Source: The Courier Journal
Submitted by: S.K. Sloan
Written by: Tamara Ikenberg
The season for sci-fi blockbuster movies are summer staples, the aliens have landed, onscreen, that is; it must be summer.
Popcorn movies with popular stars, excessive explosions and extraterrestrials have been staples of summer since the late ’70s, when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg started their entertainment empires.
Now, the latest big-budget future-fest, Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” is poised to conquer the coveted Fourth of July weekend. Ann Donahue, news editor for Premiere magazine, says it has all the blockbuster bases covered.
“Sure it’s a science-fiction movie for the guys, but you have Tom Cruise for the women, you have the Dakota Fanning child-in-peril stuff for the older women, and then you have stuff blowing up for kids.
“It’s kind of indoctrinated in people’s minds that the summer’s when you go see the big expensive movies. People have time to see it and the kids are going to be out of school, and since, honestly, most movies are marketed to kids and teenagers at this point, they want it out when they’re available to see it.”
The weekend of the Fourth is increasingly important for these high-stakes, high-tech affairs.
“The trend of the industry right now is that basically you have to make it on your opening weekend,” Donahue says, “and if you don’t, people start badmouthing your movie.”
This year, opening weekend is more like opening week — as is increasingly the case with blockbuster wannabes, “War of the Worlds” opened Wednesday rather than on the traditional Friday.
While this reinterpretation of H.G. Wells’ novel runs the risk of being tainted by Cruise’s recent tabloid omnipresence, local movie fans say they are still determined to see it.
“Even if he’s a nut, I don’t care,” says Doug Adams, movie buff and manager of Comic Book World on Shepherdsville Road. “If he entertains me in a movie, that’s all I care about.”
Local sci-fi fans agree that a summer sci-fi flick has to be accessible to everyone to hit blockbuster status.
“You do have to have the good special effects, but if the stories aren’t there, and the characters aren’t there, and you don’t care about the characters, it’s just noise,” says Michael Eckhardt, 36, a pharmacist and member of Louisville’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader’s Group.
The Louisvillian’s favorite summer film is “Spider-Man 2,” which opened last year on June 30. “It had a lot of crossover appeal. It didn’t attract just a sci-fi audience. It had enough human interest in it to attract outside the core audience.”
The summer sci-fi hit was already a staple by the mid-’90s, but the concept of the giant July Fourth release really came into its own with 1996’s overblown, cartoonishly patriotic “Independence Day.”
“I just remember with the marketing campaign for that, they were trying to make an event out of the Fourth of July weekend,” Donahue says. “The scenes everybody remembers from that movie are the White House blowing up and Will Smith punching the alien and saying ‘Welcome to Earth.’ Those were the two rah-rah moments people get behind.”
People also got behind the leading man. Smith effortlessly slipped into the role of modern-day matinee hero, making old-guard sci-fi legends like Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger look done and dated.
“People think (Smith) is really relatable,” Donahue says. “He’s good-looking, but not too good-looking. He’s talented, but not strappingly talented. He’s not an actor. He’s like a guy having fun and being filmed doing it.”
The next year, Smith scored again with the secret agent vs. aliens mega-hit “Men in Black,” released on July 2, which spiced up the genre with deadpan humor and a crackling pop-culture sensibility.
“It’s got the humor — it makes fun of current society as well as trends,” says Chris Rachael Oseland, leader of the sci-fi readers group. “They used the aliens the way you would’ve used race not too long ago.”
Smith’s next big-budget summer affair was “Wild Wild West,” a misguided television show revival released on June 30, 1999, that mixed the Old West with futuristic elements. Panned by critics and tepidly received by fans, it still brought in about $50 million in its opening weekend.
” ‘Wild Wild West’ was terrible,” says Jeffersonville, Ind., resident Gregory Adam Cunningham, 28, a member of the reading group. And he’s not overly picky about his sci-fi fare.
“It’s simple fun. It could be comedy, it could be action, it could be anything, as long as the story’s entertaining and it takes you away from reality for a couple hours.”
Looking further back, you’ll find that some of the most iconic movie releases of the past 30 years were summer sci-fi sensations.
In the 1980s, innovative hits such as “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” “Ghostbusters,” “Back to the Future” and “Aliens” all emerged during the summer. The non-Will Smith summers of the ’90s brought heavyweights “Jurassic Park,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and the critically panned yet high-grossing “Armageddon” to the screen.
This decade, summer sci-fi pics such as “Men in Black 2,” “X-Men,” “Terminator 3” and “Spider-Man 2” have cleaned up at the box office.
Most of these films got the recipe right.
“The purpose of the summer sci-fi blockbuster is the same as the purpose of summer reading: pure, simple, escapism with no deeper meaning,” Oseland says. “You don’t have to read the subtitles and make sure you understand the plight of migrant farm workers.”
All you have to do is buy some popcorn and be blown away — from the safety of your own seat.