There was a dark period in Hollywood when summer was a movie graveyard. The time of the year studios dumped films in vain attempts to recoup some of the costs of expected failures, and B-grade horror films were on every other screen. Then came “Jaws” and the landscape changed. Studios began bulking up budgets on certain films in hopes of driving kids and adults into the theater repeatedly, fattening up profits. A “Summer Blockbuster” quickly became an event. A movie everyone would talk about, kids would re-enact in their backyards, and theater owners would count the money being made. The phenomena produced some good films, some great ones (“Jurassic Park”) and some horrible (“The Last Airbender”).
Without a lot of introduction, here are my picks for the ten best Summer Blockbusters (defined by the film’s release date on or after Labor Day).
Star Wars (1977)
People seem to be falling all over themselves to praise the latest installment of this once-great franchise. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but it is basically the original (or A New Hope) with a female protagonist. Critics and fans are singing hosannas how Star Wars finally has a strong female for girls to look up to. Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t the first words Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) utters in the first film, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board?” While she’s a prisoner? To her captor? How is that not feminist? How can a guy not fall in love with a woman who spits in the face of authority and knows how to be snarky? Okay, her first words were “Help me Obiwan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” but that was to a droid. Daisy Ridley is great, but nothing matches the original.
You remember the original, don’t you? The one where Han Solo fired and Greedo didn’t? The one that made every kid in America want a lightsaber? The one that captured the movie-going public like no other movie since 1939’s “Gone With The Wind?” Well I do. And it was awesome. I stood in line for three hours with my friend Quicksilver (yes, that was his name. His parents were total hippies. As if you couldn’t tell) to see it. When it was over, we got back in line to see it again. It was the only film to see. George Lucas and the gang at Industrial Light and Magic pulled off something brilliant. He didn’t need to change a thing. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the apex of summer blockbuster fun. From those amazing rolling credits, to the dice hanging from whatever on the Millennium Falcon, this film is great in it’s original form.
Lucas throws Akira Kurosawa, JRR Tolkien, “The Wizard of Oz” and his own imagination into a blender and came up with the tale of a young farmboy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a quixotic journey of heroism and peril to rescue a beautiful princess and save the galaxy from ruin. On his quest, he finds a wise sage (Sir Alec Guinness), the roguish anti-hero (Harrison Ford) and a really large furry friend. He fights the evil Empire and the ominous Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) and finds strength within. This is Summer on a screen with Dolby stereo.
“Jaws” is the reason blockbusters exist. Before “Jaws”, summer was the dead zone for movie studios. Steven Spielberg changed all of that. Part of the film’s appeal is the well-known fact that the animatronic shark did not work as planned. That forced Spielberg to shoot around the shortcomings and come up with something truly suspenseful. It’s what you don’t see attacking Chrissie Watkins in the opening moments that is unsettling, downright scary, not some cheap, malfunctioning special effect. Tension builds for Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) and his beach town as the body count rises. The conflict between Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is a classic rumble that is only surpassed by the ultimate showdown on the ocean against the savage shark. Robert Shaw as Quint is all world-weary sea dog who goes out to catch the beast. He’s seen worse, aboard the doomed U.S.S. Indianapolis in World War II. Brody, Cooper and Quint are the glue that holds this film together. Well, the three of them and a menacing killer plus some creative filmmaking.
It’s dark, it’s brooding, it’s “Batman” – Tim Burton style. By that, I mean the gothic motif and conflicted hero exist in a world where everyone dresses as if the 1940s never ended and art deco architecture became required by law. Michael Keaton is subdued but convincing as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Kim Basinger is effective and Jack Nicholson steals the show as the Joker. Gotham City is stuck in the middle of the fight between a reluctant good guy and a jubilant bad guy bent on destroying one another.
Movies based on DC comics got progressively darker, less interesting and less fun after this one. Pity, since I tend to prefer Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman over Spiderman and his buddies. I’d be happy to see one good DC film every five years. If I live to be 100, I doubt I’ll ever get the image of Val Kilmer as Batman out of my nightmares. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying this one though, it’s amazing.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
According to the internet, which we all know is never wrong, Steven Spielberg was denied his dream to make a James Bond film. So, he went to the beach with his pal George Lucas and they came up with the idea based on Lucas’ love of B-movie serials from the 1930s, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Written by Lawrence Kasdan with an eye for great characters, Raiders works because it is a carnival ride draped in historic artifacts from God. And Nazis. There is nobody on the planet easier to root against than Nazis.
Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, an archaeology professor with a knack for finding adventure – even if he doesn’t want to – and wearer of an iconic hat. The action begins in South America, with Jones taking an ancient idol from a cave and having to outrun a boulder and dodge poison darts. Indy travels halfway around the world to Egypt, racing against the aforementioned Nazis in a quest for the Ark of the Covenant. The dialogue is classic, and the best line in the film is when Indy says to Marion: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” As it turns out, this wry remark was ad-libbed by Ford. There’s a fast-paced story, high stakes, and Raiders is the screen debut of Alfred Molina. Molina’s first scene on his first day of filming had him covered with tarantulas. He would go on to better roles, but not necessarily better films.
There’s a moment in “Ghostbusters” when I laughed so hard, I missed the next ten minutes of dialogue and had to stay and see it a second time, only to laugh my head off again. Bill Murray being helped up by his fellow ghostbusters, and dryly saying, “he slimed me.” Directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, “Ghostbusters” is a ghost chasing comedy that has more laughs per minute than any film should.
An avid paranormal geek in real life, Aykroyd filled the script with plenty of pseudoscience, fake Pagan Gods and techno-babble, and then let Murray loose on set to ad-lib much of his dialogue. The rest of the story is fairly straight-forward: Three scientists get fired from their cushy university jobs and have to find a way to earn a living. Paranormal activity is on the rise in New York City, so a need exists for them to fill. A pricey fixer-upper firehouse is located for their headquarters and the Ghostbusters are in business. Ramis is emotionless as Dr. Egon Spengler, to hilarious effect. He plays well off of Murray and Aykroyd as well as Annie Potts. Ernie Hudson adds to the film by virtue of his solid comic timing.
Zuul and Vinz Clortho show up to possess Dana (Sigourney Weaver) and her nerdy neighbor Louis (Rick Moranis). Then there are the Sumerian gods running amok in a penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side. As all Hell is breaking loose in New York, Armageddon comes in the form of something Ray (Aykroyd) thought would be harmless.
The classic tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” was brilliant. It caught the world’s attention. Ridley Scott direct this morality play in space with face-hugging aliens that are so unlike anything seen before, they make H.P. Lovecraft tremble. Once they plant their seed in you, their progeny explode out of your chest. H.R. Giger’s creation is a masterstroke of cinema that bleeds acid, has no eyes and even less humanity. It only knows how to kill.
Sigourney Weaver is well-cast as Ripley, a crew member aboard the Nostromo, a spacecraft on a doomed mission. Weaver was hailed as sci fi’s first heroine. Maybe she was, maybe not. She was, however, incredible at conveying fear, resilience, torment and any other emotion you can think of. Also starring Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Veronica Cartwright, “Alien” is one of the scariest movies ever.
Guardians of The Galaxy (2014)
Marvel knows how take a comic book series, even an obscure one, and turn it into entertaining summer fare. After stealing a mysterious orb in the far reaches of outer space, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is the target of an interstellar manhunt led by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). To help fight the evil Ronan and his team and save the galaxy from his wrath, Quill recruits help. Quill who wants, desperately, to be referred to as Star Lord, puts together a low-rent outer space version of the Seven Samurai, “The Guardians of the Galaxy.” There’s an action-packed prison break, a rockin’ 70’s soundtrack, and an epic fight between sisters (Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan) that promises more brawling in future installments.
Directed by James Gunn, Guardians is nothing if it is not fun. One of my biggest gripes about DC movies versus Marvel movies is this: DC seems bent on each successive film out-brooding the one before it and raising the body count. Meanwhile, Marvel gives us a talking tree and a psychotic raccoon with heavy duty weaponry.
Die Hard (1988)
“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.” With that line, and a boatload of other smart-ass remarks, a legend is born. Bruce Willis can be polarizing; people love him or hate him. In “Die Hard” I love him. As the New York cop John McClane out in Los Angeles on holiday for Christmas, suddenly caught in a hostage situation, Willis in fun to watch.
Directed by John McTiernan, “Die Hard” is the story of Euro Trash lead by Hans Gruber (the hammy and great Alan Rickman) taking over Nakatomi headquarters on Christmas Eve. Legendary actor James Shigeta does not make it through the end of this heist film fused with an action film. “Die Hard” is a violent, testosterone-fueled ride with Christmas thrown in for good measure. Sometimes, the charming wise ass is the hero. Yippee-ki-yay! Etc., etc.
The Lion King (1994)
Back in the 80’s, Walt Disney Animation Studios was taking a beating at the box office and seemed not only directionless but without a leader to keep the classic animation unit viable. Plenty has been written by some very good writers on the subject and how Disney pushed all their chips into the middle of the table and bet it all on “The Little Mermaid.” To put it mildly, they won. The animation was flawless, the songs were Broadway-ready, and the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale got a happy ending. And audiences flooded theaters across the country with renewed interest in Disney animation. But several people thought it might have been a fluke. A classic story, a world-class song writing team and a decent budget made it happen once. Cynics thought they could not do it again. It turns out that was no fluke, it was a formula. “Mermaid” was followed by “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and the magnum opus “The Lion King.” The cynics were a whole lot quieter after the run of well-made, family-friendly animation that didn’t talk down to its audience.
“The Lion King” is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Only this time, it takes place in the animal kingdom. In Africa. With lions and hyenas as the cast. There is weight to the plot, a king murdered by his power hungry brother, the king’s son running away and being befriended by unlikely free spirits… nothing short of a classic. Throw in the voice talents of James Earl Jones, and the shameless villainy of Jeremy Irons and his plot to kill off his nephew to solidify his claim to the throne and the movie clicks. The music of Elton John and Hans Zimmer tie the movie together and help provide non-stop entertainment.
The Avengers (2012)
Marvel Studios found a groove and has it honed to a fine point. With Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, the Hulk and Iron Man, the studio shoved all of its cards on the table and said “notice us.” It worked.
Joss Whedon is the smartest guy in Hollywood and an under-praised artist. Firefly was the best show on television and there is a special place in Hell for the people at Fox who killed it. But I digress. Whedon is in fine form, directing “The Avengers” as if it was the fusion Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s genius captured on film. Part of that genius is Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. The final piece is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Wealthy beyond words, swaggering, self-proud. It’s hard to tell where Downey ends and Stark begins. It doesn’t matter, because this is a role he was born to play.