20 Years of Summer is a series covering summer blockbusters year by year, from 1996–the year that Independence Day turned special effects spectacle into the new norm–through the present.
Just over twenty years ago, Independence Day helped steer the summer blockbuster toward CGI-centric spectacle. Before that, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park raked in enormous profits while showing off the potential glory of digital effects, but neither of those movies seemed to be quite as reliant on special effects (particularly mass digital-destruction) as Independence Day, or another movie that came out in the summer of 1996, Twister.
With that in mind, and with another summer movie season loaded with effects-driven blockbusters upon us, 1996 gives us a good enough jumping off point for a new series breaking down the summer movie seasons up through 2015. Which summers blew our minds, which ones were gravely disappointing, which ones were better or worse than we initially thought, and which ones came and went with little impression?
Early Summer: Twister, Mission: Impossible, Dragonheart
The summer movie season hadn’t quite crept into April yet in 1996. That would change the following year, but in ’96, the summer season began on May 10th, with the release of the only notable blockbuster film whose entire premise and plot boils down to, “Oh shit, TORNADOES!”
Twister marks a bit of a turning point for summer blockbusters simply being an excuse to show off special effects, as its marketing, box office success and raison d’etre was to put never-before-seen impressive tornadoes up on the big screen. You couldn’t sell this movie on the idea of “let’s follow professional storm chasers around” alone, as evidenced by the fact that copycat Hollywood has never tried to do it again, despite this movie’s gross quadrupling its budget. No one came into Twister with the slightest curiosity about the characters, and no one left the movie caring that Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton’s estranged couple rekindle their romance at the end. The movie’s entire selling point is that it features big, terrific-looking (for the time, at least) tornadoes tearing things apart while roaring and growling like jungle beasts for no reason. Watching Twister today, it is incomprehensible that there are any scenes without a tornado onscreen, much less several. Considering Twister was directed by the same man who gave us Speed, it’s unconscionable that the movie isn’t just one extended action sequence.
Just two weeks later, Twister‘s spot atop the box office would be usurped by the first installment of perhaps the most unlikely-yet-reliable blockbuster franchise running, Mission: Impossible. While Twister was brazenly brainless plotwise, Mission: Impossible almost overloaded its plot with twists. I say almost, but I don’t really mean that; I always found the story to Mission: Impossible pretty easy to follow, but one of the most common criticisms of the movie at the time (though it was well reviewed overall) was that its story was too complicated. Nonetheless, Average Joe and Jane Moviegoer ate the film up; M:I actually ended up with a slightly better profit margin than Twister, which goes to show that a movie with an intricate storyline (and a megastar lead) could be just as profitable as one that was dumbed down to the sub-basement of intelligence.
Dragonheart opened the following week and became the first misfire of the summer. While it wasn’t a flop, its lukewarm box office and critical reception made it one of the failed high-fantasy films preceding The Lord of the Rings that made studios wary of adapting Tolkien’s books for the big screen, and made anyone working in film or television think that the only people interested in dungeons and dragons were people who played Dungeons & Dragons. Once upon a time, a television show like Once Upon a Time would have never made it to air–to say nothing of something as serious and dour as Game of Thrones. Dragonheart’s inability to draw a wide audience helped reinforce the notion that high fantasy didn’t appeal to the masses.
- The Arrival, the pre-ID4 alien invasion movie of the summer. It did poor business before moving on to a surprisingly long life on basic cable.
- Up above I mentioned that the summer of ’96 started on May 10th, which is validated by the tagline at the bottom of this poster:
- Spy Hard was the screenwriting the debut of Friedberg and Seltzer, automatically making 1996 the worst year in movie history.
Overall, the summer of ’96 got off to a solid start, with two legitimate hits and one movie that was merely forgettable. Still, there were bigger fireworks to come.
Mid-Summer: Independence Day, The Rock, two comedies, and the end of an action era
The first weekend in June gave one director a career-propelling hit (for better or worse). It also produced a film that one-hit-killed the idea of “Billy Zane: leading man.”
Michael Bay’s first film, Bad Boys, had come out the year before and was a surprisingly major success. The next year, he was given more than triple his Bad Boys budget to bring the world The Rock, which many people still consider to be the best movie of his career. Bay hasn’t looked back since. Say what you will about the quality of his work (although you should probably make sure there are no impressionable children in the room before you say those things), Bay has spent the past two decades proving he knows how to cater to the masses.
Meanwhile, on the same weekend, the pulp superhero adventure film The Phantom opened way behind in 6th place and never came close to catching on with audiences, producing the summer’s biggest financial flop. For whatever reason, studios kept trying to push pulp heroes from the 1930’s (or inspired by the heroes of the 30s) onto a 1990’s public that wasn’t buying it. Dick Tracy severely under-performed in 1990 (it was expected to put up Batman numbers and did less than half of that). The Rocketeer couldn’t find much of an audience in 1991, and it was actually good. The Shadow suffered the same fate in 1994 and it was, well, decent enough. The Phantom, on the other hand, was fairly bad. The lone defensible thing about this movie might be Treat Williams doing a decent job hamming it up as the villain, but even that pales in comparison to Timothy Dalton’s similarly mustachioed, suit-wearing, dark-haired, charming villain in The Rocketeer, so at its best it’s redundant and needless. A year later, Billy Zane would absolutely nail the role of psychotic asshole fiancé on a doomed ocean liner, but in ’96 he showed us that there’s no voice deep enough to turn a man in a purple catsuit on horseback in the jungle into a watchable action hero.
The next two weekends were disappointing–at least financially–for two very different movie stars. The Cable Guy broke Jim Carrey’s box office hot streak that was bookended by the two Ace Ventura movies. While it’s viewed in a more positive light overall now, at the time critics and audiences felt it was too dark from the guy who was fresh off of Dumb & Dumber and The Mask. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in the perfectly mediocre Eraser. His previous action film, True Lies, had been third biggest film of 1994, and the biggest R-rated or action film of the year. Eraser barely made the top 10 internationally and was 14th domestically. It was the last time Schwarzenneger would receive the superstar action hero treatment. Outside of the 3rd and 5th Terminator movies (both more property-driven than star-driven) he hasn’t been the lead in a movie that’s come close to what Eraser made.
In the midst of Arnold Schwarzenneger’s last hurrah, another megastar from the 80’s kicked off an uneven resurgence. Eddie Murphy’s two movies prior to The Nutty Professor were The Distinguished Gentlemen, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire in Brooklyn, alternately titled, You’re Slipping a Little Bit Eddie, Nobody Wants to See a Third One Eddie, and Aw, You Bullshittin’ Now Eddie. Eddie Murphy, one of the most naturally gifted comedians ever, had made a comedic modern update on Blacula. There should have been no coming back from that, but Eddie managed it with The Nutty Professor, which is another movie from this summer that leaned a fair bit on the magic of digital effects. The Nutty Professor hasn’t aged terrifically, in part because of its awful sequel, and because it ushered in the family-friendly, fat-suits-and-flatulence-reliant era of Eddie’s career parodied in the mock trailer for The Fatties in Tropic Thunder. But it has its moments, nonetheless, and was very well-received on initial release.
But all of this, really, is precursor to the story of 1996’s summer; Independence Day. Yes, the jokes and dialogue are often cheesy all hell. Yes, the plot device of uploading a computer virus onto the alien mothership’s operating system is less believable than the idea of an alien invasion itself. And yes, as Jim Norton once pointed out to Patrice O’Neal, Judd Hirsch’s character maybe, perhaps, probably lapses into becoming a caricature of an older Jewish man. ID4‘s present reputation is not very positive. But for those of us who caught the movie in theaters, witnessing the alien ships emerging from the clouds and seeing the brutish brilliance of computer generated city annihilation blew our collective minds.
We all knew nothing would be the same afterward. There’s a reason that this movie was once the 2nd-highest grossing film of all time, behind a movie I’m about to immediately mention in the next paragraph.
Jurassic Park used CGI (along with some “practical” effects) to create a sense of wonder and set a very specific new standard for how realistic a movie dinosaur had to look. Independence Day–and, to a lesser extent, Twister–turned computer generated effects into the showcase of the movie. It also raised the bar on how much wanton destruction people expected out of at least one movie per summer.
Jurassic Park had the Spielberg cachet attached, and without him or an equally skilled and acclaimed director, that initial T-Rex attack (which has few signature moments where CGI is absent altogether) among several other scenes would not have been nearly as intense. There’s nothing in ID4, or in the rest Roland Emmerich’s catalog, that suggests the movie needed him to be as big as it was. Just like there’s nothing in Jan De Bont’s catalog to suggest Twister wouldn’t have been a hit without him. In front of the camera, ID4 turned Will Smith into box office gold for the next ten years, but he was still better known as the Fresh Prince at the time. And as much as we all like Jeff Goldblum, his presence isn’t enough to set box office records. For Time magazine’s Jurassic Park themed cover following the release of The Lost World, it presented Spielberg front and center. For its cover story on ID4, Time featured an alien by itself and referred to it as a star of the movie. It should have featured a spaceship hovering over the smoldering ruins of Manhattan, but the point was still made. The actors and director of this movie were of little relevance, the spectacle was what mattered. And since then–again, for better or worse–spectacle has been king at the summer box office.
- Disney’s post-Lion King “slump” that wasn’t much of a slump continued with The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Demi Moore’s fairly terrible Striptease courted controversy that feels positively quaint in 2016.
- Michael Keaton’s Multiplicity was yet another movie that heavily advertised its groundbreaking special effects. It bombed, presumably because the promised effects featured no aliens, tornadoes or fat Eddie Murphies, just a bunch of Michael Keatons as Mister Mom types. Had it been bunch of Michael Keatons as Beetlejuice, that could’ve been something…
- Courage Under Fire came out, starring Meg Ryan, “America’s Sweetheart,” and Denzel Washington, “America’s Most Respected Black Man Who We’d Totally Let Kiss Our Beloved Sweetheart. That Said, Could You Make Sure He Doesn’t Kiss Her in This Movie? Yes, Kill Her Off Early if You Have To.”
Late Summer: A Time to Kill and a lot of “also-rans”
The last weekend of July often sees the summer movie season officially winding down. Late July through August is traditionally where studios plant the summer movies that they don’t have much faith in, although sometimes studios buck the trend (Guardians of the Galaxy, for example).
In 1996 this held true, as the most notable and widely-seen release for the rest of the summer was A Time to Kill, a courtroom drama about rage, revenge and racial politics that somehow would be way more controversial in 2016. If this movie came out today there would be 1,000 think-pieces about it scattered through the web, and Twitter and the YouTube comments section would be N-Bomb-a-Palooza and/or Blame-Obama-Palooza, which is two too many Paloozas.
Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz and Morgan Freeman starred in Chain Reaction, a movie from the director of The Fugitive in which Keanu and Weisz are framed and go on the run as fugitives, which might have done better business in a world before silver screen cities exploded under UFOs.
- A decade before George Miller brought his iconic post-apocalyptic vision back to the big screen with a thirty-years-belated sequel, John Carpenter delivered his own overdue follow up to a movie set in a dystopian future. Escape From L.A. wasn’t anywhere near as good as Fury Road, or as good as anything else Carpenter made in the 90’s, much less his prime, but it does have a scene of Kurt Russel surfing next to Peter Fonda that’s so bad it’s an achievement.
- Val Kilmer manages to be even more insufferable on-set than latter-day Marlon Brando while filming The Island of Doctor Moreau, so the next time someone tells you that you can’t do something, you remember this, and remember that anything is possible.
Summer in Summary
In hindsight, ID4‘s overwhelming financial success might have proven unhealthy for the movie industry in the long term. As the folks at Rocket Jump Film School pointed out, CGI has not ruined movies. But movies that replace story with CGI don’t help. Unambitious, big budget movies like San Andreas come and go, destroying a metropolis and scooping up a few hundred million along the way without making a true impression. And they’ll continue to come and go because they make money. I’m in no way averse to big budget blockbusters, obviously, but I do prefer big budget blockbusters that at least try to be memorable, even if they don’t succeed, instead of just showing up to count the inevitable revenue. But this is the legacy of Independence Day: spectacle sells, even if it’s not as spectacular as it used to be.
That said, I can remember what it was like to see Independence Day in the theater on opening weekend. It was, at the time, larger than life event cinema. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it certainly was a moment, and it deserves lasting credit for that, if nothing else. Also, as far as big dumb blockbusters go, it’s still pretty entertaining. The same can’t be said for the likes of Twister, for example.
My nostalgia for ID4, my love of the Mission: Impossible series, and quality movies like The Rock and A Time to Kill demand that I grade this summer no lower than a B. So there you have it. I’ll be back on Monday to look at the summer movies of 1997.
Summer Movie Season Grade: B