As none other than William Shakespeare once had it: now is the summer of our cinematic blockbuster.
Since Jaws forever changed 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 - for every truly amazing blockbuster there’s a string of cash-ins, failed franchises and underwhelming reboots.
But we’re not interested in them, we’re here for the best. Voila, the definitive 28 best blockbusters of all time, ever, in chronological order. 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, cinemas 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 makes an excellent 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’re ignoring the ill-considered fourth outing. As for the fifth, who knows?
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. The 2016 reboot deserved better than the sexist pre-backlash it got, but the original remains head and spectral shoulders the best. Who you gonna call?
Back to the Future (1985)
Great Scott! Back to the Future brought a dream combination together - a universally relatable idea (were your parents ever young?), a script sparkling with endlessly quotable lines (“What the hell is a jigawatt?”) and a magnificent cast delivering universally career-best performances. Michael J. Fox is charm personified as Marty McFly, Christopher Lloyd makes the greatest scientist ever, and has there ever been a better cinematic bully than Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff?
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 happening at the time. The already-huge film became even bigger than itself, with numerous moments from it embedding themselves in popular culture. Wolfie’s fine.
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, Laura Dern, and, of course, Jeff Goldblum. Like Jaws, this was another critical and commercial success. The fourth sequel is coming this summer and, based on the last one, could go either way.
Oh, boy, is this a ride. Keanu Reeves is LA cop Jack Traven, 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 excels as the bomber with a grudge, Sandra Bullock gives the performance that made her a superstar, and Jeff Daniels mutters brilliantly out of the side of his mouth. Don’t watch the sequel, it is very bad.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Featuring that iconic theme tune, Tom Cruise, Brian De Palma and endless twists and turns, this update of the Sixties TV show began an ongoing, multi-director, globe-trotting saga of high-tech espionage and ever more impressive stunts. Cruise was a star beforehand, but producing and starring in this super-franchise cemented him as one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
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 alien butt in ID4, he was soon back for more extraterrestrial antics in Men in Black. Casting heavyweight thespian Tommy Lee Jones to play the straight man alongside him was a stroke of genius, and the theme tune remains an absolute banger.
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 managed the impossible. The Wachowskis used Keanu Reeves to great effect, with Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving and Carrie-Anne Moss providing distinctive support, while the film’s dystopian premise of simulated realities looked ahead to this 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. Expectations weren’t high for the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but those expectations were confounded. 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. Director Sam Raimi paid homage to his own Evil Dead 2, while Alfred Molina brought lashings of complexity to what could easily have been a cartoonish portrayal of Dr Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus. Tobey Maguire again convinced as the conflicted webbed hero, with no idea the next decade and a half would see him rebooted twice.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The Bourne series of films (Identity and Supremacy preceded Ultimatum – Legacy and Jason Bourne were 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 chapter 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 magnificent. 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 popcorn entertainment, had the good sense to honour Ledger’s performance posthumously.
Avatar began with an idea, one that James Cameron – no stranger to high concept films – developed 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 four sequels currently in production. Four!
Blockbusters often get a bad rap for being dumb and unsophisticated, but Christopher Nolan’s spellbinding and wonderfully original film merged mainstream and arthouse sensibilities marvellously. Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and indie duo Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page all feature in this intricate, action-packed, hyper-intelligent tale of dream stealing.
Fast & Furious 5 (2011)
There’s nothing at all wrong with the four films that precede this one, but the fifth Fast & Furious chapter marks the point where it goes from a series of films about street racing to something else entirely. And it’s mainly due to the arrival of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson - even bigger and balder than Vin Diesel, and a sign that the franchise was leaving any semblance of realism behind and instead going for huge, spectacular, incredibly entertaining insanity.
The Avengers (2012)
We’re so used to the Marvel machine now that it’s easy to forget how massive and unprecedented The Avengers was. A megafranchise made of several smaller franchises, a standalone film that was simultaneously the sequel to four other films, it showed Marvel’s complex, multi-year plan had paid off. So many heroes! So many Chrises! So, so many dollars at the box office!
Winner of the Best Director Oscar for Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity is an eerie, dazzling, disorienting, enormous film, at once beautiful and terrifying in its depiction of the vastness of space. A combination of spectacular visual effects and edge-of-the-seat human drama, it opens with a continuous 17-minute shot that is about as impressive as anything ever committed to film.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
One of the most spectacularly over-the-top movies ever made, Fury Road is essentially a movie-long chase, but the greatest chase conceived by humankind, involving weird, wonderful, monstrous vehicles and SO MUCH FIRE. Despite the title of the movie, it entirely belongs to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, an instant icon and super, super badass. Every frame of this movie could hang on an art gallery wall.