Just stop, for a moment, and think about the following two words: summer movie. Okay, we all know what that phrase means: big-tent, maximum-escape entertainment, the pop-cornier the better. It’s sort of remarkable, though, that regardless of how big our blockbusters get — how much the budgets soar, the special effects dazzle, the buzz turns all but inescapable — the term summer movie has never quite outgrown its beguilingly casual, beach-party American innocence. It’s a term that reaches all the way back to an age when people went to the movies in the summer in no small part for the air conditioning.
In our era, “summer movies” don’t even have to come out during the summer. Special-effects fantasies, smash-and-grab comedies, over-the-top horror movies, and fluff-brained chick flicks are now an everyday, all-year-long event. Yet going to the movies in the summer is still a ritual of special, privileged feeling. It’s rooted for all of us, perhaps, in the sensation of pure thrilling escape — from school, that is — that summer represents to children. To go to a summer movie is, quite simply, to be a kid again. And right now, I want to celebrate some of our memories of summer movies — but, especially, the last 20 years’ worth, since too often those films, as beloved and popular as they may be, tend to get left off our mythological summer-movie radar.
After all, most of the films that really defined summer movies came out a long time ago. This summer marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Jaws, the Steven Spielberg shark thriller whose virtuosity and pulp mischief and juggernaut success combined to turn Hollywood on its head. Two years later, Star Wars famously upped the ante on Jaws — rewiring, in effect, the DNA of the entire moviegoing public (especially those who saw it when they were young). Those movies, along with what I’d say are a handful of others (Raiders of the Lost Ark, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Ghostbusters, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Top Gun, and a few more), belong on some Mount Rushmore of hot-season Hollywood escapism. The summer-carnival moviegoing spirit they represent may well have culminated with Tim Burton’s Batman, the movie that inaugurated the age of marketing as mass-media carpet bombing; it’s an era that has been with us to this day. What Batman also demonstrated, of course, is the highly ironic lesson that just because a movie is merchandised to within an inch of its life — sold, in essence, as fast food — doesn’t mean that it can’t be an enthralling work of pop art.
Summer movies, when you think about it, are a lot like summer songs: It’s almost impossible to separate a truly quintessential summer movie from the way that you first experienced it — from the friends, the theater, the magic of that particular afternoon or evening. My two personal fondest summer-movie memories: seeing The Gumball Rally (1976) at a drive-in the summer after I graduated from high school — its grade-Z make-it-up-as-you-go-along cheesiness seemed to be all about the freedom I was feeling at that moment — and, in 1985, going to a then-exotic Saturday-night sneak preview of Back to the Future, a movie whose fizzy, time-tripping magnificence I still can’t imagine experiencing during any other season.
It’s in that context that I feel the summer movies of the last 20 years have kind of gotten short shrift. Everyone who’s old enough remembers where they were, who they were with, and what it felt like the first time they saw Star Wars. But how about the first time you saw, say, Ghost (a movie I’ll soon be looking back on, at greater length, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary)? Or The Fugitive? Or Jurassic Park? Or Armageddon or The Blair Witch Project or My Best Friend’s Wedding or even — don’t laugh — Natural Born Killers? I’m not talking about any one movie. I’m talking about the summer movie of the last 20 years that, for whatever reason, defines you. Tell me what it is, why you loved it, and what you remember about seeing it.