Although we’re pretty sure it’s playing on every single screen in the country and its Fourth-of-July weekend release is timed to make its ingestion some sort of a patriotic duty, we here at Flavorwire would like to officially discourage you from seeing Transformers: Dark of the Moon, because it is soulless and empty and loud and stupid and basically the personification of all that is derivative and evil in contemporary Hollywood (it is the second sequel to a film based on an ‘80s cartoon based on a toy line — in 3-D!).
And no, we haven’t seen it. You don’t have to have had chlamydia to know it’s not enjoyable. The scorching reviews are warning enough for us: “More leering shots of hot cars and hot women, the absurd gravitas of a military propaganda film, the ‘comic relief’ robots with foreign accents, and an editing style that’s either legitimately avant-garde or timed to the wing-flaps of a deranged hummingbird.” (Scott Tobias); “I miraculously survived a preview screening with a throbbing headache and slight nausea; others may not be so lucky.” (Lou Lumenick); “This is an empty husk of a cinematic entertainment, one that’s knee-deep in shiny computer effects but entirely bereft of anything resembling wit or creativity or craftsmanship. It’s the world’s largest drum kit falling down an eternal flight of stairs.” (Scott Weinberg); “It provided me with one of the more unpleasant experiences I’ve had at the movies.” (Roger Ebert); and so on.
But the thing is, we’re not art movie snobs around here. We like big, brash summer blockbusters, and Hollywood does them better than anyone; we have the resources to make them well, which is why it’s so depressing that the summer movie season has become a glut of Fast Fives and Pirates 4s and Transformers 3s. The problem is the fundamental misunderstanding that making a film for the widest audience does not have to mean making a film for the lowest common denominator. It is possible to make a big-budget summer movie that blows stuff up real good without insulting the intelligence of the moviegoing public. Don’t believe us? Do yourself a favor this weekend: save the inflated Transformers ticket price, and return to one of the truly great popcorn movies we’ve listed below.
It all started here. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestseller is widely regarded as the first “summer blockbuster,” primarily because Universal adopted a wide-release strategy that was, at the time, quite unusual; until then, big movies used a “platform release” strategy — similar to the one that’s still used for most independent and art-house flicks — whereby a film would premiere on a few screens in a couple of big markets, then slowly expand to more and more cities as word of mouth grew. But audience reaction was so strong at Universal’s previews, and public anticipation was so high due to the book’s success, that when the film opened on June 20, 1975, it did so on an unprecedented 464 screens, expanding a month later to 675. It was also — astonishingly — the first major release to use national television spots as part of its advertising strategy (according to Peter Biskind’s indispensable Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “television was still regarded as a rival medium, not an adjunct to movie promotion”), which paid off handsomely. The movie grossed an unprecedented $7 million in its first weekend in theaters, and the wide-release, media-saturation strategy of summer movies forevermore was born. For that, it’s easy to get pissed off at Jaws, but the trouble is, for whatever it wrought, it is an indisputably great adventure yarn, filled with distinctive characters and rich humor. It is also a study in contrast to current trends; both in an attempt to craft Hitchcockian suspense and because of the mechanical difficulties of the practical prop, the shark itself was seen only occasionally, and the first glimpse was held until nearly halfway in. If anybody tried to make Jaws today, the antagonist would surely be one of those terrible CGI Deep Blue Sea sharks, and we’d see him by the five-minute mark.
Sure, it’s better in black and white, but Spielberg’s 1981 homage to Saturday matinee serials is still one of our favorite summer movies — a crackling, high-spirited swashbuckler with style, intelligence, and wit (it doesn’t matter how many times we see that swordsman gag, it still gets a laugh). Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is one of the greatest of all movie heroes, and lest we forget, he is matched barb for barb (and shot for shot) by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, a rare female action role with an actual personality (try it out sometime, Bay). Three sequels of varying quality followed in the summers of 1984, 1989, and 2008.
Yep, Spielberg again — what can we say, this is the guy’s wheelhouse. In the broad strokes, it was kind of like Jaws redux: giant bestseller, Spielberg adaptation, monster box office. In 1993, of course, there would be none of that “saving the beast till later” business; we see the dinosaurs early, and we seem them often, but even all these years later they’re still impressively real (and, later, terrifying). Jurassic doesn’t measure up to Jaws, of course, but freed from those comparisons, it’s still an awfully good potboiler — the effects are remarkable, the action beats are rousing and suspenseful, and there’s exactly enough of Jeff Goldblum being gloriously peculiar. The two sequels (one of them helmed by a particularly off-his-game Spielberg) were pretty weak sauce, but the original remains a robust, entertaining piece of work.
What we tend to forget, now that more than 20 years have passed since the original Die Hard recast Bruce Willis as an action hero, is what a long-shot the movie was; Willis was then seen only as a comic actor, based on his work on the screwball mystery/romance series Moonlighting. With Willow, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rambo III, and Big on the horizon, no one was predicting that some TV actor’s low-profile movie that was apparently named after a battery was going to be one of the summer of 1988’s biggest hits. And then people saw it. Playing Detective John McClane, a New York cop trapped in a Los Angeles skyscraper in the midst of a hostage crisis, Willis proved a new kind of movie action hero, sharply deviating from the Schwarzenegger/Stallone indestructible-musclehead model; this was a real guy, one who bled when he cut his feet on broken glass (fists with your toes…) and couldn’t get this shit together with his estranged wife. Because our protagonist was a real human being, in real danger, we were far more actively engaged in his adventure — even when the action sequences were borderline ridiculous (as that rooftop fire-hose bungee jump certainly is), they played them so straight that audiences were left gasping. Thanks to Willis’s no-nonsense performance, the ingenious turns of Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart’s screenplay, and John McTiernan’s tight, muscular direction, a whole new subgenre of action picture was born.
The buddy-cop movie formula was already getting wheezy when Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon opened in the spring of 1987, but that Mel Gibson-Danny Glover two-hander was so moody, tough, and brutally exciting that audiences gobbled it up, and Warner Brothers immediately ordered a sequel — which they slotted into the highly competitive, Batman-dominated summer of 1989. Director Donner realized that he couldn’t replicate the getting-to-know you dynamic of the Gibson and Glover characters, or recapture the sheer desperation of Gibson’s suicidal tendencies from the first film, so he (and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who also penned that summer’s third Indiana Jones movie) came up with a shrewd solution: “Instead of recycling scenes in which the two partners fight with each other,” Roger Ebert wrote, “Lethal Weapon 2 provides a third character who can exasperate both men.” That character was Joe Pesci’s money-laundering-accountant-turned-government-witness Leo Getz, whose character provides a comic counterpoint to the relentless (and masterfully executed) action. Fast, funny, and wildly energetic (it literally opens right in the middle of a breakneck chase sequence), Lethal Weapon 2 outgrossed its predecessor and paved the way for two more (decidedly lesser) sequels.
Some may grumble about the borderline-incomprehensible screenplay, or the story’s lack of faith to the original series, or Tom Cruise doing his same Tom Cruise thing. But Mission: Impossible is a rare summer blockbuster of genuinely high style, provided almost entirely by the distinctive filmmaking rhythms of director Brian DePalma. The storyline may be convoluted, but its primary function is to get us from one marvelous DePalma set piece to the next — the best of them being a breathless infiltration of the CIA headquarters in Langley, extracting information from a computer in a fortified room guarded by a sound-triggered alarm. DePalma plays the sequence almost entirely in silence, without musical accompaniment, and the resulting scene is agonizingly suspenseful (particularly when seen in a dead-quiet theater). Who cares about all those silly mask-peeling plot twists — how many modern summer movies work in an extended shout-out to Rififi?
The 1996 film Independence Day was, in many ways, the model for what the summer blockbuster had become: big, loud, lumbering, aggressively marketed, and dumber than a bag of hair. It was the picture that made Will Smith a movie star, so it was a relief when, the following summer (on the same weekend, even), he starred in another big blockbuster about aliens that was so witty and well-done, it almost seemed an apology for its predecessor. Based on the comic book series by Lowell Cunningham, Men in Black was the work of director Barry Sonnenfeld, the entertainingly askew filmmaker behind the Addams Family movies and Get Shorty. It had all of the ingredients of a big summer movie — mind-boggling special effects, big action beats, cool cars, giant guns — but it also had (gasp) a sense of humor, a sharp screenplay (by Ed Solomon), and intelligent actors (including Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, and Linda Fiorentino) given the room create characters and have a good time. That shouldn’t be as rare as it is.
Frankly, the entire Bourne trilogy could fill out this list; all three were summer releases, and all three were relentlessly exciting cloak-and-dagger pictures that went to the trouble of surrounding their unbeatable action sequences with minor considerations like plot, characterization, and logic. Also, they benefited from the unexpectedly effective man-of-action performances by Matt Damon, slowly cultivating a reputation as one of our most trustworthy actors (he fumbles occasionally, but few leading men have made as few out-and-out bad movies as he has). We went with the third and (to date) final Bourne movie simply because it seemed an accumulation of all that was great about the series: energetic and immediate direction (by Paul Greengrass), a whiz-bang screenplay (by series writer Tony Gilroy, with George Nolfi), a supporting cast of our favorite actors (Joan Allen, David Strathairn, and Albert Finney among them), and several outstanding action scenes — including one where Jason Bourne kicks as guy’s ass with a book. That’s about the most beautifully metaphorical moment in the entirety of this brainy series.
Warner Brothers and DC took a huge risk when they handed the keys to the valuable Batman franchise over to director Christopher Nolan, the young British filmmaker with only three feature films to his credit, none of them in the action genre. Then again, what was he gonna d o— make a movie worse than Batman and Robin? (“Chiiiiiillllllll.”) But the gamble paid off, and handsomely: Nolan’s noir-tinged origin story is thoroughly thrilling, exquisitely paced, tightly scripted, and marvelously acted by a large (and certainly expensive) cast. It’s full of superhero action, of course, but because Nolan and screenwriting partner David S. Goyer bother to place that action within a compelling narrative, we’re legitimately involved, rather than detached bystanders. Batman Begins injected a startling shot of energy into a limp, failing corpse of a franchise; Nolan was asked to make another Batman movie, and we all know how that went.
Jaws was America’s highest-grossing movie for exactly two years — until Spielberg’s friend and future collaborator George Lucas unleashed the first (or fourth?) Star Wars movie on Memorial Day weekend, 1977. The Jaws strategy had not yet fully taken hold — over the course of that first weekend, Star Wars only played on a total of 40 screens, though Fox got a look at the block-long lines and accelerated its wide-release plans. Though the characterizations and dialogue of Lucas’s screenplay are mighty thin (Harrison Ford famously told his writer/director, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it”), the sheer magnitude of its mythology, the energy of its narrative, and the ingenuity of its action engaged a generation of moviegoers forevermore. Its two fine sequels were also summer releases, as were its three terrible prequels.
These are just a few of our favorite summer blockbusters — what are yours?