This Saturday June 20th marks a few notable events that probably aren’t printed on your calendar. It is the anniversary of such historical happenings as the Battle of Chalons; the US Congress ratifying the seal the country still uses; and Lizzie Borden’s acquittal from the ax murders she’s so infamously associated with. It also bears proximity to some current events. It is one day after what I’m hoping is the Game 7 NBA Finals win that gives the Cavaliers their first ever title and the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship since 1964, although it looks like LeBron James will need to score 100 points Tuesday in order to even force another game. June 20th is also the day before the Summer Solstice, aka the first day of summer and longest day of the year, the latter of which it will certainly be for me since my family will be over to celebrate Father’s Day for more time than I desire their presence. However, June 20th will forever be remembered by me as the release date of the greatest movie of all time, Jaws, the film that became the first summer blockbuster as it erupted through box office records like its marine-dwelling antagonist did through the water it turned red with blood. 40 years ago, Jaws debuted in theaters and terrified the nation so much that people couldn’t get enough of it. Today, the summer blockbuster is alive and thriving more than ever with countless movies packed with the biggest celebrities, explosive effects, and the grandest suspension of disbelief gushing out from every studio large and small. But are they as good as they used to be?
In the wake of the high frequency of sequels, prequels, and reboots that find their way into theaters each year – especially during the summer blockbuster season – I often hear that Hollywood is out of ideas. As a fan of the film arts of every era I like to point out that while there are more of these continuations of successful movie franchises than there were in the past, it is not necessarily an indication that studios have run out of ideas for new films. Sure, many concepts are overdone to the point where lowbrow comedies can succeed by mocking their style and trends. Or you can make a highly stylized take on the genre as a whole and be heralded as a genius while basically making a tongue-in-cheek version of the same thing. (I’m looking at you Tarantino, you brilliant bastard!) Nevertheless, a major reason why we see so many of the same series cropping up time and again is because they are safer investments for studio executives since they worked before. This is why there are summer blockbusters ever year. Jaws made a boatload of money (sorry, couldn’t resist), why wouldn’t Universal and other studios continue to follow the formula to almost assured success?
In 1975, Jaws opened up not just the window but the airplane hangar door for many other films that promised big, loud, fast, and fun times at the movies. Just two years later such a film that got a greenlight thanks in part to Jaws was released and had an even greater impact on the state of cinema. Star Wars was revolutionary in so many ways technically and commercially; not to mention it was great science-fiction that helped pave a smoother road for other sci-fi films. One such to benefit from both of these movies was another sci-fi flick from Fox that was given the go-ahead after it was pitched as “Jaws in space”. Alien raked in big bucks and favorable reviews as a chilling blend of original sci-fi and suspenseful horror. A vision of the “used future” that was grittier than the glaringly white of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick had the Apple Store in space look way before Abrams’ Star Trek), with another deadly monster hunting people down, it helped advance the careers of everyone involved as well as the summer blockbuster. Plus, it’s still got the best tagline and teaser trailer of any movie. No dialogue, no spoilers, and my complete and total interest. That is how it’s done.
That’s not how it’s done anymore really, nor was it for Alien‘s own sequel, Aliens, another summer blockbuster and the first blockbuster sequel outside of a Spielberg and/or Lucas production that was actually superb. I’ll be the first to say that a good Jaws sequel does not exist, although there are three total following films that range from mediocre to silly to how the hell did they get Michael Caine to sign on for this shit? However, Star Wars has two fantastic sequels (including the greatest of all time in The Empire Strikes Back), and the Indiana Jones films were all pretty solid (in the 1980s) as summer blockbusters.
What about today’s summer stuff? Is it as good as these examples or just more film fodder that will make more money than it cost to produce? While there is a lot of the latter (throughout the entire year), there is also more above average to excellent blockbuster movies to make up for the others. It’s easy to forget that there are waaaaaay more movies being made all year long in this era than there were in any previous era of film. And as I stated earlier, studio heads want the safer, more guaranteed money-makers like franchise continuations. Statistically, we have more chance of seeing something familiar rather than novel (and I don’t mean the source material for a film in book form). So yeah, there’s probably going to be 10 Transformers-like movies for every Mad Max: Fury Road out there. (Of course, Furious 7 is so crazy it’s terrific.) We so rarely get something that changes the game for the blockbuster by utilizing hype, casting, zeitgeist, and nostalgia as well as films like The Avengers, and when we do it is unlikely that the franchise can keep it up like Avengers: Age of Ultron and any Marvel movie since in which any Avengers have featured has proven (except Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That fucking rocked!). Not to say these aren’t entertaining, but they won’t be as positively regarded over the years as the aforementioned classics. Mad Max: Fury Road is unique enough (and excellent enough) to last and influence films being made now considering it is not like anything previously seen except George Miller’s first post-apocalyptic wasteland with a Mad Mel roaming it. Even so, Fury Road is visually dazzling, filled with some of the best practical car effects I’ve ever seen, and the richness of its characters (of which Max is ironically one of the least layered) make it the best Mad Max yet. It is the best movie I’ve seen in theaters this year, but it’s not the biggest blockbuster.
That honor goes to recently released Jurassic World, which is not only the biggest blockbuster of this summer, but the biggest of all time. Despite still strong showings for other blockbusters, two major sports championship series, and the season finale of Game of Thrones, it opened this weekend to $208.8 million domestically in the United States and $312.6 million throughout the rest of the world, beating the previous records held by The Avengers and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 respectively by a little more than $1 million each. This certainly was helped by excellent hype and casting, but also tremendously by the popularity of the franchise and dinosaurs in general. The former is especially impressive (and clearly dependent on the latter) because the Jurassic Park franchise is really just one all around spectacular film, one okay film that has some great moments, and one steaming pile of dinosaur dung that saw fit to dethrone the tyrannosaur as the top carnivore. Spinosaurus is cool, and one species (aegyptiacus, the one in JP3) was actually bigger than T. rex, but that doesn’t mean you should have it kill the fan favorite in the first act. Fortunately, Jurassic World actually lives up to its hype and has a lot to justify its newly attained championship belt atop the financial pyramid of blockbuster opening weekends. I don’t know if it will overtake James Cameron who sits atop the all-time list with Avatar and Titanic at #1 and #2, but it does owe some gratitude to him for those heartbeat monitors from Aliens. Also some to Alien for the whole corporate greed/leap before we look investment in bio-weapons. And if you think that great white shark is nothing more than a morsel for the mosasasur then director Colin Trevorrow got his desired response of showing how much bigger the monsters have gotten since Jaws.
Jurassic World is easily the next best besides the original in the fossilized franchise that is far from extinct (okay, puns are finished), drawing further upon the “just because you can play God, should you?” theme that formerly only the first movie delved into. Meanwhile, we witness the first fully functioning park, and a hunky Chris Pratt – the Steve McQueen of this generation – who serves as the most believable, likable, and capable character, as well as the conscience of the audience, especially the fanboys (“Corporate felt genetic modification would up the ‘wow’ factor.” “They’re dinosaurs, ‘wow’ enough.”). Touches, not a smothering, of nostalgia enhance the film with just the right amount of familiar flavor. Some are obvious, some are more subtle, but none are lines spoken verbatim like in the Star Wars prequels. In Jurassic World everything gets its due from start to finish and the finale is a colossal climax making it one dino-mite movie! (Sorry, last one, I promise.)
We’ve come a long way since that shark attacked in 1975, but the key to a great summer blockbuster will always rely most on its story and characters. Sharks, aliens, and dinosaurs all help, but if you have a shitty script and uninteresting people on screen you’ll end up with hackneyed happenings and won’t be swimming through cash pretending to be a great white or mosasaur searching for food within a green sea. Or doing this.
Thanks for reading! Send me your fan love (or hate) to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be back again next week with more words of wisdom or at least rave reviews of movies I like. Either way, eyes on me!
You my boy, Blue!