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.
Last year, Jurassic World‘s behemoth box office numbers took many of us by surprise. It was expected to succeed, but not to come near the original’s blockbuster-of-blockbusters status. It bested the almighty Age of Ultron, the anticipated Summer of 2015 champion, and fell behind only The Force Awakens for the year, which was inevitable given that Star Wars is more global sub-culture than mere film franchise at this point. Jurassic World is currently the fourth biggest movie of all time–worldwide and domestic– and even when you adjust for inflation it still cracks the domestic Top 25, just seven spots back from Jurassic Park.
I mention all of this because these were the sort of accomplishments people reasonably expected from The Lost World back in 1997. Jurassic Park was the biggest movie ever at the time, and The Lost World was expected to dominate the box office and pop culture discussion, and possibly break a ton of records along the way, much as its predecessor had. Instead, domestically, it lost the summer to the second “Will Smith vs. Aliens” movie to come out in two years, and lost the year (by a very, very, very wide margin) to Titanic. How did that happen? Let’s dig into the summer of ’97 and see.
Early “Summer”: Anaconda, Volcano, Austin Powers, The 5th Element
I mentioned in the previous entry that the “summer” movie season creep hadn’t slipped into the month of April in 1996, but it happened in 1997. Anaconda came out on April 11th and turned into a surprise hit, spawning a franchise of increasingly dubious quality. The first movie is pretty ridiculous, and its effects only hold up if you can appreciate a certain level of cheesiness, but everyone involved seemed to realize it was a cheesy little monster movie and made it as fun as they could.
Volcano, meanwhile, is a self-serious slog that was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in a theater. It was the intended “citywide destruction” movie of the summer, and the second “Oh shit, volcanoes!” movie of the year following Dante’s Peak which was released in February. Dante’s Peak is no masterpiece, but it deserved the near-summer slot over Volcano, which is an unbelievably stupid movie.
Fortunately for Tommy Lee Jones, he would have an opportunity to make up for this disaster later in the summer.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery hit theaters in May, and was just a moderate success. Given how ubiquitous Austin Powers impersonations and references would soon become, you’d think the movie was a much bigger hit, but you’d be mistaken. For comparison’s sake, it made just slightly more at the domestic box office than Kurt Russel’s “give me back my wife” movie, Breakdown, and nobody remembered Breakdown a year later, much less tried to milk it for sequels. In two years, the second Austin Powers movie would sextuple the gross of the first movie, and using the word sextuple makes me wonder how there was never a scene where Austin has a seven-way with some sextuplets and makes more “sextuplet” puns than anyone would think is possible. Anyway, what I’m saying is that Austin Powers was the breakout comedy hit of 1997, but no one knew it at first.
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was one of those blockbuster “flops” that actually wasn’t a flop. In 1997, the international box office was barely reported in the U.S., so the focus in the American news was on how the film had underwhelmed stateside. Yanks just weren’t on board with everyman-action-hero Bruce Willis running around saving the world from a giant ball of ancient space-evil in Besson’s quirky vision of the future. A year later, American and foreign audiences would line up to see Bruce Willis as an every-man-action-hero running around saving the world from a giant asteroid, but that was free of quirk or futurism or much of anything besides explosions, so it proved a little bit more accessible.
So the summer wasn’t off to the greatest start, but everyone knew the heavy hitter of all heavy hitters was coming on Memorial Day weekend. The dinosaurs were coming, and they were going to wreck shop. This movie deserves its very own section in this write-up.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Here it was, the sequel to the groundbreaking, highest-grossing film in history. The pre-designated movie of the summer, and probably of the year, with Titanic still far in the distance and seen as much more of a risk. This felt like the surest sure thing the world of cinema had seen since Return of the Jedi. So when it “only” did great business that didn’t set fire to every record book in the library, people were left wondering what went “wrong.”
It has to be stressed here, measured against any other financial parameter other than its own stratospheric expectations, The Lost World was a resounding success. Among critics, the reviews were middling, but audiences seemed to take to it, at least initially. Its opening weekend set a box office record, and it became the second-fastest movie to make $100 million dollars at the time. So at the outset, it looked as though The Lost World would be as big as predicted, and perhaps even bigger than the first film. Then the enthusiasm tapered off. The movie didn’t get the repeat viewers that Jurassic Park did. Its ultimate box office fate raised the question of how The Lost World failed to get anywhere near being biggest movie in the world. And I have a theory about that.
Jurassic Park is a Horror movie. Okay, it’s not entirely a Horror movie. It’s more Family-Friendly Horror-Adventure-Thriller. But there’s a reason why Box Office Mojo has it categorized as Sci-Fi Horror, and why IMDb and the AFI label it a “Thriller” and “Suspense” movie respectively–two terms that are often used as “sanitized” substitutes for the h-word, because Horror is often seen as a somewhat disreputable genre. But just like Spielberg’s hit Jaws (regularly cited as the first summer blockbuster) is a Horror Thriller, so too is Jurassic Park, at least partly. That first T-Rex attack? Pure horror, complete with a well-crafted jump scare, and played for maximum dread with no non-diegetic music to remind us its just a movie and make it more palatable.
In the latter third of the movie, we see children chased stalked and put in moral peril by the raptors. At least three other characters are presumed gutted and/or eaten alive by that point in the movie. Their deaths take place off-screen, but the movie’s hero explicitly tells us what must have happened to them in an early scene where he’s deliberately trying to scare the shit out of a mildly annoying kid whose biggest sin was not thinking raptors look scary enough. “Oh, you don’t think they’re scary, kid,” Doctor Grant essentially says, “let me tell you about how they’ll efficiently hunt you down, then disembowel and devour you.”
That’s our hero talking to a child who’s basically acting as audience surrogate, setting the stage for the threat and terror that is to come. That’s there to remind you later in the film, when the raptors are chasing Hammond’s grandkids around, that if these monsters catch up to their prey, these children will not die any quicker or more pleasantly than Alex in Jaws. That’s some horror movie shit from the man who debuted with Duel, gruesomely melted Nazis at the climax of Raiders and is rumored to have ghost-directed Poltergeist. This is the sort of thing Spielberg was once great at.
Now, Jurassic Park also had the wonderment and moments of uplifting awe. The initial shot of the grazing herbivores, and the “They do move in herds” scene, for example. But as Ian Malcolm says in the second movie, “Ooh, ahh, that’s how it always starts. But then later there’s running, and then screaming.”
That “running and screaming” line actually captures the heart of The Lost World, and points out why it fell so far short of the first movie’s massive mass appeal. Like many Horror movie sequels, The Lost World doubles down on the gore, body count and overall darkness. If Jurassic Park is a Family-Friendly Horror-Adventure-Thriller, then The Lost World lost the “Family-Friendly” aspect. The Lost World lets us get close enough to a character to care when he gets torn in half by two tyrannosaurs onscreen. It lets us see a cascade of blood when another character’s screams are cut short by a crunch. It shows us a man get crushed underfoot by a rampaging T-rex, his remains then deposited and lingered upon for a moment. Not to mention all of the appearances by severed limbs.
Years later, Jurassic World featured one thinkpiece-generating death scene that some people questioned as being too prolonged and cruel; The Lost World is wall-to-wall vicious, agonizing death for an assortment of characters. The movie is relentlessly brutal1, and literally darker than the first film, with much of its action taking place at night. People might have been expecting bigger and more spectacular action, but they weren’t expecting so much more blood, death and dismemberment.
Mid-Summer: Batman and Robin, Nicolas Cage, and Men in Black
I mentioned earlier that Volcano was the worst movie I’d ever seen in a theater. Batman and Robin runs a very close second. There’s little to say here that isn’t already well-documented: the movie’s poor critical and commercial reception killed the Burton-Schumacher Batman franchise and left the property in limbo for years. So I’ll just throw in a quick anecdote here: right before I went to see Batman & Robin, my girlfriend and I had gotten into a significant argument that felt like it might linger for days. After the movie, we kissed and made up, the unspoken acknowledgment between us being that life is too short to waste a second on bullshit arguments. Two dreadful hours spent with Batman & Robin had helped us remember how precious our time is, and that there were worse things in the world than whatever we were fighting over; things like Batman & Robin. Occasionally, someone will try to say that the movie isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, but no, the movie is exactly that bad.
Nicolas Cage was a genuine rated-R action star in 1997. Con Air and Face/Off both came out in June and did very strong business. Yes, kids, once upon a time American audiences couldn’t get enough Nic Cage. They didn’t even mind if his hair was long and just a bit silly.
With the success of The Rock, Nic Cage had a two-year, three-film hot streak going. He owned the very specific, sub-sub-genre of “high concept R-rated action movies” in ’96 and ’97.
“Terrorists have taken over Alcatraz!” “We need Nicolas Cage!”
“Convicts have hijacked a prison transport plane!” “Get me Nic Cage!”
“We need to put this guy’s face on this other guy’s face to stop a bomb!” “Get me Nicolas Cage you son of a bitch!” “Hey!” “Sorry. Sorry.”
The next year Cage would find success showing off his sensitive side in City of Angels before things started to slow down for him.
The bigger story of the mid-summer was the success of Men in Black, and the rapid rise to mega-stardom of Will Smith. Long before he made inexcusable nonsense like After Earth, Smith rocketed to the top of the blockbuster leading man list by going back-to-back with ID4 and MiB. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had just wrapped up the previous May, and no one could have foreseen that Smith would be the biggest draw in Hollywood just a few years later, reaching the apex when he pulled the Tom Hanks feat of crushing the box office in a movie where he’s the only person onscreen for a majority of the runtime. Men in Black showcased Will at his bankable best, charming and funny, and playing a character whose bravado is earned, and yet curtailed by him clearly being in over his head.
Smith’s methodical approach to picking his movies is on early display here. He had just starred in ID4, and knew where the movie industry was headed, because he’d studied its recent past. Big budget movies with big effects and “creatures” of some kind–extra-terrestrial or otherwise–do big business. Shoehorn a love story into the mix if you can and, well, there’s a reason why Avatar is the biggest movie of all time. So Smith signed up for this effects-heavy Action Comedy about aliens, based on a comic book virtually no one had heard of, played the foil to the perfectly cast Tommy Lee Jones, cruised to summer box office glory, and used that glory to make himself relevant in hip-hop once again. It was kind of amazing. Of course, he would kill much of his own momentum a couple of years later, but we’ll save that for the 1999 entry.
- Jodie Foster took the lead in Contact, July’s counter-programmed,”thinking man’s” alternative to Men in Black. It had a budget just as big as MiB‘s, which is sort of staggering. It did okay at the box office, but “okay” is all it could have realistically hoped for. “Based on a novel by Carl Sagan” is surely appealing to the intellectuals, particularly those interested in astronomy, but for the masses in general, that’s not going to fill up too many seats.
- Speed 2 came and flopped. Sandra Bullock would recover. Jan de Bont would not.
Late Summer: Air Force One, Spawn
Starting with Presumed Innocent, Harrison Ford had a hell of a run in the 90’s. There were some dips in there amidst the highs, but with Patriot Games, The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, Air Force One, and even Six Days, Seven Nights, he was good for a sizable hit about every other year.
Air Force One has a couple of special effects shots that haven’t aged well, and the plot of “President Kickass thwarts his own potential abduction” feels like something that you couldn’t have sold in the 21st century, but the movie is nonetheless reliable Harrison Ford fare. It was easily the biggest movie of the late summer of ’97. The only other movie that might have even come close to being able to contend with it didn’t turn out so well.
Looking back, we probably shouldn’t have expected Spawn to catch on. The world just wasn’t ready for a relatively obscure black superhero to do battle with supernatural forces of evil in 1997. Oh, wait, Blade came out a year later, didn’t it? And it was the movie that was successful enough to quietly make Marvel say, “Maybe the time is right for us to finally bring some of our heroes to the big screen the right way.” So the whole “the world wasn’t ready” thing is inaccurate.
No, the truth is, Spawn was a bad movie–a very bad movie–and the character of Spawn might be the poster boy for extreme 90’s “Dark Age” comic books. He’s the hero from Hell who fights demons. He has a ton of needless chains and a cape the size of a circus tent as part of his costume. One of his arch nemeses is an evil demon-clown called “Violator.” It was the kind of “mature” comic that’s actually really immature, and I say this as a guy who thought Spawn was cool back then. Then the movie came out and disabused me of that belief, which isn’t the purpose it intended to serve, but the purpose it was destined to serve, and I thank it for that.
- Between Men in Black and Mimic it was the summer of giant monster roach movies. Mimic barely dented the box office, but the critical reviews were solid and, most important, it marked Guillermo del Toro’s Hollywood debut.
- Another under-appreciated horror movie came out in August, the ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) and grotesque Event Horizon. The story of a spaceship that accidentally encountered Hell itself on its way through a wormhole, Event Horizon tanked something severe on release, prompting Paul W. S. Anderson to give up on trying to make good movies for the rest of his life.
The Summer in Summary
I like The Lost World despite its flaws and overly dark tone, and I think Men in Black holds up. And most of us thought Austin Powers was a fairly funny send-up, before we tired of our coworkers saying “Groovy, baby,” and “Let’s shag, baby,” and “Why are you filing an HR complaint, baby?” Summers used to be made for movies like Con Air and Air Force One. Face/Off is preposterous, but I like it; Travolta chewing scenery as a villain is terrific, and it’s also the last decent Hollywood movie the legendary John Woo made. The dregs of 1997–godawful as they are–can only drag the rest down so much. And in a way, we have Batman & Robin to thank for the excision of any hint of camp from superhero movies. All in all, this isn’t a summer movie season I would trade back. I can’t say the same for 1998. I’ll be back on Thursday to wallow through that muck of a summer.
Summer of ’97 Grade: B