March 2018 Forecast

By Michael Lynderey

March 2, 2018

Someday, people will watch movies in VR. Just sitting there watching themselves watch a movie.

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Black Panther should dominate much of March, too, but we have a reasonable line-up of contestants aching to steal away its number one spot, at least for a weekend: a Tomb Raider reboot, a Pacific Rim sequel, and a pair of long-awaited adaptations of fantasy and science fiction stalwarts, for a grand total of four special effects films on as many weekends. Elsewhere, some lower-key titles nestled beside them could take down their bigger-budgeted compatriots.

1. Ready Player One (March 29th)
A teenage boy in an industrial wasteland in dusty 2045 plugs in to a virtual reality paradise littered with the pop culture of the past. There, he must search for a fantastical artifact and do requisite mental battle with a malevolent corporatist.

Based on Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, the story is usually called dystopian, and indeed, the film's premise is kind of... depressing... isn't it? All the neat stuff you see isn't really there (more so than usual). When it comes to virtual reality, I have less of a knack for when we go live there than when it comes to us (for example, the Spider-Man character Stunner, an obese woman who plugs into a virtual reality machine, which then projects her out as a tall, thin, musclebound amazon, rock solid, into the real world. That was cool!).

In Ready Player One's virtual world, teenagers take on fantastical forms and co-exist with figures from popular culture, many borrowed from one era in particular. The film, of course, is marketed as a tribute piece to the world of the 1980s, which happens to be my favorite decade, and which is now enjoying some popularity again due to the likes of filmdom's It and streaming's Stranger Things, two works that may lead inattentive outer space aliens to believe that most 1980s entertainments featured particularly clever children in the lead roles (certainly not the case).

The lead here, at least, is older; Tye Sheridan, who was plucked from a small Texas town and into the acclaimed and cerebral dramas The Tree of Life (2011) and Mud (2012), before finding himself in a rather continuous series of independent films (my favorite was the fascinating The Stanford Prison Experiment, 2015). Largely covered by sunglasses, he also played Cyclops in the lengthy X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), and here makes his full-fledged debut as a star of infinitely-budgeted blockbuster entertainments. Olivia Cooke (the Dying Girl of Me and Earl) is the female lead, all manner of young talent aide them in their quest, and the rich, evil, businessman (now where did they find this stereotype?) is played by professional firebreather Ben Mendelsohn.

And if you liked the recent The Post, you're in luck, because both films share the same director - Steven Spielberg, in his first real science fiction title since the triumvirate of A. I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005), all successful in their own ways. It's fitting that the director of so many iconic genre works going back to the 1970s would make a film that pays tribute to his heyday.

P.S., my forecast has been calculated (with much dedication and intense mental work, of course) on the premise that Ready Player One will receive positive critical notices. You and you alone can rule this month and make it yours, Steven Spielberg. The ball's in your court.

Opening weekend: $45 million / Total gross: $175 million

2. A Wrinkle in Time (March 9th)

The month's first expected genre blockbuster is directed by Ava DuVernay, who helmed dramatic awards contender Selma and then the documentary 13th, about the mass incarceration industry (spoiler: it's thriving!). Here she takes on her second major studio film, a $100m+ budgeted adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 children's novel, where a young girl searches for her scientist father through multi-dimensional journeys with her school friend, as forces of darkness gather ominously around them.

A Wrinkle in Time is a pop cultural nugget I hadn't much heard of during my childhood, but which Time magazine informed me early in the new year has a large and eager following, gathered over the decades and evidently disappointed with a previous adaptation, a relatively little-seen television film from 2003. Newcomer Storm Reid leads, opposite Levi Miller, who was so good as Peter Pan he almost saved the recent fantasy Pan (2015). Parental roles are filled by Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the chief source of occasional comic relief will be provided by Zach Galifianakis, and opaque mentorship to the hero's journey is contributed by the trio of Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey; Adorned by bright and shiny make-up effects, they will release nuggets of wisdom and gently advance the plot.

The film has made waves in diversity, of both gender and race, and like Black Panther, is receiving a momentous marketing push from its home base of Walt Disney Studios. It arrives at a reasonable release window perhaps just, just slightly starved for children's entertainment (although Peter Rabbit seems to be tactfully hopping its way to $100 million... if it must... harumph). On paper, the film has strong fundamentals.

A Wrinkle in Time's critical situation is a bit less certain at the moment, though, so I make this forecast with hesitation and tact.

Opening weekend: $30 million / Total gross: $85 million

3. Sherlock Gnomes (March 23rd)
If you like films in which garden gnomes dress as your favorite characters from classic literature while re-litigating popular fiction... (the first film was called Gnomeo & Juliet, wasn't it?).

James McAvoy and Emily Blunt are the leads again in this British-tinged animation, with no less than Johnny Depp recruited to voice the lame pun of the title (Chiwetel Ejiofor is Watson). Some of the other vocal talent is new (Mary J. Blige, still an Oscar nominee), others are reprising (Maggie Smith, the inevitable Michael Caine), and some, like the first film's presumed standout Jason Statham, sadly are not back.

Having settled their various romantic differences, the gnomes this time are investigating missing person cases among their tight-knight community. This is... pleasant... of course... but I'm not sure I can agree with the premise. See, a long time ago, I thought garden gnomes were pretty cool (see R. L. Stine's Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, for example). Now, between that Travelocity commercial gnome and this franchise, I see them as simply outside my pop culture jurisdiction. The life of a garden gnome is not, as these films propose, a circle of amusement and CGI-friendly fun, with jolly mysteries to be solved amid friendship and humour. I assure you, this is not so. Someone needs to take the plastic gnomes back to their rightful place, making them bloody, nasty, vile, horror film villains, again, chopping and slashing away at delicate fantasies of their extra-decorative existence. Sherlock Gnomes is a lie. Children must again be told the truth about these creatures.

Despite the deception, that first Gnomeo film was a sparkling fiscal success, and in fact remains one of the few motion pictures to finish its box office run at ninety nine (point something) million dollars, for which I give full credit to studio Buena Vista Pictures: most films that find themselves that close to $100m are thereafter dragged out for painful weeks and months until they reach the milestone, kicking, flailing, and screaming as they do. But Buena Vista stopped the box office tracking at a ninety nine, proudly and faithfully. Own it!

Gnomeo number too won't find itself in the same situation, I don't think. In a busy March, it is surrounded on all aisles by some distinct competition, even with a March Break or two heading in its favor.

Opening weekend: $23 million / Total gross: $75 million

4. Tomb Raider (March 16th)
The 1996-spawned video game franchise returns for what is technically its third installment, and the first in fifteen years.

I really enjoyed the first film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, as an enthralled 15 year-old in the greatest movie summer ever, 2001, where every blockbuster seemed like a giddy B-film entertainment, and no film took itself very seriously (maybe it was just me). Lara Croft, international adventurer with a cheeky sense of humor, was played by Angelina Jolie in the role I still associate her most with, and which outlines and defines her screen appeal. By that point, Jolie had won a Best Supporting Oscar (Girl, Interrupted), and with Tomb Raider launched herself into a change of pace, from gaudy independent cinema to status as a major action star. The film opened with $47 million and finished with $131 million, a success that, as I now realize in retrospect, seems to have foretold other action films with well-armed female leads (Resident Evil, Underworld). Two summers later, for whatever reason the world was a bit bored by Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and indeed the box office found itself roughly split down to half of what it got in 2001. Lara Croft went on hiatus.

But video games live forever, and so in 2018, Alicia Vikander, herself fresh off winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, returns to take up the mantle.

As in the first film, Lara Croft deals with the disappearance of her father, who must always turn out to be some sort of off-the-grid explorer or archaeologist (Jon Voight played the role, oddly enough, in the first film, and Dominic West does here). As always, the old man's disappearance inevitably ties into missing artifacts, ancient conspiracies, forgotten temples, and other elements on friendly loan from the Indiana Jones films. Daniel Wu assists Croft, Walton Goggins is the self-evident villain, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Nick Frost ought to provide some amusing interludes in the supporting corners. The younger Vikander is played by Emily Carey, who was also the junior version of Wonder Woman in the 2017 film, creating here some welcome Synergy.

Tomb Raider opens smack dab among a series of aspirants for genre blockbusterdom. It has the tools to clear 100 million dollars, clearly, but its base of video game enthusiasts must be sufficiently excited for the occasion. Are you guys?

Opening weekend: $30 million / Total gross: $73 million

5. Pacific Rim Uprising (March 23rd)
As with Guillermo del Toro's original film, geological activity causes giant scaly monsters to emerge from the depths of the ocean floors. The human race must proceed to send them back to whence they came, at least after several protracted if potentially entertaining action scenes have concluded.

This carefully calibrated and orderly process (monster invasion > combat > return to sender), is directly inspired by the Japanese giant monster films (yes, the Kaiju), and also by the Power Rangers series, which in fact borrowed a chunk of its footage from a Japanese show. As with the Rangers, Pacific humans pick out a giant robotic lifeform to occupy and take charging into battle, and indeed Pacific Rim 2 is given a release date entirely consistent with last year's Power Rangers reboot, which bowed on the same weekend (and to $40 million on the first three days, at that. Something to aspire to).

The first Pacific Rim opened right after The Lone Ranger in the summer of 2013, and as retro genre films both faced some equal difficulty. Pacific Rim did finish with that magic three digit total, $101 million (technically nine digits), and as you may have guessed did well enough internationally to inspire a sequel.

Some years have passed in our world and more in theirs, and indeed Uprising does not include original Pacific Rim stars Idris Elba (his character died) and Charlie Hunnam (he's just... not in the sequel). John Boyega, Clint Eastwood, and Cailee Spaeny take over the leads as the robot enablers, while Charlie Day and Burn Gorman reprise their character work as accredited and distinguished scientists, Nobel Prizes in tow, and Rinko Kikuchi is still around (Ron Perlman, however, has followed del Toro out).

Boyega and Eastwood are rising stars, but the film will probably play better overseas, where I expect much of the marketing is already in overdrive, and where potential audiences are not quite as hardened by years of exposure to dozens or hundreds of American special effects entertainments ending with a big epic battle scene. Of the four leading March films, Uprising might come in below the top three. Or maybe not. You tell me.

Opening weekend: $28 million / Total gross: $63 million


6. Red Sparrow (March 2nd)
Red Sparrow is a Russia-U.S. spy game story, based on a same name 2013 novel, and thus possibly lacking in any topical political references you may or may not wish to extract from the plot outline.

Red Sparrow refers to the escapades of a crafty Russian spy, Dominika, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who most recently careened from science fiction epics to starring in the fascinating mother! (that film seems to have made enemies among this web site's Calvin Awards voters, but I assure you I was not among them). Here, Lawrence's spy evidently exists in present day, and possesses the kind of training-from-birth and tortured psyche that recall Black Widow / Natasha Romanova's long-ago dropped subplot in the Avengers films. For her part, Dominika entangles herself with an American agent (Joel Edgerton), much to the misanthropic reaction of her Russian handlers (Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, and Charlotte Rampling, all occupying some positions in the Russian espionage hierarchy, and presumably competing for most accurate accent impersonation). Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer in three of the Hunger Games outings, helms Red Sparrow too, making the two Lawrences' claims of "no relation" seem gradually less plausible.

The film clocks in at what must have quietly been declared the new mandatory length for a mainstream American wide release film: two hours and twenty minutes (see also the recent Den of Thieves, The Maze Runner: The Death Cure, and Black Panther - although it will take you a very long time to see all of them). These days, most films are so long that I eagerly wait for the heavy stuff at the Oscar season just so I can see a reasonably short movie again.

In any case, Red Sparrow is receiving a generally positive acclamation, and may fulfill an entertainment need for grown-up audiences who still haven't acquiesced to the idea that the Marvel Universe is the future of all fiction.

Opening weekend: $17 million / Total gross: $49 million

7. Love, Simon (March 16th)
A film based on Becky Albertalli's 2015 book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, though with its title somewhat re-ordered here... Nick Robinson stars as Simon, a high school student living in suburban paradise who must carefully manage his coming out as gay, while puzzling through the identity of a mysterious romantic partner he has met online (fortuitously, the mystery paramour turns out to be another teenager. But don't try this at home.).

Robinson is in his second high school role in less than a year, after Everything, Everything (2017), the girl in a plastic bubble romance with that aggressive twist ending. He was very good in The Kings of Summer (2013), also about high school students, and one of these days may well graduate to films about the college experience. When it comes to school in the movies, some actors stay behind for many long years.

Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play Simon's parents, in the kind of casting that nearly assures they'll be understanding. The supporting array includes a more than agreeable swath of rising actors, like Katherine Langford (the lead girl of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (Storm in the X-Men prequels), and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., who briefly cast a weary eye as a school news reporter in Spider-Man: Homecoming. As with Robinson, they left real high schools some years ago, but the roles may keep them there a while longer (on the plus side, at least none of them were born in the 1980s).

Outside of the Oscar season, have there been a lot of studio films with gay lead characters? For some reason I always think back to The Object of My Affection (1998), with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as love interests destined only for the platonic. Otherwise, the landscape seems bare; and so to its audience the film will fill a real need, while the critical acclamation it has received should help it grow.

Opening weekend: $15 million / Total gross: $45 million

8. Tyler Perry's Acrimony (March 30th)
Taraji P. Henson stars as a woman scorned and out for blood in Tyler Perry's eighteenth theatrical feature film as director (his first was in 2006, so the math on his per-year average reveals quite a pace). Acrimony is familiar territory for Perry, with a long-suffering spouse liberated from the shackles of matrimony at last, and going up against the perverted dick of a husband who wronged her for years (that, of course, was also the plot of, among others, Perry's very first starring role, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The title hasn't lost its bite).

As the world's single biggest Madea fan, I regret to report that within the cast listing I see no mention of the former Mabel Simmons, nor even of her close confidant, Tyler Perry himself. Those Madea movies usually finish near the top of Perry's box office report card, but Madea-less late March Perry films have a tradition for success, too (2013's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor finished with $51 million, though I'm sure the longer title helped in giving it an epic feel).

Henson's hitperson thriller Proud Mary mostly parlayed in and out of theatres not too long ago, but the combination of star and director should at least double poor Mary's box office. With a brand like this, fans of the material know what they're getting. Melodrama will ensue, implausible plot developments will prevail, and the film is sure to deliver audience-pleasing moments by the plethora, as is the Perry way. By this point, customer service is guaranteed.

Opening weekend: $18 million / Total gross: $43 million

9. Strangers: Prey At Night (March 9th)
The Strangers starred Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a happily or pseudo-happily married couple suddenly terrorized by masked others out for some apparent binge of thrill killing (and it wasn't even on Purge day!). The first film was certainly well made and acted to a fault, though the kind of movie that ends with the exchange "Why us?"-"Because you were home." is one that leaves me in a dour and unoptimistic mood as I leave the theatre (really, what kind of a cockamamie motivation for a murder is that? What would Dr. Phibes say?).

The original opened on one of the rare summer 2008 weekends to offer an interlude between superhero films, and also on the same day as the Sex and the City movie, which perhaps made The Strangers seem comparatively less mortifying (sorry, sorry; actually, I thought the original SatC film wasn't bad. Really! But I had the chance to make an obvious, cheap joke, and as usual I took the bait, sadly.).

In any case, with a $20 million opening and a $52 million finale, The Strangers was the kind of horror film that seemed ripe for a sequel, which arrives here just on the cusp of a ten year anniversary (don't worry, you haven't forgotten all the many important plot points). Horror films about mysterious torturers who commit their gruesome villainy for the kicks seem to have been on the vane in just the last few years, though the original's fans should be numerous enough, advertising should be sufficiently ubiquitous, and the lack of any outright horror competition this March should be apparent enough (though those giant Pacific Rim monsters are plenty scary!), to get it to the ballpark I'm bemusedly projecting here.

On a more caustic note: the film's subtitle and tagline seem to me like they should be switched (the title "The Strangers: Let Us Prey" seems more humorous).

Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $35 million

10. Death Wish (March 2nd)
This film, about a gun-toting urban avenger, was originally scheduled for a late November release date. The decision to push it back was announced just days after the largest mass shooting in American history, in Las Vegas on October 1 (and even before another mass shooting, at a Texas church, on November 5).

Now, Death Wish opens this Friday.

Right on time.

Charles Bronson carried out Death Wish in 1974, moving away from cowboys and other outdoorsy types to play an urban architect and vigilante in the role that perhaps defines him for at least one generation of filmgoers. Death Wish, based on Brian Garfield's 1972 novel, was well-made and reasonably entertaining, if you allow its premise and penchant for audience manipulation: Bronson's architect, Paul Kersey, began the film with a wife and a daughter who were brutalized in a home invasion while he was out. His wife died, and his daughter fell into a mortifying near-catatonic state, in which she remained until Death Wish 2, at which point her lot certainly didn't improve any (by the time of Death Wish 3, Bronson's character had few if any close biological relatives among the living). For their part, the three original home invaders were never caught, although one of them later starred in the lead of a wonderful 1986 remake of The Fly.

For a time, Bronson's Kersey considered forking over the dough for three large signs outside the New York City police station ("Raped while dying", "And still no arrests?", "How come, Lieutenant Ochoa?"). However, he went another way, arming himself with a basic pistol (no AK-47 required, curiously) and heading out into the crime-ridden night, where he shot up offending muggers, assaulters, and perverts, while avoiding the untoward attentions of the police.

Death Wish's box office of $22 million adjusts roughly to $87 mil today, and the original film really was a relatively respectable big studio venture (Paramount). It was later, in the 1980s, that Bronson teamed with B-film studios (Filmways and Cannon) for three Death Wish sequels, capping them off with a part 5 in 1994, at the age of 72. If the man hadn't died in 2003, perhaps a few more roman numerals would have been required.

So, I've sufficiently shown off my film history knowledge (the above was recited precisely from memory, of course), and we can now proceed to current matters: Death Wish 2017/18 stars Bruce Willis in the Bronson role, with alterations in occupation (surgeon, now) and setting (Chicago, this time), and no apparent changes in the man's familial situation (he has a wife and a daughter, which leads to the inevitable). The film is directed by Eli Roth, a man who has made his share of bloody horror films of the kind you wouldn't want to show your parents, even and especially if your parents are still teenagers. The advertising for Death Wish suggests that anything fans of the material could reasonably expect, they will find here.

Whether the film can be taken as simple entertainement is another question.

Opening weekend: $9 million / Total gross: $25 million

11. Midnight Sun (March 23rd)
Though based on a Japanese film (!) and not on a curt novel, this gentle teenage romance follows eagerly in the tradition of The Fault in Our Stars, and, especially, Everything, Everything, with a house-bound and morbidly ill teenager (she has xeroderma pigmentosum, sensitivity to sunlight) romanced by her dream boy. Bella Thorne, who usually plays either the stuck-up bully in teen comedies (The Duff) or the daring lead in horror films (Amityville: The Awakening, Keep Watching), is the star, with her lovelorn male lead essayed by Patrick Schwarzenegger (the surname is... familiar), and Rob Riggle, who's always nice to see, playing a parental figure in one household or another. As Every Day definitely proved just last weekend, teen films (other than an occasional Love, Simon, maybe) appear fated to find themselves at #11 on lists such as these (in fact, while not usually a plagiarist, I don't mind copy and pasting Every Day's projected box office numbers here in place of an original forecast...). They shouldn't feel too down about their lot, though. As Drake always sings, "started from the bottom..."

Opening weekend: $3 million / Total gross: $6 million



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