As 2008 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United States’ victory in Grenada, I feel it is my moral obligation to get a three-week head-start on this year’s summer movie season. Freedom isn’t free, nor is it microwavable, and every day that passes without speculation as to which over-budgeted studio spectacles will triumph/fail at the domestic box office is a day that pisses on the memory of Heartbreak Ridge. So this one’s for Stitch, Aponte, Profile, Fragatti and The Swede. Most of all, it’s for Gunnery Sergeant  Highway, may he rest in fictitious peace (unless Gran Torino is really the working title for Gunny: Mean, Nasty and Tired).

As ever, the trick is to present The Summer Movie Preview in a distinctive fashion. It doesn’t take much of a man to simply rattle off a prospective “Top Twenty” and call it a column. The Summer Movie Preview… it requires a soul. You’ve got to burrow into the days and months, write with soft hands, see the place where the tides and the seasons and the turning of the Earth all come together, where everything that is becomes one. Remember Spider-Man 3‘s $60 million Friday, but don’t forget The Rocketeer‘s $9.6 million three-day. Consider There’s Something About Mary‘s eight week march to number one during 1998, but try not to dwell on Wilder Napalm‘s ignominious three-theater dump in August of 1993. The vicissitudes of the market churn up our human notions of quality and conventional wisdom; for four months, the release schedule is storm tossed like a commercial trawler piloted by a drunk and suicidal helmsman. The whims of the ticket buying masses bow not to Exhibitor Relations’ Paul Dergarabedian, nor to the critics’ ivory tower proclamations that Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a smart, subversive alternative to the hollow production design orgy called Dick Tracy. It’s impossible to discern the desires of regular folk because a) they’re malleable, b) they’re drunk most of the time, and c) eighty-percent of ’em are sleeper agents for the KGB. In the biz, we call this “The Little Nikita Principle”, and it states, “Nobody knows nothing because most-body want to undermine good-body way of life.” You’ll forgive the clumsy phrasing, as it was coined by Ed Burns.

This is why I think it’s folly to come out swinging with a “Top Twenty” like Premiere used to do (before it got busted down to online-only status). Better to sneak in through the back door like a prowler and piss in the sink than ring the doorbell and explain the utility of the brown paper bag you’ve just lit on fire. It’s a question of suavity. So before we get to the obligatory Top Twenty, let’s have a little fun with the smash-up derby that is the summer movie season. Let’s handicap bombs!

Below are ten big-budget investments I consider “at risk” in relation to the studios’ expectations (“bombs” might be overstating it, but overstating is fun); ergo, there will be no Iron Man, Wall-E or Prince Caspian. And in the interest of not ripping off A.J. Daulerio’s late, lamented “Cultural Oddsmaker” column at Deadspin, we’ll do this over/under style.

Speed Racer (May 9, Warner Bros.)

Sensory overload or artistic underachievement, there’s no denying that the Wachowskis’ first official directorial effort since the raucously comedic Matrix Revolutions is something of a gamble. For anyone who loves watching talented filmmakers flirt with failure, it’s the must-see of the season; for families hesitant to burn dinero on an iffy adaptation of a decades-old cartoon that’s long past its retro-cool phase (peaking with this Ghostface Killa video), Speed Racer might be a wait-’til-Netflix title. With three other four-quadrant event titles opening in May (Iron Man, Prince Caspian and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), one film is destined to underperform, and, given the aforementioned caveats, Speed Racer is definitely the least sure thing of the bunch. Warner Brothers has cut a variety of trailers selling the family aspect, the action and the Hirsch (Emile, not Judd, though that’d certainly be worth seeing), which is typically evidence of a tough sell.

Sure Sign of Trouble: The Wachowskis do Charlie Rose… with Chim-Chim.

Over/Under: $95 million/$80 million

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 23, Paramount)

What’s unacceptable for an Indiana Jones movie? Commercially, this series is a far cry from Star Wars: Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only entry to clear $200 million domestic, and it needed two re-releases to get there. Raiders was also the only film in the franchise to finish number one for the year, so you should immediately give up expecting Spider-Man grosses for Crystal Skull. Still, unless something goes terribly wrong, Crystal Skull should be an international smash (breaking $600 million worldwide), but will Paramount and Lucasfilm be exchanging high fives if the movie matches I Am Legend‘s domestic take of $256 million? And is that number sufficient for a re-launch of the franchise (with Shia LaBeouf in the lead)?

And what happens if, y’know, the movie kinda stinks? Even before the February debut of that sloppily-cut teaser, there were hints of discord trickling out from the leaky ship that is the S.S. Lucas; and while the film is apparently a lock for Cannes, a special screening on the Riviera hardly guarantees quality (my apologies to The New York Post‘s Lou Lumenick, who declared The Da Vinci Code “the Holy Grail of summer blockbusters”). Paramount made it plain early on that if there were going to be critics screenings, they’d probably be of the “courtesy” (i.e. eve of release) variety. Positive reviews are hardly necessary to open an Indiana Jones movie, but Lucas wasn’t this skittish with the last three Star Wars movies. It’s just getting harder and harder to believe there isn’t something amiss.

Sure Sign of Trouble: The second theatrical trailer opens with the main theme from King Solomon’s Mines.

Over/Under: $220 million/$180 million

The Happening (June 13, 20th Century Fox)

If the resounding failure of Lady in the Water couldn’t obliterate M. Night Shyamalan ego, he’s beyond help. That he’s still writing his own screenplays isn’t the most encouraging sign, as his last two opuses were appallingly conceited odes to his astonishing storytelling prowess. That said, the guy’s got such an amazing eye that I keep hoping he’ll get out of his head and involve someone else in his scripting process. The trailer for The Happening is striking enough, but the premise of a natural disaster that’s causing scads of people to inexplicably drop dead feels like secondhand Serling/Matheson. Ripping off The Twilight Zone won’t scare away mainstream audiences, but the fact that it’s unmistakably more of the same from Shyamalan might do the trick.

Sure Sign of Trouble: Fox chairman Tom Rothman personally paints over the lot’s Empire Strikes Back mural with a nude portrait of M. Night.

Over/Under: $65 million/$50 million

The Incredible Hulk (June 13, Universal)

Read this and draw your own conclusions. Edward Norton’s rewrite of Zak Penn’s script wasn’t overpoweringly brilliant, but it wasn’t awful either; the success/failure of this film will come down to Louis Leterrier’s ability to piece a film together without Luc Besson looking over his shoulder. Even then, audiences might decide they’ve seen enough of the Hulk and skip it altogether.

Sure Sign of Trouble: “Directed by Humpty Dumpty.”

Over/Under: $110 million/$95 million

Get Smart (June 20, Warner Bros.)
The Love Guru (June 20, Paramount)

Not included in this cluster of comedies is Bill Maher’s and Larry Charles’s Religulous, which rolls out in limited release on June 20th. That’s too much comedy for the market to bear; one of these films is going to tank. The combined box office stat overwhelmingly favors Mike Myers, but he hasn’t had a runaway, non-Shrek hit since Austin Powers in Goldmember. Steve Carell, on the other hand, is coming off last year’s dead-fish duo of Evan Almighty and Dan in Real Life, neither of which performed to expectations (Universal kept the former in theaters for months just to hit the century mark). Since we pretty much know what to expect from both films, I’d say that The Love Guru has the best chance of taking the weekend, but the likeliest scenario has both films opening soft and disappearing by mid-July. Screens are at a premium for the rest of the summer, so don’t expect either to up and move to July or August; if there is a bump (and I sincerely doubt there will be), it’ll be to the fall.

Sure Sign of Trouble: Wall-E and/or Wanted move(s) back to the 25th.

Get Smart Over/Under: $75 million/$60 million
The Love Guru Over/Under: $100 million/$90 million

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (July 11, Universal)

I’d be playing favorites if I didn’t place the sequel to a $59 million grossing movie from 2004 on this list. Though Hellboy found its audience in subsequent revenue windows, it wasn’t exactly a home video/cable world-beater in the vein of, say, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. And while Pan’s Labyrinth had a surprisingly wide reach, is it enough to keep Hellboy II from being this year’s Chronicles of Riddick? That theatrical trailer from a couple of weeks ago better be attached to every single print of Iron Man on May 2nd, and Universal better see to it that the profanely gregarious del Toro gets booked on every talk show from The Tonight Show to The View. Fuck, if del Toro does The View, he could create a stir worth at least $100 million in additional grosses just by creeping out that Survivor bitch with Dario Argento anecdotes; if Guillermo backdoors the women by sneaking Argento onto the set, we’re talking television history. Guillermo is your not-so-secret weapon, Universal. Unleash him.

(And while we’re spitballing ideas for The View, how about a Beauty and the Beast reunion of Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. Women dripped for that show.)

Sure Sign of Trouble: Eddie Murphy chooses this week to come clean about his “Good Samaritan” errands on Oprah.

Over/Under: $80 million/$65 million

Space Chimps (July 18, 20th Century Fox)

This year’s Titan A.E. But maybe you have more faith in an animated family comedy from the writers of Happily N’ever After and Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie. That Fox is unloading this a week after Meet Dave says it all; it’s two weeks, second-run, and straight to DVD for this crap. One milestone of note: it’ll distinguishes itself as Andy Samberg’s biggest opener ever.

Sure Sign of Trouble: Samberg re-recorded by “kid-friendlier” Kevin Nealon.

Over/Under: $40 million/$25 million

Step Brothers (July 25, Columbia)

Do audiences understand that Will Ferrell is genius when paired with Adam McKay, or did they just stay the hell away from Semi-Pro because the trailers and TV spots made it look like an uninspired retread of Anchorman? Either way, I just hope they’re not done with Ferrell, as I’d like McKay to keep making lunatic comedies until he so chooses to ascend. If Sony’s banking on another $148 million gross ala Talladega Nights, they’re insane; bereft of the NASCAR pedigree, Ferrell’s box office ceiling is $120 million. The trailer for Step Brothers gives off a somewhat darker vibe than Ferrell’s previous comedies, which is never a happy harbinger for a summer release; though I’ve heard the film is hysterical, I’m not sure the country is clamoring for a zany two-hander about live-at-home forty-year-olds (especially if it doesn’t have that Judd Apatow sweetness to undercut the inherent creepiness).

Sure Sign of Trouble: Sold as a Richard Jenkins vehicle.

Over/Under: $80 million/$60 million

The X-Files 2 (July 25, 20th Century Fox)

This is a very simple equation: if it’s just for the fans, $50 million is a godsend. Given that weekend’s competition (Step Brothers and American Teen), the return of Mulder and Scully could go unnoticed by folks who don’t have an opinion on Season Nine.

Sure Sign of Trouble: “From the makers of Harsh Realm and Night Stalker.”

Over/Under: $50 million/$35 million

Later this week: The Top Twenty. ‘Cuz I like obligatory, too.