We’ve got summer blockbusters on the brain this week on the Hollywood Prospectus, and so we thought it’d be a good time to run back some of the summer movies we hold nearest and dearest to our hearts, the films that epitomize everything a summer movie should be. There will be explosions, there will be bus jumps, there will be fridge-nukes. But mostly, there will be our enduring love of summer escapism in its purest form. (Also, three-breasted hookers.)
Total Recall (1990)
Alex Pappademas: When we talk about summer movies we’re always operating in the realm of the subjective. The exuberances and pathologies and preoccupations endemic to the summer movie as a medium dictate that the summer movies from the summer you turned 13 will always seem like the best summer movies in summer-movie history, and for me, that summer was 1990. I don’t have an empirical argument to make for June–August ’90 as a golden age, or even a bronze one. I’ll go to bat, in descending order of passion, for Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Dick Tracy and Days of Thunder, but I don’t have much to say in defense of Die Hard 2 or The Adventures of Ford Fairlane or Another 48 Hrs. or Air America. What’s important is that in 1990, I saw all those movies in the theater and went in fully expecting every single one of them to be mind-blowing, and at the time, almost all of them were. I think I found Air America pretty dire, but you could not have convinced me that Ford Fairlane didn’t mark Andrew Dice Clay’s arrival as a major leading man who’d be kicking Oscar right in the golden nuts come February. (I was 13. When I heard this, it seemed clear that a young Cool Hand Luke was in the building.) 1990 seems like a pinnacle of summer movie–making because it’s the last summer-movie summer I approached with that level of optimism and over-syruped-fountain-Coke excitement, that much faith in the craftsmen of blockbuster entertainments. Thirteen is an age of cusps; within a few months of that summer I’d see Goodfellas (and, ahem, Dances With Wolves) and become a fairly insufferable film snob more or less overnight.
So there I was, halfway between innocence and experience, on June 1, 1990, watching Total Recall in the theater with seven or eight friends. It was some kid’s birthday; his parents (who were clearly awesome at parenting) got us in. I’d seen The Terminator a few years earlier under similar circumstances, but The Terminator is just violent; Total Recall is apeshit, and its apeshitness has aged like fine cheese. It starts with Arnold Schwarzenegger dreaming of his eyeballs exploding in the vacuum of the Martian atmosphere and builds in intensity from there. The story is Philip K. Dick’s, but the monster-baby in the belly of the movie telling it to do things is crazy Dutch bastard Paul Verhoeven, who’d spend the rest of the ’90s hiding razor blades of deconstructive perversity inside blockbuster candy-apples (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers). Recall is a more straightforward genre exercise than any of those. It’s an old Dick story (regular guy goes to get a memory implant of a trip to Mars and remembers he’s already been there) jacked up with surprisingly brutal hard-R violence. But you can also watch it as a stealth critique of our cultural fixation with vicarious thrill-seeking, not to mention a predecessor of modern action cinema’s Matrix-bred preoccupation with the whole what-is-reality motif.
But more than anything, it’s a fantastic movie for 13-year-old boys, in that it’s full of things 13-year-old boys probably shouldn’t see. Schwarzenegger stealing an old lady’s suitcase and using a dude as a human shield in a gunfight with Michael Ironside’s goons! Three-breasted sex workers! A sweaty, duplicitous, feral-eyed Sharon Stone! A virtual reality woman-simulator where the only personality types on the menu are “Demure,” “Aggressive,” and “Sleazy”! Kuatos! I’m not seriously going to try to convince you summer action movies peaked here — but, on some level, they did for me. (.)(.)(.)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Steven Hyden: This is the summer movie I remember being the most excited about. Admittedly, maybe 60 percent of my anticipation was really about looking forward to Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums, which were teased by the “You Could Be Mine” video featuring clips from the movie. (I was definitely more into seeing how Matt Sorum looked in Steven Adler’s seat than a liquefied Robert Patrick.) The T2-Use Your Illusion promotional tie-in is the greatest promotional tie-in in the history of promotional tie-ins. There was a nation of faux–Edward Furlongs — or was Edward Furlong the faux-us? — for whom this movie and those albums represented the apotheosis of culture. (Not that any of us would’ve described it as the “apotheosis of culture” at the time.) In retrospect, Terminator 2 probably holds up the best, if only because the best scenes weren’t spread across two extremely bloated movies.
Mark Lisanti: Star Wars was the first summer movie I can remember seeing. In fact, Star Wars is the first movie I can remember seeing. According to the annoyingly irrefutable math, I must have been three years old, and I was in the back seat of the family car as we pulled up to our spot at the drive-in (at the drive-in!), watching in awe as the Imperial cruiser slowly filled the entire screen, spraying laser beams to and fro in its attempt to destroy the fleeing rebel ship.
I’ll always have that beautiful memory, my unreachable Platonic ideal of summertime moviegoing, even if now I sometimes imagine George Lucas sitting beside me in the car, reaching over to grab a handful of popcorn, and whispering, “The Force is just a weird blood disease. Better I tell you that now, or you’re going to be super pissed about it in 20 years.”
Emily Yoshida: If we’re talking about summer movies solely in terms of the build-up and geek-out, then Bryan Singer’s first X-Men landed at the time when I was most susceptible to that kind of all-consuming hype. I exited my freshman year of high school as a 14-year-old Ain’t-It-Cool-News bookmarking, Premiere-subscribing little twit; reading about Marvel Studios’s plans to become the world-dominating superhero movie factory it is today was one of the first bizzy, insider-y things I remember feeling smart for being aware of. X-Men was the first legit-seeming attempt to black-leatherize a superhero franchise and dip it in the kind of angst and prestige that now seems rote. (The guy who did The Usual Suspects is doing a superhero movie!? Mind: blown.) My friends, both online and off, were convinced — kind of rightly, in retrospect — it would revolutionize what a superhero movie could be. But since I was still essentially a kid and I didn’t have a Twitter account or byline through which to pontificate, I had no outlet for all the anticipation that built as each new clip and photo was released, which resulted in some pretty cool behavior.
X-Men was the first (and only) movie release I ever dressed up for — my friends and I (who, when we weren’t dissecting .mov downloads of the trailer frame by frame and repeatedly taking the “What Kind of Mutant Are You” quiz on the official film’s fancy-at-the-time Flash website, spent our days rehearsing for a production of Much Ado About Nothing for a Shakespeare summer theater program) stayed over Thursday night with our friend who lived closest to the movie theater. I got away with going to a co-ed sleepover because I convinced my mom we wouldn’t sleep, and we didn’t — we stayed up watching Fight Club and playing Mutant Academy on PlayStation. In the morning we walked over in our capes and blue body paint to hang out at the Coral Ridge Mall in a sleep-deprived haze until the first showing of the day (I went as Rogue, duh). We were the only people in costume, but we didn’t care, because this was Iowa and we were used to feeling like weirdos.
I don’t even really remember watching the film the first time; luckily I saw it again the next day, but you’d have an equally hard time convincing me of its flaws even after Round 2. In 2013, I can try to objectively tell you that, though X-Men has some great moments (and some inspired casting), it seemed a little too desperate to be clever and important, and now it seems like a rather inauspicious start to the Marvel movie empire. But to this day, even when passively catching a few minutes on cable, it’s impossible not to feel a little chill of residual summer hype.
Do the Right Thing
Bryan Curtis: Has any movie captured the feeling of heat — the Fahrenheit kind of heat — better than Do the Right Thing? Here in Brooklyn, there was a day last summer that was miserably, oppressively hot. Everybody you passed on the street seemed to do a left-to-right forehead wipe in unison. I got home, cranked up the A/C, and saw Spike Lee was re-upping DtRT tweets. It was the standard cultural reference.
Brooklyn — pause for understatement — is a different place than it was in 1989. (Here’s a line: “Who told you to buy a brownstone on my block in my neighborhood on my side of the street?”) But Lee’s signifiers of summer are still present: open windows, box fans, stoop-sitting, pepperoni pizza sweating under glass, gushing fire hydrants (rarer, but still around), and ice cubes as sexual foreplay (for the lucky ones). I could watch Do the Right Thing every single year. In fact, I want to watch it right now.
Bill Barnwell: Independence Day is, sheerly on name alone, a summer movie. It was the movie that launched the quintessential summer movie actor, Will Smith, to movie stardom. (Don’t act like it was Bad Boys; ID4 made about as much in its first week as Bad Boys did during its entire run.) That alone would be enough. Even more than that, though, it was really the first movie I remember getting hyped about long before the summer even began, thanks to a now-legendary teaser trailer during the Super Bowl. They should have just canceled school nationwide the Monday after the Super Bowl. Nobody was doing anything besides talking about how badly they wanted to see Independence Day. That’s what a summer movie really is.
Jonah Keri: If Point Break was the joint that first set Keanu Reeves on his way to becoming an action star, Speed is the film that cemented his reputation as a titan of summer movies. Everyone from Roger Ebert to Rotten Tomatoes has praised Speed for being fun and generating “a kind of manic exhilaration.” It is, no doubt. But really, what makes the movie so great, and so perfect as a popcorn-munching summer blockbuster, is how wildly implausible it is. Where the Terminator movies and later The Matrix trilogy started with the premise of other worlds and sci-fi make-believe, we’re made to think that Speed could be sorta, kinda real. Ten minutes in, we realize how obviously unreal it is. Buses can’t jump over giant open spaces, the University of Arizona most certainly does not have a great football team, and you can’t possibly watch Reeves act without falling out of your chair, even if — especially if! — 99 percent of the dialogue is written by the great Joss Whedon.
Wikipedia’s description of Speed is the best part: “Screenwriter Graham Yost was told by his father, Canadian television host Elwy Yost, about a film called Runaway Train starring Jon Voight, about a train that speeds out of control. The film was based on an idea by Akira Kurosawa.” I’m not asking for a remake of Rashomon with Keanu playing Toshiro Mifune’s role as the bandit Tajomaru. I’m demanding it.
Charles P. Pierce: This film stands up remarkably well, given the narrow wire being walked by Michael Wadleigh and his band of gypsies, including the very young Martin Scorsese. Even the hippie babble has a certain nostalgic and innocent charm to it. (Although Michael Lang comes across as one of America’s most authentic dickheads.) But the event took place in the summer, and I first saw the movie in the summer, and summer is when you’re supposed to break free of whatever it is that you need to break free from, which is why I picked this clip.
The first time I heard the “Listening to you” chorus come out of “Go to the Mirror!” on the original version of Tommy, I thought it was simple and majestic and I got goosebumps. I still do. In concert, it was all of those, but the towering chord changes became even more powerful as the chorus gathered speed. And here, the lads are playing with a purpose. None of them wanted to play the gig. (They had just finished an enormous tour and all they wanted to do was go home. The promoters kept Pete Townshend awake in a NYC hotel room until, out of sheer exhaustion, he agreed to play.) They got there and found out that no provisions had been made for them to get, you know, paid. (It’s a free concert, man.) They refused to go on until somebody got a local banker to open up in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, people were despicably dosing the unwary with acid backstage. Townshend hated the whole thing, and Keith Moon hated hippies on general principle. They finally went on, incredibly pissed off, in the middle of the night and, as Dave Marsh has observed, with Townshend raging, they really were the greatest band in the world.
You can see the edge to their playing all the way through this, especially in the shot coming out of the second instrumental break at about 3:48, the one that comes from stage right, and you can see that Townshend is playing the entire chorus in a windmill while Moon, still gloriously fit and at the top of his form in 1969, pounds away so fast that you literally lose sight of his hands. The song is a freight train at this point, two iron wheels somehow still on the track, and rolling with what seems like complete abandon, until you realize how tightly everything fits together. I am almost 60 years old now. When I want to break free of the situations in my life, this is the music I still play. That usually happens in summer.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Dan Silver: “Nuke the fridge.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of TV’s “jump the shark,” and other than hearing Jar Jar speak for the first time, is the only other moment in my moviegoing past when I immediately knew the film I was about to see was going to inevitably send me down a mental spiral of disheartenment and disillusionment.
Yet, in my 34 years on this planet, I’ve now come to accept that most of the summer movies I geek out to rarely live up to my expectations. But with this acceptance I’ve also allowed myself to appreciate, even cherish, the genuine boyish enthusiasm I allow myself to feel leading up to the release of certain big summer popcorn butter–coated bonanzas, even though I understand that in most cases I’m going to be met with The Matrix Reloaded, rather than surprised with The Dark Knight.
It starts in early November, when I see the first trailer and then permit a small part of my brain to regress back to a mindset that still enjoys sitting on a cold sidewalk outside the Ziegfeld movie theater for 18 hours — ruminating about whether Mutt was going to take over the franchise; or whether Connery would make a cameo; or how great it would have been if they’d actually made Darabont’s script; or how I heard they’re already in development on a fifth film, Shyamalan is writing it, and it’s about the Bermuda Triangle — with people I probably otherwise never would have met, but am forced to bond with because they’re whom the movie gods chose to place to the right and left of me to ride out this seemingly endless journey to midnight.
This is now what summer movies are to me: an inevitable disappointment, but a journey that reminds me that movies, regardless of the final product, can still stir up that innocent and genuine childhood excitement about all things cinema.