After 2003's sequel and comic book marathon, "it seems to be a spicier summer," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. Sure, there's still plenty of Shrek and Spidey, but with surprising turns from Denzel, Nicole and Brad, the summer multiplex promises something for everyone.
Because one monster just isn't enough, Hugh Jackman squares off against Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. As the first summer film out of the gate, Helsing hopes to recoup its estimated near-$200 million budget (Jackman is already signed for a sequel).
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW
In the first post-9/11 disaster film, Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal brave the elements when global warming brings about Mother Nature's wrath. The movie's disaster scenario got a surprising real-life boost last February when the Pentagon released a report evaluating the national security risks posed by the threat of global climate change.
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK
After solidifying his action hero cred with 2002's XXX, Vin Diesel passed on appearing in 2 Fast 2 Furious, opting instead to resurrect his Pitch Black persona Riddick in this sci-fi films Black grossed only $39 million in 2000; The Chronicles of Riddick (in which Diesel faces off against warring "necromongers") cost at least twice that.
Despite his taste for roles that downplay his looks, Brad Pitt buffs up to fight the Trojan War. His physique has audiences swooning, but will they buy him as an action hero? (They'd better: At a cost of around $200 million, Troy is one of the most expensive movies ever.)
Tobey Maguire's Seabiscuit-related back problems and hefty salary demands almost caused producers to replace him with Jake Gyllenhaal, but Maguire returns to save New York City, this time from the tentacled Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). An early peek at a Spidey subway fight—with stellar special effects—wowed theater owners in March.
In a new take on the classic tale, Arthur (Clive Owens) romances Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and fights alongside his Knights of the Round Table. Arthur's lack of buzz could mean it will get crushed by competition—though that's what they said about last summer's Pirates of the Caribbean, which became a blockbuster with the same release slot and producer (Jerry Bruckheimer).
As another futuristic man in black, detective Will Smith teams with Bridget Moynahan as he tries to prove that a seemingly peaceful robot murdered a scientist. Smith, formerly the king of summer with Independence Day and the Men in Black films, may reclaim his throne if reaction to this film's trailer—featuring robots run amok—is any indication.
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
In the follow-up to the 2002 smart surprise hit The Bourne Identity, retired assassin Matt Damon (with Franka Potente, returning as his girlfriend) sets out to make another killing when he discovers that someone is impersonating him.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
Harry Potter's rabid fan base makes the third go-round this summer's surest bet (the first two grossed $1.8 billion worldwide). Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, far right, with Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) is joined by a new Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and an edgier director, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También).
Some of the Internet buzz on this Halle Berry film has been downright catty. But as the summer's only female action hero—clad in skintight leather to boot—Berry, who gets in touch with her inner feline while romancing cop Benjamin Bratt and baring her claws at cosmetics mogul Sharon Stone, could get the last meow.
Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg's third onscreen collaboration is yielding, not surprisingly, the year's first serious Oscar buzz. Hanks plays a Balkan traveler stranded inside JFK International Airport after a coup in his homeland invalidates his passport. A romance with flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones helps his lengthy stay go by a little quicker.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
Director Jonathan Demme updates the 1962 psychological thriller. Denzel Washington stars as a Gulf War vet obsessed with his squad sergeant (Liev Schreiber), now a vice presidential candidate. With the real-life presidential campaigns heating up, the timing couldn't be better.
James Garner reads ailing Gena Rowlands a familiar-sounding tale about a young couple (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams) torn apart by World War II. Producers hope the millions who read Nicholas Sparks's 1996 novel are ready for more.
A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Three's company? Not for two friends—one straight (Colin Farrell, taking a break from big-budget action flicks), one gay (Dallas Roberts)—entering love-triangle territory with older roommate Robin Wright Penn. Based an the novel by Michael Cunningham (The Hours).
Director M. Night Shyamalan sticks to his bread and butter—spooky supernatural thrillers—in this 1897 tale about a tiny town (including Joaquin Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver) forced to fend off creatures from the nearby woods.
Playing his first onscreen bad-dia (with graying hair no less), Tom Cruise is a contract killer on assignment who forces a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to accompany him on his nightly rounds. Good news for Cruise: Director Michael Mann's last two films, The Insider and Ali, nabbed Best Actor Oscar nominations for Russell Crowe and Will Smith.
Love & Laughter
NEW YORK MINUTE
Hoping that their lucrative direct-to-video franchise translates to the big screen, wonder twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (see cover story, page 108) ditch school for a crazy day in New York City.
In this black comedy, American Eagle Christian High School senior Jena Malone gets pregnant, leading her holier-than-thou group of friends (led by Mandy Moore) to turn on her.
THE STEPFORD WIVES
After appearing in a string of weepy dramas, "it's good to have some fun," says Nicole Kidman, who stars with Matthew Broderick in a remake of the 1975 thriller. It may have been too much of a good thing: The shoot dragged on for months and tensions mounted on the set, but the movie has a lot going for it, namely Christopher Walken, Bette Midler and the In & Out team of screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz.
Talk about Method acting. After Kate Hudson played a modeling agency exec turned mother to her late sister's three kids, the actress became a real-life mom (to son Ryder, born Jan. 7).
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY
As an evil dodgeball competitor facing off against scrappy misfits Vince Vaughn and Christine Taylor, Ben Stiller frequently missed his mark (his errant throws hit wife Taylor in the face and struck three Steadicams). His comic barbs, however, are on target with trailer audiences.
After the $173 million-grossing Elf, Will Ferrell could cement his A-list status with his follow-up (which he also cowrote) as a chauvinistic '70s San Diego anchorman who clashes with new hire Christina Applegate.
Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz)—with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in tow—living happily ever after? Not so fast In the sequel to the 2001 computer-animated blockbuster, Fiona's disapproving parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) enlist Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) and killer Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to break up the union. To replicate the first film's $267 million gross, Shrek 2 must once again jointly appeal to adults and kids. An early sneak peek accomplished exactly that.
A CINDERELLA STORY
Taking aim at the Princess Diaries crowd with this fairy tale update, Hilary Duff plays a text-messaging teen who slaves away at her late father's diner but hopes to meet her cybermate prince—the school quarterback, natch—at the Halloween school dance.
Zach Braff, star of the NBC sitcom Scrubs, took this year's Sundance Film Festival by storm with his writing-and-directing debut. He plays a man who returns home after his mother's death and looks for love with Natalie Portman.
SHALL WE DANCE?
Post-Chicago, Richard Gere keeps hoofing as he signs up for dance lessons with Jennifer Lopez. Just as in the film's 1996 Japanese namesake, the couple connect and enter a dance competition.
THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: THE ROYAL ENGAGEMENT
The follow-up to 2001's surprise hit finds queen-to-be Anne Hathaway searching for a husband. Look for grandmother Julie Andrews singing onscreen for the first time since her 1997 throat surgery.
Jason Lynch. Julle Jordan, Michael Fleeman, Kwala Mandel and Brenda Rodriguez in Los Angeles and Kathy Ehrich in New York City