As none other than William Shakespeare once had it: now is the summer of our cinematic blockbuster.
Since Jaws rewrote the history of Hollywood, moviemakers have relied upon the annual blockbuster season to get bums on seats. And like all genres there’s the good, the bad and the ugly.
But we’re only interested in the good. And the best. And here’s the definitive 25 best blockbusters of all time, ever. Put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it.
Without the release of Jaws in 1975, the cinematic landscape would look drastically different. The success of Steven Spielberg’s iconic film paved the way for the summer blockbuster as we know it today. Terrific performances by Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider underpinned a relatively simple premise – man’s fear of things that it cannot control. We’re gonna need a bigger boat? After Jaws, cinema’s needed more seats…
Star Wars (1977)
George Lucas, no doubt emboldened by his pal Steven Spielberg’s inordinate success with Jaws, soon had his own elephantine hit on his hands. Star Wars – essentially a Western in space – soon became the benchmark by which all blockbusters were judged. It gave birth to a franchise that spiralled into every commercial opening ever. But it also gave us Han Solo. Them’s the breaks.
Time hasn’t been as kind to Superman as other films on this list, but, taking on board a mantra favoured by those in the movies – suspend disbelief – there’s still something fantastic about this film. Christopher Reeve convinces as the Man of Steel, and Margot Kidder got many a young boy excited with her portrayal of Lois Lane. Factor in Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Terrence Stamp, Susannah York, Ned Beatty and, of course, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and you have a blockbuster from the old school. Although you might not believe the film’s tag line - You’ll believe a man can fly.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
What do you get if you pair Steven Spielberg with George Lucas? Indiana Jones of course. How could he, or this film, fail? Harrison Ford evoked the golden age of Hollywood with his portrayal of Indy – all chiselled jaw, lots of cracking wise and plenty of muscular action – while the narrative emulated the adventure films that populated the Saturday morning cinema that would have so influenced Spielberg and Lucas. A marvellous film; a marvellous trilogy. Yes, we are ignoring the ill-considered fourth outing.
Yep, Spielberg is back. For folk of a certain dotage – let’s say between the ages of 35 and 45 (at a push) – this was probably their first experience of being emotionally overwhelmed (yes, crying) at the flicks. The story of Elliott’s beautiful friendship with the strange creature stranded on Earth bewitched a generation, and reminded everyone else of the humble, but potent, pleasures of the cinema.
If things had turned out differently, Ghostbusters could have seen both John Belushi and Eddie Murphy flank Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in arguably the greatest film – certainly the funniest – of the 80s. Death and scheduling issues deemed otherwise, but Bill Murray, in for Belushi, was an inspired replacement. Who you gonna call?
Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future was the most successful film of 1985. Released at the beginning of July, the tale of Marty McFly travelling back in time to ensure that his parents do actually get together (and eventually get it on) in the 1950s was another undemanding but effective idea. Michael J Fox mesmerised as the archetypal teenager, while Christopher Lloyd provided cross-generational appeal as Doc Brown.
Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis had demonstrated a charming persona on TV’s Moonlighting, but this was where he got serious as a quintessential Eighties action hero. It’s hard to imagine anyone else giving the somewhat clichéd rogue cop John McClane such a distinctive and alluring presence. The plot was simple, naturally – McClane stumbles upon and attempts to thwart a group of master criminals, led by the irrepressible Alan Rickman, in Los Angeles – which enabled all involved to get serious with the business in hand. Action, Action, ACTION!
It might seem strange in 2013, but when Batman was released nearly a quarter of a century ago there was something of a risk attached to it. Two generations of moviegoers associated Batman with the camp and jokey TV series of the Sixties. Tim Burton had to get it right: and boy, did he ever. The wildcard casting of Michael Keaton as the tormented Dark Knight was inspired, while Jack Nicholson was magical as his equally disturbed tormentor, the Joker. A serious script, exploring themes of loss and alienation, heightened the tension, and the result was box office gold, and, voila, a new film franchise was born.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Everything about Terminator 2 was grand. Of course James Cameron wouldn’t have had it any other way. From the Guns N’ Roses lead single, You Could Be Mine, to the aggressive marketing campaign that preceded the release of the film, nothing was left to chance: the summer of 1991 felt like one big Arnie fest. The film itself managed to top the original, taking advantage of the advances in special effects that were burgeoning at the time. Consequently, the film embedded itself in popular culture, becoming a touchstone of nineties movie making.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Steven Spielberg pretty much wrote the rulebook for summer blockbusters, so it’s unsurprising to see another one of his films feature in this list. Jurassic Park owned the cinematic summer of 1993, and thanks to a raft of technological innovations – chiefly CGI – wrote a new chapter in the book entitled Hollywood Event Movies. Another easy sell – dinosaurs, and what if they could be bought back to life – was made possible by the acting chops of Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, and, of course, Richard Attenborough. Like Jaws, this was another critical and commercial success.
Oh, boy, is this a ride. Keanu Reeves is LA cop Jack Traven (how more everyman can you get?) who must not let a city bus loaded with explosives drop below 50 miles per hour otherwise it will explode. A no-nonsense action-thriller, Speed made good on its simple premise by virtue of its cast and tense script. Dennis Hopper excelled as the bomber with a grudge and Sandra Bullock made her name as the eye candy with a brain. Reeves sensibly gave the derided sequel a timely swerve.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
An iconic slice of Sixties cool; Tom Cruise; Brian De Palma; French hottie Emmanuelle Béart… how could Mission: Impossible fail? Which of course it didn’t. Tom Cruise was then surfing the wave of a rebirth of cool, espionage flicks were reawakened by the return of James Bond the year before in 1995, and the entire production had a knowing sense of being both epic and entertaining. Why the follow-ups were so poor is a question that would tax the minds of folk far cleverer than us.
Independence Day (1996)
Yes, it’s bombastic; yes, it kind of glamorises war in a gung-ho, ‘let’s kick some butt, because we’re American’, kind of way; and, yes, it’s barely plausible – some hokum about an alien invasion on July 4. But, but, but: it’s so entertaining, so enjoyable, so engrossing that all those caveats just drift off in a wonderful suspension-of-disbelief reverie. And Bill Pullman is the best fictional President ever. So there.
Face/Off could well be the best action film of all time. Some claim, but consider this: it’s directed by John Woo, then at the height of his powers, and transplanting the stunning sequences he had pioneered on his classic Hong Kong movies to Hollywood; and it stars Nicolas Cage and a reborn John Travolta as duelling adversaries who take on each other’s physical appearance in an attempt to bring the other one down. Not necessarily obvious blockbuster fodder, but Face/Off was a monster hit in 1997.
Men in Black (1997)
Some actors are born for blockbusters – Will Smith is one of them. After kicking some alien butt in Independence Day, he was soon back for more extraterrestrial antics in Men in Black. Casting heavyweight thespian Tommy Lee Jones alongside him gave the franchise some extra kudos. But be under no illusion: this one was played solely for kicks. And, funnily enough, it worked!
The Matrix (1999)
A film that married such diverse influences as new age and classical philosophy, kung fu movies, postmodern critical theory, steam punk aesthetics, religion and Alice’s Adventures in the Wonderland, might not sound like the most obvious of blockbusters, but The Matrix was just that. Released in 1999, it captured an obvious fin-de-siècle mood and was one of the breakout hits of that year. The Wachowski Brothers utilised Keanu Reeves to great effect, with Laurence FIshburne, Hugo Weaving and Carrie-Anne Moss providing distinctive support, while the film’s premise of dystopian premise of simulated realities looked ahead to the next century.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen might seem like a no-brainer over 10 years on, but back in 2001 it was still seen as a big risk. What if Peter Jackson couldn’t bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic vision to life? Thankfully (or what else would we be doing here?), he did. Setting the wheels in motion for one of the best – and biggest – trilogies in cinematic history.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
A blockbuster based upon a Disney theme park ride might sound like the kind of lowest common denominator rubbish that plagues the notion of blockbusters. However, Hollywood, after all, is a strange place, where ideas that seem to have been hastily scribbled on the back of a napkin at lunch come alive. Such was the case with the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Johnny Depp’s swashbuckling portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow – essentially Keith Richards on the high seas – obviously made the movie, but the film also combined a stunning mix of hi-octane excitement and frivolous fun. Super.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The sadly departed film critic Roger Ebert saw the odd movie in his esteemed career, so for him to assert that Spider-Man 2 was the best superhero movie since Superman was some claim. And he had a point. After getting the introductions out of the way with Spider-Man, the sequel could get really complex. Alfred Molina provided lashing of this with his portrayal of Dr Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus. Tobey Maguire again convinced as the conflicted webbed hero, and James Franco and Kirsten Dunst were naturally superb.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The Bourne series of films (Identity and Supremacy preceded Ultimatum – Legacy was to follow) gave action spy movies a much-needed kick up the posterior. Daniel Craig’s interpretation of 007 was indebted to Paul Greengrass’s vision for Bourne. This was the final chapter for Matt Damon, and, as ever it mixed action adventure tropes with intelligence and superb characterisation. One of the best – and biggest! – films of the noughties.
The Dark Knight (2008)
For those that found Joel Schumacher’s Batman twosome, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, a bit, well, crap, Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins was welcome relief. His second film though, The Dark Knight, was (adopts Ray Winstone voice) the daddy. Heath Ledger was mesmerising as he brought a considered madness to the Joker, and he was ably supported by the likes of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart and co. The Oscars, often so disregarding of this type of thing, had the good sense to honour Ledger’s performance posthumously.
As a rule, blockbusters are not about A-list acting talent (although the two can collide of course). Blockbusters begin with the idea. Avatar is one such film. James Cameron – no stranger to high concept films – developed Avatar over a mammoth 15 years. The film - a curious hybrid of eco activism, genetics, anti-imperialism and science fiction - pioneered a number of new technological breakthroughs in cinema. The result was a smash hit, with two more instalments in place.
Blockbusters often get a bad rap for being dumb and unsophisticated – which, at times, is a bit like criticising Motörhead for being loud. And yes, some can be predictable and poor, but castigating an entire genre for the mistakes of a few rotten eggs is shortsighted in the extreme. Anyhow, the next time some movie snob begins another trite rant about blockbusters just drop the I bomb. Christopher Nolan’s spellbinding and wonderfully original film merged mainstream sensibilities and high-art marvellously. Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe and indie duo Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page all feature in this corking tale of dream stealing.
The Avengers (2012)
Marvel’s The Avengers featured such comic book luminaries as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), plus, of course, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury. It was directed by Joss Whedon. It was of course hyped beyond compare. Did it match the excitement of the marketing department? Yes.