For the first time in most of our lifetimes, your local movie theater won’t have a summer blockbuster season. The covid-19 pandemic took care of that, pushing most of the big-budget popcorn films scheduled for this year’s summer months into fall, spring, or even next summer.
Since we can’t enjoy summer blockbusters in theaters this year, we’re taking it as an opportunity to remember the great summer films of the past. We’ll do it decade by decade, starting with the ‘80s, the first full decade of what would become known to the industry as summer blockbusters. And what a decade to start with as it delivered big time with not just great action films and comedies, but some of the best films ever to boot.
So, before we get to the list, a few things to remember. First, we’re io9. We cover sci-fi and fantasy movies. So Die Hard? Caddyshack? Films like that? Not eligible. Second, we qualified “summer” as any film with a release date between May 1 and August 31. Third, we’re ranking these rather loosely taking into account not just their quality, but their immediate cultural impact as well as long-term staying power. Films that were regarded highly then and still stand the test of time rank higher than a film that bombed upon release and later enjoyed success.
To start, here are a few other films released during that time that we considered but ultimately did not make this list: Friday the 13th, Superman 2, Tron, Conan the Barbarian, WarGames, The Neverending Story, The Goonies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Fright Night, Teen Wolf, Labyrinth, The Monster Squad, Spaceballs, and Willow, just to name a few. Strong, strong titles right? Well, here’s what beat them.
David Cronenberg is one of those directors that’s a little too weird for some and not weird enough for others. But he threaded that needle between cult and mainstream best in this funny, weird, exciting, and horrifically disgusting tale of a man who becomes a fly. The Fly was a modest success at the box office but eventually gained not just cult status, but mainstream reverence. (Opened August 16, 1986)
Utter disaster. That’s not only what Kurt Russell’s character has to deal with in John Carpenter’s wonderful, wacky world of mythological creatures and fantasy magic, but it’s what the film faced at the box office upon release. No one turned up to see this film. Like, no one. But the years passed, cable and home video took hold, and now you watch it and can’t imagine a Carpenter movie that’s more popcorn-y or exciting. (Opened July 4, 1986)
Spoiler: We’re on a Carpenter kick here. Much like Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing starred Russell in an excellent sci-fi action gorefest, and no one showed up for it at the box office. No matter. Like many of these films, The Thing’s reputation grew and grew, culminating in its current status among fans as one of the best sci-fi horror movies ever. A summer blockbuster if you’ve ever seen one, even though it didn’t catch fire until long after release. (Opened June 25, 1982)
It’s Carpenter and Russell times three! While probably the least revered of this trio, Escape from New York grossed the most of the bunch, which is why it’s ranked slightly higher. Simply put, more people saw it sooner, and then, on top of that, it gained a cult appreciation—followed by mainstream status over the decades. Also, its idea of a lone badass being dropped into a desolate, futuristic wasteland has been copied a bunch but rarely topped. (Opened July 10, 1981)
Like the previous films, Blade Runner is so beloved today, one might assume it was a big hit upon release. It was not. It did “OK” but it took lots of time for the world to fully appreciate the work Ridley Scott and his team did. Once they did though, Blade Runner changed what people thought the future might look like in ways the world hadn’t seen since probably 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Opened June 25, 1982. Yes, the same day as The Thing.)
My personal fandom of The Lost Boys aside, this moderate teen vampire hit was, and remains, a towering tribute to ‘80s cool. It helped launch not just Kiefer Sutherland to new heights but was the first team-up for Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, who were a powerful duo for years. The film didn’t quite impact culture beyond that but its casting, quality, and vibe still endure and have that perfect summer feel. (Opened July 31, 1987)
A simple idea done well turned into box office gold. That’s the story behind Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the high concept family comedy that didn’t just start a (still going) franchise, but theme park rides and more. If you were a kid when it was released, it was one of those movies your friends never shut up about. You reenacted scenes from it in your yard. It was everything. But it also came out in an amazing decade so, the competition is tough. (Opened June 23, 1989)
The ‘80s saw all three (yes only three) Indiana Jones movies, all of which we love, released during the summer months. But where to rank them and do they all make the list? Well, Temple of Doom fell short (in my mind, a rare case of a middle chapter outshined by first and last installments)—but here’s The Last Crusade, a massive, massive box office success that gave us Sean Connery as Indy’s dad, hours of unforgettable action, memorable quotes for days, and a perfect ending to a beloved franchise. (Opened May 24, 1989)
When you think of the ‘80s, you think Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was, and still is, the man. And while he had some great summer movies during the decade (The Terminator was a holiday film), Predator stands above the rest. The high concept plot is simple and incredible, the cast is eclectic, the effects are amazing, and everything about it screams blockbuster, which it was. (Opened June 12, 1987)
While RoboCop was a hit, it wasn’t the smash success you may assume it was. It did well, but it didn’t set the box office on fire. Nevertheless, Paul Verhoeven’s violent, sci-fi satire permeated culture for decades to come, challenging notions of law enforcement in ways audiences weren’t used to seeing in such slick, entertaining packages. The film still reverberates not just socially but on a pure adrenaline level. (Opened July 17, 1987)
The first Alien was a critical and financial success. How do you follow it up? You give an up-and-coming director by the name of James Cameron the wheel and let him turn the franchise on its head, transforming the original film’s intense, character-driven scare-fest into a bombastic, high-octane action extravaganza. The result was yet another massive hit, one that took the franchise, its director, and stars to new heights. (Opened July 18, 1986)
By the time The Wrath of Khan was released, Star Trek was already a hit. But for some, especially people who’d only seen the first film, it was certainly a more heady brand of sci-fi than that other “Star” franchise out in the world. That pivoted slightly with The Wrath of Khan, which injected even more smarts, personality, and excitement into the Trek franchise, resulting in a sequel most believe is the best film in the series. (Opened June 4, 1982)
In 1977, the first Star Wars helped solidify the summer blockbuster season unofficially started by Jaws two years prior. Things only got bigger from there. First in 1980 (don’t worry, that one’s coming) and then with what many thought would be the final Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. It was everywhere, in every way, and had the box office receipts to back it up, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1983. It ranks here and not higher because of the film that preceded it. (Opened May 25, 1983)
Almost everyone who grew up in the ‘80s adores Big. How could you not? It’s the ultimate wish-fulfillment for young kids (okay, maybe mostly boys) telling the story of a kid who makes a wish, becomes grown-up Tom Hanks, gets the girl, and has a sweet job working for a toy company. The film is hilarious, heartfelt, and made its already rising star Hanks into the megastar he is today. Plus, it was a box office juggernaut. (Opened June 3, 1988)
At the height of their powers, Stanley Kubrick teamed up with Jack Nicholson to adapt a popular novel by Stephen King. The resulting film was a moderate-sized hit, but quickly became, and remains, as revered and dissected as any film of its era. Hell, there was even a sequel to it released last year. The Shining is one of the biggest and best horror movies ever; it just took some time for everyone to realize it. (Opened May 23, 1980)
We’ve reached the top 10, all of which are films that were big hits with audiences, mostly hits with critics, and remain as popular and relevant now as ever. Gremlins did that with its unique blend of tones—from horror to comedy to romance—and its inventive, unforgettable, premise. Who could ever forget those creatures that live by very, very specific rules? (Opened June 8, 1984)
Pee-wee Herman existed before this movie was released, but he’d never be the same after his big screen debut. The cult character teamed with a new director named Tim Burton to make a wild, madcap adventure that feels more wrong than right. It worked though and Pee-wee became a cross-cultural icon with not just a hit TV show, but sequels, merchandise, and so much more. Burton, too, turned this, his feature directorial debut, into a career that banged out hit after hit, masterpiece after masterpiece. So while Big Adventure itself wasn’t a huge financial hit, its cultural impact was massive. (Opened August 9, 1985)
“They’re here.” That chilling line was at the center of everyone’s obsession with this terrifying, captivating, roller-coaster ride of a horror movie directed by Tobe Hooper (and, legend has it, Steven Spielberg, too). It’s hard to imagine a more mainstream, edge of your seat exciting horror movie than this one, which is why it was a huge hit, created a franchise, and is still revered today. (Opened June 4, 1982)
Though mixing animation and live-action had happened before, it had never been done quite like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Never on this scale, with this level of talent, for the full duration of the movie, and the studio reaped the rewards to the tune (pun intended) of the highest-grossing film of 1988. The Robert Zemeckis film was one of those cultural events everyone saw, talked about, and remains a favorite. (Opened June 24, 1988)
Back to the Future is a perfect movie. We’ve been over this. Beat by beat, the movie is a Swiss watch that isn’t just exciting and surprising but also funny and sweet. It’s just everything. Another Zemeckis film, Back to the Future was a massive box office success that we still discuss, probably too much, to this day. When you get to this level though, I edged Back to the Future down the list just a hair because while the movie infiltrated culture in many ways (music, style, cars, soda), it didn’t quite have that mega merchandise push like some of its contemporaries (though it’s making up for it these days). (Opened July 3, 1985)
Put someone in a Ghostbusters t-shirt and it just feels like the mid-‘80s. The sci-fi comedy had not just the financial and critical success all films dream about, it also was filled with such simple, perfect iconography that it was merchandised for years. Shirts, Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, Proton Packs, animated spin-offs, you name it. Succeeding on every single level, Ghostbusters is one of the best summer blockbusters ever. (Opened June 8, 1984)
In 2020, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is so well-known that it’s hard to imagine a time when everyone on Earth didn’t know who he was. But that’s what happened when George Lucas teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make one of the great adventure films of all-time. The film used serials and films of the past to inspire a brand new hero who, himself, would become an icon. Not a lot of merchandise came out compared to some other films, but its cultural impact was, and is, off the charts. (Opened June 12, 1981)
The first Star Wars caught everyone off guard. That was not the case with The Empire Strikes Back, which opened with the kind of fervor and anticipation few movies had generated to that time. It was a cultural, must-see event, not just because it was “Star Wars 2,” but because of its shocking revelations. Of course, being Star Wars, the merchandise was there, the hype, the multimedia blitz. The only things that keep it from the top spots are that it both is a sequel, and had a sequel of its own. (Opened May 21, 1980)
It’s not like Batman was a new character in 1989. Everyone knew Batman. Most of us had even seen him in live action thanks to Adam West. And yet, Tim Burton’s dark, vibrant, live-action film version of the character changed superhero films as we know it. A massive success in every way, Batman was suddenly everywhere; toy stores, clothing departments, on your underwear, in your Happy Meals. Batman took every cue from the ‘80s summer blockbusters before it and, in 1989, brought them all together into a perfect storm. (Opened June 23, 1989)
Eat a bag of Reese’s Pieces and don’t think of E.T. Ride a bicycle down the street and don’t think of E.T. It’s a film that didn’t just delight audiences, it changed their lives. Imagine an original piece of intellectual property doing that today. It’s hard to. But E.T. went from a little movie that could to the highest-grossing film ever in a matter of months—and, to this day, is a fan favorite. Adults and kids alike could find things to love about it, you could buy dolls or candy if you wanted, and a director by the name of Steven Spielberg rose to a level all by himself. In a decade of epic blockbusters, one the whole family could enjoy equally flew above them all. (Opened June 11, 1982)
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