NEW YORK – While some Hollywood summer offerings this year have pulled in big box-office bucks, they haven't exactly been critical successes.
Even Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, major works from two of the country's most widely respected directors, have been panned by many critics and expectant fans.
But the re-release of a 1979 classic is serving as a reminder of the kind of epic filmmaking that has all but disappeared from mainstream movies. And that has some critics calling Francis Ford Coppola's re-edit of his Apocalypse Now the best film of the summer.
"The movie is incredible," said Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at U.S.C.'s School of Cinema-Television.
Today's Hollywood is rife with sequels like Jurassic Park III and remakes like Chris Rock's flop Down to Earth, an updated version of Warren Beatty's 1978 film Heaven Can Wait, itself a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan. While attempting to capitalize on a proven story, these re-imagined flicks rarely live up to their original inspiration.
"We have gotten beyond the time when there were films by auteurs like Coppola and [Martin] Scorsese," Boyd said. "Today's films are blockbusters, heavy on technology and spectacle."
So what happened to the era of filmmaking that gave birth to classics such as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Badlands, The Deer Hunter, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and The Conversation?
"Obviously, the studio system is dictating against these kinds of films, which is one reason I'm convinced we're having a rotten summer with cookie-cutter movies," said David Lubin, professor of art at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "People want movies with personal vision behind them."
Film-school graduates of the 1970s, men like Coppola and George Lucas of Star Wars fame, were influenced by the great European and American directors such as Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and John Ford, known for creating films with a message as well as a sense of history, said Lubin.
"The idea of the 'auteur' theory is that these films have personal vision, so what it really is about ... is your own personal set of issues and problems that you're trying to work out in films" he said. "Now films seem like they are being made by bank executives instead of young artists."
Some of Apocalypse Now's stars acknowledge the film belongs to a bygone era of filmmaking.
"The last movie that was made like this was Gandhi," said Laurence Fishburne, who was 14 years old when production began on Apocalypse Now. "This movie is hand-made. They used to make movies by hand, and now we don't."
Of course, Apocalypse Now was notoriously over budget, behind schedule and plagued with problems. Harvey Keitel, who was slated to play the lead, Captain Willard, was forced out after three weeks of filming. Martin Sheen, who replaced him, suffered a heart attack during the production. A monsoon wiped out the sets, the script was constantly being re-written and first-billed Marlon Brando, playing the central character of Colonel Kurtz, arrived grossly overweight and became an unwieldy thorn in Coppola's side.
Many critics expected the film to fail, but instead it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was first shown. Coppola's endurance in the face of such obstacles only added to the mystique of the film.
"It was very clear watching these guys work ... that they were attempting to do something, you know, that was really monumental," Fishburne said. "They said they were doing something special. I was a kid. I was with them. I believed them. And it's true. It's a really special film."
And what are the chances of reviving this kind of filmmaking in Hollywood today?
"Apocalypse probably looks like a luxury now," said Boyd, with a hint of nostalgia. "Today studios wouldn't line up behind a project like that ... It is representative of a different time in filmmaking."
Apocalypse Now Redux, as the new cut is called, opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, Aug. 3, and will have a wider release on Aug. 17. The new cut has 49 minutes of added footage, including a plantation sequence in which Martin Sheen has a romantic encounter with a young French opium smoker. The re-edit also includes a new scene with Marlon Brando.
But not everyone thinks so fondly of the good old days.
Actor Robert Duvall, whose famous line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," is one of the most memorable in film history, said: "They say they were more like independent filmmakers in the Hollywood establishment then ... Some people may disagree, but I think the level of art has been raised [today] and people are so hip, so into things at a younger age now, they're less innocent. They learn quicker.
"People, rather than writing books today, they want to be filmmakers," said Duvall. "Going into the 21st century, there will be good movies always — good and bad, both inside and outside the establishment."