BOSTON — It's the question all moviegoers want answered: Is there life after "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," or will this must-see epic prove a menace, squeezing other candidates for summertime success out of multiplexes across America and beyond?
Fear not. If anything, Hollywood insiders expect George Lucas's extravaganza to raise the popularity of moviegoing in general, actually boosting the prospects of other pictures. Twentieth Century Fox, the "Star Wars" distributor, itself has three additional films headed for summer release, although it's waiting a full two months after the "Star Wars" launch date before unveiling the first of these movies.
Nor will science fiction dominate the screens, once the "Star Wars" juggernaut settles down. Fox's follow-up films range from the monster-movie action of "Lake Placid" to the grim sociology of "Fight Club," with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as ultraviolent young men, and the exotic thrills of "Brokedown Palace," a "Midnight Express" clone about American teenagers jailed in a faraway land.
As that last item indicates, we haven't seen the last of teenagers in 1999, even after the recent blitz of teen movies that brought us winners like "Election" and also-rans like "Never Been Kissed" and "10 Things I Hate About You," the year's most unlikely Shakespeare spinoff.
Due this season are "American Pie," about sex-happy boys, and "Outside Providence," a boarding-school comedy produced by the Farrelly Brothers of "There's Something About Mary" fame. "White Boys" visits a rural kid who idealizes the African-American scene, while the Dutch import "Rosie" portrays a 13-year-old with a wild imagination.
Teens on the screen often draw teens into the audience, so filmmakers are spinning out all kinds of youth-oriented pictures, including animated movies. Disney has failed to spark much excitement with recent efforts like "Hercules," but things could change when "Tarzan" swings through the jungle (June 18), with voices including Tony Goldwyn as the young hero and Glenn Close and Rosie O'Donnell as the simians who love him.
If that's too dignified, try "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," based on the TV cartoon show about foul-mouthed tykes. If that's too idiotic, wait for "The Iron Giant," about a boy, a robot, and a town that won't believe the lad's new friend exists.
It's also worth remembering that Hollywood isn't the only game around. Some canny theater owners will compete with summer blockbusters through counterprogramming, showing independent and international movies as a change of pace. Notable offerings include "The Red Violin," a multipart Canadian drama about the history of a cherished fiddle; "Run Lola Run," a hugely entertaining German romp about a woman trying to raise a fortune in 20 minutes; "The Dinner Game," a hilarious French comedy about the perils of snobbery; and a reissue of "Cruel Story of Youth," a searing drama by Japanese master Nagisa Oshima.
Most moviegoers will prefer their programming without the "counter," of course, so what are the summer's most talked-about offerings likely to be? Among the leading contenders:
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (June 11). Mike Myers returns in a sequel to his 1997 satire, playing both a James Bond-style hero and the evil Dr. Evil. The cast, including Heather Graham and Rob Lowe, reportedly improvised its way pretty far from the screenplay.
The Thomas Crown Affair (June 18). Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo play an art thief and an insurance investigator. If that sounds familiar, it's because you remember (a) the 1968 thriller this remake is based on, or (b) the 1999 thriller "Entrapment," which treads similar terrain. Brosnan's success in the James Bond franchise gives the movie a healthy head start, but his chemistry with Russo may determine its box-office prospects.
Wild Wild West (July 2). Fantasy meets western and romance in the first movie based on the late-'60s television series. Teaming again with "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld, the gifted Will Smith reprises Robert Conrad's old role, backed by Kevin Kline as his partner and Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless, his perennial adversary, who's plotting to kill the president. It's widely conceded that Warner Bros. has the Fourth of July weekend wrapped up with this one, and other studios aren't even trying to compete.
Eyes Wide Shut (July 16). This was the summer's most anticipated picture even before the death of director Stanley Kubrick, and now it has a historical significance that nobody could have anticipated. Serious film buffs are hoping for an adventurous work of art, ranking with "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001," while Saturday-night movie fans anticipate pulse-pounding suspense from superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as husband-and-wife psychiatrists with a shady streak. Will the drama please both camps or neither? Wide-open eyes will know soon.
Bowfinger (July 23). Predatory cameras plaguing a man who just wants to be left alone? It sounds like "The Truman Show" or "EDtv," but this time the story focuses on a celebrity being stalked by a small-time filmmaker. Screenplay writer Steve Martin plays the title role, with Eddie Murphy as his movie-star prey.
The Haunting (July 23). The new fantasy by Jan De Bont, who cooked up "Speed" and "Twister," centers on a sinister psychologist, a weird experiment, and yes, a haunted house. Liam Neeson stars, returning at least partway to Earth after his "Star Wars" excursion. Shirley Jackson's celebrated 1959 novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," inspired the spooky proceedings.
Muppets From Space (July 30). Miss Piggy and Kermit go galactic in this fantasy about Gonzo's search for his parents, who hail from another world. If the season has room for one more space opera, this has to be it.
Summer of Sam (July 30). Spike Lee returns to urban anthropology in this dark drama about vigilantes hunting a serial killer, based on the "Son of Sam" case that gathered real headlines in the late 1970s. The plot echoes the classic thriller "M," but Lee gives it a distinctive spin, helped by an eclectic cast including John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino.
The Muse (Aug. 20). Albert Brooks is a thinking person's comedian, with offbeat entertainments like "Lost in America" and "Defending Your Life" to prove it. Here he's partnered by Sharon Stone and Jeff Bridges in the story of an unsuccessful screenwriter seeking inspiration from an ancient muse in modern form. Trying to broaden her range, Stone played a hard-working mom last year in "The Mighty," and fans are eager to see whether comedy is also within her reach.
There should be something here to suit every taste. But for those still searching for something new, documentary buffs can dip into "The Source," a visit with the Beat Generation of the 1950s era. Literary types can peruse "The Gambler," based on Feodor Dostoevsky's richly ironic tale. Admirers of French cinema can select from a smorgasbord of movies by noteworthy auteurs: the gentle "Autumn Tale" by Eric Rohmer, the elliptical "Late August, Early September," by Olivier Assayas, and the fiery "Lovers on the Bridge," by Leos Carax. Which movies will outfox the "Phantom Menace" and survive at the box office? Stay tuned.