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Summer of '82

Well, we just recently finished another rotten summer at the movies…

Sure, there were some unexpected bright lights in the season: The Others, Jeepers Creepers, Moulin Rouge and even John Carpenter's western/space movie pastiche, Ghosts of Mars. But overall, many audiences left darkened auditoriums this year feeling terribly disappointed with the so-called "entertainment" delivered by Hollywood. An objective perusal of the summer slate reveals that the heavily hyped "blockbusters" were, for the most part, losers... at least in terms of quality.

Pearl Harbor had its moments, but was bloated and oversimplified. Planet of the Apes was a full-out disaster, an empty-headed make-up show that failed to live up to the heritage of either its written or filmed source material. The Mummy Returns was another CGI freak show, as forgettable as the first entry in the franchise. Even Steven Spielberg's films were off the mark. I loved Jurassic Park III, a solid sequel to a sequel, but it isn't the kind of film (like Gremlins [1984], or Poltergeist [1982]) that is going to be remembered with feverish devotion in 20 years. And then there was A.I. a muddled, if provocative entertainment. And who recalls Swordfish? Bubble Boy? Tomb Raider? Or the other fantasy/adventures of the dog days of 2001?

Now the summer of 2002 awaits and intrepid moviegoers must be wondering if Hollywood has forever lost the capacity to make quality genre blockbusters. Hopefully you remember what I'm talking about: the kind of motion picture that wouldn't drop its audience 58% percent after the opening weekend because gasp! it was actually good, and people wanted to see it again and again. At the risk of revealing my age, I'm reminded of an upcoming anniversary. In June 2002, we will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of a great summer at the movies, one of Hollywood's finest, in fact.

It was 1982, and there's never been a year that could compare with it. In one summer, audiences welcomed two horror masterpieces: Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist and John Carpenter's The Thing (his best film, by the way), and a revitalized Star Trek franchise with the release of The Wrath of Khan. Then there was an amazing peek at the future of special effects films and computers, Disney's Tron, and, of course, Spielberg's unforgettable masterpiece, E.T. If those meals weren't enough to tide over the hungry genre fan, there was also Clint Eastwood's special effects laden fantasy/espionage adventure, Firefox, and the epic Conan the Barbarian.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. The summer of '82 also brought us a little film from a guy named Ridley Scott. Maybe you've seen it? It was called Blade Runner.

Now, I'm not one of those old guys who gazes back at the past and whines about how "things used to be." I don't really see any point in nostalgia (a feeling that somebody famous once called the most "useless" of emotions). And, if truth were told, Hollywood did have a damn good summer not that long ago. The year 1999 was pretty damn solid, and it gave us such neo-classics as The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and my personal favorite, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. It was a solid season of movies, no doubt... but it can't hold a candle to '82.

Think about it for a minute. Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, still the best haunted house movie since Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, still the best Star Trek film ever made, opened on the same day: Friday, June 4, 1982. Wouldn't it be great to set out on a Friday night in 2002, knowing you had a choice between two such excellent films? Dream about it all you want, but Hollywood won't let it happen. Today, we're all like box office cattle. This weekend, it's Jurassic Park III. Next week, it's Planet of the Apes. On Memorial Day, it's Pearl Harbor. The studios have virtually programmed us to see what they want us to see, when they want us to see it! It's kind of shameful, actually, if you think about it.

The summer of 1982 offered other interesting choices too. You could go to see E.T. the touching tale of a cute alien stuck on Earth, and cry your eyes out. Or you could experience the opposite side of the coin: The Thing, the tale of a malevolent shape shifter trapped on Earth. The latter is still one of the most terrifying films ever made, and probably one of the most influential (T2 anybody? The Dominion on DS9? The bad aliens on The X-Files?) The funny thing is that both films, E.T. and The Thing, came from Universal Studios. Same summer; same topic; but different takes. Today, we're more likely to get the same movie from the same perspective in the same summer. For proof of that assertion, I point to three years: 1998 Year of the Asteroid (Armageddon, Deep Impact), 1997 Year of the Volcano (Dante's Peak, Volcano), and 1989 Year of the Underwater Menace (Leviathian, Deep Star Six). Unfortunately, none of those films had directors as thoughtful as a Spielberg or a Carpenter at the helm, and so audiences had to choose between Pepsi and Coke, two very similar products with no discernible differences. Leviathan was which one? Deep Impact had which star in it? Volcano was set where? These films look-alike, sound-alike, and smell-alike. Attack of the Clones, indeed: that's Hollywood's problem.

I think my biggest beef with many of the films this summer is that they were designed simply as special effects showcases, and as such they forgot the good stuff like drama, story, plot, characterization and humanity. Pearl Harbor's claim to fame was that it featured a stunning 45-minute recreation of a real battle. Is that any reason to make a movie? It's rather insulting when you consider that real people, American boys, died in that attack 60 years ago, but now it's just fodder for really outstanding CGI. I hope I don't live to 2061, when The Twin Towers: The Movie comes out and it too boasts 45 minutes of really good CGI destruction...

The new Planet of the Apes exists solely to showcase new ape make-up, but if truth were told, the old make-up was just fine, thank you. The new film excised the context of the original (and far superior) Apes film, man's obsession with nuclear arms, and his capacity to destroy himself, for a lame fight in the desert with lots of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wire work. The film is so lobotomized that its characters are not even allowed to call The Forbidden Zone by its famous name. Nope. Now it's the Forbidden Area. Great!

By contrast the films of 1982 featured stunning special effects, but in the right proportions. E.T. himself was a special effect, but Spielberg made him an endearing character, and the film was about friendship. Star Trek II was packed with space combat, but one came away from the story contemplating camaraderie and sacrifice (in regards to Spock's death). Tron and Blade Runner were loaded with special effects too, but they took us to incredible, highly detailed worlds, and told interesting stories there. The great special effects were texture, not totality. Poltergeist and The Thing showcased state of the art effects, but we felt suspense and terror while watching, and in the case of the former, our sympathies were with the very human Freeling family. Did you care that much about any character in The Mummy Returns? Tomb Raider?

Let the summer of 1982 be a lesson for 2002. The movies of that summer were exciting, terrifying, touching, spectacular, and thought provoking, and as a result, virtually every one of them is today considered a classic. Hollywood should attempt to emulate this success by putting CGI back in its place. Special effects are a tool for making our dreams come real, not the reason we go to the movies. Maybe its time to give the filmmaking process back to the directors, and take it out of the hands of the digital artists.

Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg, Nicholas Meyer, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Steven Lisberger if you're reading this column, let it be your call to arms. Genre directors unite! Because if you don't, all we'll have left is nostalgia for 1982, and some great films to revisit on DVD...


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