We're hours away from Memorial Day weekend, which means we're also hours away from the official start of summer movie season. In honor of this great annual tradition, I used this week's Criticwire Survey to test a theory. "What," I asked critics, "is the 'perfect summer movie?'" Some named films that were about summer activities, one picked a movie that actually had the word "summer" in the title, but for the most part they confirmed my suspicion by choosing big summer blockbusters that all share a set of similar characteristics.
That suspicion: that the "summer movie" has become a genre unto itself. To better define this genre, I created the following how-to guide for filmmakers. If you can nail all five points on this list, you've got yourself a bonafide summer hit. All you need to do now is pick a post-Memorial Day release date and wait for the money to start rolling in.
1. Pick a subject that lends itself to horror-tinged action.
Critics cited a variety of genres in the survey, from comedy to thriller to live action cartoon, but all the movies that received multiple votes — "Independence Day," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws," "Jurassic Park," and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" — fill the viewer with an identical mixture of exhilaration and dread. You holler at Indiana Jones' fistfight on the flying wing, then scream when the Ark starts blowing up Nazis. You cackle with glee when Arnold Schwarzenegger blows away the T-1000, then secretly grip your armrests during each glimpse of the future war against the machines. The perfect summer movie hits you on a gut level, or maybe several gut levels, and takes you on an emotional roller coaster. Actually, the roller coaster — that other beloved purveyor of summer entertainment — represents the ideal metaphor for the perfect summer movie: excitement and terror that's safe for the whole family.
2. Don't make it too smart.
By now, the ritual is codified: smart films in the fall, dumb ones in the summer. Or to put it another way: you don't intellectualize the experience of being on a roller coaster. The entertainment provided by the perfect summer movie must be of the most mindless variety possible; a summer movie can be ruined by being too smart, but it can almost never be ruined by being too dumb. Notice, for example, the fact that "Star Wars" — the biggest franchise of all time, the film that, along with "Jaws," basically created the modern summer movie season — didn't get a single vote in my survey. Why? Maybe "Star Wars" is too good to demean with the title "summer movie." It's bigger and better than that, with loftier aspirations and headier themes. And who wants lofty aspirations and heady themes during the summer? The human brain, conditioned by childhoods spent at summer camp and the beach, still has an intense urge to take the summer off. The perfect summer movie indulges that urge for 100 minutes at a clip.
3. But DO make it in America.
The movies mentioned in my survey represented five decades of filmmaking by dozens of stars and directors, but they all came from just one country: America (eff yeah). The perfect summer movie is the apotheosis of Hollywood filmmaking — it's big, it's fun, it's powerful, and, yes, oh-so-stupid. If aliens invaded or an asteroid headed for Earth, I would hope that the nations of the world would work together to create an international solution. But if we're making a movie about those subjects, there's only one nation I trust to create and solve the problem: the good ol' U. S. of A. With respect to the great masters of foreign and arthouse cinema: we'll see you in September.
4. Set it during the summer.
Perfect summer movies contains at least one interesting paradox: we go to see them to escape the heat, but tend to enjoy them more if they're about people doing things outside; hanging at the beach (and running from a shark), celebrating July 4th (by blowing up extraterrestrial warships). Maybe the perfect summer movie makes us feel like were getting some kind of vicarious exercise without having to do any of the work. Maybe the crap that always seems to befall the characters in summer movies reassures us that our time is better spent indoors. Whatever the reason, nobody wants to watch a Christmas movie in July. (Sorry, "Christmas in July!")
5. Wait ten years.
Two recent movies made the Criticwire Survey — "(500) Days of Summer" and "Attack the Block" — but otherwise, every other film that was mentioned was at least fifteen years old. Summers are about nostalgia — fondly remembering what it was like to be a kid free of work and responsibility — so it makes a lot of sense that the perfect summer movie would be whichever one we loved most as a kid and never forgot. In other words: "The Avengers" will probably top the perfect summer movie Criticwire Survey of 2032. It fits all five criteria perfectly.