The summer of 1993 felt like a high stakes cinematic card trick. A full deck of superstars was roughly shuffled so that by summer’s end, some kings ended up as jokers and many a knave turned over a sweet ace. Bluffs were called, some royal flushes turned up out of nowhere, and in the end the whole table was kicked over by a T-Rex, sending all the chips flying.
This week we will once again see a merry band of naive, edible human beings sharing the screen with monstrous dinosaurs as Jurassic World returns with Fallen Kingdom. Perhaps we’re used to it by now, but back in 1993, the last time man and dinosaur had teamed up to any noticeable effect was probably The Valley of the Gwangi. The seismic leap forward in special effects since then meant that the release of Jurassic Park was a genuine movie event, much like T2 in 1991: we simply were not going to believe our eyes!
The first proper trailer hid its biggest stars from view, but it gave us a tantalising glimpse of what we might expect. The build-up of anticipation bubbled with ever more intensity. It was the only movie anybody was talking about…which came as something of a disappointment to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Austrian Oak had seen his stock rise in a constantly upward trajectory since Conan The Barbarian in 1982. The Terminator’s success in ’84 led to a series of increasingly successful action flicks, but it was his canny decision to lampoon his image in 1988’s Twins that made him a mainstream megastar. After Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2, he was indisputably the single biggest movie star on planet earth.
A whole year before its release, his next project Last Action Hero was being touted as ‘The Big Ticket For 93.’ With Die Hard / Hunt For Red October director John McTiernan guiding the ship into dock, what could possibly go wrong? Well, actually pretty much everything.
Bad omens, like a colossal inflatable Jack Slater holding a bunch of dynamite having to be removed from Times Square after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, foreshadowed increasingly negative feedback from test screenings and bitchy gossip from the set. The much-admired screenplay had been rewritten so many times by so many people that it had strayed fatally from its moorings – after the premiere, the original writers reportedly wept. Premiere magazine prophetically said that Last Action Hero ‘combines the action and comedy genres for the first time since…omigod, Hudson Hawk.’
The death-blow was a June 18th release date which Columbia had set in stone the previous year. Universal, realising what they had on their hands, moved Jurassic Park up to June 11th. When Last Action Hero opened, it became the oak tree that fell in the forest where no one could see it, making no noise. More than twice as many cinemagoers went to see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park’s second weekend as went to meet Jack Slater and the world’s most irritating child actor.
Arnie’s path to Killing Gunther was paved by Last Action Hero, and as if to rub salt into the wounds, his box office crown was stolen by an old rival, who returned from the dead for a third act triumph. Sylvester Stallone had tried to resuscitate his anaemic, post-Over The Top success rate by following Arnie into the comedy genre. Sadly, instead of Twins, Sly got Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, which now plays on a continuous loop on Hell’s only TV channel. Even Tango & Cash was a flop, even though you and I know it’s one of the most enjoyably ‘80s movies of the ‘80s.
Cliffhanger offered Stallone a lifeline and it gave him his first bona fide hit since Rambo. Much of the credit goes to one of the greatest trailers ever made, cut magnificently to Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem. Renny Harlin deserves kudos too for doubling down on the vertigo-inducing set pieces and the genuinely impressive stuntwork. Cliffhanger went on to make $35m more than Last Action Hero, leaving an invigorated Stallone to go on to another career high with Demolition Man, before leveling out again with The Specialist alongside Sharon Stone.
Stone had become one of the biggest icons on the early 1990s thanks to her role in Basic Instinct (which, fatefully, she reprised in a cameo in Last Action Hero). Her above-the-title status hinged on the success of Sliver, a racy adaptation on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby). The producer of that 1968 classic, Robert Evans bet his shirt on Sliver delivering the goods, but the result was a silly, derivative dud, and Stone and Evans duly handed in their keys to the first class lounge.
Other notable failures in Summer ’93 were Super Mario Bros, one of the first films to prove that you can’t make a good movie out of a video game and which remains, even 25 years later, one of life’s truly unwatchable films. Dennis (The Menace, in the States, where The Beano has little currency) was, under John Hughes’s stewardship, supposed to be another Home Alone but was destined to be another Curly Sue. Family audiences ignored it and went to see Free Willy and Rookie of The Year instead.
Comedies at that time had a proven pedigree at the summer box office and this was especially true in ’93. Americans wanted to laugh. How else can you explain the disproportionately high returns on The Son-In-Law with Pauly Shore? Artificial insemination comedy Made in America with Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson did better than expected too, possibly on account of the presence of superstar-in-the-making Will Smith.
Ivan Reitman’s Dave outperformed all expectations too. In it, decent cove Kevin Kline has to stand in for the President for one evening and ends up doing the job full-time after the real POTUS has a stroke during a Clintonian knee-tremble in the west wing. As well as infuriating Machiavellian chief of staff Frank Langella, he falls in love, not unreasonably, with First Lady Sigourney Weaver.
However, the biggest and most enduring comedy of Summer ’93 was Norah Ephron’s Sleepless In Seattle, in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan recaptured the magical chemistry of Tracy and Hepburn, despite not meeting until the final ten minutes of the film. Warm, funny, sweet and playing a merry melody upon the world’s heartstrings, Sleepless in Seattle was a defiantly, refreshingly grown-up comedy.
That rare, currently more-or-less extinct element of maturity within the summer release schedule was a notable feature of ’93. Once Jurassic fever started to die down, the back end of the summer saw a gaggle of elder statesmen line up to show the kids how it’s really done. Leading the pack was 63 year old Clint Eastwood, guarding the President from a marauding John Malkovich in In The Line of Fire. Columbia were extremely lucky to have had this outstanding thriller in the bag, arriving as it did only a few months after Clint’s Oscar triumph with Unforgiven.
Sharing the same birth year as Eastwood was Sean Connery, who paired up successfully with Wesley Snipes in the other Michael Chrichton adaptation of ’93, Rising Sun, though it is now largely forgotten. Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive, on the other hand (appropriately) ran and ran, becoming the second biggest hit of the summer and landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture – and a win for Tommy Lee Jones in his star-making turn as the relentless US Marshal Sam Gerard.
Even the relatively youthful Tom Cruise surrounded himself with seasoned pros like Gene Hackman and Hal Halbrook in Sydney Pollack’s The Firm, Cruise’s ‘first suit-and-tie role’ which brought in a fortune and kickstarted a wave of seemingly endless John Grisham movies.
Collectively, the big hits of 1993 represented something of a a high-water mark of quality and endurability. It’s almost unbelievable to report that the top ten didn’t contain a single sequel (by contrast, seven of last year’s top ten had numbers after the title). The ones that were released were as unessential as they were unwatched (Another Stakeout, Weekend At Bernie’s II and Hot Shots! Part Deux, which started off well then became a sort of anti-comedy half way through).
Ultimately though, this summer was all about Spielberg’s dinosaurs. As Premiere put it, ‘It’s why people go to the movies: to see something they’ve never seen before. And this one is brought to you by the man who’s given audiences precisely that more times than anyone else.’ 25 years later, the legacy of Richard Attenborough’s no expense spared flea-circus upgrade still continues. Welcome back to Jurassic World.