Blockbuster season: Hollywood pulls out the big guns

How to escape this summer with the best of Hollywood's big films

We've already had Fast & Furious getting petrolheads excited about exceeding the speed limit in disco-coloured cars back in April, while Star Trek, X-Men Origins:Wolverine and Angels & Demons are still raking in the cash. Now, with the school holidays on the horizon, the next few months herald the summer of zero-subtext, from Christian Bale's turn as the Terminator all the way through to August's GI Joe: the Rise of Cobra.

Hollywood's thinking behind plying our screens with entertaining nonsense is quite simple. The world is gripped by recession and depression, but the studio suits still want to plunder the public's purse. How to do that? Give the people some uncomplicated bang for their hard-earned buck.

Turn back the clock 70 years to the Great Depression and the movie business was playing the same role. "Hollywood knew the most precious commodity for the times was escapism and they were in a unique position to deliver it via their best films," says The Huffington Post film critic John Farr. "They served as a tonic for battered souls in dire need of laughter and reassurance."

Hence It Happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and a whole host of screwball comedies that allowed fed-up audiences to laugh at the protagonists' shallow absurdities and to forget their own, deeper woes. "If the public had to survive without all the good things that money could buy," explains Farr, "at least they could live vicariously through on-screen characters that did possess them."

So, GI Joe: the Rise of Cobra and JJ Abrams' Star Trek are to the straitened Noughties what It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby were to the austere Thirties – but with added lycra and extended fight scenes. What this year's blockbusters share with the Great Depression films is a desire to amuse, albeit with far more CGI and a whole lot less screwball.

Perhaps cinema will be the recession's great survivor. Already, many huge US productions – Gulliver's Travels, Clash of the Titans, Nottingham – are set to shoot in the UK because of the strength of the dollar against the pound, while statistics released by the Film Distributors' Association show cinema attendances up 16% year-on-year for the first quarter of 2009. If cinema owners want to keep the people coming – and there's no World Cup or Olympics to distract this year so the public is there for the taking – they could do worse than latch on to the tactics of the Great Depression. Back then, as extra incentive for the poverty stricken, enterprising cinema folk offered deals or bonus cartoons and B-Movies ahead of the "Featured Attraction".

It's about giving the audience that little bit extra, something they wouldn't get from sitting at home and watching the television with a can of supermarket own-brand lager. Suddenly the explosion of 3-D movies – Bolt, Coraline, Up, Avatar – seems suspiciously well-timed. For two hours, you've got to help the people to forget.

Additional reporting by Alasdair Glennie