The Best Movie Ever: Summer Blockbusters
We hope you like popcorn – and so does your local multiplex – because the season for summer blockbusters is officially upon us with the release of this weekend’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Every year, Hollywood gambles big money on big, often stupid event films that are custom-designed to bring kids and their families to movie theaters across the country to see elaborate spectacles and dumb jokes play in front of them, and forget the fact that we all live in a Kafka-esque nightmare dystopia that used to seem implausible in books.
Wait a minute, what are we talking about? Books?! It’s the summer blockbuster season, damn it, and we couldn’t be more excited. So we asked CraveOnline’s three film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to each pick just one film that they think qualifies as The Best Summer Blockbuster Ever.
Read on as they explain their selections, and come back next Wednesday for yet another highly debatable installment of CraveOnline’s Best Movie Ever!
Related: The Best Movie Ever: Harrison Ford
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Jaws (1975)
It’s not often that you’ll find the best of anything is actually the first. After all, was your first boyfriend or girlfriend the one you settled down with? Was the first hamburger that mankind ever barbecued really the tastiest? And is Jaws the best summer blockbuster ever?
Actually, yes, and maybe not for the obvious reasons.
There was a time before Jaws when movies didn’t open “wide.” A movie would open in a few cities and then, if it did well, expand to more cities and more cities, and so on. Jaws was the first film to open across the country, all at once, and as such became a motion picture event that everyone in the United States simply had to see. (Gosh, can you imagine if it had sucked?) Audiences flocked to see what was essentially a scary movie about vacationers getting eaten by a giant fish. The first summer blockbuster was a horror movie, with hardly any “action” to speak of until the climax.
It worked because the characters were sublime, the suspense as thick as cartilage. There was Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), a police officer afraid to go in the water even before the shark attacks, and the only person sensible enough to try to close the beach afterwards. There was Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a rich scientist without a stuck up bone in his body, whose fascination with the Great White competes with but constantly loses to his pragmatic understanding that the beast must die. And then there’s Quint (Robert Shaw), a charismatic maniac who’d rather die than admit defeat. We know the shark’s in the water, but they must go in the water anyway, and as the audience so shall we. Commence nail biting now.
But although Jaws is one of the best horror movies ever made, and one of the best suspense movies ever made, and one of the best movies ever made, that doesn’t make it the best summer blockbuster ever made. Do you know what does?
It’s the one great summer blockbuster that is also about summertime. Boom. [Drops the mic.]
Related: The Best Movie Ever: Gimmick Movies
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Die Hard (1988)
We should perhaps immediate recall that the phrase “summer blockbuster” doesn’t automatically refer to big-budget action pictures. The phrase is usually associated with a very narrow genre of PG-13-rated, gigantically advertised fantasy/action studio tentpoles, but films like Coming to America, The Flintstones, and The Sixth Sense were also all summer blockbusters. As has been often observed by critics, however, the biggest hits of any year are rarely the best films of the year; just look at any critic’s Top 10 list; they don’t often include the biggest grossers. Add to that my own mild aversion to action films in general (there was a time in my teen years when I actually actively forswore any and all action films, or anything that peers described as “awesome”), and you’ll find a critic stymied and underqualified to select the best summer blockbuster of all time.
But I have caught up since then, made my peace (for the most part), and seen a lot of action films in the interim. In so doing, I discovered one of the best summer blockbusters ever.
I was nine years old when this film came out, but I didn’t actually see it until I was 30, but I’m glad I finally got around to it, as I was an instant convert. John McTiernan’s 1988 blockbuster Die Hard is one of the best action films I have ever seen, and it had, for many years, become the template for any and all action films the followed. A hard-headed New York cop comes to L.A. to make good with his estranged wife at a Christmas party, only to find that terrorists have taken the party hostage. Armed with, well, nothing, our hero must outwit the bad guys. The film is impeccably scripted. If you are a screenwriting student, or have any interest in making any types of movies, I recommend you watch Die Hard a lot. There is no wasted dialogue – every small action comes into active play later in the plot, right down to a downturned photograph – yet it still feels organic and livable. And John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, is the perfect action hero in that he’s actually just a regular guy. He wouldn’t become superhuman until the sequels.
Brian Formo’s Pick: Jurassic Park (1993)
I’m going against the great picks above because—like the gimmick prompt from a few weeks ago—I think that the best summer blockbuster has to be a movie that you experienced as a summer blockbuster. Blockbusters live on a cycle, after all: there’s the announcement, then the hype, followed by a trailer, an extended look, then the promotional tie-ins, and finally the goddamn movie is released. Throughout this cycle, a blockbuster has to keep your level of anticipation at a high level. And hopefully you’ll leave wanting to see it again. And again. And maybe again.
The film that I experienced that giddy level excitement for an entire year—and the film that still holds strong as a great piece of entertainment—is Jurassic Park. Not only will I never forget the first time I saw it, but I’ll never forget my anticipation, nor the second time I saw it. We all know the story of Jurassic Park—don’t play God and bring extinct predators back to life as an amusement park attraction, and if you do, hold on to your butts, because folks are gonna get eaten!—so I’m going to tell you about my attachment to the film. Because that’s what makes a great summer blockbuster: intense hugs from beginning to end.
So here’s my experience: I, like many boys, was obsessed with dinosaurs. One of the first complete sentences I ever wrote was about a stegosaurus. I was certain I’d be a paleontologist (I learned how to spell the word very early on). Basically, I felt like Jurassic Park was made for me. I remember the tagline: “an adventure 65 years in the making.” And I couldn’t wait to take that adventure. So, in anticipation, I checked out the Michael Crichton book from the library. I got to the scene where the tyrannosaurus rex broke through the moonroof window of the Jeep. And in the book, the T-rex licks the kids. The action is described with intense focus on the heat, texture, and stench of the reptilian tongue. It terrified me. I told my dad I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the movie. He kinda forced me—you’ve been talking about it for months! So we went.
It was summer, but I took a coat so that I could hold it on my lap and cover my eyes—if it got too intense—when that scene happened. The thunderous footsteps came when the Jeep was stuck in the mud. I knew it was coming, so I pulled the coat to the top of my nose, just below my eyelids. The theater jumped when the T-rex jaws crashed through. The kids (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) screamed and pushed back against the glass. No tongue swath happened, and I relaxed my grip. As Jurassic Park went on, the coat receded to the floor. And I had a big smile. This was a fun fucking movie! These are goddamn dinosaurs! The velociraptors are smart! I had a smile approx-a-mile-wide upon leaving the theater.
We had a family friend who was a senior football player living with us at the time—because his parents had moved before his last year of school and he didn’t want to switch schools. He was cool. I told him all about scenes from Jurassic Park, and he said, “when are we going?” And so I went again. No coat. All smiles. All fist pumps. All blockbuster. 22 years later, I am writing this with a smile and humming John Williams’ score. Jurassic Park still works wonders.
Hold on to your butts, indeed.