Tuesday 23 July 2019

Top 10 big, brash and budget-busting summer blockbusters of all time

It's silly season so the cinemas are full of big, brash and budget-busting films. The summer blockbuster is often ludicrous but when they get it right, it can be very special. Our film critic picks his top 10

Original of the species: Jaws, released in 1975, was the first ever summer blockbuster
Original of the species: Jaws, released in 1975, was the first ever summer blockbuster
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Dwayne Johnson doing battle with terrorists in a giant skyscraper? It can only be the summertime, cinema's silly season, when specially designed mega-movies battle it out at the box office to justify the huge sums they cost to make. Already this summer we've had Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ocean's 8 and an Avengers movie; Skyscraper and Incredibles 2 are just out, and waiting in the wings are Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Mission Impossible: Fallout and The Meg, a movie starring Jason Statham and a 100-foot shark.

It may not, however, be one of the best examples of this noisy but oddly endearing genre, which was invented by Steven Spielberg back in the mid-1970s in a film with a smaller but altogether more winning shark.

Jaws

The summer blockbuster started with Jaws. Prior to 1975, the big studios did not engage in concerted media campaigns, but Jaws changed the industry forever. Spielberg's aquatic thriller was the first film to successfully open simultaneously across America, the first to use extensive TV advertising, and this cunningly executed media blitz worked: Jaws was a huge hit, and other studios rushed to copy Universal's new summer formula. Aside from all the spin, however, Jaws caught the public imagination because it was a brilliant and innovative film, a gripping thriller that has really stood the test of time despite that dodgy robot shark.

Star Wars

Critics, nervous executives at 20th Century Fox, even the cast and crew of George Lucas' hugely ambitious space opera thought Star Wars was going to be a flop, and Harrison Ford memorably said of the unwieldy script: "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!" As it turned out, however, Ford and all the other naysayers were wrong. Released in late May of 1977, Star Wars created a worldwide craze, doubling 20th Century Fox's stock values within weeks of its release and went on to break box-office records. It played in some cinemas for over a year, launched an entire franchise and a film series that will apparently never end.

Alien

Ridley Scott was an inexperienced young director when screenwriter Dan O'Bannon asked him to help realise a script he'd written about a fearsome alien predator who runs amok on board a space freighter. Scott immediately came up with a series of storyboards which so impressed 20th Century Fox that they doubled the film's budget. Using the brilliant alien designs created by painter HR Giger, Scott crafted a film so charged with tension that at times it was almost unbearable to watch. "In space," went the tagline, "no one can hear you scream". But cinema audiences happily screamed their heads off, making Alien one of the surprise hits of the summer of 1979.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

George Lucas teamed up with Steven Spielberg to create this seminal adventure film based on the Saturday morning cliffhanger serials of the 1940s. With a story by Lucas and a visual plot meticulously storyboarded by Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark should have been an easy sell but the studios initially wanted nothing to do with it. All of them turned it down before Paramount agreed to back it. But Lucas and Spielberg knew what they were doing: shooting the film at breakneck speed in the "quick and dirty" style of the old adventure serials, they created a kitsch masterpiece. Made for $18m and released in June of 1981, it would ultimately make over $380m.

E.T.

After his parents' divorce in 1960, Steven Spielberg created an imaginary alien friend to fill the void, and in 1980 he and Harrison Ford's then-wife Melissa Mathison worked the idea into a script. "A wimpy Walt Disney movie" was how one Columbia Pictures executive described the project before passing on it, a decision he would bitterly regret. Spielberg spent over $1.5m alone on creating the diminutive alien figure that he said "only a mother could love". But he was wrong: the whole world fell in love with E.T., and the film broke Star Wars' record to become the most financially successful film ever to that point.

Back to the Future

When a film's catchphrases start popping up in everyday conversation, you know you're on to a winner. "Hello! McFly!" became a favourite rebuke for daydreamers in the summer of 1985, as Robert Zemeckis' delightful comic fantasy rode high on the zeitgeist. Zemeckis and Bob Gale spent five years perfecting their word-perfect screenplay about a cocky 1980s teenager who travels back to 1955 to make sure his parents get married. Although Michael J Fox was first choice to play Marty McFly, he had to pull out because of TV commitments, and Eric Stoltz took over. But a month into filming, Zemeckis decided Stoltz was all wrong and persuaded Fox to return. What an inspired decision that was, because Fox was perfect as the irrepressible Marty.

Jurassic Park

It's remarkable to think that Steven Spielberg made this and Schindler's List within a year of each other: in a way they represent the twin poles of his remarkable talent, and while the holocaust saga won all the plaudits, it was Jurassic Park that raked in the money. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton, Spielberg's film constituted a huge leap forward in terms of special effects. The creation of animatronic dinosaurs blew the film's budget to $63m, but it went on to gross over $900m. Interestingly, Spielberg intended to shoot Schindler's List before Jurassic Park, but executive Sid Sheinberg wisely persuaded him to do things the other way around. "He knew," Spielberg admitted, "that once I had directed Schindler, I wouldn't be able to do Jurassic Park."

Finding Nemo

The Pixar magic had been ignited back in 1995 with its hugely successful debut feature film Toy Story, but in the summer of 2003, the studio released a work of rare imagination worthy of comparison with the great Disney films. As in Bambi, poor Nemo loses his mother at the very start of his adventure, and is instead raised by his anxious father, Marlin. And when Nemo strays off the reef and is captured by a diver, Marlin must team up with a very forgetful blue tang called Dory to rescue him. It was moving, heart-warming stuff, but also very funny, and Ellen DeGeneres' voicing is nothing short of brilliant.

The Dark Knight

The Batman franchise was dead in the water until Christopher Nolan decided to revive it. His 2005 film Batman Begins stylishly described how pampered billionaire Bruce Wayne transformed himself into Gotham's saviour, but audiences were blown away by the scope and grandeur of 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight. Nolan brought elements of flashy crime dramas like Heat to bear on a story that pits Batman against the Joker. Jack Nicholson had memorably portrayed him as a mad clown in Tim Burton's Batman, but Nolan's Joker was a scarier beast. Heath Ledger delivered an absolutely unforgettable performance as the unhinged villain, and deservedly won a posthumous Oscar.

The Avengers

Subtle it wasn't, but Joss Whedon's 2012 blockbuster channelled the energy that had been built up in early Marvel films like Iron Man and Thor into a spectacularly focussed piece of mainstream entertainment. In it, Tony Stark (Iron Man) joined forces with Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Black Widow to foil the grandiose schemes of Loki. In a way, the future of the entire Marvel franchise depended on Avengers succeeding, because it had cost at least $220m to make. It grossed $1.59bn, becoming the most successful film of 2012. There were lots of fancy special effects of course, but what lifted the film above the banal was its winning sense of humour.

Five flops

Pearl Harbor

Although, like most Michael Bay films, Pearl Harbor did respectable business at the box office in 2001, it was widely derided by the critics and voted one of the worst films of the year. Ben Affleck would struggle to live it down.

Wild Wild West

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: a western sci-fi caper set during the Civil War and starring Will Smith as a cowboy who saves the US president from a mad scientist. But it was awful, especially awful, and bombed.

Batman & Robin

By the time Joel Schumacher got his hands on Tim Burton's Batman franchise, it was on its last legs, and he killed it off with this awful mess of a sequel. Even George Clooney didn't escape with his dignity intact.

Hudson Hawk

The makers of Hudson Hawk spent $51m creating a strange film that was intended as a cartoonish action romp. Extensive rewrites and studio interference turned it into a car crash, and despite the star power of Bruce Willis, it grossed less than $20m.

Last Action Hero

Intended to be a witty satire on the conventions of big-budget action films, Last Action Hero turned into a big-budget flop, losing Columbia Pictures a cool $26m and seriously denting the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and director John McTiernan.

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