NOTICE SOMETHING AWRY about the reception to this year’s fusillade of summer pictures? Each of the vaunted, effects-laden megapics has arrived amid a buzz of controversy among critics and “civilians” alike. “Godzilla,” many felt, was over-hyped and underwritten; “Deep Impact” lacked empathetic protagonists; “Armageddon” was edited like the world’s longest music video.

Consider, on the other hand, the summer’s “retro slate.” The stunts in “Lethal Weapon 4″ appear to have been sliced from a Warner Bros. gangster film, circa 1939 — you could almost visualize the tows and pulleys. The swordplay in “The Mask of Zorro” seemed like a throwback to Douglas Fairbanks in the ’20s. The physical gags in “There’s Something About Mary” looked like they were created for “The Three Stooges” — for that matter, the entire movie represents a continuity nightmare.

Similarly, the word went forth weeks ago that the CGI work in “Dr. Dolittle” would represent a formidable advance, but frankly I thought that computer-embellished animals “talked” more persuasively in several TV commercials, not to mention in “Babe.”

Yet “Dolittle” is a big hit; despite Eddie Murphy’s disappearance from the promo circuit, the movie seems destined to top his previous “comeback” smash, “The Nutty Professor.”

Indeed, all the movies on the “retro slate” have been received warmly by critics and audiences alike. It’s almost as if moviegoers want to end the “tyranny of the techies.”

And all this is in advance of “Saving Private Ryan,” which seems destined for acclaim. Not only has Steven Spielberg stepped back from special effects, but he shot his combat scenes in a hand-held, in-your-face, semi-documentary style reminiscent of low-budget “indie” filmmaking. To compound this impression, he’s cast “indie” actors, not Hollywood bit-players.

SO WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? Has Hollywood finally got the message that audiences want more from movies than theme park rides, a la “Speed 2″?

If moviegoers are a bit exasperated with effects movies, their impatience is shared with some top-ranking studio executives, who feel they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the techmeisters. The effects business has finally reached a level of maturity, they’d been told. Complex as it may be, the work could be delivered on time and on budget. The troubled days of the computer graphics suppliers were behind us.

Sure.

The hard facts are these: Effects budgets, by and large, skyrocketed for summer ’98 projects. Equally upsetting, the techies weren’t able to meet their schedules. Or perhaps the directors overseeing theirwork saw to it that they missed delivery dates.

In some cases, such as Polygram’s $ 85 million Robin Williams project, “What Dreams May Come,” the effects houses ran into a range of problems, technical and financial, and the movies missed their summer dates completely. In others, however, studio executives suspect that directors manipulated effects scheduling to minimize studio input.

No one will talk about it on the record, but senior executives at one studio in particular, who never got to see the final cut of their major summer movie until the 11th hour, are furious that other motives were involved. “There were a lot of improvements that could have been made had we seen it at the scheduled time,” one top production executive confides. The director and producer, however , kept assuring the studio that the final effects simply couldn’t be ready in time.

THE BOTTOM LINE: On their most expensive projects, studios run the risks of not being able to test or preview. For that matter, they can’t even show their movies to long-range reviewers or key exhibitors. “Block-booking” laws in many states forbid exhibitors from closing deals on new movies until they actually get to see them.

None of this is to suggest that the era of “effects movies” is behind us. Quite the contrary. This much is apparent, however:

  • Audiences are in a mood to demand more than seeing New York get stomped by a reptile, blasted by an asteroid or swamped by a tidal wave. They want story and character.

  • Studios will be reluctant to commit to big-budget CGI epics unless vastly more time is built into the schedule for previews and testing.

  • There probably will be fewer $ 100 million-plus effects movies made in the future than over the last two or three years.

Apparently, this summer’s “retro slate” may have had a deep impact after all.

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