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Today in Movie History: May 22

The summer season traditionally kicked off on Memorial Day weekend, with the pre-planned 600-lb. gorilla du jour grabbing the pole position every year. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of high-end sequels of dubious quality landing in late May: notable more  for failing to meet expectations than advancing whatever the franchise in question was. Yet all of them remain interesting… as cinematic curiosity if nothing else.

At the top of the list sits Rambo: First Blood Part II which, for better or worse, helped define flag-waving jingoism for an entire generation. As a button-pushing action movie, it’s not bad — setting Sylvester Stallone’s sociopathic ex-Green Beret against various flavors of sinister Commie in the jungles of Vietnam — and as long as it sticks to script, it provides a bevvy of guilty pleasures. (Charles Napier makes a great bad guy too.)But every now and then, it wades in way out of its depth: attempt serious commentary on our involvement in Vietnam that its cartoonish tone simply can’t support. Such missteps become much harder to forgive, and relegate it to dated cinematic curiosity status at best. Rambo: First Blood Part II opened today in 1985.

Standing slightly higher in fandom estimation comes Alien 3, David Fincher’s hotly anticipated contribution to the beloved Alien franchise. It was greeted as a huge letdown from the first two films, and it’s never shaken that impression. (Killing Hicks and Newt was a major mistake, and the nihilistic tone eventually becomes contrived and cynical.) But the film has earned cult status from certain defenders, and Fincher recovered nicely to become a director of significant note in the ensuing years. And of course, none of the problems extend to Sigourney Weaver, knocking it out of the park once again as the indomitable Ellen Ripley. The movie opened today in 1992.

Not even so vaunted a summer movie icon as Steven Spielberg could resist the siren call of sub-par sequels. He helmed a pair that opened today: 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The former reads like a collection of cut scenes from the infinitely superior Jurassic Park. It’s amusing enough, but even Spielberg seems to be phoning it in, and once the novelty value of the dinosaurs wears off, it has nowhere to go.

Fans reserve much more ire for Crystal Skull, widely perceived as a betrayal of the Indiana Jones saga for a number of reasons. I’m better disposed towards it than most. Though the flaws are inexcusable, it finds more of that old energy than its critics pretend… and Harrison Ford’s glee at dusting off the old fedora is positively infectious.

We’ll close with a minor original film that manages to outpace the lot of them. Outland billed itself as a revamp of High Noon set in outer space, but it delivers a suitable amount of tension and grit, thanks in no small part of Sean Connery’s welcome status in the lead. The film opened today in 1981.

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