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.
Coming into this series, I was ready to declare 1998 the lousiest summer movie season of all time based on my memory. Having done some preliminary research on other seasons to come, however, 1998 has some usurpers to its presumed anti-throne, or dungeon, or abattoir, or whatever station befits the King of the Worst of Something. 2001 is even less redeemable, and you could argue that most of the tent-pole mega-pictures of 2007 and 2009 were just as dumb and disappointing as 1998’s.
The summer of ’98 also featured a couple of award-winning, high-profile flicks that made blockbuster money and were very well-received. Additionally, one of its more modest, late summer blockbusters–a little Marvel movie about a day-walking vampire– helped shape the future of movie blockbusters. And a swashbuckling hero whose name starts with a capital “Z” delivered one of the most under-appreciated adventure flicks of the 90’s.
Unfortunately, the biggest movies that were going for fun, glorious visuals–the major popcorn flicks designed to keep theaters packed from May through August–ranged from bad to awful. Which made for a seemingly weak summer at the cinema at the time. 1998 isn’t as bad as I remember it being, but its worst efforts cast heavy shadows over its best efforts.
“Pre-Summer” Creep: Lost in Space, Mercury Rising, and City of Angels
By 1998, summer movies had crept into April, and would eventually make their way into March in the years to come. The Pre-Summer warm-up to the official season was officially here to stay, and it kicked off with a pair of dissimilar box office belly-flops, Lost in Space and the Bruce Willis vehicle Mercury Rising.
In the 90’s it seemed that movie studios were throwing a ton of money at big screen adaptations of popular 1960’s television shows. The theatrical successes of The Addams Family, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, and The Flintsones gave studios the impression that audiences were eager to see anything that reminded them of those wholesome old shows of a bygone era, and you couldn’t blame studios for thinking that because, holy hell, that Flintstones movie was the 6th-biggest hit of 1994. I love John Goodman and all, but what the hell.
It was in this climate that the Lost in Space movie got the green light, and at the time it must have made almost too much sense. It was an adaptation of a known 1960’s tv show, and it was a sci-fi/action flick featuring aliens and spaceships, which ID4 and Men in Black had proven was the hottest thing going for the past two years. Unfortunately for Lost in Space, it didn’t have even tolerable writing, competent direction or half-decent special effects going for it, to say nothing of Will Smith in his prime. Critics and audiences rejected it, it did sad business at the box office, and helped get the summer off to an inauspicious start.
That same weekend, Bruce Willis starred in one of the many forgettable action thrillers in his filmography, Mercury Rising. “Man on the run” conspiracy thrillers have never gone out of style–hell, Captain America: Civil War is basically the Avengers version of that kind of story–but in ’98, the long shadow of the aforementioned The Fugitive still loomed. As I mentioned in the last entry, 1997 had Chain Reaction, which had The Fugitive‘s director at the helm trying to recapture the magic. In the autumn of 1998, Will Smith would find success using the same formula with Enemy of the State. But before that came Mercury Rising, which performed as poorly as Lost in Space did; not bad enough to get anybody fired, but bad enough that you have to hand over your favorite child to be raised as the boss’s own, as is customary in corporate America. 1
The biggest movie of the pre-summer was a high-concept romantic drama, City of Angels, a pretty schmaltzy romance about an angel who falls in love with a doctor and “falls” from angel-hood to be with her. Spoiler alert, it ends tragically, suddenly, and stupidly, but Nic Cage was hot at the time, Meg Ryan was America’s sweetheart, and people are generally suckers for a stupidly tragic romance, so it found a sizable audience. Still, it’s the kind of movie that feels like it would have been ten-times better had it been made in Hollywood’s Golden Age with the full talent of Roman Holiday attached to the project.
- A few notable March releases weren’t quite in the “summer blockbuster” mold, but almost fit the bill. The Man in the Iron Mask was Leonardo DiCaprio’s first post-Titanic movie, so it received substantial attention and a solid gross, even though it’s a mediocre, dismissible flick. Likewise, U.S. Marshals was an everyday, unremarkable thriller that’s only worth mentioning because it was a sequel to a legitimate major hit.
- The Big Lebowski has sort of transcended being a “cult favorite” at this point. Even if you haven’t seen the movie you might have stumbled into one of its clips with two-million views, or know where the phrase “The Dude abides” comes from. It’s similar to Raising Arizona in that it wasn’t a theatrical hit or an awards darling, but many of us have nonetheless seen at least enough pieces of it to be able to quote from it.
Early Summer: Deep Impact, Godzilla, The Truman Show
The summer of destruction–the first summer to see multiple movies fully embrace the wide-scale CGI carnage template created by ID4–got its official start with Deep Impact, the film that introduced many people, including Busta Rhymes, to the term “Extinction Level Event.” By the end of the summer, most critics would agree that Deep Impact was smarter and more “thoughtful” than its competitor, Armageddon, but smarter than stupid isn’t necessarily smart, and “more thoughtful” doesn’t mean the material rises above cheap manipulation, especially when you consider the director would deliver the weak and treacly Pay it Forward two years later.
Deep Impact is the sleepiest movie about a comet colliding with Earth that might ever be made. Barring the brief, haunting scene of Jon Favreau’s character being vaulted into space, never to be seen again, there’s nothing positive about it that stands out. It’s not as aggressively dumb as Armageddon, but it’s far from a good film, though it did well at the box office. It’s a movie stuffed with cliched and/or tone-deaf hyper-sentimental moments, right up to the ridiculous, uplifting “the waters receded” speech that closes out the movie.
Years before the real world faced the true devastation of two different tsunami disasters in the 21st century, that speech already felt like absurd bullshit. And the half-assed filmmaking on display makes it look like unintentional satire, as the speech concludes with audible cheers from a huge crowd of people who are very clearly not cheering in front of a still-ruined Capitol building. Even Armageddon went through the trouble of showing people from around the world actually reacting on-screen in this visual medium. The allegedly uproarious crowd at the end of Deep Impact looks like they just watched their team’s kicker shank a game-tying field goal, or they’re watching Shamu attack a Sea World trainer and are just realizing that this isn’t part of the show.
So Deep Impact came and underwhelmed despite doing strong numbers. It was never a contender for King of the Summer to begin with, though. That crown was supposed to belong the King of the Monsters himself, the almighty and incomparable Godzilla, who does not appear in the 1998 Godzilla movie, despite his name being the title.
You ever see that Bollywood movie clip of some guy and a lady dressed up in their respective Superman and Spider-Man pajamas, flying around, dancing and making out. Godzilla ’98 has as about much claim of fidelity to its source material as that clip does of being an authentic Superman/Spider-Man team-up. Perhaps less. Much has already been said about the giant iguana monster impostor of Godzilla ’98, but the failure of the film can’t be laid entirely at the creature’s feet.
Sony, Dean Devlin, and Roland Emmerich basically didn’t understand what made an Godzilla enduring figure. They also didn’t understand their own limitations as storytellers, or the limited appeal of their cast. They wanted to make a blockbuster in the supposed spirit of the first Godzilla movie, but without the gravitas, or the specific cultural history and context that made the story of nuclear-powered destruction of Japan so horrifically captivating. The idea of Godzilla fighting other monsters–a staple of almost every Godzilla movie other than the original–was dismissed outright as pure silliness. Given the pure silliness that ended up on the screen in ’98 anyway, that jumps out as a risible level of arrogance and unawareness.
There’s nothing fresh to say about the quality of Godzilla ’98, which reduced the original cinematic instrument of mass destruction to a bronze medalist in the on-screen annihilation sweepstakes of 1998. But the film’s box office warrants a comparison to another, much more recent and much-maligned blockbuster, Batman v Superman. And that comparison is actually unfavorable for Godzilla. I’ve already written about how BvS is a disappointment, but at least it hasn’t killed DC’s franchise aspirations, (it’s basically done similar business to X-Men: Days of Future Past). Godzilla ’98 was meant to be kick off a film franchise. The movie ended on an obvious sequel-hook and a sequel was basically given the green light in advance. Instead the best that could be mustered in the aftermath of its rejection was a short-lived cartoon series. Godzilla ’98 ended up grossing less than half of what it was projected to make during its theatrical run. Its merchandise and tie-in books sold poorly, and they even had to sell the television broadcast rights at a steep discount. For a movie that actually turned a profit, that’s about as financially catastrophic as it gets.
Magnifying all of this for general movie audiences was the fact that, again, Godzilla was supposed to be the movie of the summer, and it couldn’t even manage to be merely disappointing or even tolerable. Nowadays we have more options; three gigantic, superhero tentpole movies will have hit cinemas by Memorial Day in 2016, and that’s not counting other Alice Through the Looking Glass (which doesn’t look good, but is nonetheless another big-budget effects-laden flick) or huge hits like Deadpool, The Jungle Book and Zootopia. And there are four more major action-adventure popcorn flicks waiting in June alone. We’re almost overloaded with blockbuster options. In 1998, the pickings were considerably slimmer. So much so that June was an entire month of counter-blockbusters.
The slate of major June releases was pretty damn solid, though. The best among them was Jim Carrey’s first foray into serious acting, The Truman Show. A great concept, a good story, smart and loaded with talent, this movie even manages to stick a very difficult ending. I have nothing but good things to say about The Truman Show. It’s a hell of a good movie, and as a bonus, it provides us with perhaps the greatest, funniest-yet-most-authentic moment of exasperated frustration in movie history.
Six Days, Seven Nights hit theaters as an adventure alternative for those who liked a little less CGI and disaster in their popcorn flicks. It did decent business at the time, but was smacked down critically and didn’t find much of an audience. Harrison Ford lends it slightly more charm than you might expect, and Anne Heche is watchable enough, and if you’re okay with David Schwimmer then he’s there being Ross from Friends, but this is still a past-his-prime Reitman movie that is, at best, not quite a crime.
Mulan showed that Disney could still tell a good story, and gave us Eddie Murphy a new career avenue as an entertaining voice actor (which shouldn’t have surprised any of us given how distinct and lively his voice is, but somehow surprised a lot of us at the time). It also gave us further proof that some Disney movies are better without the songs. It had been four years since The Lion King had capped off Disney’s amazing run of hit movies with powerhouse soundtracks, and in that time its best and most memorable tracks were “Hellfire” from Hunchback, which no parent wanted their kids to remember or even understand, with good reason, and “Colors of the Wind,” a solid song, but when a lot of people think it’s called “blue corn moon” and are less lyrically familiar with it than the opening chant of “Circle of Life,” how memorable can it be? The songs in Mulan kill the pace of things worse than intentional fouls in the NBA. They’re worsened by how good the movie is.
Closing out June was the decent-enough big screen debut of The X-Files, a show that was actually a little less popular than you might think given how influential it became, and how recognizable its name is to so many people. The X-Files was easily the most watched show of its kind in its era, it was a show everyone knew about, and shows like Fringe, Supernatural and Grimm are indebted to it, and 22-years after it debuted Fox was still able to bring the show back to television for a highly rated re-premier, but for some reason its apparent ubiquity didn’t translate to major success. It did well at the box office, but really not all that much better than Six Days, Seven Nights, and that movie’s so forgettable you forgot what I wrote about it two paragraphs ago.
- My God, if I had been writing on the internet around the time that The Horse Whisperer was released I would have made so many Hoarse Whisperer jokes. Just so, so damn many.
- I’ve never seen Bulworth, but apparently it was controversial at the time. I only really knew of it because “Ghetto Supastar” was on the soundtrack, and it was a big hit at the time, and I hate that song like it stole my girlfriend and slapped my father and tried to put pineapple on my pizza, so I don’t have positive thoughts about Bulworth.
- The “cult film” fans out there got to see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dirty Work in theaters.
- Out of Sight is an amazing film, and it’s still Don Cheadle’s best performance, and I’ll hear no argument otherwise. Okay, maybe Mouse from Devil in a Blue Dress is slightly better, but that’s it.
Mid-Summer: Armageddon, The Mask of Zorro and Saving Private Ryan
Of the big three summer blockbusters of 1998, Armageddon is the only one I might find myself watching for more than thirty minutes today. I know I called it “aggressively bad” earlier, and it is, but in the long run I’ll take aggressively bad over boring sentimentality. At least when Armageddon is on I can look forward to the ludicrous, incomprehensible Russian Space Station explosion and enjoy the chaotic editing and unbelievable stupidity. It’s an almost liberating level of unbridled nonsense. I’ve already talked about the half-assed nature of Deep Impact, but Armageddon is the kind of preposterous lunacy someone has to aspire to. Michael Bay is bad in a way that, if nothing else, is worthy of academic analysis. Every Frame a Painting is one of my favorite YouTube channels, featuring insightful inspection of filmmaking that clearly takes time and effort to put together, and you won’t find an episode of it dedicated to lazy, drowsy, by-the-numbers incompetence. No, you find an episode dedicated to Michael Bay because he clearly has vision, and would be good if he had an ounce of self-control and wasn’t going out of his way to suck.
Make no mistake, Armageddon is a bad movie. It’s not even “so bad it’s good.” I remember leaving the theater after seeing Armageddon and thinking, “Well, there went the summer. That was it. That was the last chance for redemption, and it was objectively bad. There was a scene where the hero’s daughter accosts a disabled man because her dad and fiance might not survive a world-saving venture that, if it fails due to their deaths, will kill everyone on Earth anyway. This movie is dumb as hell.”
Really, there was only one movie in the summer of 1998 that stood out as adventurous fun for the family. A movie that wasn’t merely “good in comparison to the rest of the dreck,” but just flat out entertaining, and a bit underrated given how little it’s been spoken of in years gone by. That movie is The Mask of Zorro, which is fun, smart, funny, and sexy (holy shit, Catherine Zeta-Jones was the woman for at least a year or two). It’s easily the best popcorn flick of 1998, even as it’s overshadowed by the digitally produced devastation-fests that opened ahead of it. Similar to The Truman Show, this is a movie so damn good at delivering what it promises to deliver that I’m struggling to find anything to write about it. The AV Club featured a recent article about the need for less cynical, more optimistic, “lighter” summer movies, but its writer trumped National Treasure, which I will duly criticize in a later entry. The Mask of Zorro should be the reference for purely enjoyable, CGI-free, throwback entertainment. This isn’t just a movie about heroes, it’s a movie that can make a kid believe in heroes.
Around the same time that Zorro hit theaters, the Farrelly Brothers unleashed an R-rated, outrageous, gross-out, blockbuster sex-comedy called There’s Something About Mary. It’s weird to string all of those adjectives together as though they collectively form an actual subgenre, but, well, they do. Wedding Crashers, The Hangover and virtually everything Judd Apatow has put out in the 21st century owes a debt to There’s Something About Mary. Hell, every successful raunchy television comedy of the new millennium should send a “Thank You” card to Mary as well. It was hardly the first R-rated, gross-out sex romp, but it was the first since Porky’s to truly break out, and the first since Animal House to break out and be critically lauded, helping to somewhat legitimize a stigmatized form of comedy.
The real big winner of the summer of ’98, however, was Saving Private Ryan, a brutally violent war drama and Oscar contender that ended the year second only to Armageddon at the box office. Private Ryan is a damn good movie, if a bit uneven, but it’s not supposed to be the second-biggest movie of any summer, much less its most enduring motion picture. People sometimes bemoan the grit and grime of some of today’s summer movie spectaculars, but none of them feature disemboweled soldiers on Omaha Beach crying out for their mothers. Saving Private Ryan ended up being the King of the Summer, leaving 1998 with a fairly bizarre legacy. Something like this hasn’t happened since. No grim, big-budget, multi-award-winning movie about a serious historical event has since come close to dominating a summer movie season. It’s uncanny.
- Eddie Murphy starred in Doctor Dolittle. The next year we would reject Eddie Murphy’s attempt at more mature, emotional comedy with Life, so we got Doctor Dolittle 2 soon after. Which goes to show that we are the monsters. We are the monsters.
- Lethal Weapon 4 is, in hindsight, a bizarre movie. I feel like I should write a separate article about how far the Lethal Weapon series veered from its origin in basically one-and-a-half films. Lethal Weapon 3 is a partial transition to lighter, softer material, but the fourth movie might as well be set on the moon in the distant future when compared to the first flick. A series that started by focusing on a suicidal cop suffering with wartime PTSD and the loss of his wife, and the serious struggles of law enforcement translated through an action movie about narcotics trafficking, closed out with a movie that begins with a gunfight against an armored super-criminal, co-stars Chris Rock as comedy relief because Joe Pesci wasn’t being silly enough, and climaxes with a fist-fight against a martial-arts-expert super-criminal. How the hell did that happen? It’s like they found an early draft of the Rush Hour script and commandeered it for a Lethal Weapon sequel.
- Small Soldiers. The great Joe Dante’s last grasp for theatrical relevance. The man who gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Gremlins nowadays has an inferior version of a much better horror movie and episodes of a cancelled Lifetime series as his most recent credits.
Late Summer: Blade forges the future
Late Summer of ’98 isn’t much to write home about, but the success of Blade has to be examined, since we basically have it to thank (or, if you hate superhero movies, to blame) for giving Marvel the confidence to believe its properties could be successful.
The catalyst for Marvel’s eventual cinematic dominance is commonly accepted to be a property that their film studio doesn’t own, the X-Men, but Blade was the first Marvel movie to even sniff theatrical success. Of course, many (most?) moviegoers at the time didn’t know that Blade was a Marvel comic adaptation. They just knew that Wesley Snipes was kicking ass as a half-vampire–aka dhampir. Blade sold more than enough tickets to give Marvel Studios faith in their characters being big screen draws. This was a huge development, as prior to that the only major superhero movie successes belonged to DC, with Marvel’s best efforts being straight-to-video flicks starring Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher and a reclusive author’s son as Captain America.
Had Blade bombed, it could have damaged Marvel’s confidence and altered the future of film blockbusters. Instead it laid the first bricks in the road toward the X-Men franchise, the Spider-Man movies, and eventually the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is leading Disney to global conquest, making Blade Disney’s “La Magra.”
- At the time, horror fans were pretty excited for Halloween: H20. In hindsight, ehhhh… it wasn’t a travesty, but it was far from the redemption the original movie deserved.
- The Avengers, based on the British spy series, came and flopped so damn hard that Marvel’s Avengers movie is officially titled Marvel’s The Avengers. Sure, there might be some legal technicalities involved there, but you can’t convince me that they weren’t trying to make sure people didn’t associate their movie with this atrocious bomb.
- Opening in mid-September, Rush Hour came a little late to be considered a summer movie, but it was a major hit, and given the lackluster nature of the rest of the movies that would have been competitors, might have made even more money had it come out in late July.
Summer in Summary
As I said at the beginning of the article, my memories of the summer of ’98 led me to believe it was one of the worst summer movie seasons ever. It’s hard to give a summer movie season too high of a grade when it fails to deliver the escapism we generally hope for. On the other hand, it’s hard to give it too low of a grade when it gives us The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, and the game-changing Blade.
There’s also The Mask of Zorro, which I think is one of the best “thrill ride” adventure movies to come out of the 90’s. Certainly the most underrated.
Weighing that against Godzilla, Deep Impact, and Armageddon, it leaves me feeling better about this summer than I once did. I still don’t like the idea of Saving Private Ryan being the second-biggest movie of the summer–it’s not an entertaining film–but the overall quality of what was offered makes it impossible for me to give the summer of ’98 a failing grade. I came into this series promising myself I wouldn’t use a “plus/minus” grading system, but in this instance, I can make an exception.
Summer Grade: C–