By now, you should know the deal (if not, check out the first two entries in this countdown): 12 critics narrowed down a list of more than 650 movies, all released between May 1 and August 31 between 1975 and 2013, to arrive at the 50 greatest summer blockbusters. Here are the 10 that topped the list.
An arthouse auteur turned blockbuster specialist, Christopher Nolan liberated Batman from the depths of Joel Schumacher-engineered camp excess with his superb 2005 reboot Batman Begins. That film was intermittently weighed down by the need to re-introduce a gallery of familiar players, but The Dark Knight liberated Nolan from the exposition and baggage that inevitably accompany origin stories. With all that out of the way, Nolan was free to make an unusually challenging movie whose scope went beyond big to epic, while maintaining an unrelentingly dark tone.
The rapturously received sequel pits Christian Bale’s tormented Bruce Wayne against Heath Ledger’s insane Joker in a battle for the soul of Gotham City, a battle rich in philosophical undertones. Nolan uses Batman’s internal and external battles to explore the way the quest for vengeance coarsens the souls not just of the vengeance-minded, but of society as a whole. The notion of cops and criminals being two sides of the same coin long ago became cliché, but it’s given new life by The Dark Knight’s focus on a title character who is both crime-fighter and criminal.
Nolan made a commercial blockbuster that remarkably still managed to seem edgy, even dangerous, thanks largely to the Joker, whom Ledger plays as anarchy personified. Where Jack Nicholson played the character as a theatrical clown, Ledger made him terrifying, even difficult to look at. A performance that powerful might overwhelm a lesser movie, but The Dark Knight balances the electricity of Ledger’s work with a similarly inspired secondary villain in Two Face (Aaron Eckhart), the alter-ego of Harvey Dent, a crusading, heroic district attorney who goes over to the dark side once half his face is burnt off, leaving him a walking nightmare.
The Dark Knight was a pop-culture phenomenon that today stands as the gold standard of comic-book movies. Nolan proved conclusively that a movie based on a comic book about a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime could be art, as well as a nifty way to spend a summer afternoon indoors, and that audiences didn’t mind being challenged as long as they were also being entertained, which has become a cornerstone of Nolan’s big-budget, big-idea filmmaking.
The Joker confidently strides into a meeting of high-powered organized-crime types and offers to perform a magic trick. Though he receives no encouragement, he proceeds anyway, making an everyday pencil “disappear” by slamming it through the face of a low-level flunky. The sequence is handled briskly and matter-of-factly; Nolan only devotes a second or so to the murder, which makes it all the more horrifying. —Nathan Rabin
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was a blockbuster bellwether. Its revolutionary special effects set the stage for the CGI revolution, and directly inspired George Lucas to begin making the Star Wars prequels, for better or worse. It also marked the first film inspired by a Michael Crichton novel since the late 1970s, kicking off a wave of Crichton adaptations that continued through the decade, at a pace of nearly one per year (including the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, which was written after Jurassic Park’s film success). And though dinosaurs and other giant beasties existed on film long before Jurassic Park, usually in stop-motion or puppet form, Spielberg’s visual interpretation can be seen in pretty much every subsequent creature-feature since, including the recent remakes of King Kong and Godzilla. The film’s influence was felt beyond the cinema as well; its impact tremors rippled through the bigger water-glass of culture, from professional sports (the Toronto Raptors were named for the film’s most memorable clawed antagonists) to actual science, sans fiction. (To the chagrin of the paleontology community, the popular understanding of the velociraptor remains that of Jurassic Park’s fierce, taloned hunters, not the chicken-sized theropod of reality.)
And yet, as influential and important as it is to modern mainstream cinema, and to pop culture as a whole, Jurassic Park is no museum piece preserved in amber, nor has it been eroded by time, like so many of its 1990s big-screen brethren. One clunky UNIX interface aside, Jurassic Park plays as well today as it did in 1993—as evidenced by the film’s consistently lucrative home-video and theatrical re-releases—because Spielberg so successfully adheres to, and judiciously diverts from, the blockbuster rulebook he helped write. For good reason, Jurassic Park’s most enduring image is one with no CGI or dinosaurs at all: a simple plastic cup full of water, its rippling surface heralding the real danger that’s just out of sight. As spine-tingling Spielbergian moments go, it’s up there with Jaws’ classic two-note harbinger of doom.
But unlike with Jaws and its felt-but-rarely-seen titular antagonist, Spielberg doesn’t hold back on the dino action; on the contrary, Jurassic Park’s reptiles are so well-developed and diverse in their appearances and threat potential that they become something akin to actual characters rather than mere plot machinations, and Spielberg, working from Crichton’s adaptation of his own novel, deploys them to ensure utmost impact. Just when it seems like the rampaging T-Rex is going to be the film’s Boss Level, Spielberg reveals the hand he’s been dealing all along, having set up the film’s fearsome velociraptor trio in the opening scene (“Shoot her!!”), in Dr. Grant’s detail-rich rebuttal of the description of a raptor as a “6-foot turkey,” and in the fearsome awe that greets John Hammond’s revelation that he’s bred highly evolved killers as amusement-park attractions. When the film’s most frightening antagonists come together in the gift-shop climax, as the humans scurry underfoot, helpless, it’s both inevitable and unpredictable, the outcome of an expert blend of structure and pacing that makes the film reliably compelling well after viewers know every panoramic brachiosaurus reveal and raptor jump-scare by heart.
The water-glass moment is the iconic Jurassic Park visual, but its reprise a few scenes later is even more effective. Following the initial T-Rex rampage, Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) sits, injured, in the back of a Jeep, while Ellie (Laura Dern) and Muldoon (Bob Peck) search for other survivors. It’s a brief moment of tranquility following the chaos of the initial breakout, a moment for viewers to catch their breath right before the other shoe drops: A puddle of water in a tyrannosaurus footprint begins to ripple, heralding the return of the T-Rex, which chases after the Jeep while Dr. Malcom shouts, impotently, “Must go faster!” Then, in the midst of the terror, a classic bit of Spielbergian visual wit: a shot of the roaring T-Rex in Jeep’s review mirror, emblazoned with the words “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” —Genevieve Koski
Quoth private eye Eddie Valiant: “Roger is his name, and laughter is his game.” Those bozos churning out green-screen movie after green-screen movie today have nothing on Robert Zemeckis, who in 1988 pulled off the single greatest highwire act in special-effects cinema. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a narratively dense period neo-noir, rich in animation mythology and with governing rules that appear to be made up as they go along (Eddie: “You mean you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?” Roger: “No, not at any time. Only when it was funny!”), and featuring the world’s most famous cartoon characters, seamlessly interacting with live actors on real sets without the aid of computers. That’s a feat more difficult than navigating Baby Herman’s kitchen without being impaled, but Zemeckis’ team stuck the landing with flair.
Beyond the technical marvels, the film works so well because it appeals to classic cartoon nostalgia while indulging in devious adult humor, and some genuinely terrifying horror-movie threats. There’s a weird moment in pre-adolescence where developing kids might still feel the urge to cling to their Daffy Duck dolls, while still feeling the stirrings of awareness about sex, death, and vice. Roger Rabbit plays to all three interests in turn, via Jessica Rabbit, Dip, and Roger’s outsized reaction to alcohol, respectively. Roger Rabbit was also ahead of the curve, anticipating entertainers who have made careers out of mashing up childhood images and adult sensibilities: Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and the team behind Broadway’s Avenue Q. The fact that Zemeckis was working within the confines of the most tightly controlled licensed properties in entertainment makes the sharp edges of his film all the more remarkable.
At a moment when “brand deposits” are the multiplex’s new favorite word, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands out even more as a film that trades on entertainment nostalgia without succumbing to it. Betty Boop is a wistful left-behind from an industry that leapt to color. All the Toons have enormous character flaws. And Eddie has first-hand experience proving that immortal, hand-drawn beings are still capable of gruesome murder. Credit co-writers Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, and the film’s crackerjack production team, for not being content with spectacle. They pushed for a living, breathing universe, instead of just a theme-park ride, and that’s what makes Roger Rabbit the rare blockbuster with near-infinite replay value. After all, very little can kill a Toon.
A dark-horse candidate for the most purely entertaining moment: Judge Doom tracks fugitives Roger and Eddie to a bar, gives Roger’s loony-tunes record a good sniff, then taps out the rhythm to “Shave And A Haircut” on the walls like a vulture stalking its prey. It’s a moment of high tension that’s also supremely silly: The danger rests on the brilliant cartoon logic of Roger’s world, which dictates that it’s impossible for a Toon to hear a musical setup like that and not finish, “Two bits!” Roger grinds his teeth, desperately trying not to burst, but the rest of the audience burst long ago. —Andrew Lapin
Star Wars wasn’t just a hit movie; it was the kind of cultural phenomenon that spawned new consumer behavior. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in summer 1980, the actual quality of the film was almost irrelevant. No matter what, fans of the first film were prepared to renew the rituals they’d invented three years earlier: standing in long lines, buying toys, and watching and reading anything they could find about the movie, even before opening day.
But then The Empire Strikes Back turned out to be even better than the first film: deeper, darker, and more visually splendid. Director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan forced George Lucas’ heroes to make difficult choices, risking death or worse in the name of responding to the immediate threats aimed at themselves and their allies. Then Empire made those choices matter. When Luke Skywalker deviates from the path his master Yoda laid out from him, he learns secrets he didn’t want to know, and loses a hand and a best friend in the process. After Empire came out, fans devised yet another way to process the experience: gathering to argue over the meaning of Yoda’s aphorisms, the hidden history of the villainous Darth Vader, and the potential outcome of the rebellion.
The result of this overall bar-raising was that future sequels to genre movies—Star Wars sequels included—had a high standard to meet. “We see this as our Empire Strikes Back” is a bold claim that filmmakers had better be able to back up, or risk fan wrath. That’s something even George Lucas has come to realize over the years, and may be why he’s reportedly bristled when people have said that Empire—the production he ceded the most creative control on—is the best of the series. Ever since 1980, Star Wars fans have been waiting for another experience like they had with The Empire Strikes Back, and chasing that high has led them to anger (which has led to hate, and then to suffering).
“I am your father.” With those four words, a generation fell in love with surprise revelations, tangled mythology, and daddy issues. That same generation has grown up to make the geek-friendly television, books, comics, and movies of today. In some ways, everything from Lost to the Harry Potter series has been an attempt to re-create that moment of awe and narrative rewiring from Empire. —Noel Murray
Like Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, James Cameron’s Aliens has been so thoroughly absorbed into the lexicon that it’s hard to watch it just for itself; every scene, possibly even every shot, carries the shadow of the dozens of movies that followed in its formidable wake.
Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien follows the first commandment of sequels: Thou Shalt Make It Bigger. But the director manages to carry over the original’s sense of isolation and confinement while more than doubling the cast and shifting locations from a spaceship to a planet. The crew of a surveying craft and their improvised weapons have been replaced by a squad of heavily armed Colonial Marines who this time, thanks to the recently unfrozen Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), have every reason to know what they’re up against. But military arrogance—modeled on the cockiness with which U.S. forces strode into the jungles of Vietnam—and corporate deceit leaves them quickly cut down to a handful of… well, if you’ve seen Aliens once, you know their names: Hudson, Hicks, Vasquez. Through a few sharply written lines—“You ever been mistaken for a man?” “No, have you?”—each is established and individualized without the need for tedious backstory or trumped-up confrontations. Even in the midst of a big-budget production, Cameron made time for his actors to improvise, a process that gave birth to Bill Paxton’s immortal “Game over, man!” There’s a liveness to the performances, especially Paul Reiser’s as the corporate weasel, Burke, who plays the heavy without turning him into a caricature.
The heart of Aliens is Weaver’s performance, which won her an Oscar nomination in spite of the Academy’s historical disdain for action movies. She fondly dubbed the character “Rambolina,” but in spite of Cameron’s fondness for kickass women, what makes Ripley memorable is the terror that coexists with her toughness. The fakeout dream in which her abdomen is ripped open by the familiar chestburster is a way of squeezing a whammy into the movie’s otherwise combat-free first third, but it also serves to remind us that she’s faced an unimaginable horror, survived, and gone back to face it voluntarily. As Ripley fires grenades into the alien queen, Cameron lingers longer on Weaver’s face than on his carefully staged explosions, and what appears there isn’t victory, but relief.
“Get away from her, you bitch!” Ripley straps into the power loader and clanks toward the camera, which zooms to meet her as she utters the ultimate in mama-bear pronouncements. Considering how fruitfully H.R. Giger’s designs for the original Alien drew on a revulsion with the female anatomy, there’s a neat inversion to the way Cameron builds the sequel to a moment of female empowerment, and even a symbolic birth. There isn’t a female action heroine of the last three decades who doesn’t owe part of her existence to Weaver’s ability to stroll into closeup like John Wayne in Stagecoach and deliver such an instantly iconic line. —Samuel Adams
Plenty of summer blockbusters have focused on invaders from outer space. Many also have featured wide-eyed kids embarking on wild, unsupervised adventures. But E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s intergalactic coming-of-age masterpiece, has something no summer-movie spectacle has been able to match, before or since: an abundance of wonder.
Think about E.T. for a second. Some of the images that immediately come to mind are those final-scene close-ups of Henry Thomas’s Elliott, his family members and his friends, each staring up in awe and teary-eyed appreciation as E.T.’s space orb becomes a glowing dot in the distant sky. Now try to imagine the way you must have looked when you saw E.T. on a cineplex screen for the first time. Your expression was probably similar: the upturned, misty gaze of someone who’s just witnessed a genuine marvel.
If the most cherished and meaningful summer blockbusters are the ones seen during childhood—and a quick scan of this list strongly suggests that’s true for The Dissolve’s staff—then E.T. is the ultimate summer blockbuster. More than any of the films ranked toward the top of this list, it’s explicitly about transitioning from childhood to adulthood: about discovering new places, trading in selfishness for generosity, and learning to accept the responsibility that comes with being a grown-up. When the camera lets the audience peer out at the world through a borrowed pair of eyes, those eyes always belong either to E.T. or Elliott. Visually, it’s clear who matters most in this suburban fairy tale: the kid in the red hooded sweatshirt and his brand-new botanist best friend.
As incredible as this sounds in the age of tweeted-out spoilers and leaked set photos, most moviegoers had no idea what E.T. looked like before the film opened on June 11, 1982. While advance buzz about the next Spielberg saga was high, the posters, commercials and trailers kept his wizened, open heart of a face and his tree-stump of a body a secret. All American moviegoers were shown beforehand was a glimpse of his spindly, knotty fingers, reaching out from a tool shed to grab a thrown baseball, or curving around a partly opened closet door. That created a sense of mystery about E.T. that, pre-release, gave it the whiff of something potentially scary, a feeling heightened by the fact that the summer’s other Spielberg project—the unquestionably scary Poltergeist (see No. 38)—had just opened the week before. In 1982, the emotional catharsis brought on by E.T. may have been heightened by the realization that this alarmingly odd creature wasn’t anything to fear. Just like Elliott, audiences quickly learned that E.T. is a figure of healing and benevolence, a force of light that quickly outshined the Poltergeist’s darkness at the box office.
There are many ways to interpret the E.T. narrative: as a religious parable in which the extraterrestrial serves as Jesus figure; as the tale of a latchkey kid grieving over his parents’ divorce; as a remix of The Wizard Of Oz. It’s all of those. But it’s also a reminder of the power and poignance of big, blockbuster-y cinema. Through E.T., Elliott learns that the world extends much farther beyond himself than he ever dared imagine. And as moviegoers poured out of screenings of E.T. back in ’82, their hearts still swelling with the final bursts of that John Williams score, they understood that the most moving and enduring films can also be so large that even a single solar system can’t contain them.
As tempting as it is to cite either of the bicycle lift-offs, the movie’s most subtly touching moment comes earlier, when Elliott slices his finger and E.T. heals it with his own glowing fingertip. The whole scene is shadowy with pops of illumination that move from minor to major: first, the jack-o’-lantern and lamps in Gertie’s adjacent room, then the shafts of light that filter into Elliott’s closet, and, finally, that golden bulb at the end of E.T.’s pointer. But the real beauty here is the way Spielberg juxtaposes Elliott’s repaired injury with his mother’s words as she reads Peter Pan to Gertie next-door. “Tink is saved. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Mom whispers. “And now, to rescue Wendy.” In that moment, she’s foreshadowing what’s to come in two classics of children’s literature: one by J.M. Barrie, and another by Steven Spielberg. —Jen Chaney
With Raiders Of The Lost Ark, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg set out to do for golden-age adventure serials what Star Wars did for Flash Gordon and its vintage ilk: refine it, update it for modern audiences, and squeeze all the best moments that thrilled them in childhood into a feature-length film. They over-delivered. Raiders features one unforgettable scene after another, as archeologist adventurer hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) leaves one perilous situation, only to land in an even more perilous one. Each is precisely choreographed, but played with in-the-moment spontaneity. Sometimes the film seems to toss them around like confetti. The famous scene in which Jones runs from the boulder takes up less than 20 seconds of screen time. It’s just one small (though physically mammoth) part of a longer setpiece; take it out, and Jones’ escape remains thrilling.
It’s the accumulation of such moments that makes Raiders such a memorable movie, even if it isn’t what makes it a great movie. For evidence, look no further than the sequels, which vary wildly in quality. Many of their scenes top Raiders in scale and ambition, but Raiders hangs together better than any of the films that followed. That’s partly because the globetrotting story—the product of Lucas and Spielberg brainstorming-sessions turned into a swift script by Lawrence Kasdan—moves along so beautifully. It’s also partly because Ford and a supporting cast that includes Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Denholm Elliott, and John Rhys-Davies appear to be having so much fun.
Yet what sets Raiders Of The Lost Ark apart from its sequels and imitators is the way Spielberg and Lucas turn it into a genuine clash between good and evil, with truly despicable Nazis and their profit-minded sympathizers seeking to exploit a sacred artifact to the worst possible ends. (The solid Last Crusade did the same, but not as effectively.) “You and I are very much alike,” Jones’ rival Belloq (Freeman) tells him. “It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.” Yet by the end of the film, Jones proves him wrong, continually putting his life at risk for the greater good. Spielberg and Lucas have cited Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics as a source of inspiration, one from which they borrowed specific gags, like that giant boulder. But they also borrowed Barks’ moral concerns. As in many of Barks’ most famous duck stories, everyone chases treasure here, but some of those doing the chasing lose their souls along the way. It’s a film of great stunts and feats of daring, but also one worried about what separates heroes from villains.
Jones is a hero of brains and brawn, and one of the film’s most awe-inducing scenes finds him fitting an amulet to a stick—using the correct measurements, unlike his Nazi rivals—and then waiting for the sun to reach just the right angle, as John Williams’ score reaches an ominous crescendo. It’s one of the simplest effects in a film that doubles as a catalog of old-fashioned movie tricks. —Keith Phipps
Die Hard is the template of the modern action movie, with an influence that extends far beyond the never-ending series of “Die Hard on a…” thrillers that it directly inspired. The shrewd updating of the lone, gunslinging “cowboy” as a put-upon, scrappy hero; the pack of Eurosleaze villains; the single prominent location; the high-tech hardware; the smug wisecracks; the gleaming widescreen photography. Before the imitators tapered off during the CGI and Marvel takeover, it seemed like every action spectacle was trying to be Die Hard, but the slow drift of its sequels alone is a good indicator that something was lost in the facsimile. The simplicity of the original film is deceptive: There are, in fact, many moving parts—an abundance of supporting characters and twists, subplots that need servicing inside and outside Nakatomi Plaza—but it never feels unwieldy. All the gears and springs of this thrill-machine are finely calibrated.
And it all starts with Bruce Willis as New York cop John McClane, a fish-out-of-water type who comes to L.A. over Christmas in a last-ditch attempt to save his marriage, but winds up in the middle of a hostage crisis. As a group of heavily armed thieves take over Nakatomi during an office Christmas party, holding his wife and her co-workers at gunpoint, McClane plays the self-proclaimed “fly in the ointment,” mucking up both their plans and those of the inept authorities surrounding the building. Willis turned McClane into a smug superhero as the series continued, but in Die Hard, he’s battered and bruised, yet resourceful and irreverent, an avatar of American grit squaring off against a legion of smarmy foreigners.
Die Hard also has three great villains, which is the right kind of blockbuster excess. There’s Paul Gleason as Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, embodying the blinkered arrogance of the LAPD in the Daryl Gates era; William Atherton as Richard Thornburg, embodying the blinkered arrogance of broadcast journalists; and, best of all, Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, the diabolical ringleader who articulates the beautiful monologues that McClane cuts down with a one-liner—or a gun. Director John McTiernan, working from a model script by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, holds all these elements in perfect balance, and he anticipates exactly how the audience is going to respond to key moments. Just as comedians insert pauses for laugh lines, McTiernan knows when people are going to gasp or applaud, and he draws those moments out accordingly, from Gruber plummeting from the building to the trigger-shy cop taking down the last threat to McClane’s wife popping Thornburg in the nose. It’s suspenseful and hugely satisfying—and not nearly as easy to pull off as it looks.
“Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker.” Die Hard’s most famous line became an empty catchphrase in future installments, but it’s worth remembering how well the line plays in its first instance. For one, there’s no more succinct way to offer McClane as a modern cowboy than trailing an old-fashioned expression with emphatic profanity. It also sells the gamesmanship between the overmatched McClane and the overconfident Gruber, and sets the former’s determination and wit against long odds. —Scott Tobias
If Back To The Future isn’t the greatest blockbuster of all time, then at the very least, it’s the most ingeniously constructed. Blockbusters aren’t typically known for clever, elegant writing—there’s a reason an entire cottage industry of nitpicking has sprung up around them in recent years—but Back To The Future’s script, by director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale, is a marvel of storytelling economy and creativity. The way it seeds jokes in one time period and pays them off in another, and wrings genuine human drama out of an absurd, vaguely incestuous premise, is nothing short of miraculous.
The fact that the movie is watchable at all is something of a miracle, too. Zemeckis’ first choice for time-traveling teenage hero Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox, was unavailable due to his commitments to TV’s Family Ties. So Zemeckis cast Eric Stoltz as Marty, and reluctantly carried on. But a month into production, Zemeckis realized Stoltz wasn’t right for the part, and decided to scrap everything he’d shot and go back to Fox, who this time found room in his busy schedule to make the movie. Thank goodness he did. Fox is perfect as Marty, and he meshes seamlessly with the rest of the brilliant ensemble: Christopher Lloyd as bumbling inventor Doc Brown, Lea Thompson as Marty’s foxy mom Lorraine, Thomas F. Wilson as bullying butthead Biff Tannen, and Crispin Glover as his shy, oddball dad—all of whom play both young and old variations of their characters with impressive complexity.
Back in 1985, Zemeckis and Gale mined a lot of comedy out of the culture clash between the cynical 1980s and the more innocent 1950s. Today, the film is almost 30 years old, and its present looks almost as quaint as its past. But Back To The Future is so complete an entertainment—funny, smart, inspiring, exciting, romantic—that audiences in 2014 may wind up pining for their own time-machine trip to the past, to an era when life was simpler, and big summer movies still looked like this.
The grand finale, when Doc and Marty use a fluke lightning strike at the Hill Valley clock tower to fuel the de-powered DeLorean in order to send Marty back (wait for it…) to the future. The race to the clock tower is a literal high-wire act—as Doc hangs high over the town square in a last-minute attempt to detangle a stray cable—and nearly as suspenseful. Every element works perfectly together: story, character, special effects, and particularly Alan Silvestri’s soaring score. And it all climaxes in one of the great action crescendos in movie history, when the DeLorean roars through Hill Valley square. In a single moment, all the accumulated tension is released—at 88 miles per hour. —Matt Singer
Jaws had a bit of an unfair advantage in this competition, as it more or less invented the modern summer blockbuster. In 1975, all movies, no matter how potentially popular, initially opened in just a handful of theaters, then slowly made their way around the country. Releasing a movie everywhere at once was considered desperate and gauche—a strategy reserved for obvious stinkers that needed to make some cash in a hurry, before word of their awfulness leaked out. The level of anticipation for the film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel about a man-eating shark was so high, however, that Universal Pictures decided to try to meet the demand head-on. By today’s standards, Jaws’ opening weekend would be considered “limited release”: It hit just 464 theaters. (22 Jump Street opened on 3,306 screens.) But the combination of a wider release and a national TV-advertising campaign changed the way big movies are handled by the studios, especially during the peak summer months.
Would this have happened if Jaws had been a mediocre picture, more along the lines of, say, Orca? Almost certainly. (Star Wars really cemented the transition two years later.) It certainly didn’t hurt, though, that fledgling director Steven Spielberg—29 years old, and making only his second theatrical feature—delivered one of the greatest action movies of all time. Jaws has it all: a killer hook of a premise, three unforgettable characters (embodied in iconic performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw), sharp dialogue, brilliant misdirection, genuinely startling jump scares, surprising pathos, grisly humor, and a score by John Williams that taps directly into the nervous system. More than anything else, though, it has Spielberg at the height of his youthful resourcefulness, finding creative ways to suggest the presence of an enormous great white shark when the mechanical version (nicknamed “Bruce”) repeatedly malfunctioned. By the time the beast finally makes its first dramatic full-scale appearance—prompting the instant-classic line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”—viewers have already been primed to a near-frenzy.
As a result of this involuntary restraint, Jaws, unlike many blockbusters of decades past, has lost virtually none of its luster over the years. Thrashing victims and bloodstained water make up only a tiny part of its excitement, which is mostly rooted in the clashing personalities of anxious police chief Martin Brody (Scheider), self-righteous marine biologist Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), and cucumber-cool fisherman Quint (Shaw), who join forces to hunt and kill the rogue shark after it eats several swimmers (and a dog, probably, though that’s never confirmed) over the Fourth of July weekend. A nude young woman being devoured—classic exploitation imagery—battles for a place in long-term memory with Hooper sardonically pointing to billboard graffiti of a shark and telling Amity’s mayor, who’s refusing to close the beach, “those proportions are correct.” Following Jaws’ runaway success (it remains the seventh highest-grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation), studios flooded the marketplace with imitators (Orca, Piranha, Tentacles), but the magic wasn’t replicable. They really don’t make them like this anymore.
Exhausted after a day’s hunting, the three men of the Orca sit below deck, drinking and swapping stories, and Quint tells Brody and Hooper of the grim fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis—a real-life disaster in which many of those who initially survived the ship’s sinking were eaten by sharks. Shaw’s soft-spoken, intense delivery of this chilling monologue is a perfect example of Jaws’ willingness to use every means at its disposal—including quiet introspection—to instill terror. —Mike D’Angelo