Whatever Happened to… the Summer Blockbuster?

May has quietly segued to June, and Memorial Day is disappearing in our rearview mirrors. Which means that, without warning, we’re in the midst of the summer blockbuster movie season. You didn’t notice?

It’s trite to complain about Hollywood, and the endless stream of drivel the major studios produce. It’s boring and obvious to claim things were better back in the day, whatever day it is that you’re referring to. It’s naïve to say that things were better when you were younger, because you didn’t understand things then the way you do now, and because nostalgia stains everything in a sweetened sepia.

But I’m about to do all those things.

We all (meaning, me, David Simon Cowell, and this blog’s 5 or 6 readers) love independent cinema, and small arty films with meaning and subtext. But there’s nothing like a great summer popcorn movie. Big action movies draw me out of my apartment and to the theater more than any other kind of film. I’m fine with waiting to see the new Sundance crop on DVD, but I don’t want to miss Terminator 2 on the big screen. Even as I grow older, and my tastes unfortunately mature, I look forward to tentpole event movies every year.

But it’s seemed to me in recent years that summer blockbusters have gotten dumber, staler, more reductive, and less interesting than ever before. Where are today’s Indiana Jones or John McClane (versions 1.0)? As alluded to above, I’m suspicious of my own nostalgia, so I wanted to see if the summer blockbusters really are getting worse, or if I’m just a sad old man.

So I looked at the top ten grossers of each summer movie season since 1985. I debated looking at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores for each year, and trying to prove objectively that summer movies were better in days of yore. But those scores are inherently flawed, and I trust my own opinion more than an amalgam of critics anyway. So we’re going 100% subjective on this motherfucker.

The bottom line? My instincts were 100% right and summer movies were more varied, more intriguing and crafted with more love and care 20 years ago. Hollywood really is becoming more soulless and more cynical, and audiences truly are turning into sheep who will go see anything buoyed by a major studio marketing campaign.

Let’s look at the bookend summers of this little experiment, which should give you an idea of how things have changed.

1985’s top ten summer movies by box office: Back to the Future, Rambo, Cocoon, The Goonies, Fletch, View to a Kill, European Vacation, Pale Rider, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Brewster’s Millions.

Holy shit. There’s not a film in that list I wouldn’t watch if I came across it while flipping channels. Some of the movies aren’t great, but certainly pass the breezy, summer-fare litmus test handily. On the other hand, that top ten is loaded with all-time classics. And what a weird, varied group of films it is, too, replete with action movies, odd comedies and quirk to spare.

Now, here are 2009’s top ten summer movies: Transformers 2, Harry Potter and blah blah blah, Up, The Hangover, Star Trek, Ice Age 3, Wolverine, Night at the Museum 2, The Proposal, GI Joe.

So for the record, that’s two great films (Up and The Hangover), one good popcorn flick (Star Trek), and seven pieces of trash. Notably, six of the movies are sequels or re-boots, and three are based on TV shows. Hollywood is either out of ideas, are ignoring the people who actually come up with something original (spoiler alert: it’s the latter).

Could be a fluke though, just cherry-picking two years like that, so let’s determine if there’s a trend.

1986: Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II, Back to School, Aliens, Ruthless People, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Stand By Me, Legal Eagles, Cobra, Poltergeist II. Not as strong as ’85, but still at least 7 films that fall somewhere on the scale of decent-for-a-summer-movie to great.

1987: Beverly Hills Cop 2, The Untouchables, Stakeout, Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing, The Witches of Eastwick, Dragnet, La Bamba, Robocop, The Living Daylights. We’ll give this one a 6 out of 10 in terms of solid, rewatchable movies, including an all-timer in The Untouchables.

1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Coming to America, Big, Crocodile Dundee II, Die Hard, Cocktail, A Fish Called Wanda, Willow, Rambo III, Bull Durham. A very impressive 8, including perhaps the best summer blockbuster of all time (Die Hard).

1989: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters 2, Parenthood, Dead Poets Society, When Harry Met Sally, Turner & Hooch, Uncle Buck. Umm….yuck. Bad sequels and hackneyed comedies. The ’80s closed as terribly in the film world as it did in the music world. We’ll give this season a disappointing 4.

1990: Ghost, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, Dick Tracy, Back to the Future III, Presumed Innocent, Days of Thunder, Another 48 Hours, Bird on a Wire, Flatliners. It seems we’ve stumbled upon a fallow, pre-Nirvana, pre-Tarantino period in our cultural history. An awful score of 3.

1991: Terminator 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, City Slickers, Naked Gun 2 1/2, Backdraft, Hot Shots, What About Bob, Boyz N The Hood, Doc Hollywood, The Rocketeer. Important note: Point Break just missed the top ten. Also, apparently black people can appear in summer movies. Who knew? A 4, redeemed only by the eternal greatness of T2 and Point Break.

1992: Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3, Sister Act, A League of Their Own, Unforgiven, Patriot Games, Boomerang, Far and Away,  Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Housesitter (!). A 4, despite the impressive gravitas Unforgiven brought to the late summer, and the sad reminder that sports films used to be a part of the season ever year.

1993: Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, The Firm, Sleepless in Seattle, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger, Free Willy, Dave, Rising Sun, Rookie of the Year. An odd bunch, including the just-missed Last Action Hero, which I consider one of the greatest summer flops of all time. We’ll go with a 6. Jurassic Park, while a fine piece of fluff, also served as a dark omen. Spielberg’s opus essentially became an entrée into the world of CGI, and allowed future filmmakers to base summer blockbusters around whatever ridiculous effects they could come up with. Jurassic Park begat Tranformers 2, essentially.

1994: Forrest Gump, The Lion King, True Lies, The Flintstones, Clear & Present Danger, Speed, The Mask, Maverick, The Client, Wolf. We’re now clearly in an era dominated by action films, with a select group of stars opening huge films each summer (Schwarzenegger, Ford, Cruise, Gibson, etc.). A fairly lackluster 5.

1995: Batman Forever, Apollo 13, Pocahontas, Casper, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Crimson Tide, Waterworld, Dangerous Minds, Congo, The Bridges of Madison County. /throws up. Ron Howard is the king of making adequate movies that should have been better. Rating: 3.

1996: Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock, The Nutty Professor, A Time to Kill, Phenomenon (!), Eraser, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Cable Guy. I’m getting depressed. I’ve never been a full-time drinker of the Pixar Kool-Aid, but it’s incredible how poor children’s films were before Toy Story came along. This is the first year where we can see the direct effect of Jurassic Park’s CGI revolution, as Independence Day and Twister are merely the first salvos in the big, dumb, silly action movie attack that’s on its way. The Schwarzengger Era passes the baton to the Will Smith era, which earns a too-generous 4 here.

1997: Men in Black, the Lost World, Air Force One, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Face/Off, Batman & Robin, George of the Jungle, Con Air, Contact, Hercules. How you feel about this summer probably depends on how you feel about ironically (?) hammy Nicholas Cage. I’m still on board at this point, so I’m giving ’97 a 4.

1998: Saving Private Ryan, Armageddon, There’s Something About Mary, Doctor Dolittle, Deep Impact, Godzilla, Lethal Weapon 4, The Truman Show, Mulan, The Mask of Zorro. What an odd juxtaposition at the top of the list. I had to triple-check to make sure Saving Private Ryan was actually a summer movie. It seems like it should have been released in late November. And Armageddon, well:

Merely a 3, tying our low thus far, but an impressive three, elevated by the quality of Ryan, the flat-out hilarity of Mary, and the A-for-effort Truman.

1999: Star Wars Episode I, The Sixth Sense, Austin Powers 2, Tarzan, Big Daddy, The Mummy, Runaway Bride, The Blair Witch Project, Notting Hill, Wild Wild West. WTF? A 0? No pre-millenial anxiety classics? There aren’t even any decent movies further down the list. Trust me on this. Don’t look for yourself. Avert your eyes.

2000: Mission Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Perfect Storm, X-Men, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Dinosaur, Nutty Professor 2, Big Momma’s House, The Patriot. The summer season is unraveling. A 3.

2001: Shrek, Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns, Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes, American Pie 2, The Fast and the Furious, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Dr. Dolittle 2. We’ve rushed headlong into the Michael Bay Era, which somehow represents a step down from the Bruckheimer Era. And does every generation get the archeologist action franchise it deserves? 1.

2002: Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode II, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Signs, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Men in Black II, Scooby Doo, Lilo & Stitch, XXX, Minority Report. Thank God for Speilberg (and Bourne Identity, a little further down the list). At this point, we’re pretty much embedded in our current film epoch: CGI, sequels galore, sheer idiocy, Mike Myers running amok (those last two are not mutually exclusive). 2.

2003: Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix Reloaded, Bruce Almighty, X2, Terminator 3, Bad Boys II, The Hulk, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Seabiscuit. Out of desperation, I’ll give it a 3. Ang Lee’s version of The Hulk has its apologists. I am not among them.

2004: Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, Harry Potter and blah blah blah, The Day After Tomorrow, The Bourne Supremacy, I Robot, Troy, Van Helsing, Fahrenheit 9/11, Dodgeball. A documentary? Jigga what? Even so, just a 3. Disaster films and creature films continue to dominate our top tens.

2005: Star Wars Episode 3, War of the Worlds, Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman Begins, Madagascar, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Longest Yard, Fantastic Four, 40-Year-Old Virgin. Speilberg remains our rock, just as George Lucas remains our anchor, and the Apatow/Phillips comedy mafias make their first appearances. I’ve never been so happy to see a 5 — do we have a Renaissance on our hands?

2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Cars, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code, Superman Returns, Over the Hedge, Talladega Nights, Click, The Devil Wears Prada, The Break-Up. We do not have a Renaissance on our hands. 2005? Outlier. Sandler and Vince Vaughan lead us to a dreadful 1.

2007: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: blah blah blah, Harry Potter and the blah blah blah, The Bourne Ultimatum, Ratatouille, The Simpsons Movie, Knocked Up, Rush Hour 3. Save us, Jason Bourne, you’re our only hope. The darkness is almost completely enveloping.3.

2008: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and [redacted], Hancock, Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, Sex and the City, Prince Caspian, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted. A very strong top two still only gives us a score of 3.

So that seals it. While there definitely has been a downward trend, that trend started significantly earlier than I realized: all the way back in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Because I’m all about the permanent record, I also scored the years of 1980-84, so we could compare the last three decades. The ’80s averaged 6.0 out of each year’s summer top ten movies that rated as decent or better, with the true glory days coming from 1983 through 1988. The ’90s averaged a 3.6, and the Aughts a 2.7. Through this completely arbitrary, subjective system, I have objectively proven that summer movies are getting worse. Yay, science!

Oh, and let’s just say that this new decade isn’t off to such a hot start.

The Nostalgists are right! The Nostalgists are right! The end is nigh! At least we’ve got The World Cup this summer.

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1 Comment

Filed under Film Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “Whatever Happened to… the Summer Blockbuster?

  1. Pingback: The Rules of “Us” « Pop Culture Has AIDS

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