Looking at the slate of new movies for 1999, the only sure thing seems to be that Hollywood will serve up the same-old same-old with its usual generosity.
Trend-spotters are predicting a few fresh departures, of course, but they're hardly bold or risky.
The rage for teen horror flicks, touched off by "Scream" and its offspring, may give way to a wave of teen comedy, especially if "She's All That" gives Miramax healthy returns this weekend. Following up on the women with physical illnesses films "Stepmom" and "One True Thing" in 1998, we'll see women with mental illnesses in several films, such as the adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's memoir "Girl, Interrupted" with Winona Ryder.
More tantalizing is the prospect of gifted filmmakers turning their talents in new directions. Anthony Minghella is following "The English Patient" with a suspense drama, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," based on the Patricia Highsmith novel that inspired the moody "Purple Noon" in 1959. Horror specialist Wes Craven of "Nightmare on Elm Street" fame, is targeting a more serious audience with "50 Violins." "EDtv" finds director Ron Howard and star Matthew McConaughey in "Truman Show" territory, with life and television blending into each other.
Some surprises may surface in these pictures, but other films are following well-worn paths. Unfazed by remake flops like "Psycho" and "Mighty Joe Young," a new version of "The Mummy" aims to dust off Boris Karloff's old sandals for a new generation. Lasse Hallstrm is hoping "The Cider House Rules" will emulate the popular "World According to Garp" rather than the dismal "Hotel New Hampshire" in the John Irving adaptation game. Barry Sonnenfeld is reputedly bringing "Men in Black" humor to the recently invisible western genre in his Will Smith vehicle "Wild, Wild West."
But do any of the aforementioned movies really matter? Shouldn't articles like this cut immediately to the chase, admitting that The Entire Future of World Cinema is dominated by a single production that has pulses pounding with excitement even though it isn't due until May 21?
It's true, as tantalized viewers of the trailer have known for two months now: "Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace" is surely the most breathlessly awaited picture in Hollywood history.
Can the trilogy's follow-up film, not a sequel but a prequel (since it chronicles earlier events in the Jedi Knight's saga) fail to outgross its competitors as easily as a light saber slices through an Empire guard's armor?
Even skeptics may find it hard to resist meeting Luke Skywalker as a Tatooine preteen, not to mention Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda when they were still rising Jedi stars. Luke's faithful droids are perennial crowd-pleasers too, and Lucas's personal directing, which he hasn't done since the first installment, may work wonders with special-effects equipment far more advanced than the '70s gizmos used for the trilogy.
That's where some are forecasting problems. Part of the trilogy's charm was its rough-and-ready atmosphere, reflecting the modest budget spent on the first episode at a time when science fiction was box-office poison. Too much gloss or gimmickry could diminish that feisty, smart-alecky mood.
Lucas may dodge this problem, but he's already given "Phantom Menace" more star power than its predecessors. Nobody had heard of Harrison Ford in 1977, but Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are well-established favorites, and not everyone was pleased by the computerized enhancements added to the trilogy for its recent reissue.
This said, it's obvious that the prequel will be a sure-fire smash even in a worst-case scenario.
If a movie-world cliffhanger is what you're after, consider a picture anticipated just as eagerly by spectators with adventurous tastes: "Eyes Wide Shut," due July 16 from Stanley Kubrick, the unpredictable auteur whose classics range from "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "The Shining."
Kubrick is fabled for shrouding his projects in secrecy, and "Eyes Wide Shut" is no exception. What's known about the movie's content is that it's based on a rarely read Arthur Schnitzler novel, that its main characters are two psychiatrists who are married to each other but have affairs with their patients, and that these unsavory shrinks are played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. What's known about the movie's production is that it's many months behind schedule due to massive reshooting by Kubrick, known for his attention to the tiniest details.
Will the results justify Kubrick's scrupulous care? Will audiences buy into a dark psychothriller during the warm-weather silly season? Will the movie arrive before autumn?
The suspense builds!
*David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org