The next couple of months could end up feeling a lot like 1974, the last summer without a movie blockbuster.
In the summer of 1975, “Jaws” transformed the way we watch movies, kicking off the era of wide openings and a business of hits or bombs, with not much in between. Before that, the biggest hits, such as “The Exorcist” and “Love Story,” were almost always released for the holidays, giving them a calendar year to gradually add theaters on the way to becoming No. 1. I have a vivid memory of “The Poseidon Adventure” at a drive-in, absolutely the best place to see that adventure about a sinking ocean liner. It feels like a summer movie but it actually opened in December 1972, reaching outdoor theaters seven months later.
It’s hard to imagine “Jaws,” which literally takes place on a beach, hitting theaters outside of warm-weather months, but it’s so fantastic it would have worked at any time. That may not be the case with other summer smashes. I remember sitting in a preview screening of 1996’s top hit, “Independence Day,” in New York’s enormous Ziegfeld Theatre, listening to the crowd roar with delight at every big dumb plot development and, swept along by that enthusiasm and my own glee at the movie’s entertaining overkill, thinking “Independence Day” was the greatest thing ever.
I suspect I would not agree today, but I do think blockbusters succeed or fail on criteria of their own. We’re not looking for realism, for starters. We want spectacle, laughs, music, big emotions and big explosions. And popcorn. There should be popcorn. So, where are we going to get that this summer?
Warner Bros. is backing away from plans to make Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” the first major post-COVID-19 release, so it’s unclear if any big titles will make it to theaters in the next three months. If things had gone as Hollywood planned, “Tenet” would join the latest James Bond movie, Marvel’s “Black Widow” and the new “Fast and Furious” in theaters, with a “Wonder Woman” sequel around the corner and Pixar’s “Soul” a couple of weeks after that. But if none of that is happening, let’s instead take another look at some of the blockbuster highlights of summers past.
Jurassic Park (1993)
“Jurassic,” which I saw in theaters at least half a dozen times, will always feel like the ultimate summer blockbuster. It’s funny, it’s touching and it showed us something the movies had never been able to do. This is hard to remember today, when we’ve become ho-hum about special effects’ ability to conjure lost or nonexistent worlds, but when Laura Dern’s jaw dropped at her first sighting of actual dinosaurs, our jaws dropped with her (helped in no small part by John Williams’ magisterial score). The vibrating water cup that signals trouble ahead, the raptors in the kitchen, Jeff Goldblum’s hipster drawl — just thinking about the elements of Steven Spielberg’s classic makes me want to see it again right now.
There’s a reason Spielberg’s name pops up a lot in this roundup: It’s hard to think of another director so attuned to what moviegoers love about the movies (honestly, “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” should also be on this list, but enough already). Like “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws” combines humor, horror and suspense. Unlike “Jurassic,” it makes us wait forever to see its monster, a man-eating shark, and then only gives us glimpses. Luckily, the trio of stiff Roy Scheider, neurotic Richard Dreyfuss and boozy Robert Shaw are more than enough to keep us entertained.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Michael Keaton “Batman” may have been more of a phenomenon; released when movies didn’t yet play on eight screens at the same multiplex, you couldn’t even get near “Batman” for its first couple of weekends in 1989. But Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy revolutionized superhero movies by envisioning them as complex dramas that happen to have caped crusaders at the center (dooming us to many more gloomy-Gus superheroes). Joaquin Phoenix deservedly won an Oscar for “Joker” a few months ago, but let’s not forget the late Heath Ledger had already done the same so inventively in “Dark Knight.”
It opened in June and it is highlighted by a song called “Summer Nights,” but it’s technically a back-to-school movie, as wizened teens John Travolta, Stockard Channing and Olivia Newton-John report for senior year. It’s based on what was about to become the longest-running musical in Broadway history. You may say, “Chris, the movie misses the irony of the stage version,” and I’d agree, but the cast captures the nostalgic appeal of one showstopping number after another. And if you don’t sniffle when Channing sings the torch song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” then get my name out of your mouth.
The Lion King (1994)
Memories of the original have been dimmed by the stage version and unnecessary remake, but the “Hamlet”-inspired animated classic positively dominated the summer of ’94, spawning Oscar-winning songs (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”) and catchphrases (“Hakuna Matata”) and repositioning cartoons as a box-office powerhouse. Its balance of tearjerking drama with ribald humor and stylized production numbers remains dazzling.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
The third “Potter” movie is the best, darkest and first to be released in the summer. Give credit to Alfonso Cuaron, who would go on to win Oscars for directing “Gravity” and “Roma” and who has never made a less-than-excellent movie. Cuaron supplies the thrills we crave, but his main contribution is the work he does with the leading trio of actors — who are wizards, yes, but also kids with actual problems.
Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope (1977)
It was just called “Star Wars” when it rocketed past “Jaws” to become the No. 1 movie of all time (“Jaws” had surpassed “The Godfather,” which was not a summer movie). Director George Lucas, like Spielberg, used the modern technology that looked so good on giant movie screens to revisit themes and characters of their youth (both “Star Wars” and “Raiders” are inspired by 1940s serials, not that young fans knew that).
In fact, with drive-ins open again and looking for titles, maybe “Star Wars” and other movies on this list deserve another go on outdoor screens?