I learned to love movies by watching summer blockbusters.
To this day, I’ll never forget the experience of watching “Jurassic Park” in the small three-screen Holiday Village Cinemas in my hometown of Park City, Utah. Even though the town is chock full of rich people, the Holiday Village Cinemas were as busted as they come. Sticky floors, uncomfortable seating, a sound system so weak that it was like a boombox had just been taped up behind the screen. But whenever a big film came along, it seemed like the entire town showed up. It wasn’t just a movie, it was an event.
I was 8 years old when “Jurassic Park” came out. I remember talking with my dad about it during the weeks leading up to the premiere, disputing his claims that it was going to be scary.
“Steven Spielberg doesn’t make scary movies,” I remember saying.
My evidence behind this claim was his name at the beginning of “The Land Before Time,” the animated dinosaur film which he produced. Remember, I was eight — what did I know about anything? I had yet to be traumatized by “Jaws,” or the face-melting scene in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or the heart extraction in “Temple of Doom,” or the alien invasion in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” As far as little 8-year-old me was concerned, Spielberg only made lovely cartoons. And bless my dad for letting me have my little know-it-all moment.
Or perhaps he just knew my hubris would be punished when the lights went down.
And it was.
I spent the entire duration of “Jurassic Park” drenched in terror sweat. I’m pretty sure the first T-Rex scene did irreversible damage to my psyche. I watched the rest of the film through my fingers, even the calm scenes. What if a Velociraptor jumped out of nowhere while John Hammond was giving an innocuous speech about flea circuses? Simply, the spectacle had broken my brain.
I ended up seeing “Jurassic Park” three times in the theater that summer. Whatever those dinos did to my brain chemistry turned me into a cinematic thrill-seeker. I was hooked. Once summer rolled around and school let out, you could find me in those uncomfortable, questionably-stained seats at the sticky-floored Holiday Village Cinema. “Independence Day,” “Batman Forever,” “Congo,” “Mortal Kombat” — these were just some of the summer blockbusters that defined my childhood. After “Independence Day,” my friends and I were too scared to sleep on the trampoline because we thought aliens would take us away.
But those halcyon days were short lived: I also learned to hate movies by watching summer blockbusters.
I don’t know if the films got worse or if I just became more discerning. I first felt the inklings of dissatisfaction after watching “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” but I was still young enough to dig the spectacle. Then, in 1998, I stepped out of the theater after watching “Godzilla” and thought: wait, so movies can be bad?
I spent my youth idolizing whatever was projected in front of my little eyes, but even pre-teen me could see the cracks in the fantasies — boring stories, bad acting, CGI that somehow seemed to get worse as time went on (seriously, compare the effects in “Jurassic Park” to a film like “Spawn,” which was released four years after).
The last time I experienced pure, unadulterated joy at a summer blockbuster was watching Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” back in 2002. By that time, I was in high school and the Holiday Village Cinemas had gotten a facelift. The sticky floors, gross seats, the stench of old popcorn: all gone. Plus, nearly all of my friends got jobs there, so I could watch movies for free whenever I wanted. I ended up seeing “Spider-Man” eight times in the theater. (Additionally, I watched consecutive, back-to-back screenings of “Swimfan” on one particularly boring night because YOLO).
But the success of “Spider-Man” paved the way for the cinematic superhero renaissance that we’ve been experiencing for [checks notes] forever.
I don’t even know the difference between any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films because they’re all built from the same template. These movies have the razzle, sure, but their check-the-box ingredients don’t create fans, but completists. Film-goers my age seem to not want to be amazed, but merely satisfied (I don’t have kids, so I imagine the experience is different for youngsters). Just like everyone else in the world, I saw “Avengers Endgame” last year and can’t even tell you what it was about or recall one scene that struck me.
This summer is going to be strange.
Thanks to ye ol’ COVID-19, many big budget flicks have been postponed, and others will be released VOD-only. Yes, there are some films that are still on track to come out in theaters —Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is still scheduled to arrive in theaters on July 31 — but most everything else is pushed to the fall or next year.
In my opinion, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps Hollywood can take a breather this summer, recalibrate, and perhaps come back with a renewed motivation to thrill and captivate us.
Nature is healing. And summer blockbusters can, too.
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