Movies in the year ahead

Lightsabers! Camera! Action! 'Star Wars' tops 2005's roster of fizzy blockbusters.

Here's an early Monitor prediction for the year in film: 2005 will be dominated by characters wearing masks. Audiences of all ages will throng to see a masked villain who last appeared on movie screens 22 years ago: Darth Vader. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (May 19) is easily the most anticipated movie of the year, but scores of moviegoers will also rush to see such legendary masked figures as Batman (Batman Begins in June) and Dr. Doom (The Fantastic Four in July). You can be sure Halloween-costume stores are already pre-ordering dark capes and angular visors by the crateload.

The final outing for Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, R2-D2, and other familiar characters (welcome back, Chewbacca!) from that galaxy far, far away could have a significant impact on Hollywood's fortunes this year. Cinema attendance has fallen from its peak in 2002 (not coincidentally the year "Episode II - Attack of the Clones" was released) as audiences have turned to home-entertainment alternatives such as DVDs and video games. But the prospect of a showdown between Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan on the slopes of a volcano may entice people back to cinemas and get them excited about other blockbusters.

"Whenever you have a 'Star Wars' movie in the mix, it usually helps the box office," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles firm that tracks movie grosses.

George Lucas's prequel heralds a comeback for science fiction, which has been overshadowed by fantasy epics such as "Lord of the Rings" in recent years.

(Fantasy fans can still look forward to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on Nov. 18, as well as an adaptation of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, on Dec. 9.)

Among the numerous sci-fi films this year are A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, the director of "Before Sunset," tackles a weighty Philip K. Dick story about the war on drugs), Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron plays a 25th-century assassin), and the comedic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Earth is demolished to make way for a space highway. One Londoner manages to escape - in his pajamas).

Another intergalactic war - one much closer to home - will come to cinemas on June 29 when Steven Spielberg releases his modern-day adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. The essence of the plot is this: Martians gaze at Earth from distant space and decide it's a much nicer neighborhood. But in drawing up their invasion plans they fail to take into account that Earth has Tom Cruise on its side.

Wells's book delivers a strong antiwar message, but it remains to be seen whether Spielberg will emphasize that aspect of the source material, or whether the film will be fluff like "Independence Day" (but without anything as subversive as aliens blowing up the White House).

Several other 2005 releases will be scoured and picked over for subtext that relates to the conflict in Iraq. Principal among them is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, an epic about the medieval Crusades.

"I'd be incredibly surprised if there weren't blatant parallels pretty much decrying the notion of the Western world's insistence on taking over the Middle East," says Phil Villarreal, film critic for the Arizona Daily Star.

Two other films, The Jacket, a drama about a Gulf War soldier (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) who travels forward in time, and Jarhead, a true story of a marine involved in the frontlines of Operation Desert Storm, have the potential to make a strong political statement. Expectations are especially high for "Jarhead" (Sept. 30), which is directed by Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Road to Perdition") and boasts a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, and Chris Cooper. Mendes, who is British, has proven to be an astute commentator on the American zeitgeist, says Mr. Villarreal.

Orlando Bloom and Jessica Alba have each been tagged "the next big thing" this year and it probably won't be long until Vanity Fair's photographers come knocking. Alba, who played the lead role in TV's short-lived "Dark Angel," surfaces as a member of "The Fantastic Four" in a blue Spandex superhero costume that Edna from "The Incredibles" would surely approve of. In addition to starring in July's Into the Blue, a lark of an adventure about the search for submerged treasure, Alba plays a lead role in the high-profile comic-book movie Sin City (April 1).

Bloom has a little more experience at the blockbuster game. He's starred in "Troy," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but "Kingdom of Heaven" will be the first time he's had to carry a movie by himself. Even more challenging will be Bloom's role in Elizabethtown, a movie by Cameron Crowe ("Jerry McGuire," "Almost Famous"). The British actor portrays a yuppie who loses everything but meets an attractive flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) on his way to his father's funeral in Kentucky.

"The role is very, very different from anything that Orlando Bloom has done," says Harry Knowles, founder of the movie website.

Mr. Knowles says the script for "Elizabethtown" features what promises to become one of the year's most talked-about scenes: a 15-minute phone conversation between Dunst and Bloom. "It could be one of the landmark scenes of the year - the dialogue is that good," says Knowles.

"Elizabethtown" could be the movie that finally garners Crowe an Oscar for directing. But he may face stiff competition from Roman Polanski for Oliver Twist (starring Ben Kingsley as Fagin) or Rob Marshall ("Chicago") for the big-screen version of the bestselling novel Memoirs of a Geisha. Then again, it may be the year of Tim Burton for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Ron Howard for Cinderella Man (a Depression-era story about a boxer, played by Russell Crowe, an actor not known for pulling punches).

But expect one director to get more attention than any of his peers come December.

The inimitable Peter Jackson received a record $20 million to direct King Kong following the success of "Lord of the Rings." "What he's doing with 'King Kong' isn't 'big, rampaging ape,' " says Knowles. "He's playing it extremely dramatic and, frankly, for all the emotional gusto it has."

If successful, "King Kong" could be the capper on what promises to be a successful year for Hollywood.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we will see the attendance declines of the past two years reversed because of this incredible lineup of films," says Mr. Dergarabedian.

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