Each week this summer I profiled the summer movie blockbusters that helped me fall in love with the movies and changed how I see the world. Here they are:
Summer of 1975: Jaws
It started 47 years ago this week. Amity Island and its Great White Shark problem. And the notion of the summer blockbuster initiated by this movie Jaws (1975) directed by Steven Spielberg. Which will lead to the latest summer blockbuster: Jurassic World: Dominion produced by Steven Spielberg. All it will take to get the story started is what screenwriters call The Sacrifice. And that would be that blonde haired woman sitting by herself and contemplating a late night swim. It will only result in her death and (some would say) the death of American cinema. Don't do it, Chrissie!!!!
Read more about it here: Remembering The Summer Of the Shark - Richard Rothrock
Summer of 1977: Star Wars
Few moments have blown me away the way the opening shot of George Lucas’ sci-fi masterpiece did. And sitting there listening to the giddy excitement rippling through the audience that day at the Capitol Theater in Charleston WV, I could tell they felt it too. This was something unique. This was something we had never seen before. And we knew the movies would never be the same again.
Summer of 1979: The Muppet Movie
I had been a fan of The Muppet Show for most of its TV run and this was the Muppets’ big screen debut. That summer I was hanging out with my high school friends and reluctant to face the fact that my family was moving from West Virginia to Michigan soon where I faced a friendless senior year. Into that gloomy time came this marvelous jewel of a movie which managed to give me laughs and hope and some valuable life lessons (“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending.”) that I have held onto ever since. Thank you, Jim Henson.
Summer of 1980: Airplane!
While audiences that summer were going nuts for The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining, this was the movie that had me laughing and laughing over and over again. It was one of the few movies I had to see twice because I missed some of the funny lines the first time around due to audience laughter. With its combination of bad word puns, knowing satirization of famous movie and TV moments and conventions (particularly the disaster movies of the 1970s), and just plain stupid & random humor all spun together into a classic comedy concoction, few movies have so completely changed the notions of movie humor the way this one did nor contributed more running lines to our pop culture. And it gave actors like Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves a second wind to their careers by lampooning the stalwart men of action they had made careers playing up to that point. Surely one of the funniest movies ever made. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
Summer of 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg’s adventure classic (produced by George Lucas & written by Lawrence Kasdan) accomplished the same things that the original Star Wars did. It reinvigorated a moribund genre while also serving as a loving tribute to the Saturday morning serials both filmmakers had grown up on. It had everything I have learned to expect from a summer blockbuster: a novel idea, a cool lead character, a witty and tantalizing love interest, a funny and inventive script that shined a light on an unexplored or alternative bit of history, and amazing action scenes done with originality and verve and featuring F/X not seen before with a little bit of spirituality and the supernatural tossed in for good measure. A movie that sends you out of the theater ready for more. For me, no other summer blockbuster since has quite topped this one. “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”
I still marvel that I saw this 4 times in theaters: June 1981, July 1981, December 1981, and July 1982. That’s right, Raiders spent over a year in theaters. Can you imagine that today?
Summer of 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
This may have been the summer of E.T., Rocky III, An Officer & A Gentleman, Blade Runner, and Poltergeist but this is the movie from that summer that has stuck with me. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains for me the only movie that fully captured the spirit of the original TV series. Hot off his debut movie Time After Time (which I love), director Nicholas Meyer got the most out of what was expected to be a modest sequel: great chemistry between the original cast, edge of the seat action sequences, a philosophical script with a literary bent, and special kudos to Ricardo Montalban also reprising his role from the TV series as the villainous Khan. It all added up to an entertaining blockbuster with an unexpected emotional climax that had us all in tears. IMHO, none of the subsequent movies or spinoff series (except Next Generation) have topped this one. “Live long and prosper.”
Summer of 1983: WarGames
While guys that summer enjoyed Return of the Jedi and girls reveled in the dance fantasy of Flashdance, I found myself falling under the spell of this imaginative doomsday thriller. Director John Badham’s movie speculated in a very effective way how the Cold War prejudices and computers might unintentionally bring about the end of the world. But it also foreshadowed the coming world of computers and the internet and made it look fun. Matthew Broderick was delightful as David Lightman a teenaged hacker who unintentionally contacts NORAD’s war games computer and sets off a scenario that makes the U.S. military believe they are at war with the Soviet Union. Ally Sheedy was equally fine as David’s gal pal Jennifer with supporting turns from John Wood, Dabney Coleman, Barry Corbin and others both comic and dramatic. Supposedly, when U.S. president Ronald Reagan saw this movie he thought it might be time to end the Cold War before this fiction became fact. “Shall we play a game?” – NORAD computer
Summer of 1984: Once Upon a Time in America
Audiences watched Ghostbusters and Gremlins that summer but I waited to see Sergio Leone’s gangster epic, his first movie in 12 years with an all-star cast headed by Robert De Niro and James Woods.. Even then as I sat down in a nearly empty theater for a matinee showing I knew I was going to see a truncated version. Leone’s movie ran nearly 4 hours but The Ladd Co. had rejected that cut and edited their own 2 ½ hour version for its American release. It was a mess alright but a beautiful and very moving mess (not to mention very violent!) brilliantly directed by Leone with one of Ennio Morricone’s most haunting scores. De Niro and Woods played childhood pals who chose a life of crime to escape their abject poverty and, for a time, became gangsters of consequence during Prohibition. The Ladd version told of their rise and fall in a straight chronological manner Leone never intended. When I saw the full version months later, I discovered that Leone had crafted a narrative that moved back and forth through time with the older De Niro looking back on his youth from the regret of old age. Because in the end all we are left with are our memories. It is a perspective that means more to me the older I get.
If you want to learn more about the movie, check out my blog entry here:
My Father & Me & "Once Upon a Time in America" - Richard Rothrock
Summer of 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
No one expected Robert Zemeckis to follow up his 1985 blockbuster Back To the Future with something even better but that is just what he did. Who Framed Roger Rabbit told a familiar film noir tale. In late 1940s Los Angeles, private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) tries to figure out why cartoon superstar Roger Rabbit is the chief suspect in a series of murders that are rocking Hollywood. What made Zemeckis’s fantasy unique was its blend of real life and cartoon characters in the same frame. In an age before Cartoon Network, when the Disney Channel was a pay cable channel, and Looney Tunes were only seen in cut up form on broadcast TV, Zemeckis brought all the classic cartoon characters together in one movie: Betty Boop, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, not mention the entire gallery of Looney Tunes and Disney personalities. I can still remember the squeals of delight from the audience each time a classic character appeared, or the roar of applause when the two kings of classic animation Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny had a scene together. But the character who stole the show was Roger’s buxom cartoon wife Jessica Rabbit (beautiful voiced by Kathleen Turner). And we have all been forced to re-examine our notions of the femme fatale and our male gaze ever since. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
Summer of 1989: The Abyss
I was not expecting to love this movie as much as I do. I had seen James Cameron’s 3 previous movies (even Piranha II!) and really liked 2 of them (NOT Piranha II) but none of them blew me away like this movie did. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio play an estranged couple leading a team of oil drillers marooned in their underwater rig at the bottom of the ocean while a hurricane rages above and Cold War politics plays out within. (We tend to forget that the Cold War was still alive & well when this movie came out). It all leads up to a close encounter of the underwater kind and the beginning of CGI in the movies. Cast and crew mostly filmed at the bottom of a flooded cooling tower at an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina. The shoot was so gruelling and some of the scenes so hazardous that Harris and Mastroantonio refuse to discuss this movie to this day nor have anything to do with Cameron. And yet they deliver two of their best performances here (Mastroantonio should have gotten the Oscar). Over the course of the movie (spoiler alert!) they manage to rescue their team, salvage their marriage, and, oh by the way, save the world. Cameron’s script is his best to date. The underwater danger feels very real (in some cases, it was) and it ends up having some very relevant things to say about love and what makes life worthwhile. It remains my favorite Cameron movie. I cannot recommend this one enough. “We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.”
Summer of 1993: Jurassic Park
Is there anything more to say about this groundbreaking Steven Spielberg thriller? A group of scientists spend the weekend previewing a new theme park populated by cloned dinosaurs. Naturally, things go wrong, human greed intrudes, and they end up fighting for their lives in a series of action scenes that have almost all become iconic. It has always amazed me that all author Michael Crichton did was recycle his premise from 1973’s Westworld but use dinosaurs instead of human-like robots. But otherwise the story is the same and it doesn’t matter. What continues to get me even after repeated viewings is the wonder we feel each time we first glimpse the resurrected dinos whether it is a foraging brontosaurus or an ill triceratops. It is like watching our wildest childhood fantasies come to life on screen. And isn’t that what the movies are meant to be all about? Still wish they hadn’t made those raptors, though. “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”
Summer of 1994: Forrest Gump
It seems right to end this series about my favorite summer blockbusters with Robert Zemeckis’ heartfelt tale of a maybe not as smart as others boy who still gets ahead during the height of the baby boom era (1955-1980). And he does so by simply seeing through the social facades of the people he meets to connect with the human being inside. To paraphrase from another movie, he “has a way of seeing the beauty in others, even, and perhaps most especially, when that person cannot see it in themselves.”
Along the way he is on hand or plays an unintentional role in some of the biggest cultural and political events of his time from Elvis to Vietnam to Watergate. He even ends up with Jenny, the girl of his dreams! All of it underscored by some of the greatest rock hits of the era. This movie is about many things but ultimately it is about 1) what we do with the legacy (good or bad) that our parents leave us, 2) how life never works out quite the way we expect, and 3) how quickly it all passes by. The son becomes the father; the daughter becomes the mother; and the cycle begins again. And how the best moments in life are the ones where we step back and take a moment to enjoy the beauty of being alive. “Sometimes [in Vietnam] it would stop raining long enough for the stars to come out... and then it was nice. It was like just before the sun goes to bed down on the bayou. There was always a million sparkles on the water... like that mountain lake. It was so clear, Jenny, it looked like there were two skies one on top of the other. And then in the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn't tell where heaven stopped and the earth began. It was so beautiful.”
In the end, what Forrest learns about life has become how I see it as well: “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”
Each Monday this summer I will profile the summer blockbusters that helped me fall in love with the movies and changed how I see the world. One more installment left!
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