Summer blockbusters, and why they’re harmless

Another summer is here, and in the movie world, that means summer blockbusters: the escapist, big-budget films that over the decades have become regarded as mostly fluff. One of the first books I ever read that talked about the summer blockbuster phenomenon was Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which primarily looked at the rise of numerous American filmmakers during the 1970s, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese.

While the book is certainly informative, it makes a rather simplistic argument that I’ve heard repeated all too often in the ensuing years. Biskind states that the viability of such movies as The Godfather slowly gave way to what he called lesser films such as Star Wars by the decade’s end. The author specifically notes Jaws as the turning point for this. (Though, it’s interesting to note the production of that film was over-budget and over schedule, so there was a good chance that it might have flopped. If so, Duel, Spielberg’s first film, would be seen today as a glimpse of what might have been, rather than the start of a great career.)

As it turns out, Jaws, released on June 20, 1975, was the opposite of a flop. It became the highest-grossing movie of all time, made Spielberg an A-list director, and deservedly won Oscars for sound, editing, and John Williams’ classic score. It also officially kicked off the era of big-budget escapism that Hollywood unleashes on us each summer.

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Putting aside the fact that there were blockbusters before Jaws (such as the James Bond films), Biskind’s book states that this shift led to other directors somehow losing their importance, as they were unable or unwilling to make films that would earn as much money as Jaws.

In addition, in this pre-Internet, pre-home-video era, Jaws actually generated positive word of mouth before its June 20 opening thanks to preview screenings in several cities, which led to its record-breaking grosses once it hit theaters nationally. These grosses became the primary focus for Hollywood when it came to summer blockbusters. It didn’t matter if the movie itself was good or not; as long as it made a crapload of money out of the gate, it was considered successful.

Star Wars was released two years after Jaws, and the even greater success of that film cemented Hollywood’s blockbuster obsession. Star Wars not only won seven Oscars (including one for its John Williams score), but as of this writing, has spawned six sequels (compared to just three for Jaws).

George Lucas’s film also brought something else to the table: merchandising. It wasn’t the first movie or TV show to have tie-in merchandise, but Star Wars brought it to another level, to the extent that the Star Wars action figures ended up making more money than the movies themselves. Plus the fact that, due to the initial indifference of everyone Lucas pitched Star Wars to before filming began, he was able to keep all the merchandising rights for himself. None of the countless Star Wars imitators that have come along in the years since have had that same impact (as those toy stores that were inundated with worthless Battlefield Earth action figures can tell you).

But I find Biskind’s argument that Jaws, and later Star Wars, ruined movies to be silly at the very least. Another argument I found on this blog referred to an article once written in GQ that stated Hollywood’s blockbuster fixation can actually be credited to Top Gun.

As anyone who’s seen that film knows, while it’s not science fiction, it certainly isn’t realistic either. While Top Gun supposedly led many guys to enlist in the Navy, the movie itself has scenes that look like they were meant to be put in a video game (so it’s no surprise that there would Top Gun games in arcades later on).

Summer blockbusters, and why they're harmless

In addition, the music videos for the film’s songs “Take My Breath Away” (which won the Best Original Song Oscar that year) and “Danger Zone” also simply showed extended segments from the film itself, which made one wonder if they were just watching the film again rather than just clips of it. Hence, rather than the action figures that Star Wars gave us, Top Gun gave us moments that were specifically designed to be played on MTV.

Top Gun was certainly not the first dumb summer blockbuster. For instance, the original Friday the 13th came out six years earlier and was the second biggest moneymaker of summer 1980 (beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back). But unlike Friday the 13th, Top Gun had a big star in Tom Cruise, in the midst of his ‘80s heyday. As a result, many blockbusters in ensuing summers have had A-list stars such as (to name a now-infamous example) Nicolas Cage, who scored with The Rock, Face/Off, National Treasure, and Con Air before becoming desperate enough to take any role that came his way (thanks to his enormous spending, which reportedly included purchasing an island). So while Jaws is credited with ushering in the summer blockbuster, Top Gun ushered in the dumb summer blockbuster.

This is not to say all blockbusters since then have been dumb. Indeed, Top Gun came out in 1986, at the same time as classics such as Aliens and The Fly. But that previously linked article also points to two films that came out a decade after Top Gun: Twister and Independence Day. Both those films, like Top Gun, featured popular stars and plenty of moments that made you go “WTF?”

The success of both those films showed that summer blockbusters were perfect for stars who were either on the A-list or being groomed for it. For instance, Twister star Helen Hunt already had the TV success of Mad About You to her name and would win an Oscar a short time later for As Good As It Gets. A later, similarly dumb summer film, The Mummy, had then-up and coming Brendan Fraser and future Oscar winner Rachel Weisz in its cast.

Summer blockbusters, and why they're harmless

Ironically, both Spielberg and Lucas recently expressed concern with how the film industry is on the cusp of imploding because of this ongoing focus on bigger and bigger event films. I find this concern somewhat ironic, considering how the Star Wars prequels turned out.

This brings me to last summer’s biggest hit, Jurassic World. This was arguably worse than the previous two sequels to Jurassic Park. Chris Pratt taming velociraptors was certainly bullshit (yes, friends, you too can make velociraptors your bitches!), but even more so was Bryce Dallas Howard outrunning a T-Rex in high heels, not to mention the movie’s suggestion that all that’s needed to stop a couple from heading to divorce court is for their kids to come within inches of becoming dino chow. Interestingly, Twister also kept its two leads from getting divorced, in this case by having them drive right into tornadoes.

Summer blockbusters, and why they're harmless

But like The Force Awakens, Jurassic World’s biggest sin is that it’s essentially a retelling of the first movie, even though it acknowledges the events of that previous film. So the great success of both of these movies makes me wonder if a new kind of blockbuster is coming: one that acknowledges its legendary predecessor, and pisses all over it anyway.

Granted, these two films weren’t the first sequels to do that (Alien 3, anyone?), but they seem to have become the most successful, which means such sequels could become the norm rather than the exception. Still, both movies were entertaining, which is more than can be said for other would-be blockbusters that have flopped, such as Speed 2: Cruise Control or The Lone Ranger. This highlights what is probably a key reason why summer blockbusters continue to thrive: Plot and even coherency can be rendered secondary if the film itself has enough kinetic energy to keep the audience awake for a couple of hours.

But to read Biskind’s book, it sounds like he’s blaming Star Wars for the fact that Coppola has been reduced to directing has-beens like Val Kilmer in films that only play in a fraction of the theaters The Godfather did. In Coppola’s case, his declining clout should really be attributed to filing for bankruptcy in the ‘80s due to all the money he spent making Apocalypse Now (which Lucas originally had a hand in), and his film One from the Heart flopping at the box office.

Just because movies without special effects and action don’t get top priority with some studio executives doesn’t mean that these sorts of films have no chance of becoming appreciated, let alone being made. In other words, while we may question why some films enjoy financial success, there’s always been room for all kinds of films. Those who insist otherwise are basically wasting their breath, as there have been signs of this trend letting up.

But, honestly, there have always been escapist films that have set the bar in terms of financial success. If Jaws did anything different in that regard, it made summer the fashionable time for such movies to be released. Likewise, Star Wars simply brought toys into the equation as no movie did before or since. These two films are still examples of how summer blockbusters can be every bit as smart as straight dramatic, non-blockbuster movies. Hollywood, as is often the case, simply focuses on the rewards those two movies brought rather than the ingredients that led to those lucrative results.

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  • Gallen Dugall

    Great article – will share.
    “makes me wonder if a new kind of blockbuster is coming: one that acknowledges its legendary predecessor, and pisses all over it anyway.” We already have plenty of these – it is JJ Abram’s specialty, Hollywood has been doing it perpetually with videogame movies, but Michael Bay did it biggest.
    On the question of big budget versus deeper story I’d suggest that for low budget dramatic storytelling TV surpassed film around the turn of the millennium. If you want to do a contemporary drama then TV gives you more time for the subject and has proven it can deliver on the quality. On the other hand theaters fill a niche role in providing a massive screen, big crowd, and quality sound system experience perfect for big budget effects filled spectacles. Otherwise why not just wait a couple of months for it to release to disk?
    As to the unasked question of, “why do dumb movies make so much money?” I submit the answer that most people want to shut down and not engage with their entertainment. It’s the same reason casual handheld gaming is larger than all consoles and PC gaming combined (60/20/20). Nothing wrong with it.

    • Yonagonaf

      There is a nuance of ネコバス to Gallen Dugall’s image.

      • Gallen Dugall

        Neat. Apparently some music group uses a similar logo as well. I developed the icon in the late ’80s for my Battletech merc group “Madcat Marauders” which was before the Madcat mech design came out; at which point I stopped playing because the Clans were goofy.

  • Vassago Gamori

    Jurassic World’s biggest sin is that it’s boring and the dinosaurs look like cartoons compared to the original.

    • Murry Chang

      I saw it for the first time the other weekend and holy god is it bad. The scene with Chris Pratt riding through the jungle with raptors was obviously shot on a sound stage. And how do you make a giant dinosaur movie that goddamn boring?!

  • ussafs3

    “Top Gun” may not have been the original ‘dumb’ blockbuster but it sure etched the template in stone: Kenny Loggins theme song: check; hot, hunky guys oiled up: check; love story that adds nothing except to give you time to finish your popcorn and milk duds: check; awesome MTV-style cinematography: check; story utterly detached from any military reality: check; GLARING continuity errors: check; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…If nothing else, “Top Gun” was the first real ‘switch your brain off’ summer blockbuster.