What marked the difference between the blockbusters of the 1970s and 1980s and the 1990s and 2000s were digital special effects. For the first two decades the focus was on practical special effects, as the B-rate science fiction films these blockbusters were inspired by used. When you saw a spaceship zipping through the sky there was a physical model of the ship built and there was usually a matte painting of some sort and through the use of green screen the two elements were combined. As unreal as the scene was all its elements were something tangible. The move to computer generated effects is marked as beginning with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This began a regular tradition of James Cameron being on the cutting edge of film technology.
By 1996, CG effects were old hat. Films from that year included Independence Day and Twister, both of which are remembered more fondly for their special effects than their acting. Independence Day used practical effects for its alien villains and CG for its air battles, while Twister had real actors in real environments but completely CG twisters as well as a CG cow being carried away by it. On the other hand, 1996 saw the first Mission: Impossible film which primarily used practical effects for the majority of its story. These were followed by pictures like Men in Black and The Lost World, one of which began a franchise and the other which continued one. The trend in this period would be to establish franchises using original, and more commonly already established properties from comics and television. The mindset behind anchoring yourself to a franchise was safety. Trying a new formula out meant risk, and risk could mean financial failure. So studio followed the motto of “go with what you know”. This was seen in how franchises like Pirates of the Carribean, The Matrix, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Shrek have become perennial summer movies.
Before the end of the 1990s though, another director established himself as guaranteed box office during the summer: Michael Bay. His movie Armageddon followed many tried and true tropes. There were established actors, up and coming young talent, familiar character actors, a “rah rah” America plot, and lots of explosions. Bay’s name would become a common one on big summer movies, in particular the current Transformers franchise, which while commercially successful is reviewed dismally by critics. It doesn’t seems to phase Bay though, as he keeps churning at the same type of films and following his established formula to a tee. Another name to rise to prominence as a season favorite was Pixar. Pixar was a computer animation studio that, while part of the Disney family, retained much of its creative independence and is almost the anti-Michael Bay. Bay paints in broad strokes while Pixar is incredibly detail oriented, making sure to populate its worlds with minutiae and causes their films to truly breathe. It was Finding Nemo that put them on the summer blockbuster scene, and this was followed by The Incredibles, Cars, Wall-E, and Up. Up achieved a feat very few summer blockbusters can, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Hollywood’s obsession with clinging to the familiar hasn’t always given them typical movies and some times we see old favorites deliver something unexpected. Steven Spielberg played with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for awhile but switched gears to release Saving Private Ryan, an R-rated brutal portrayal of D-Day. The film works alongside Schindler’s List and the earlier Empire of the Sun as a sort of World War II trilogy. All three were quite unexpected from the man who created the blockbuster with Jaws. In the 2000s, Spielberg switched gears and aesthetics once again to tackle classic science fiction stories. He directed A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds, all of which employed a harsh light and not quite as heartwarming look at life as his previous work. Spielberg was joined by Lucas who returned in 1999 to his Star Wars franchise with The Phantom Menace. Audiences were incredibly split on the film and its follow ups: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. This time around the Star Wars universe felt very sterile and absent of the life it previously possessed. With the conclusion of this third trilogy, Lucas seems to have once again retreated to the world he was able to build for himself.
The end of 2000s closed out with very familiar faces on the screen. There was a reboot of the Star Trek franchise, a new Harry Potter, a new Transformers, a new Pixar film, and a second film based on the books of Dan Brown. Hollywood is firmly dug in to produce tried and true concepts, with the occasional allowance of a new idea. Just recently reboots of the Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes franchises have been announced and some of 2010s most anticipated summer films have been sequels to successful franchises and rebootings of old ones (A-Team, The Karate Kid).