My Top 10 Summer Blockbusters

Last weekend was the unofficial start of summer, and once it’s summertime, you can expect big releases at the movie theatre. There are some really big ones coming this summer including several sequels and the long-anticipated Wonder Woman movie. But which will be the big summer blockbuster of 2017?

It’s too early to tell, but I figured it was a good topic for a Top 10 list! So I’m looking back throughout the history of summer blockbusters, from the first one according to most film historians all the way to last year. What I noticed as I compiled this list is that it featured more films from the first half of my life than from the second half of my life. The summer block busters of the late 70s, through the 80s, and into the early 90s seemed to have better plots and less overall loudness. So you won’t see many superhero movies on the list, and you definitely won’t see any Transformers films. These are my favorites, and I guess I have fond memories from my childhood.

Grab some popcorn! But beware, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD!


#10 – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

When it was first announced that Disney was making this movie, based on its popular theme park ride, many critics and moviegoers in general balked at it. Pirate movies weren’t very successful, and the ride really doesn’t really have a plot. How were they going to stretch it to a two-hour or so movie? Apparently, the way to do it is to get Johnny Depp to channel Keith Richards and create a unique and immensely likeable pirate antihero in Captain Jack Sparrow. Now it’s a full franchise with five films, including the newest one this summer. Some of the plots get really convoluted, but Depp, along with Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly, and Geoffrey Rush, give the first one a lot of energy and charm. It certainly was an unexpected and fun surprise.


#9 – The Dark Knight

I’m listing very few superhero movies here, considering there are many, and of the first few blockbuster superhero movies, the original Tim Burton Batman movie was the film of the summer of 1989. (Note: the 1978 original Superman film was released in December). But it’s not Burton’s first two films or Joel Schumacher’s following two films that I’m recognizing here. It’s the middle film of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy that gets the call. Christian Bale is exceptional as Batman, but Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, for which he posthumously won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, is legendary. This is a dark adaptation of Batman compared to Burton’s twisted style, Schumacher’s style-over-substance movies, or the campy original TV series. And audiences flocked to it.


#8 – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Stephen Spielberg is associated with many summer blockbusters, and he’s going to appear a few times on this list. His 1982 blockbuster pulled at everyone’s heart-lights…I mean, heartstrings. Admit it, you cried at least once in the movie, most likely either when Elliot thinks E.T. is dead or at the end when E.T. leaves and tells Elliot that he’ll “be right here” in Elliot’s heart. The exceptional John Williams score really helps those tears flow. But there’s also some great comedy when E.T. and Drew Barrymore’s Gertie meet for the first time, some great dramatic tension as the military tries to track down E.T., and vivid unforgettable imagery of Elliot and E.T. flying a bicycle across the full moon. It’s also quotable—“E.T., phone home”—and it rocketed Reese’s Pieces candy into pop culture.


#7 – Raiders of the Lost Ark

Spielberg and Lucas together brought us Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in this worldwide relic hunt. It would be the first of four films in the franchise, though no one knew it would be back then. Though the third part, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with Sean Connery as Indiana’s father, is loads of summer fun, the original is slightly better. Maybe it’s because Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood is the best female character in the series. Maybe it’s because it has more iconic scenes like Indy running away from the boulder, the beam of light showing where the Ark of the Covenant is buried, Indy landing on the snakes in the Well of Souls, or all the bad guys getting their faces melted off. It could be higher on the list, but an episode of The Big Bang Theory pointed out to me that Indiana Jones’s presence is superfluous since the Nazis would still track down Marion, probably get the amulet from her, find the Ark, and ultimately get their faces melted off without his interference. Oh well, he’s still an awesome character in an awesome movie.


#6 – Guardians of the Galaxy

The most recent movie on this list, and another film on the list that has a sequel out this summer, it’s the film that many think Marvel didn’t expect to be the hit it was. After all, it’s a pretty obscure comic about a wacky group of interstellar heroes. Maybe those lower expectations played into its success. But it has a smart and funny and subversive script and the fantastic cast. Chris Pratt is just so likeable in everything he does, and his portrayal of Star-Lord Peter Quill is great. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista’s Drax, and the great voicework of Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Vin Diesel as Groot (“I am Groot.”) round out the guardians. But the real reason for its success is the rockin’ 70s/80s soundtrack, played in Star-Lord’s Walkman!


#5 – Jaws

Here’s the movie that many film historians consider the first summer blockbuster, back in 1975, and it still holds up today. Can you imagine what this movie would have been like if the mechanical shark actually worked better? I don’t think it would have held up, because what makes the terror work so palpably is that the audience rarely sees the shark. It’s so much more effective to be scared by what you don’t see rather than what you do see, especially accompanied by the ominous score by John Williams. Call it divine intervention, but a young Spielberg was wise enough to go with the suggestion of the shark instead, which is extremely effective in the opening scene with the skinny-dipper. Ultimately, we get a great character study between Roy Scheider’s hydrophobic and noble police chief, Richard Dreyfuss’s cocky oceanographer, and Robert Shaw’s crusty shark hunter. They’re gonna need a bigger boat, and after this, Spielberg could write his own blockbuster ticket to a boatload of other great movies.


#4 – The Empire Strikes Back

You know, I don’t really consider the Star Wars movies as “summertime” flicks. They kind of exist in my childhood outside of calendar time. In researching for this list, I learned that sure enough, the movies of the original trilogy (and of the inferior prequel trilogy) were all released in the month of May. The movies in the new trilogy are being released in Decembers, so they’re not up for this, but episodes 4, 5 & 6 qualify as summer blockbusters. I’m picking my favorite from the saga—the one right in the middle—to include here. There isn’t the exposition like in A New Hope, and there aren’t Ewoks like in Return of the Jedi. (Sorry, I was 12 when Return came out, and cute teddy-bear creatures didn’t appeal to me.) Empire has so many iconic places and moments: Snow planet Hoth with Taun-tauns and AT-ATs, the Millenium Falcon being chased through the asteroid field, the introduction of Yoda and the swamp planet Dagobah, the cloud city of Bespin and Lando Calrissian, Han Solo in carbonite taken away by Boba Fett, and the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Whoa, that’s a lot of awesome stuff.


#3 – Back to the Future

Now, the physics teacher in me has issue with Doc Brown exclaiming the need for 1.21 GIGAWATTS of energy because Watts measure power and not energy—though I will concede that gigawatts sounds cooler that gigajoules. And I also contend that if Marty so drastically changed his parents’ personalities—his father’s in particular from a dorky peeping Tom to a confident guy—then there’s no guarantee that they’d conceive three children, let alone the same three children, at the same times. And don’t get me started on the oxymoronic “flux capacitor” (flux measures flow, capacitors store energy, so how can you store flow?). I let those three things slide because this is just an all-around enjoyable movie. Spielberg executive produced it, but Robert Zemeckis directed it to perfect precision. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are a lovable comedic duo, and Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson give stellar performances as Mom, Dad, and Biff respectively. The plots of Marty getting back to the future and ensuring his parents get together seamlessly blend. The sequels are fun, but even over thirty years into the future since its release, the original holds up and always takes me back to my teen years.


#2 – Ghostbusters

Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters was not expected to be the big summer hit of 1984; that prediction went to the Joe Dante directed Gremlins. Now Gremlins is a decent movie in its own right, both fun and scary, but there was a little bit of fan backlash for a reveal made by Phoebe Cates’s character that really stands out in the movie. But I don’t think that’s the reason Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters soared to the top that summer. One reason is because Ghostbusters is such a high-concept movie that works as a comedy, as an action movie, as a horror movie, and an underdog story. But that doesn’t work unless you have the brilliant cast—Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis—to deliver the goods. And boy, do they deliver the goods! All of them are distinct characters, and all of them have so many memorable lines. I could do a Top 10 list of lines from this movie, and Number One would be “When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!” I remember jumping at the librarian ghost turning into a demon and laughing hysterically when the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man marches (waddles?) through the streets of New York. It’s about as perfect as a comedy and summer blockbuster can get.


Except for my favorite Summer Blockbuster…


This was the most difficult Number One decision I’ve had to make since I’ve been blogging Top Ten lists. As I arranged the list, I was torn between this one and the two before it. Any one of them could have topped this list for a number of reasons, but I went with Spielberg. About twenty years earlier, he directed what’s considered the first summer blockbuster, and in 1993, he redefined the summer blockbuster. Before Jurassic Park, most summer blockbusters were more plot-centric than special-effects-centric. Sure, there were some above and others not on this list that relied on great visuals effects (1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and 1991’s Terminator 2), but Jurassic Park’s effects went one giant step further. I saw the film at a midnight premiere in Boston, and the surround sound of Velociraptor chirps (while they open doors) and T-Rex stomps stayed with me on the city streets after the film. I was convinced that dinosaurs were lurking around building corners. No movie had affected me in that way before, and that’s one more reason why it tops the list. Sure, you can complain about the lame “It’s a Unix system; I know this” line, but it’s less about the lines and more about the intense action scenes. The T-Rex escaping his pen and terrorizing the kids is a prolonged scary scene where your heart races and skips beats for what seems like an hour. And that’s only one scene! So many more, but no need to list them because you know them all, just like you know some of the more quotable lines. To come full circle on this list, I quote Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm: “If Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”


Agree? Disagree? What summer blockbusters are your favorites?

Speak Your Mind