Every summer the studios wheel out their latest line of potential hits, praying they haven’t misjudged the market as they gamble with millions upon millions of dollars. Here are 10 of the best, and in some cases, the trailblazers, of summer blockbusters.
Director Steven Spielberg is the king of escapism. This whole list could be full of his films, but this one makes it above all others because this is the original blockbuster. Before Spielberg unleashed “Jaws,” the idea of a summer blockbuster didn’t exist. What made the difference? “Jaws” was the first film to have a nationwide release. It was also more than just another dumb creature feature. It was a stellar mix of humor, horror, adventure and top-notch acting from Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.
"Star Wars" (1977)
Spielberg opened the blockbuster door, but George Lucas ripped it off its hinges by presenting a special- effects-filled space adventure like no audience had ever seen before. Lucas used a simple story playing off of old themes and mythology to create a fully realized universe with rich characters and a sense of humor, fun and mysticism. It is a film that has become deeply rooted in our greater social consciousness, and not even the less-than-amazing new trilogy could stain that.
"Animal House" (1978)
You don’t need elaborate special effects to spawn a blockbuster, as the unexpected hit “Animal House” proved. Powered by an unrelentingly maniac comic performance by John Belushi, this collegiate comedy gave birth to the tradition of raunchy, vulgar summer comedies. There have been plenty of low-brow imitators, but what so many of them lack is an underlining intelligence to the crude humor. It takes brains to do dumb well, and that’s why 30 years later "Animal House" is still a wonderfully subversive classic.
“Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV” veterans Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis battle ghosts in a perfect marriage of outrageous comedy and tremendous visual effects. Too often visuals upstage the laughs or drama of a film, but here they sit next to each other, enhancing and driving the story forward. This is the obvious forerunner for other sci-fi comedies, most notably “Men in Black,” another summer sensation.
Superhero movies have become huge summer bread winners in the last decade. And “Batman” and 1978’s “Superman” were the ones that started it all. Alas, “Superman’s” December release disqualifies its inclusion on this list. But “Batman” is no slouch and set the standard for the current crop of superhero films. Director Tim Burton took the material serious, and although some comic book purists don’t like the liberties Burton took with the characters, it is hard to fault the film's visual style and its dark sense of humor.
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)
Director James Cameron with George Lucas’ effects company Industrial Lights and Magic pioneered some extraordinary computer-generated visuals in 1989’s “Abyss.” Two years later they further perfected them with the creation of the liquid metal, shape-shifting villain Arnold Schwarzenegger battles in a sequel that out-does its predecessor not only in terms of thrills, but emotional resonance. Films laden with computer-generated effects are a dime a dozen now, but this is one of the first to do it well and boy, oh boy does it still hold up.
"Sixth Sense" (1999)
Summer movies don’t have to be about big action and big laughs. Sometimes a quiet thriller can sneak its way to the top. Audiences like to be scared, but too often filmmakers go for gore that disgusts, but doesn’t genuinely frighten. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan reminded audiences that mood and atmosphere, story and acting are far more important than grisly visuals. Word spread quickly that his film delivered the chills. With his patented twists, Shyamalan has become a bit of a one-trick pony, but this first trick is still tops.
Animated features have always been a big draw going back to 1939’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” but “Shrek” was different. It was tired of other animated films and lampooned them mercilessly and, somehow, at the same time showcased its own sweet story. Hilarious star voice work by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz helped develop the animated roles into complete characters. The series would de-evolve into what it was initially mocking, but the first still remains hip and fresh.
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002)
The sleeper hit: a movie that no one expects to be a smash success, but that grows a steady and eventually massive following. Every once in a while a small “indie” film comes along and strikes a chord with audiences who are tired of the same old, same old. This small film about a non-Greek marrying into a huge Greek family did just that. Critics didn’t rave but its gentle, sweet sense of humor won people over. Costing only $5 million to make, it grossed over $368 million worldwide. Never underestimate the little movies.
"Pirates of Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003)
A movie based on a theme park ride should’ve been a dire example of cross promotion gone wrong, but it is amazing what a single performance can do for a movie. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was such a unique character played with such zeal that many of the film’s shortcomings disappeared. Not that Depp was alone. He was ably matched by an equally gleeful performance by Geoffrey Rush, and Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom were pleasant supporting swashbucklers. But it was Depp’s show — and what a show.