers Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. On the flip side of the law, "Hollywood Homicide" pairs Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as hard-core cops turned goofy everymen.
Other could-be sleeper hits include "Alex & Emma" (with Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson), "Matchstick Men" (starring Nicolas Cage) and "Uptown Girls" (featuring Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning).
And if mutants, animals and redone movies don't do the trick, Universal Pictures is banking on God: The big guy himself (played by Morgan Freeman) grants divine powers to TV personality Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) in the comedy "Bruce Almighty."
-- CNN.com's Stephanie Snipes contributed to this report.