Here we are, almost at the end of summer, so we better finish the trilogy. Finally, we get to my favorite blockbuster genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy. Sci-fi as a genre had always been viewed as a somewhat lowbrow form of entertainment – stuff for the comic book nerds, but not for the masses. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 helped raise the credibility of the genre, but it wasn’t until Star Wars in 1977 that its legitimacy as a massive box office draw was established. And we haven’t looked back since. No summer passes us by without at least a few big-budget science fiction films. Here are some of our all-time favorites that became summer blockbusters.
During the video store reign of the 1980’s, it always bugged me that sci-fi was often lumped in with horror films as a category. It meant I had to scan through disgusting, gory video tape covers trying to find my favorite sci-fi films. Now we link sci-fi more to “fantasy” (thank you Lord of the Rings series), and that seems more appropriate, even if wandering through video stores for 2 hours is a thing of the past. On to my favorites…
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Released: May 21, 1980
- Budget: $18 million
- First weekend: $11million
- Domestic Total Earned: $210 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $701 million
Finally, I get to blog about Star Wars in a positive light! Empire is simply my favorite movie of all time. Back in the late 70’s, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that a wildly successful movie would automatically spawn a sequel. Despite the attempts to keep Empire’s production quiet, word did get out that a sequel was being made to Star Wars, and the anticipation was like nothing cinema had seen before. Despite not reaching the same financial heights as Star Wars (not yet subtitled “A New Hope”), Empire was regarded by most as the superior film, and also sent the merchandising of the franchise into high gear. George Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan took the risk of putting the “big battle” (the Hoth AT-AT attack – still the best large-scale battle in all the Star Wars movies) at the beginning of the movie. This was such an inspired choice, as it made the duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker all the more climactic, building to possibly the biggest plot reveal in cinema history. Credit the late Irvin Kershner for directing a tightly paced and visually stunning spectacle, one that spent as much time making you go “wow” at the special effects as it did making you contemplate and feel the quieter moments in the film. Though CGI wasn’t an option, it was another huge risk, and amazing artistic achievement, to use a rubber puppet so prominently in the film and create such a lifelike and enduring character as Yoda. Despite unnecessary “special edition” tampering by Lucas in the 90’s, 37 years later, The Empire Strikes Back not only holds up but looks beautiful on Blu-ray and is just as entertaining to new generations.
Bonus: Lucas bankrolled the entire $18 million budget himself, with a loan and profits from Star Wars. This allowed him to retain creative rights over the film and led to his financial independence from Hollywood.
DJ: This also is one of my favorite films and clearly the best Star Wars film. The ending crushed me as a kid. The love story often gets overlooked and it’s actually done well. The thing the newest Star Wars films from the prequels to now is the ability to create a battle like the walkers. CGI battles in space where you have no clue what’s going on and really nonbelievable acts occurring, the walker scenes look real and completely believable. That’s the magic.
- Released: July 18, 1986
- Budget: N/A
- First weekend: $10 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $85 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $204 million
Ok, so here’s one that would qualify for the Sci-Fi/Horror section of the 80’s video store, even though it is much more of an action film than the original Alien. This was the sequel we didn’t know we wanted, and its success led to Alien becoming a franchise still going today. Aliens was the first R-rated film I ever saw in the theaters. I had very little knowledge of the original, but I was blown away by the trailer, and it topped my summer film must-see list in ’86. Like Empire, there is no fat on this film, and Cameron meticulously created a lean and tense structure to house his thrilling action sequences, all the while creating memorable characters that were distinct and easy to root for (or hate, in the case of Paul Reiser’s corporate snake Burke). Jerry Goldsmith’s pulse-pounding score amped up the intensity of the action and propelled us along an excellent story – based on Cameron’s own script that was always upping the ante at the right time. Again I look back and think how things were sometimes better in the pre-CGI age when the limitations of practical effects and the need to use performers in suits ended up making for a better, more realistic looking final product. Sigourney Weaver turned in a historic performance and did what no woman or man had done before, earned a best acting Oscar nomination for an action film. The epic final battle between Weaver’s Ripley and the Alien queen is likely in the top 10 of all movie scenes.
Bonus: At the end of the film, the 15-minute countdown until the colony explodes is, in fact, 15 minutes of screen time.
DJ: Yeah you picked two of the best sequels of all time. Aliens was able to continue the story but do something very different. I wish Cameron would do more films unrelated to Avatar. Game over, man, game over.
Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
- Released: June 6, 2014
- Budget: $178 million
- First weekend: $29 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $100 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $108 million
I admit I’m stretching the definition of “blockbuster” for this one. It did limp over the $100 million mark, but that’s not much in 2014 dollars and its domestic box office was way below its budget. Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite sci-fi films of the past decade and a lot of people are coming around on this film despite their negative feelings about Tom Cruise. In truth, Cruise’s cocky/arrogant reputation serves his character well in the story. He starts out as a brash safe-behind-the-lines salesman/soldier and comes across as rather unlikable. Subsequently, his reaction to being deployed to the front lines of a “beaches of Normandy” style assault on invading aliens works perfectly. From there it gets interesting. Emily Blunt, as a badass super soldier with a secret, makes this film. She’s mesmerizing to watch, and Cruise is smart enough to let her be an equal on the stage. The action sequences are very well crafted, but it’s the unique story, and the telling of it, that draws you in. Director Doug Liman does well keeping the story and human element from getting swallowed up by action set-pieces, as is too often the case in sci-fi/action films. I have to believe if someone had been cast other than Cruise, this film would have been a much easier marketing success and thus a much bigger hit. I hated the marketing tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat”, which is just trite and cringe-worthy. Don’t let your feelings for Cruise make you avoid this film. It is definitely worth your time.
Bonus: The metal exo-suits weighed between 85-90 pounds, but Emily Blunt still did the majority of her stunts, except when she returned for reshoots and was then 2 months pregnant.
DJ: This was a surprisingly good movie, despite my disdain for Tom Cruise as a person he often makes good films. This is a Groundhog Day for the nerd. Did they change the name of this film to Live Die Repeat? If so, I call BS.
MG: Funny, when I was researching this movie they talked about how people thought they changed the name. They didn’t, but the prominence of the “Live Die Repeat” in the international and post-theatrical run made it look that way.
I love a good sci-fi film, fantasy not as much. I too remember the video store days in the 80’s. I remember the string of sci-fi/fantasy classics I had to wade through to get to the good films, Krull, Beastmaster, Dragonslayer, Yor: the Hunter of the Future, and Sheena to name a few. None of these were blockbusters although Krull had a video game. I wanted to use all Arnold Schwarzenegger for my films but decided on only one.
Total Recall (1990)
- Released: June 1, 1990
- Budget: $65 million
- First weekend: $25.5 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $119 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $245 million
If I had to pick my favorite Arnold movies, it’s Predator, Running Man, Terminator and of course Total Recall. When I saw Recall in the summer of 1990 I was blown away. It immediately gave my friends and me tons of quotes to constantly recite, from “Consider that a divorce” to “You blabbed about Mars, Quade”. I still often quote or misquote this film. This was Paul Verhoeven’s best film by far although Robocop and Basic Instinct are in the mix. For the time the special effects are great, the plot is of course somewhat nonsense, but who cares, there is action and it’s over the top, some great funny lines and Arnold is at his peak. This is the film where Sharon Stone gets noticed and her career really kicks in, her fight with Arnold is exciting. The villains are pure 80’s gold. Michael Ironsides and Ronny Cox (See our favorite character actors blog) do a great job here. The idea that you can go to a company that will give you a virtual reality experience where you can be someone else or go to some other place was ahead of its time although VR is now a big thing and will probably expand even more in coming years. This movie was one of the last few to use practical special effects and looks so much better than say The Phantom Menace CGI shitshow. This is such a fun movie that doesn’t take it self seriously, it falls into the category of movies that don’t get made today. Like Verhoeven’s Robocop there was a modern remake of this film, that was sanitized and was a joyless serious train wreck. Being from a Philip K. Dick story a remake could have been good and been in the same universe as the original instead of a forgettable foot note in cinematic history. When the original is on TV I always stop to watch.
Bonus: Patrick Swayze was originally picked to play Doug Quade but the company that had the rights went bankrupt and Arnold persuaded Carolco to buy it. Imagine Swayze in the role of Quade as he dances to Mars.
MG: In ’89 I was a freshman in college and I had a Total Recall poster in my dorm room, and this was the year before it was released. The poster was simple: a pyramid, Arnold’s eye and the tagline: “How would you know if someone stole your mind?” – my vote for best tagline ever. I could see this premise as an awesome HBO series like Westworld, (more mystery/drama, less action/one-liners) but they already mucked up the remake so I doubt we’ll see any more “recall, recall, recall”. So many one-liners in this: “Screw you!!!”, “See you at the party, Richter!”
Star Trek II Wrath of Khan (1982)
- Released: June 4, 1982
- Budget: $11.2 million
- First weekend: $14 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $79 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $232 million
There are so many Star Trek movies, my favorite goes all the way back to the second one. This was also sort of remade with the latest cast and for me, it was unimaginative and lazy. But this is the original one and it’s the best. I saw this in the theater the only time I had to sit in a front row and it wasn’t a great experience but the film made up for it. Honestly, I am a Star Wars guy first but this filled the space before Return of the Jedi came out and it’s a quite well-made film. Coming off the dreadful slow and boring Star Trek: The Motion Picture they righted the ship, of course until part three, The Search for Spock and every odd number film in the franchise. There is action and it’s fun to watch Kirk and Khan match wits, who doesn’t love “KHANNNNNNNNNNNN!”. I work with a guy who’s last name is Kwan, and you can guess what I often say and he never seems amused. Also with this film, there is an emotional ending, that, of course, gets wiped out in the third movie, but I didn’t know that at the time. The only thing I knew about Ricardo Montalban was he was Mr. Rourke in Fantasy Island. I didn’t even know he was Khan in the regular TV series episode Space Seed. He was an inspired villain and played it just over the top enough. I wasn’t a huge fan of the series but liked it enough to see the first movie and honestly thought Star Trek was done but this movie not only was good but it brought back Trek and all of its spin offs including the latest CBS Access series Star Trek: Discovery.
Bonus: Nicholas Meyer the director of Khan hasn’t directed many films but one of them was the influential and frightening nuclear holocaust TV movie The Day After.
MG: Nice pick, and one that would probably make any top 10 list of best first sequels. I hadn’t seen any Star Trek before and saw this with friends and really enjoyed it (I’m also a Star Wars guy). They did a good job blending action with philosophical musings – which is often where Star Trek gets bogged down in other films/TV.
- Released: July 11, 1997
- Budget: $90 million
- First weekend: $21 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $101 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $190 million
This film is a little different than the other films, it didn’t feel like a blockbuster but it technically was. It’s modern counterpart is The Arrival which came out last year. Both films deal with contact with alien life. This is a thought provoking film about life and the concepts of science vs religion. It has a great cast: Jodie Foster (I miss her, please come back to acting), Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, William Fichtner, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, David Morse, Tom Skerrit and Jake Busey. Robert Zemeckis, pretty fresh off of winning Academy Awards for Forrest Gump does a better job with Contact although if I have any quibble its using technology to insert famous people into the film which he made extra famous in Gump. Nowadays computers can just recreate the person (see Rogue One). This movie got good reviews and had some minor award nominations but I really believed it deserved more, as it was a very well made film. It was not fantastical or scary like Signs or Close Encounters, both good films, but it’s based more in reality. This is an important film and is more than just about “aliens”. It fits into my beliefs that we would be awfully self-centered not to believe there is other life out there. I feel this movie has somewhat fell into the past and doesn’t often get mentioned anymore.
Bonus: Carl Sagan and his wife wrote the book that this was based on and he was overseeing the science aspect of the film when he passed away.
MG: Glad you mentioned this one, as you are right, it seems to have been forgotten. Foster and pre-career death-then-resurrection McConaughey were at their best and Zemekis did a great job making a more dramatic film vs. what he had done previously. I don’t know why Jodie Foster has mostly dropped out of acting. Although she was pretty, her star was not tied to model-looks and she should have done well aging on screen.