Reel Dad: What happened to summer movies?


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, moviemakers delivered original ideas at the movies all summer long. But times can change and, this summer, we get to endure sequels and reboots from Ghostbusters to Independence Day: Resurgence to Alice Through the Looking Glass. Of course, there is Finding Dory, and that’s a sequel, too.

Do you remember the summers of years of gone by when we could celebrate the best of movies? Take a look at what was playing in movie theaters this weekend in the past.


Anthony Daniels, Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill in the summer classic, Star Wars.
Anthony Daniels, Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill in the summer classic, Star Wars.

Star Wars, 1977

The ultimate summer movie topped the box office this weekend of 1977 after opening in late May in only 32 theaters nationwide. While executives at 20th Century-Fox believed the film would fail, and creator George Lucas was convinced it would flop, fans turned the movie into a sensation that forever changed the industry. Today it’s easy to overlook the daring Lucas brings to this simple story of dreams and disappointments. What made the movie an event in 1977 is what still makes it so entertaining: it’s a movie about people who simply want to create a better world.


Jaws, 1975

Two years before Star Wars, this tale of a great white shark reinvented the summer movie season by opening in some 450 theaters at the same time. (By comparison, this summer, Independence Day: Resurgence opened at more than 4,000 theaters.) Seen today, Jaws amazes with the clarity of its visual movie making. Director Steven Spielberg relies less on dialogue to create character and advance narrative than his creative use of the camera, from the point-of-view shots below the water to how the director studies the eyes of Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss as they react to realities. And Spielberg makes it all look so effortless.


Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981

Having perfected what it takes to allure fans to the movies in the summer, director Spielberg decided to take moviegoers on a marvelous visit to his favorite films by recreating the adventures of Hollywood’s past. How entertaining it was, this weekend of 1981, to experience one surprise after another as Harrison Ford searched for buried treasure in exotic places. No matter how vast a landscape Spielberg creates, he never forgets to create a character we want to believe in and cheer for. And Ford is the ideal action hero.


E.T., 1982

One year later, as our movie dependence on Steven Spielberg continued, the wonder director switched gears by creating what may be his most personal film, a fascinating study at what a child will give when he is desperate to have a best friend. No one expected a movie that sounded like an odd piece of science fiction to reveal such a meaningful relationship on screen as the young hero deals with the realities of his life by trying to create a real life for his buddy from outer space. Spielberg pushes all of the conventions of the movies about aliens to deliver a touching study about humans and the connections we need.


Jurassic Park, 1993

Some 18 years after frightening people from going into the water, Spielberg delivered the movie of the summer by capitalizing on the public fascination with dinosaurs. As if taking a page from his book on how to make a summer film, Spielberg uses the power of suggestion to build the tension, carefully limiting the dinosaurs’ actual screen time to about 15 minutes of animatronics and computer generated effects. Again, he focuses on character and narrative, creatively telling the story through the eyes of people the dinosaurs fascinate and frighten. And he reminds us what a great roller coaster ride a movie can create.


Inception, 2010

After years of missing the marvels of a truly original summer movie, writer/director Christopher Nolan stunned an industry accustomed to warmed-over sequels during the warm months of the year. This inventive thriller about the power of dreams pushed the stardom of Leonardo Di Caprio to a new level as he demonstrated a maturity on screen he had seldom revealed. Why this performance wasn’t honored at Oscar time remains a mystery. But Oscar rarely remembers summer movies, even those as creative as this. Nolan restores our belief that, at any time of year, creative storytelling is a welcome guest on any screen.


How Summer Movies Can Surprise

While we endure too many sequels and reboots at the movies this summer, we remember some reel surprises in years gone by.

Of these movies that showed at theaters this weekend in the past, how many do you remember?


Animal House, 1978

As a movie that invented raunchy summer humor, this take off on college life from the creators of National Lampoon captured the imagination with its broad antics, exaggerated characters and raunchy comic sense. Less a narrative than a connected series of sketches, the film became an instant hit as soon as John Belushi yelled, “food fight.” The movies were never the same. Since then countless films have tried to recreate the gutter feel of this new standard in movie humor. But there’s nothing like the original.


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986

In a summer of weak comedy from Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School and George Lucas’ Howard the Duck, this endearing tale of one young man’s efforts to make the most of each day struck a chord with movie goers. Who can forget the moment when Matthew Broderick begins to sing in the parade, offers such wisdom as, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” or dares to drive a classic Ferrari? In just 103 minutes, the movies remind us how great a day can be.


Dave, 1993

During the same summer when movie fans screamed over dinosaurs, they were smiling at Kevin Kline’s impersonation of the President of the United States in this comedy from director Ivan Reitman. The unlikely summer box office hit tells a story of a man who is so believable when he imitates the President that, when the actual President falls ill, the imposter is rushed into service. How the would-be leader handles his instant fame, power and relationships works on screen thanks to the sharp screenplay by Gary Ross and, especially, the performances of Kline, Charles Grodin and Sigourney Weaver. And the movie has something to say, too.


The Lion King, 1994

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Disney studios would dominate summer with such family friendly hits as The Parent Trap and Mary Poppins. By the mid 1990s, however, the movie landscape had changed with sequels and reboots. Leave it to the creative Disney forces to take us back in time to a moment when we cared for real characters at summer movies, even those created with a pen or a computer. This tale of fatherhood, bravery and hope still makes for a magical time at the movies, thanks to the depth of the writing, the beauty of the animation and the delight of the music by Elton John and Hans Zimmer. As fun this show can be on stage, the movie still marvels.


The Hangover, 2009

As if to pay tribute to the impact of Animal House, this outrageous comedy from director Todd Phillips made Bradley Cooper a star, turned losing a tooth into a comic moment, and used a tiger as a plot device. Who would have imagined that a simple tale of a bachelor party would become the year’s top moneymaker? Or that Mike Tyson and Wayne Newton could be so memorable playing themselves? Despite the dreadful sequels, the magic of the original lasts, thanks to the endearing friendship between the three leads. Cooper, especially, radiates a charm and conviction that highlight each of his performances, even dramatic turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper. This film started it all.


What makes any movie work, summer or fall, is the development of the characters and the progression of the narrative. Even when the moviemakers want to make us laugh.

See you at the movies.