Summer Flicks: All Bark, No Bite

Ethan Sapienza, Film Editor

Every summer, millions of people seek the air-conditioned oasis of movie theaters, where the latest installments of beloved franchises contain enough explosions to sedate just about anyone. Or so the story usually goes. This summer has seen a dismal showing at the box office due to unimaginative or flat out unnecessary sequels and franchise kick-starters.

Though this summer’s truly awful output has been a bit of a shock, the fact that the quality of films as a whole is down isn’t surprising. Such is the state of movies today, where the industry is terrified by dwindling audience interest due to streaming and the creative renaissance of TV, resorting to bloated “cinematic universes” made of adapted material.

Case in point: “Suicide Squad.” David Ayer’s blockbuster was supposed to be a cool, moody, stylistic action film about bad guys forced to do good. It was also promised to be fun, after Zack Snyder’s “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” was decidedly not. Instead, it was an utterly idiotic display of lame characters who have no bite at all (mind you, they were promised to be the bad guys), an uninteresting story, wooden writing, poorly-timed worshipping of gun violence and a much-hyped performance by Jared Leto as the Joker that ultimately amounted to a cameo, and an awful one at that.

That’s not even naming all of the film’s issues, which is merely a testament to the blockbusters we’re stuck with today: the most barren, fill-in-the-dots replication of already mindless material, with sprinklings of sexism and other offenses too. Sure, action flicks have never had the most stimulating or progressive material (outside of last year’s “Mad Max”), but at least there used to be some originality in the blockbuster genre, and not just inane attempts to replicate Marvel’s previous successes.

However, there was a silver lining in June. The summer’s best film was New-Zealander Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilder People,” a lighthearted and at times surrealist comedy about a misfit (the criminally charming Julian Dennison) who goes on the lam with his reluctant adoptive father (a surly Sam Neill). Waititi’s goofy self-awareness and trim, hyperfocused stylization may come off to some as Wes Anderson plagiarism, yet he outdoes the idiosyncratic director by a mile. “Wilder People” brims with plainly joyous comedy and an emotional core — with character development and all — qualities that Anderson usually replaces with dry aestheticism.

This is not an attack Anderson so much praise for Waititi, who proves creativity can still flourish in a (possibly) declining medium. I feel obliged to say that Waititi’s next project is the newest “Thor” film, which offers hope and excitement about how good another comic book movie can be, rather than a depressing example of how much they are dominating the industry.

Nevertheless, “Wilder People” is about as outlandish and energetic as a film can get, and Dennison and Neil’s chemistry is comedic, heartwarming gold. It’s not going to save the film industry, but it may help viewers forget for a moment just how dire things are.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday, August 28 print edition. Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected].