Sure, "Star Wars" and "Avengers" and Mission: Impossible 5.” When it comes to movies, 2015 will reach the apex of huge sequels (until the next apex of huge sequels, 2016). But amid all these widely monitored and marketed tent poles will be films and film storylines that go beyond that, to something Hollywood doesn't dabble in much these days--creative risk, or at least creative risk as defined in the sequel era.
In some cases, the risk is motivated by a talent relationship; in others, it's about studio execs feeling like they can roll the dice on something chancier because there are already plenty of sequels on the slate to cushion the blow if it doesn't work.
Here, then, are eight studio non-sequel releases to watch for in 2015, along with what makes them cool, chancy and weird.
"Chappie" (March) It only sounds like a portrait of Charlie Chaplin as a young man. in fact, it’s Neill Blomkamp’s look at a thinking and feeling robot who’s kidnapped by gangsters for their own purposes. Blomkamp has had his share of risky brilliance ("District 9") and his risky not-such-brilliance ("Elysium"). But Johnny Five by way of “District 9”? It could be fantastic or floppy.
"Tomorrowland" (May) Sure, in some sense it's the biggest brand of all--one of the most well-known theme-park attractions at one of the world's best-known theme parks. But the mix of genres (dystopian fiction, family adventure) and the presence of a movie star (George Clooney) who usually stays far away from these sorts of things—and all with Brad Bird, no less—makes this Disney production one of the larger gambles out there. The pairing of serious actor and imaginative filmmaker with big theme-park property worked out pretty well for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” back in 2003. Then again, the pairing of a serious actor with a big brand didn’t work out so well for Clooney and Batman.
“Paper Towns” (June) Intriguing back stories pop from this teen-themed romantic mystery. It’s based on a bestselling novel by “The Fault in our Stars” writer John Green. It’s written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who also wrote “Fault,” and “(500) Days of Summer" besides. There’s a missing young woman, a la “Gone Girl.” And the cast features Nat Wolff, elevated after his supporting turn in “Fault,” and model Cara Delevigne, who also stars in the Hook-ish next entry below. With “Hunger Games” nearing its end and “Twilight” a blissfully distant memory, a mystery-laden young-adult romance is the new vampire or dystopian young-adult romance. Time will tell how much of their success it can replicate.
“Pan” (July) Coming right into the Peter Pan resurgence is “Pan,” an origin story of Captain Hook and the chief Lost Boy himself. But far from an easy cash-grab in the wake of Broadway hit “Peter and the Starcatcher” and NBC watercooler piece “Peter Pan Live!,” “Pan” is choosing the path of greater resistance. The script, by Jason Fuchs, was on the Black List, and Joe Wright — he of “Atonement” and Jane Austen fame -- is the unlikely director at the helm. There’s also Hugh Jackman and a brewing Tiger Lily controversy. When Warner Bros. releases the movie this summer, we’ll see how wide the audience is for a Peter Pan tale that's all grown up.
“Goosebumps” (August) R.L. Stine’s smash series has been ripe for the big screen for years but never made it. Now, coming in after “Harry Potter” and all the child wonderment (and box office billions) is “Goosebumps,” based partly on the '90s book series that came before Hogwarts--and, in a sense, helped make it all possible. The story is of children and secrets and mysterious neighbors, and the goal for the Sony film—from director Rob Letterman (“Shark Tale”) and writers Mike White and Darren Lemke—is to make it not so much a simple kids tale but a subtle Spielbergian one. Also, there's Jack Black, at one of the most interesting points in his Blackian career.
“Vacation” (October) OK, so technically it’s a sequel, coming a generation after “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” as Rusty Griswold, all grown up and Ed Helms-ized, takes his own children on a cross-country trip to Wally World. But the idea of a pair of hot writers (Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley) making their directorial debuts, and with a Chevy Chase cameo, and with the kind of sly insider beat that offers a sequel to a movie we loved three decades ago while poking fun at the idea of making a sequel to a movie we loved three decades ago, is at the very least a quest for fun, and perhaps even a pilgrimage to see a moose.
"Silence" (November) Martin Scorsese is enjoying a level of commercial popularity he hasn't enjoyed in years, thanks to the 3-D spectacle of "Hugo" and the outre vices of "The Wolf of Wall Street." As he’s done multiple times before coming off a hit, Scorsese is taking a step in a different direction. The filmmaker is shooting “Silence,” a story of Jesuit missionaries attempting to proselytize in 17th-century Japan. The movie, which Paramount has signed on for, has echoes of Scorsese’s previous turns to religion immediately after hardboiled efforts (“Kundun” following “Casino” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” one-two-punching after “The Color of Money”). Also, Liam Neeson stars, this time showcasing a very different set of skills.
“The Revenant” (December) Alejandro G. Inarritu proved he’s back in a big way with “Birdman,” a black comedy set in the world of Broadway. So for his next film he’s off to—of course—rural Alberta, Canada, for a western revenge thriller. For the past few months Inarritu’s been off shooting the movie with an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, which is inspired by the life of explorer Hugh Glass. When we talked to the director last month and asked him how it was going, he said, "we are in the complicated mountains, and there’s a Chinook weather system here, and I’m a tropical banana. It’s intense, very intense.”
Honorable mentions: “Inside Out” from Pixar, which sounds like “Herman’s Head” as re-imagined by Pete Docter; an untitled Cold War thriller from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, which sounds as old school, and thus as risky, as Hollywood gets; and “Everest,” which is old school in a different way, with mountain climbing and Jake Gyllenhaal and a wild man from Iceland. The movie business, it still does the chancy tango.