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’re going decade by decade, starting with the ‘80s, and now moving onto the ‘90s, arguably the most formative decade in terms of summer blockbusters ever. Before we get to the list, a few things to remember. First, we’re io9—we cover sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. So Speed? The Rock? Apollo 13? 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: Back to the Future Part III, Darkman, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Universal Soldier, Cool World, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, The Crow, Waterworld, Mortal Kombat, Last Action Hero, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Austin Powers, The Lost World, Desperado, The Craft, Deep Impact, Godzilla, Mulan, The X-Files, Blade, The Mummy, and Wild Wild West. That’s ridiculous, right? So many good (or at least memorable) movies. Check out what did make the cut below.
Joe Johnston’s rousing, period superhero film captured the imaginations of anyone who saw it—but unfortunately, that wasn’t a lot of people. The film was a middle of the road success financially but endures today through the nostalgic roots it planted at the time. (Opened June 21, 1991)
Coming on the heels of two all-time masterpieces, Alien 3 had a lot to live up to. The hype surrounding it was pretty palpable, and though it wasn’t the hit it probably should have been, the film’s surprises (and the fact that was made by a young director named David Fincher) have given it a life well beyond its years. (Opened May 22, 1992)
In a decade filled with incredible science fiction, it’s not easy to stand out. But if there’s one thing Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element does do, it’s stand out. Though it wasn’t a particularly big hit in the United States, its huge action and stunning visuals give it a look and feel that hold up to this day. (Opened May 9, 1997)
I love Contact. Truly. Upon release, it made a decent amount of money and had its fans, but for some reason it hasn’t quite endured like one would’ve hoped. No one talks about it anymore, probably because it’s fairly elementary when it comes to its themes, and light on action compared to drama. And yet, for me, it’s my favorite Robert Zemeckis movie without “Future” in the title. (Opened July 11, 1997)
Love or hate this big-budget comic book adaptation, there’s no denying Warren Beatty’s ambition or the film’s success. At the time, it was everywhere. But oddly, in the decades since, it hasn’t quite had the staying power of similar blockbusters. (Opened June 15, 1990)
In the ‘90s, Jim Carrey was such a big star, he could do almost anything. As you’ll see, he’s all over this list. While The Truman Show wasn’t his biggest hit of the bunch, it’s undoubtedly the smartest. The film was a success, and while its immediate cultural impact wasn’t obvious, its commentary on privacy, media, and more remains as valid today as ever. (Opened June 5, 1998)
Though Babe wasn’t a huge hit in the U.S., the talking pig’s surprise appearances at the Oscars and immense, undeniable quality and charm have made it a timeless favorite. That’ll do, pig. That’ll do. (Opened August 4, 1995)
This goofy Jim Carrey interpretation of a much dark series of comics was a smash hit and still remains fairly relevant, even if it’s primarily as a series of GIFs. When it was released, though, you couldn’t go anywhere without people quoting the film or talking about it. (Opened July 29, 1994)
These days, most fans know John Travolta and Nicolas Cage for being slightly wild. Audiences got their first glimpse of that in this hugely successful action film, which was also many people’s first introduction to legendary action director John Woo. (Opened June 27, 1997)
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to reboot a dated franchise with modern genre conventions and one of the biggest stars in the world. Needless to say, it worked, and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise is still as popular today as it was when the first movie was released. (Opened May 22, 1996)
Arnold Schwarzenegger was big in the ‘80s, but in the ‘90s, he was arguably bigger. One of his best films was this high concept sci-fi film that melded a great story, action, and effects in a way that begat huge financial success and cultural relevance that’s continued to this day. (Opened June 1, 1990)
The simple ideas are usually the best. Like Twister, in which a group of characters chase tornadoes in the hope of learning more about them. The cast, top to bottom, is excellent and filled with so many actors you recognize it’s ridiculous. The visual effects are second to none and the tone and humor may be more entertaining today than they were in 1996. A huge box office smash that’s still found on TV these days. (Opened May 10, 1996)
I had to pull rank on this one. Some might think this is placed too high for an animated movie that barely grossed $50 million in the U.S. But the film is stone-cold perfection. It picked up an Oscar nomination and showed that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were musical geniuses, in addition to comedy ones. As a result, a few years down the road, we got The Book of Mormon. Plus, I’m still singing those songs... aren’t you? (Opened June 30, 1999)
The best summer blockbusters aren’t engineered to be that. They become that due to quality and word of mouth. That’s not the case with Armageddon, which was definitely designed to be a blockbuster—from its indie-darling cast to its Aerosmith anthem. And yet, it worked in spades, producing a huge box office hit that’s still silly enough to be entertaining and relevant enough to be mentioned. (Opened July 1, 1998)
Thanks in large part to Bryan Adams’ soundtrack power ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do it For You,” Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was inescapable during 1991. It was a cultural event you had to be a part of—and, frankly, you became a part of it even if you didn’t see the movie. But a lot of people did, making it the second highest-grossing film of the year and a perennial staple of popular culture. (Opened June 14, 1991)
For a few years, Will Smith ruled the summer box office. That started with a film still to come on this list and was solidified in this audacious sci-fi comedy that’s incredibly weird as well as hugely satisfying. It had the big hit song, like many films of this era did, the biggest star in the world at the time, and enough success to spawn multiple sequels. (Opened July 2, 1997)
Make no mistake: the ‘90s belonged to Batman. Of the four films in the series that began with Tim Burton and Michael Keaton, three of them came out in the decade. They were all smash hits, we still talk about all of them today, and each summer of their release, the buzz was electric. Sure, most people agree there are diminishing returns, but there’s a debate to be had there and no one can deny the blockbuster power of the franchise. (Note: I realize I’m cheating here but I felt it was was the best way to cover these films). (Opened June 19, 1992; June 16, 1995; June 20, 1997)
Genre conventions aren’t just for action movies. This ultra-smash hit romance about a murder mystery from beyond the grave proved that. It was the highest-grossing film of 1990, scooped up a few Oscars, and is still a crucial part of popular culture for its ceramic skills alone. (Opened July 13, 1990)
“I see dead people.” Yeah, dead presidents. Lots of them. No one saw M. Night Shyamalan’s understated horror film coming. No one. But it had that twist ending which was all anyone could talk about for months, to the tune of almost $700 million worldwide. Between every parody, every comedian, and every sitcom that referenced it, The Sixth Sense didn’t just turn its writer-director into a household name, it became a cultural staple. (Opened August 6, 1999)
It’s hard to overstate the impact The Blair Witch Project had on the world. Sure, it grossed hundreds of millions of dollars on a budget of tens of thousands, but beyond that, it all but invented the found footage horror genre that’s still going today, is still regularly referenced, and is still scary as shit if you aren’t careful. (Opened July 16, 1999)
When it was released in 1996, Independence Day was my quintessential summer blockbuster. It hit me just right. I was 16 and had advanced tickets—the film rocked my world and I’ve seen it a billion times since. The gargantuan box office hit crowned Will Smith the king of summer for a few years and even spawned a sequel decades later. Fans and non-fans alike still watch it every July 4, even if it’s just on TV, and it would be higher on this list if it didn’t run into some true summer juggernauts. (Opened July 3, 1996)
If The Phantom Menace was half as good as fans hoped it would be, it would be number on one this list. It’s everything you think of when you hear the term “summer blockbuster:” huge pre-release hype, tons of merchandising, massive effects, big box office, etc. Fans ate this film up when it was released (I, myself saw it nine times in theaters, a personal record). (Opened May 19, 1999)
The Lion King was so massive that Disney remade it 25 years later and it grossed even more money than the original. Yes, I know, inflation and all that—but the point stands. The Lion King is as big a part of culture today as it was when it was released. Its songs, characters, humor, drama—really, everything about it that made it massive then feels just as massive now. Just delightful. (Opened June 15, 1994)
Here’s how big Terminator 2 was. The original Terminator grossed $78 million. T2 grossed $520 million. Talk about taking things to another level, which the James Cameron sequel did in every single way. It was a movie you had to see, everyone was talking about, everyone still talks about it, and has continued on both in franchise and culture form. Truly one of the best sci-fi films, and sequels, of all time. (Opened July 3, 1991)
Could it be anything else? Two decades of blockbusters, each topped by the work of director Steven Spielberg. Jurassic Park simply has it all. The effects changed the way movies are made. The story sparked the imaginations of kids and adults alike, somehow tapping into the very DNA the film was about. Here we saw something we never thought could happen: dinosaurs returning and in such a perfect package it almost felt believable. And the concept remains popular, resonant, exciting, you name it. Hell, Jurassic Park was the number one movie at the box office last week. Seriously. Look it up. That’s how much the film has remained a part of our lives.
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