The 1990s kept the summer blockbusters coming, but they weren’t quite the same as those that captured the 1980s. The development of computer-generated effects started to be used more liberally, and the practical effects of the previous decade began to fade. You still had some incredible matte painting work and animatronics in the nineties, but more and more computers were being used to paint fantastic landscapes even though the tech wasn’t quite there yet. These films have a different feel than their predecessors, a little more violent and dark, compare E.T. to Jurassic Park. Cynicism was creeping in more, but you also had experimentation of what could be a great summer blockbuster.
The Blair Witch Project (directed by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez)
Release date: July 14th, 1999
The final summer of the 1990s gave us a blockbuster that would signal a new direction in cinema for the decade to come. I had just graduated high school and was on my way to college when Blair Witch dropped, and it was quite the phenomenon. I was hoping on our dial-up AOL internet connection to check out the movie’s website before I ever saw it, getting caught up in the proto-alternate reality game of lore building. The actual film is a mixed bag for me; personally, I think it is one of the best found footage pictures when you see it in a movie theater. The juxtaposition of that large screen and very grainy, handheld footage creates an unsettling dissonance in the viewer. There’s an entire subgenre of horror that owes its existence to the territory carved out by Blair Witch’s explosive popularity.
The Rocketeer (directed by Joe Johnston)
Release date: June 21st, 1991
I turned ten years old the day this picture came out in theaters, and it was a film I was super hyped about. Growing up and still as an adult, I always loved the Golden Age DC superheroes who had their heyday in the 1930s/40s. There’s just something about the art deco-ish style of that period that makes it so much fun to watch in movies. The character was created in 1982 by comics writer/artist Dave Stevens and was being developed for a film as early as 1983. The success of Batman and Dick Tracy is what led to audiences finally seeing a Rocketeer movie, and you can see how those other pictures influenced this one. This is one of those movies like Speed Racer, where it captures how this specific world, characters, and the story should feel so that even if you don’t like it, you can’t say it doesn’t stay true to the heart of the source material.
Last Action Hero (directed by John McTiernan)
Release date: June 18th, 1993
Last Action Hero is an unfairly maligned movie reviled by critics at the time, but I hope it will now gain a warmer reception. John McTiernan directed such action classics as Predator and Die Hard. For him to make a film that deconstructs the genre is a pretty brilliant move. Because McTiernan understands the tropes in and out, having invented some of them, he can skewer action movies with precision. The film blends Speilbergian ideas (a fatherless little boy gets a magic movie ticket that takes him inside the silver screen) with dark modern action ideas (an ax-wielding serial killer, criminal drug cartels). I have to believe that audiences at the time just weren’t prepared for the metanarrative that the picture hinges on and therefore were turned off. If any 1990s summer blockbuster deserves a second chance, it is Last Action Hero.
The Fifth Element (directed by Luc Besson)
Release date: May 9th, 1997
Luc Besson seems to have lost some of that original magic. I really despised Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. However, this first significant science fiction world-building effort is fantastic and still holds up today. Besson places American action icon Bruce Willis in a world created by himself and artist Moebius, unlike anything audiences had seen up to this point. This future planet feels like a blend of the ancient and the hyper futuristic, and therefore it almost feels like a fairy tale. What stands out to me as an adult is the sense of humor, though. The Fifth Element is a very witty action-comedy that builds out its supporting cast so that the too cool stiffness of Bruce Willis never dampens the affair.
Dick Tracy (directed by Warren Beatty)
Release date: June 15th, 1990
I was hyper-excited for this film, my appetite whetted by the previous summer’s Batman. This movie seems to have been lost to time, but it such a masterwork of practical effects and makeup work. The original Dick Tracy comics were all about his grotesque rogues’ gallery of enemies, and they pull out all stops with pretty much every one of them showing up here. Warren Beatty, as Tracy is fairly blah, but Pacino is chewing up the scenery a Big Boy Caprice and William Forsythe as the acidic Flattop. This is a lavish over the top affair that showcases a stylization level you wouldn’t see again until maybe Sin City. Somehow they were able to blend 1940s gangsters movies with both the aesthetic of the 1960s & Tim Burton Batman, and it works. You even get a bizarre sequence with Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, a stool pigeon no one can understand. What is not to love about this picture?
The Truman Show (directed by Peter Weir)
Release date: June 5th, 1998
I absolutely adore this film and the multilayered themes woven through its narrative. I am still shocked that the picture was as popular as it was with mainstream audiences because it is a profoundly subversive story. You can read the movie as a critique of conformism, blind religion, it can be as abstractly existential or pinpoint accurate to a time and era as you please. What carries the movie is the sharp dramatic turn by Jim Carrey, who has never lived up to this performance, despite how much he has tried. Peter Weir is such a thoughtful director who can be heavy-handed at times (see Dead Poets Society), but here that kind of works. The Truman Show can’t be told subtly, and it needs those broad, ostentatious brushstrokes to work. I can’t say how this movie plays to a post-2000s audience, but for those of us Millennials who saw it in our formative years, it was a very influential picture. And it was a summer blockbuster of all things!
Total Recall (directed by Paul Verhoeven)
Release date: June 1st, 1990
Paul Verhoeven was the king of gory, crass pop entertainment in the 1990s culminating in his magnum opus Starship Trooper. I have to wonder if he was sitting back and laughing his ass off at the way American audience consumed his work totally at a surface level, never realizing his brutal critique of hyper-capitalist and nationalist attitudes of the United States. Total Recall is a brash, loud science fiction action picture that hides a condemnation of corporate hegemony encroaching on the fundamental elements of human existence. It also mocks the white male power fantasy of being the only one to swoop to save marginalized people. As with all Verhoeven’s pictures, there is hilarious wit & humor throughout always reminding us not to take what we see on screen too seriously, the director with tongue firmly in cheek.
Batman Returns (directed by Tim Burton)
Release date: June 16th, 1992
Like so many others, I was hyped beyond belief for Tim Burton’s follow-up to 1989’s Batman. Audiences did not expect they would get a bleak, near-nihilistic horror film of a sequel. The Penguin is imagined into a beautifully grotesque deformed monster that only wants revenge. Catwoman is a woman beaten down by misogyny so badly her mind cracks, and she strikes out for blood. Batman is almost a background character in this movie. If you look at this as an urban Gothic horror movie, splattered with silent film German expressionism, it is a remarkable experience. It’s not the best Batman movie, but it might be one of the best Batman villain movies, far better than the Joel Schumacher follow-ups and still better when it comes to villains than Nolan’s entries.
The Sixth Sense (directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
Release date: August 6th, 1999
This was the first film I saw in the theater as a college student. One weekend, it was suggested by someone (I think Andy, who had already seen it) that our group of friends should go. Being the horror neophyte I was, The Sixth Sense creeped me out. On subsequent viewings and with a better handle on the breadth of horror cinema, I don’t see the film as scary anymore, but a very quiet and thoughtful picture about grief and guilt. It’s always a reminder of the M. Night that once was but is not there anymore. Between this and Unbreakable, you could sense that this filmmaker had a bright future ahead of him. However, sometime around The Village or Lady in the Water, he lost his ever-loving mind, and it appears we will never get anything of this quality again.
Jurassic Park (directed by Steven Spielberg)
Release date: June 11th, 1993
I think Jurassic Park sums up the 1990s summer blockbuster experience better than any other. I can remember seeing a movie theater marquee in October 1993, and the film was still playing on multiple screens. It might be the last blockbuster to have that level of penetration in the market, at least pre-Marvel. The computer effects in Jurassic Park were the kind that satisfied the audience, meticulous and high quality. The post-production spent a lot of time and money to fine-tune these effects because they knew if the dinosaurs looked like crap, the whole film collapsed. Spielberg was smart enough to include animatronics understanding that depending on the context, you couldn’t solely rely on C.G. The movie has been meme’d to death, but it is an essential touchstone in Spielberg’s shifting career. This signaled his move to darker material that would continue into the early 2000s. No longer did we have the childlike wonder of E.T., these were darker times.