I don’t want to tempt fate here, but it looks as though we might just be about to have an actual summer movie season this year. A proper one, like we used to enjoy in summers gone by, when the studios would stockpile their biggest blockbusters starring their biggest stars and scatter them throughout the school holidays. In the next few months we have superheroes, fighter jets, dinosaurs and child-pacifying animations all heading towards the cinema, where movies belong. Hooray!
Seems like old times? It’s hardly surprising. For the past two years, the annual summer blockbuster season has been on hiatus and relocated, possibly permanently, hopefully temporarily to our living rooms. So by way of preparing ourselves for the first movie-summer of the decade, stick a Verve CD into your Discman and let’s roll the clock back 25 years to see who won the box office crown in the summer of 1997.
There was only ever really going to be one winner, wasn’t there? Four years previously, Jurassic Park had given the ‘summer movie’ its biggest shot in the arm since Star Wars. Event cinema with game-changing special effects, Spielberg’s dinosaur epic was an instant classic and quickly became of the most successful films of all time. This summer, Part 2 was on its way, again directed by Steven Spielberg with Jeff Goldblum back on board as Dr Ian Malcolm. What could go wrong?
Well, as far as Universal’s accountants were concerned, not much did. The enormous $72m opening was enough to cover the production costs, but with echoes of Batman Returns in 1992, talk soon filtered out about the dark tone, the lack of laughs and the child-worrying violence (poor Toby from The West Wing suffers an especially ignoble exit). A consensus quickly built that The Lost Word: Jurassic Park had fallen short, and its gross too fell short of its predecessor’s by a worrying $100m.
However, its shortfalls were as nothing compared to the other big tent-pole sequels released that summer (all two of them). The Lost World could at least lay claim to at least one classic sequence – the rescue of Julianne Moore who has nothing between her and a death-plummet but a sheet of unhelpfully splintering glass.
Of classic scenes, Batman & Robin had none. In 1995, Joel Schumacher had scored a huge hit with the day-glo reinvention, Batman Forever. As far as Warner Bros. were concerned, this had salvaged the franchise after Tim Burton’s gothic, audience-alienating second movie. A large helping of more of the same was duly ordered, along with as many toy company tie-in contracts as their lawyers could scribble their signatures upon.
Something felt a little stale from the off. ‘Forever’ boasted white-hot man-of-the-hour Jim Carrey as its MVP. Batman & Robin’s villain was Arnold Schwarzeneggar whose pan had been taken off the boil since 1993’s Last Action Hero debacle. He needed this franchise more than it needed him (though he still insisted on top billing). Val Kilmer had famously passed on a return visit to Gotham – making The Saint instead – and was replaced by George Clooney, still hot from ER but currently underperforming as a Hollywood leading man.
Batman Forever may have been a mite too close a return to the pop-art camp of the Adam West era for the proper Batfans, but this….this… This was no less ghastly than being trapped inside a large snow globe surrounded by flashing neon strip-lighting while Arnold Schwarzeneggar shouted bad ice-based Christmas cracker puns at you over the incessant elephant-trumpeting of Eliot Goldenthal’s score.
Much has been said about the trainwreck that was Batman & Robin – Schumacher himself provided a wonderfully honest and candid assessment on the DVD commentary. Clooney has been apologising for it ever since, even refunding people who admitted to paying to go and see it. It made its money back, but that was all and in an instant, all future Batman projects were put on ice. As in ‘Ice to see you.’
You’d have thought that this was as bad as things could get for the Hollywood sequel. True, it did kill off the most successful film series of the decade, but Speed 2: Cruise Control went one better, pressing a pillow down tightly over the face of another franchise before it had even begun. Keanu Reeves put his finger on the rather obvious problem as soon as the screenplay arrived. “I read the script and I was like, ‘Ugh.’ It was about a cruise ship and I was thinking, ‘A bus, a cruise ship… Speed, bus, but then a cruise ship is even slower than a bus and I was like, ‘I love you guys, but I just can’t do it.’”
Instead, Sandra Bullock was bumped up to top billing, getting herself and her new boyfriend Jason Patric involved in some high jinks on the high seas on a sabotaged cruise liner that must haven been doing at least 12 knots. As the baddie, Willem Dafoe went to extraordinary lengths to out-ham Dennis Hopper; his teeth and eyeballs all but popping out of his face. Without Reeves at the helm though, this one never even left the dock, despite a reported budget of $160m. Premiere magazine cautiously thought without Reeves’s presence it might make $80m. It took half that.
Back in 1997, audiences were clamouring for something a little different and the sequels (mercifully few that there were), were not delivering the goods. You want ‘different?’ Step forward Nicolas Cage. By now Cage had got the idea of being a romantic lead out of his system and with an Oscar in his back pocket, he had decided that it might be a fun wheeze to become a major action star. In 1996, he’d helped Sean Connery turn The Rock into the most ridiculously fun action movie of the summer. This year, he did it again. Twice.
With Michael Bolton hair flowing atop a freshly chiselled torso, Cage stepped aboard Con-Air along with some of the best character actors of the time and made the most absurdly over-the-top-enjoyable action movie of the 1990s. When film students turn their attention one day to the collected works of Jerry Bruckheimer, they may well cite Con-Air as the distillation of everything he ever tried to achieve into 155 minutes of perfectly overdone, wildly quotable, subversively self-aware machismo.
Even more successful was John Woo’s Face/Off, which brilliantly gave Cage and John Travolta the chance to play each other. An obsessed FBI agent uses ‘state of the art’ tech to borrow the face of his unconscious nemesis, who promptly wakes up and stitches on the agent’s face. Confusion reigned, gun-battles blazed, improbable character names abounded (yes you, Pollux Troy) and several symbolic doves fluttered past the camera.
Both Cage movies were blisteringly fun nights out that left audiences cheering. Cheer they did too at Harrison Ford’s slightly more conventional heroics, as the US President scrapping with Russian terrorist Gary Oldman, who has taken over Air Force One. Wolfgang Peterson’s high-concept thriller exceeded expectations to become the third biggest hit of the summer.
Ford delighted in showing a new generation of younger, leaner Nineties action heroes how a real star kicked ass. Another successful comeback kid was Julia Roberts, who upon becoming the most famous and beloved romantic comedy actress in the world after Pretty Woman, struggled to find a project that could take her back to the toppermost of the poppermost. In 1996, things hit rock-bottom for her with Mary Reilly, the ill-fated Jekyll & Hyde film which miscast her in the kind of role normally played by Billie Whitelaw.
By the end of Summer 97, all that had been forgotten once My Best Friend’s Wedding had become the big romantic comedy sensation of the season (big romantic comedy films in the cinema. Remember them?). PJ Hogan’s pleasantly acidic date-movie solidified Julia Roberts’s star status for good, and briefly turned Rupert Everett into the man of the moment, after a scene-stealing turn as Roberts’s gay editor who has to pose as her fiancé.
Apart from My Best Friend’s Wedding, comedy was an underperforming genre in Summer 97. Addicted To Love starring Roberts’s rival for the romantic comedy throne, Meg Ryan was only a mid-level hit while Father’s Day, an on-paper perfect combination of Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Ivan Reitman, didn’t go anywhere. The arrival of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was initially something of a damp squib, bringing in a disappointing $54m. After two years building up a huge fan base on video-cassette (!), The Spy Who Shagged Me made more than that in three days.
Fox Searchlight must have been delighted then, that they’d picked up the distribution rights to The Full Monty, an unheralded low-budget British comedy about unemployed Sheffield steel-workers who give male stripping a go. It became a worldwide sensation – in the UK, it was the biggest box office hit of the year – and must have gone some way to paying back what Fox lost making Speed 2.
Children’s entertainment was similarly a little thin on the ground. Disney’s Hercules had been expected to be a return to box office form, but couldn’t quite break the $100m barrier (it did at least try to be a bit different, hiring the extraordinary British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to add a touch of surreal otherness to the legendary monsters of Greek mythology).
Somewhat unexpectedly, the live action adaptation of 1960s cartoon George of The Jungle (“Watch out for that treeee…!”) became the big kids’ movie of the summer, turning Brendan Fraser into a major star in the process.
The kids’ parents, or indeed anyone with rather more esoteric tastes were well served that summer. John Cusack may have looked a little uncomfortable in Con-Air but Grosse Pointe Blank was the perfect fit. With Martin Blank he created perhaps his signature role as a jaded hit-man forced to attend his high-school reunion while fending off rival assassin Dan Aykroyd.
Breakdown treated adult audiences to a taut, lean, mature thriller with Kurt Russell building upon his run of 1990s success stories. Cop Land gave Russell’s Tango & Cash co-star Sylvester Stallone his best role in decades, piling on the pounds to play an ineffectual sheriff who steps up to face down the corrupt cops who live in his home-town. Stallone was unluckly not to pick up an Oscar nomination.
Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory was a sizeable hit, aspiring to recapture the 1970s-style paranoia of films like Three Days of The Condor. The presence of Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts did nothing to hurt the box office.
The most prestigious film of the summer was Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, based upon the weighty novel by Carl Sagan. Jodie Foster stars as an astroscientist whose discovery of a signal, possibly sent from light years away, indicates the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. When decoded, the signal delivers building instructions for a device that can transport someone across the galaxy.
Literate and complex discussions about not just science and astrophysics but politics and religion, combined with Zemeckis’s customary gift for innovative visual effects – one shot involving a medicine cabinet mirror still feels completely impossible even today – gave audiences something of a respite from the standard summer movie carnage, though several commentators questioned what Matthew McConaughey was doing there, or why his character was called Palmer Joss.
It was a vintage summer for fans of science-fiction. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element looked at first to be a risky choice for Bruce Willis, and with a $63m return in the US, the naysayers looked to have been proved right – too expensive, too European, too…insane – but it quickly found a loyal fan base who gave it legs. Precisely the same pattern repeated itself with Event Horizon, which was written off in some quarters as ‘The Shining in space’ but is currently viewed as something of a science-fiction-horror classic.
Several now very familiar names and faces made themselves known to the world courtesy of a pair of enjoyably old-school monster movies. Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson had to overcome Jon Voight’s overacting to defeat Anaconda’s gargantuan title star, while Mimic saw the Hollywood studio debut of the promising young director, Guillermo del Toro.
Eventually it was monsters, aliens and stars that did for the competition in Summer ’97. An impossibly exquisite combination of actors, script, director and timing led Men In Black to stride away with the gold medal. It didn’t come out of nowhere: director Barry Sonnenfeld was on a hot streak after the Addams Family movies and Get Shorty, and Spielberg’s producer’s credit inspired a lot of confidence: Columbia were already demanding a sequel weeks before the film even opened.
What pushed it over into phenomenon territory was the flawless casting. Will Smith had dominated 1996 with his world-saving shenanigans in Independence Day, and his performance here justified all the hype. His youthful, limitlessly energetic J bounced so magnificently back and forth off Tommy Lee Jones’s weary, taciturn K, it felt like this must have been their tenth film together.
Batman & Robin crystallised everything that audiences had grown tired of: a cynical humourless cash-in, thoughtlessly thrown together to sell Big Macs and toy batmobiles, top-lined by a star whose appeal had been on the wane for years.
Men in Black, by contrast felt alive, fresh and brashly contemporary. The utterly perfect script by Ed Solomon certainly didn’t hurt and $250m later, the world had a new Ghostbusters: a big special effects film as funny as it was eye-popping, and the title of Biggest Movie Star in The World now belonged inarguably to Will Smith.
By way of an epilogue, it’s worth mentioning that Summer 97 also saw the release of Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane, starring Demi Moore. Who could have imagined that a quarter of a century later, Will Smith and G.I. Jane would find themselves linked together in such an incredibly unlikely confluence? Then again, who can even believe that Summer 1997 was 25 years ago!