Behind the flashy images of today's fantasy fad

The big summer movies are here, or on their way. Sure enough, it's lively bunch, full of action and color and money. And true to the recent trend, the accent is on pure fantasy. After all, "Star Wars" is the most profitable movie of all time, and "The Empire Strikes Back" was last year's top hit. No mogul is going to meddle with a record like that.

So look out for "Raiders of the Lost Ark," an adventure yarn with a supernatural twist. "Superman II" is flying close behind, and "Clash of the Titans" is bringing up the rear. They aren't the only would-be blockbusters of the season: Mel Brooks and Ivan Reitman have new comedies, James Bond is back, and there could be a sleeper waiting in the wings. Still, filmmakers and audiences in a dismal movie year, so far, are pinning their hopes on films of spectacle and whimsy.

There's something curious, though, about the current crop of fantasies. Beneath the flashy images and sick surfaces, there's a hint of something unsettling -- not dark or ominous, exactly, but heading in that direction.

It shows most clearly in the last scenes of the new movies. The hero vanquishes the bad guys and snuggles up with his lady friend. Yet the plot isn't resolved, and this bothers the hero like mad. There's some problem neither he nor the movie quite knows how to deal with -- so "the end" comes on the screen, the lights go up, and we trundle home to brood about the thing until a sequel comes along.

Cliffhangers are fine, if we know the answer will come along next Saturday afternoon, when the serial continues. But it takes years to make a major movie, and that's a long time to leave us wondering whether the raiders will uncover the secret of the ark, whether Superman and Lois Lane will find marital bliss in Metropolis, whether the twilight of the gods is at hand for Zeus and his Olympian cronies.

Of course, the Hollywood tricksters want us eagerm for the next sequel, the next chapter, the next rehash. That partly accounts for the deliberately open-ended plots of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Superman II," and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Still, a screenwriter can always invent a way to tie things up this year, then unravel them again in Scene 1 of his subsequent opus. There's something deeper at work in this year's epics, with their edgy endings.

Perhaps the movies are reflecting a new uncertainty in our lives, an uneasiness about wrapping things up too nearly or too finally. In ways, the latest fantasies recall the musicals of the depression years, with their gloomy undertones and downbeat finales full of "escapist" pizzazz, but itchy and worried just below the most obvious levels.

Or maybe we're having a cultural flashback to the 1950s, when movie moods were often a bit fearful. Back then, when a spaceship landed on Earth, the military came out and started shooting at it.

Lately, it looked as if we had come a long, long way from that attitude: When the flying saucer landed in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the whole world shouted allelulia and welcomed a new era. But there's little of such glee in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," directed by the same Steven Spielberg, and almost certain to be the most popular of this summer's movies.

The story, set in the 1930s, centers on an adventurer named Indiana Jones. He's an archaeologist and a scholar, but his first love is hunting old artifacts in the most forbidding corners of our planet. As the plot picks up steam, he enters a race with the Nazis to find the lost Ark of the Covenant, repository of the Ten Commandments, and supposedly imbued with mighty powers. In this story line the ark is rather like the Holy Grail that King Arthur's men sought in the old legends (and in "Excalibur," one of this year's bigger hits.)

Through most of "Raiders," the lost ark is just the pretext for a lot of slam-bang action. Indy, our hero, battles his way through several countries and all kinds of villains, finally outwitting Hitler's minions in the end. There's literally a thrill a minute.

Yet the climax is shot through with the strange uneasiness that's crept onto the movie scene. In ways, it's strikingly like the end of "Close Encounters": The characters are gathered in a rocky place with a starry sky above, ready for a miracle to be unveiled. Only this time, we get the dark side of the coin -- instead of a friendly visitation, the ark pours forth vengeful destruction on the Nazi horde, annihilating them in the most gruesome scene Spielberg has directed since "Jaws." And still the story is not resolved, as Indy loses his archaeological prize to faceless government authorities, who squirrel it away in a bureaucratic hiding place that could have been borrowed from "Citizen Kane."

Or consider "Superman II." The romance between Superman and Lois Kane has blossomed into a real affair. He even abdicates his superpowers, looking for a regular earthly relationship with his regular earthly girlfriend. But it doesn't work out -- the earth needs him to quell a trio of supervilliansm -- and so he abdicates his abdication, returning to the superhero grind. Mankind is saved, but Clark Kent's personal life is in a mess. And there the movie leaves off, on a mixed and muted note.

Even "Clash of the Titans" gets a little morose near the end, suggesting that a Gotterdammerung may be gathering for the Olympian gods who oversee the story about Perseus and his adventures in ancient Greece. This is the most frivolous of the new fantasies, with its special effects by Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion animations have graced epics from the whimsical "Mighty Joe Young" to the deliciously corny "Jason and the Argonauts" and the '50s-paranoid "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers." Under the direction of Desmond Davis, "Clash" is great fun almost all the time, especially when such stars as Laurence Olivier and Burgess Meredith take the screen. Yet there's that undercurrent of foreboding as the yarn wraps up -- that veiled hint of greater, less cheerful adventures yet to come.

All the new fantasies are fun to watch, and have more than enough humor to offset their threads of uneasiness. "Clash of the Titans" is the strongest mythological movie in quite a while, amusing for adults as well as kiddies, and "Superman II" has been deftly put together by director Richard Lester, whose comic-strip style dates back to the early Beatles movies. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a real lollapallooza at its best moments, though these are mainly in the first hour, before Spielberg and company run short on idea and fall back to routine fistfights and rather too much thudding, if cartoonlike, violence.

So it's not that the new movies are losers. Far from it. It's just that they don't reflect the kind of wholehearted optimism that seemed nearly all-pervasive in the hugest hits of just a few years ago.The story of "Raiders" was concocted by George Lucas is the dominant filmmaker of the two, their plot partakes more the worry of Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" than the happiness of Lucas's "Star Wars." Maybe it's just a passing mood, or a mere coincidence. But it will be interesting to plot the moods of other movies in coming months, to see whether some lasting change is in the works of our collective cultural consciousness.

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