Cinema is coming to the rescue this summer, and we in turn will hopefully be rescuing the cinema. After what has seemed like an eternity, cinema doors are starting to open and we will once again be able to watch films where they were designed to be seen: on an immense screen in the company of like-minded strangers…and one person who refuses to turn off their phone.
There are threats to the survival of cinema such have not existed since the arrival of television, and the movies are going to have to up their game to tempt audiences out of their living rooms and away from their enormous HD flat screens and VOD streaming subscriptions.
To a considerably lesser extent, there was a sense of ‘buck up your ideas’ 25 years ago in the run up to the summer of 1996. The previous year, outside of Apollo 13 the only real big hitters were a lacklustre Disney animation and a pair of threequels. In terms of quality and box office, the winter of 1995 (the season of Toy Story, Se7en, Heat and GoldenEye) had wiped the floor with the summer.
By the end of its run, Summer ’96 had more than made up for the shortfalls of the previous year. This was the summer when Hollywood remembered how to bust blocks. Twice as many movies crossed the $100m mark than in 1995. New stars were minted, old Gods fell and franchises were born – and miraculously there wasn’t a single sequel in the top 20!
Three years earlier, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park had seen CGI take a gargantuan leap forward and Hollywood was changed forever. Sometimes ‘forever’ takes a while to materialise, and nothing with the impact of a marauding T-Rex had appeared in the interim, save Gary Sinise’s missing legs in Forrest Gump.
This summer, it was all about the FX, the very raison d’etre of Twister, Jan de Bont’s tornado actioner that started the summer season as it meant to go on. Critics carped about the paper-thin characters and the even-thinner plot but audiences flocked to see the kind of violent devastation that hadn’t been around since the days of Irwin Allen.
Back then, it would have been miniatures and models being blown over by a hair-dryer. Twister instead was every inch the modern CGI blockbuster: immersive, deafening and thrilling. Plus it was a rare treat to see the beloved Bill Paxton being given a chance to play the lead for a change (as well as the unique sight of a cow twirling around in mid-flight).
Twister was Ronseal cinema, delivering precisely what audiences expected. No one quite knew what to expect from The Rock, but word quickly spread that the inspired combination of legendary Sean Connery, recently garlanded eccentric Nicolas Cage and the director of Bad Boys had paid off in spades.
A glorious example of ‘90s high-concept multiplex cinema, The Rock benefitted from an ingenious plot – good guys have to break into Alcatraz to save San Fransisco from being fried – and the (then) novel sight of force-of-nature indie star Nic Cage in an all-out action movie. Of course, having Connery along for the ride didn’t hurt either.
The Rock was A-grade trash cinema and perhaps the most pure fun to be had during the summer. In terms of bona fide comedy, this season was supposed to belong to Jim Carrey but it ended up in the hands of a rival that many had written off.
Jim Carrey’s rocket-like ascent from complete obscurity to ‘Biggest Star in The World’ remains one of the great Hollywood phenomena of the 1990s. His turn as The Riddler in 1995’s Batman Forever was key to its success and even the Ace Ventura sequel made a fortune.
In ’96, Carrey became the first actor ever to be paid $20m for a single movie. Perhaps because of this headline-grabbing transaction the knives seemed to be out for The Cable Guy from the start. Ben Stiller’s dark comedy, shot through with the same indie sensibility as his last film Reality Bites, was now a blockbuster in-waiting, and Carrey’s usual crowd were nonplussed by what they saw.
The papers love a good ‘Feet of clay/Emperor’s New Clothes’ story, and this one was gift-wrapped for them. The Cable Guy still made money (and has aged pretty well, unlike Ace Ventura 2) but the story stuck and the perception of failure clung to it like moss.
In a plot twist straight out of a Hollywood scriptwriter’s manual, the new cool new kid on the block had his ass handed to him by an old, seasoned pro. Eddie Murphy’s remake of Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor was the biggest comedy of the summer and Murphy’s first major success since Coming To America.
Aided no end by Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning make-up which let Murphy play not only the dirigible-sized title character but his entire family too, the world was reminded that Eddie Murphy on a good day is about as funny as any human being can be. A sequel arrived four years later which was Eddie Murphy on an average day.
The Nutty Professor used up all of the comedy oxygen, suffocating the competition. Big things were expected from Harold Ramis’s cloning comedy Muliplicity with four Michael Keatons, but the returns were disappointingly singular. Similarly The Farrelly Brothers’s Kingpin, with Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray (the actual funniest film of the summer) seemed to be heading for a strike but mystifyingly rolled the ball into the gutter.
Another surprising under-performer was Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which struggled to get past the $100m mark. Beautifully animated, cleverly adapted and surprisingly dark; Terry Gilliam took one look at the trailer and abandoned his own planned version (“It had all the shots I wanted to do.”). The downsized grosses, compared to Aladdin and The Lion King, marked the beginning of the end of Disney’s renaissance.
A kids film with similarly immense charm and disappointing initial success was Danny DeVito’s brilliantly subversive Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda, which only took $33m, but has since gone on to become something of a modern classic (with a remake on the way to prove it). It grossed even less than Jack, the nadir of Robin Williams’s unloved ‘manchild’ phase.
Disney weren’t the only ones to find themselves with a rusting lustre. Five years previously Arnold Schwarzeneggar was the box office king of the world. However, his balloon had been punctured by Last Action Hero in ’93 and not even True Lies could put a plaster over it. Eraser was a hit but not a palpable one. The rot had set into the Austrian Oak and not even Batman was going to be able to save the day.
Another megastar from the early ‘90s came a cropper when Demi Moore’s Striptease proved to be an embarrassing failure for all concerned. The press, with dependably lurid misogyny, focussed on the nudity and Demi’s $12.5m payday, but the end result – featuring the mercilessly unforgettable sight of Burt Reynolds covered in Vaseline – only served as a reminder that this was an especially Y- chromosome-heavy summer with little to offer female audiences who didn’t like explosions.
But just as the sun sets on one career inevitably it rises to shine on another. Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill was a refreshingly adult courtroom drama – one of the fifty seven John Grisham adaptations to make it to the screen in the ‘90s. All eyes were on the practically unknown Matthew McConaughey who had snatched the lead from under the noses of some established stars, to the bafflement of almost everyone.
It turns out that he was more than just alright (alright alright), he was a full-on movie star and the film was a box office hit. Other movies engineered for less chaotic tastes included Phenomenon, a successful fantasy drama starring a still-hot post-Pulp Fiction, pre-Battlefield Earth John Travolta as an average Joe who suddenly becomes a telekinetic genius.
Many rungs down the box office ladder you’ll find John Sayles’s stunning Lone Star (also co-starring Matthew McConaughey), a modern classic in need of rediscovery. There was also a strong US showing for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, which had already become one of the definitive British films of the decade since opening in the UK in February.
In a summer short of romance, it fell to Kevin Costner to keep hearts a-flutterin’ with his funny, charming golf comedy Tin Cup, in which he abandoned his taciturn hero routine for the first time in ages as he wooed René Russo, in between humiliating Don Johnson on the green.
Costner’s star wattage would ebb and flow during the decade. Tom Cruise, by contrast was at the peak of his powers as he launched what would be the first in a franchise that shows no signs of calming down a quarter of a century later.
Cruise recruited the great visual stylist Brian De Palma to guide Mission: Impossible from the small to the big screen and it was a thrill ride packed with ingenious disguises, a rather dated floppy disc McGuffin and sensational set-pieces, culminating in Cruise being blown from an exploding helicopter onto a speeding train.
This might well have been the greatest ‘money shot’ of the summer but that award was stolen from under its nose by the White House’s destruction courtesy of an alien death ray in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which saw off all comers to take the summer box office crown.
Like Twister, a contemporary spin on the disaster movies of the ‘70s, Independence Day took the alien invasion genre of the 1950s and went ballistic with it. For months, audiences had been teased by shots of immense shadows moving over cities, and cryptic references to ‘ID4’, all building towards a release date – the fourth of July – that amounted to millions of dollars of free advertising.
This was event cinema on a ‘Jurassic Park’ level – turning Jeff Goldblum into an unlikely box office behemoth – and the movie cleaned up. It not only took over $300m but it transformed Will Smith into the biggest movie star in the world (something he would consolidate the following summer in the company of, in the main, much less aggressive aliens).
In 1996 it was all about the spectacle. Audiences were reminded that sitting in a packed room watching expensive, balletically choreographed destruction can often be a pure cathartic joy, and the only place you can find it is in the cinema. Hopefully, we’ll be reminded once again very soon.