My Favorite 1980s Summer Blockbusters

The blockbuster movie is defined as a piece of mainstream, fast-paced entertainment that resonates with the culture at a rapid pace. Director Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws is considered the first film that was a real blockbuster. This set the standard for summer and winter to be period where Hollywood studios put out big-budget high concept films with fantastic concepts that would appeal to all audiences. Today I will be looking at my top 10 favorite summertime blockbusters and explaining why they are great examples of this seasonal entertainment & why they still appeal to me so many years after I first saw them.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (directed by Nicholas Meyer)
Release date: June 4th, 1982

Star Trek was a regular fixture in the cinema throughout the 1980s and 90s, experiencing a renaissance after slipping into cult status after the original series’ cancellation. This second entry sets the standard for the rest of the films with Captain Kirk and his crew being pitted against his old nemesis Khan. One difference with the other films is that the entire plot of this one is contingent on an episode of the original series, bringing a villain back rather than introducing a new threat. Director Nicholas Meyer frames the battle between these two forces in their respective starships as a sea battle with an emphasis on positioning and tactical maneuvers. This is a story that has consequences that ripple through the rest of the films and was so culturally influential that J.J. Abrams tried and epically failed to remake it in 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness. The Wrath of Khan feels like sitting down to watch some old friends in an exciting and intelligent story.

RoboCop (directed by Paul Verhoeven)
Release date: July 17th, 1987

Paul Verhoeven is an unlikely blockbuster filmmaker, yet by the 2000s, he was primarily known for that. RoboCop was the first of his big Hollywood movies to deliver the spectacle yet weave incredibly subversive cultural commentary through the narrative. Detroit police officer Alex Murphy is brutally tortured and shot, left for dead by a gang of criminals. Instead of letting the man die, a megacorporation that owns Detroit rebuilds Murphy as the automaton RoboCop. Verhoeven leans into Frank Miller’s script and its ultraviolence but also amps up the absurdly horrific comedy of this corporate dystopia. RoboCop himself acts as a Christ figure, but one filtered through the lens of gross American capitalist consumption. Verhoeven, a Biblical scholar himself, posits that the Christ of the 21st Century will be manufactured and programmed to never step out of line.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Release date: June 22nd, 1988

I can remember seeing the trailer for this picture in the theater, but I was only seven at the time and can’t quite recall which movie I was seeing. However, I can still remember the surprise I had as it started like an old-time short film before the feature and then transitioned into the trailer. It may not seem spectacular now, but the blending of animation and live-action was a wonder to behold at the time time. In retrospect, Robert Zemeckis was signaling his future obsession with blending these elements. If you are a fan of film noir, then the nods to that genre will be just as apparent alongside the more obvious animation flourishes. Roger Rabbit is an early example of that nostalgia blockbuster, achieving the seemingly impossible accomplishment of bringing Warner Brothers and Disney characters on screen together. 

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (directed by Tim Burton)
Release date: August 9th, 1985

From my review: I love this movie. I cannot explain precisely why, but there is something so compelling about the Pee-Wee character. Pee-Wee shouldn’t pull in the audience’s sympathies with his annoying voice and manic behavior, but he is so endlessly watchable. I think Reubens makes some fantastic comedic choices in this film and shows a good bit of range. The sequence where Pee-Wee becomes obsessed with determining what happened to his bike is one of my favorites, Burton chooses to film these scenes like a noir picture and Pee-Wee interrogating a whole host of friends and acquaintances is genuinely hilarious.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (directed by Steven Spielberg)
Release date: May 24th, 1989

This is the last Indiana Jones movie, and I wish they had let the franchise close out on such a perfect note. This is the first film in the trilogy that actually gets personal with Doctor Henry Jones, starting with a flashback to his youth living in Utah. Young Indiana is played by the late River Phoenix, who does an excellent job capturing the adventurer as a teenager. The plot centers on recovering the Holy Grail, the mythical cup of Christ searched for by the Knights of the Round Table. What makes the film so special is Sean Connery as Dr. Henry Jones, Sr., the father of our protagonist. The dynamic between these two is terrific with fantastic comedic timing. This is by far the funniest of the Indiana Jones pictures and never loses the excitement and action of the others. The Last Crusade is an example of a smartly written blockbuster feature.

Batman (directed by Tim Burton)
Release date: June 23rd, 1989

This movie rocked my world. I was eight years old when it came out, and Batman was everywhere. I owned two of the Applause PVC figurines made as part of the deluge of merchandise that accompanied the film’s release. That Batman logo was on everything at the time, and I even took some purple fabric and a safety pin to make my own Batman cape. For all his later filmmaking flaws and missteps, Tim Burton made the best piece of Batman media to date. People expecting the kitsch of the 1960s television series had their minds blown by this dark, Gothic interpretation on Batman and his city. Jack Nicholson is basically playing himself, but it works. People often forget that Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman was met with outrage as he was seen as a comedic actor; however, he did an excellent job and took decades for anyone else to measure up. Batman will always be one of those seminal summer movies for me.

Back to the Future (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Release date: July 3rd, 1985

This was another film that captured my imagination as a kid. I didn’t see until it was playing on HBO around 1987/88, and I was immediately captivated by the storytelling. Alan Silvestri’s score likely has a lot to do with my love of the picture, with its own take on the form of music John Williams created for these kinds of movies. As an adult, I started to get more of the humor woven through the story and now see Back to the Future as one of the best blockbuster comedies of the era. There are such smart period-specific choices that enhance the story without ever dating it so that the film never loses its relevancy. Michael J. Fox was never quite as good in any role after this series, and he was just born to be Marty McFly. So too is Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, having perfect comedy timing with his co-star. Back to the Future is a timeless 80s summer blockbuster that still has magic even today.

The Thing (directed by John Carpenter)
Release date: June 25th, 1982

The Thing is not typically thought of as a summer blockbuster. It was hated by critics upon its release having its butt kicked at the box office by Poltergeist. It was also an R-rated release when studios were trying to appeal to audiences of all ages in their summer programming. Even worse, this was a summer where it had to compete with Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek II, The Road Warrior, and Tron. All that said, The Thing is an arguably better film that those other in my opinion. I always love cold weather movies that drop in the summer because they really transport you away from the here and now. Plus, Carpenter refused to pace himself like an over the top, loud, explosive movie. Instead, The Thing is a summer blockbuster for patient people, and when it finally flips and starts to deliver on its horrific promises, it does so in droves. Horror in the summer is a tradition that continues today, and I think it might have started with…

The Shining (1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Release date: May 23rd, 1980

Now here’s a movie no one ever contemplates as a summer blockbuster, but it dropped just before Memorial Day weekend. I will be saying a lot more about The Shining when I review it later this month, but for now, I think it continued a tradition that started with Jaws and The Omen and was followed by Poltergeist, The Return of the Living Dead, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, Misery and more. Today we have directors like Ari Aster who have given us Hereditary and Midsommar for the last two consecutive summers. These movies exist to counter the Spielbergian wonder and awe, reminding us that horror is fruitful for exciting stories with an edge. The Shining has cemented its status as a blockbuster with its inclusion in Ready Player One and the film sequel Doctor Sleep. 

E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Release date: June 11th, 1982

I don’t think any other movie ever made quite captures the feel of what a summer blockbuster should be than Steve Spielberg’s E.T. You get all the tropes you’d expect from the director’s work, but they feel genuine and honest. At its heart, the picture is about children going through the fallout of a divorce, not feeling like the family they once were. E.T. unites them to fight for something, and by the end of the picture, despite their heartbreaking, the bonds between them are more durable than before. There have been so many movies that try to mimic the tone of this picture and ultimately fail. They become too focused on the surface level elements and forget the organic heart that beats at the center of the movie. I can’t imagine we will ever see a film like this come again; the world is different and mainstream movies are a whole new animal, with a strain of subtle cynicism woven through everything. If you feel like experiencing an innocent sense of wonder again, then you should sit down this summer and revisit this masterpiece.

One thought on “My Favorite 1980s Summer Blockbusters”

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