Mark Harris
May 19, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here are the early lessons of summer blockbusters

Summer movie season is barely underway, and already, results on the season’s first couple of major releases — one very big hit and one very big bomb — are sending messages to their studios that should gladden the hearts of anyone who wants movies to be better than they are. The big hit is ”Gladiator,” the big dog is ”Battlefield Earth,” and the lessons they teach are as follows:

(1) It’s the movie, stupid. In the wake of ”Gladiator”’s enormous success, it’s easy to forget what an enormous gamble the film was on the part of DreamWorks and Universal, who shared its $103 million cost and will now split its certain profits down the middle. But look at the elements: A genre — the ”sword and sandals” epic — that hadn’t made any noise at the box office for 35 years. An Australian star who hadn’t ever carried a hit, let alone a blockbuster. A director, Ridley Scott, who hadn’t made a box office smash in 21 years. And an R rating coupled with a two and a half hour running time, both elements that summer movies strive to avoid in the middle of the ”fun for the whole family,” ”move ’em in move ’em out” season.

It turns out that none of the above matters if the movie is terrific and people love it, and the fact that people do is good news for any number of other movies this summer — ”The Perfect Storm” and Mel Gibson’s lengthy, sure to be R-rated ”The Patriot” come to mind — that want to attract audiences without being perceived as typical summer movie fare. It’s also good news for Russell Crowe, who will finally ascend to a richly deserved position on Hollywood’s A list. In fact, there might just be a spot open on that list, which leads us to Lesson No. 2.

(2) You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Unlike ”Gladiator,” the $70-80 million ”Battlefield Earth” had a lot going for it: A proven box office draw in John Travolta, a genre (sci-fi) that has filled out one summer movie schedule after another for the last 25 years, a reasonable running time, and a PG-13 rating. Its status as one of the most breathtakingly stupid movies ever to be released by a major studio didn’t seem to deter the enthusiasm of everyone involved. Chief among them was would-be Hollywood entrepreneur Elie Samaha, who, in a New York Times Magazine interview, announced with blithe cynicism that even if the movie grossed only a paltry $35 million in the U.S., what with international box office and a cushion from coinvestors, he’d be in the money.

Well, he won’t be getting a piece of MY nine bucks, or yours, I hope. What a thrill it is for those of us who care about movies to realize that after its awful opening, even a lousy $35 million may be beyond the reach of this dim-witted slag heap of cinematic detritus. With help from the preproduction sales of foreign and video distribution rights, movies can technically be profitable before they’re even shot, but when a film’s quality becomes this irrelevant to its makers, its success is worth actively rooting against.

As for John Travolta — that huge fund of goodwill your ”Pulp Fiction” comeback generated a few years ago is running perilously low. Next time this kind of material excites you, do yourself a favor: Get a second opinion. And the next time anyone hands you a dreadlock wig and nostril tubes, smile politely and run far, far away.

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