Summer Movies Flashback: Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Ghostbusters lead 1984
In honor of the 2014 summer movie season, Team HitFix will be delivering a mini-series of articles flashing back to key summers from years past. There will be one each month, diving into the marquee events of the era, their impact on the writer and their implications on today's multiplex culture. We continue today with a look back at the summer of 1984.
I turned 14 on May 26, 1984, just as the summer movie season was getting started.
These days, the summer movie season seems to begin in mid-March, and I think it's because studios want real estate that they can own. And it feels like the appetite for event films is something the audience has year-round now, so if you're able to make something that excites the audience, why not find a place for it where it's not going head to head with all the other giant event films of the year?
For the purposes of this piece, we're going to consider everything from the first weekend of May to the middle of August, where it felt like they wrapped up the summer releases. 1984 was a fairly strong year, with some big highs, some ridiculous lows, and a ton of movies that stood out in one way or another. I count at least 14 movies that I genuinely love that came out during that summer, and I am surprised how vivid my memories still are of the time I spent in the theaters during those 15 weekends.
May kicked off with "Sixteen Candles," a movie that took me by surprise. I was already aware of John Hughes as a writer, and 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation" was a favorite of mine. But I don't think I'd ever seen a high school film quite like what he did with "Candles," and it was an amazing feeling, seeing kids who felt real and unlike the normal kids in movies. The way they talked, the things they talked about, the way Hughes captured the feelings of being a dork… it was lively in a way I could barely articulate at the time. It felt new, and it was thrilling. That same weekend, the ridiculous teen sex comedy "Hardbodies" also came out, as did the big budget stinker "The Bounty," with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson in a retelling of the story dramatized most famously in "Mutiny On The Bounty." In a situation that paralleled the way studios still do things now, everyone was scrambling to make or release a film that had something to do with rap and break dancing, and the first one out of the gate was "Breakin'," which I remember seeing with a group of friends, alternately laughing at the film and gasping at some of the moves on display.
The second weekend in May was a big one for me, but I ended up disappointed in both of the films that came out. I was a rabid Stephen King freak by that point, and I wanted "Firestarter" to be great. It was not. Instead, it was one of those moments where I realized just how hard it seems to be for Hollywood to get an adaptation right. I hadn't read the novel "The Natural" was based on, so I didn't have any comparison to make. I thought it was a beautiful film, if dull, and over time, I've come to appreciate the score and the photography if nothing else.
Two more forgettable comedies hit the following weekend, and I'm not sure anyone today would have any reason to remember "Finders Keepers" or "Makin' The Grade." But by that point, I was rabid about what was coming the following week, and when "Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom" hit theaters on Memorial Day weekend, it kicked off my thirty-year attempt to get my head around how I feel about the movie overall.
June kicked off with a bang for me. Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time In America" is still a problematic film, even now after all of the efforts to restore it to his original vision, but it's a big beautiful mess of a movie, and at 14, it was an overwhelming theatrical experience. I was eager to see "Star Trek III: The Search For Spock" and see how they followed up one of 1982's biggest surprises. It struck me as a less complete film when I saw it, but still fun in its way. The Klingons were good and nasty, and I have an unabashed fondness for anything involving Christopher Lloyd. I wasn't crazy about them hitting a reset button so soon after killing Spock, but it seemed inevitable. For me, the movie of the weekend was "Streets Of Fire," and I remember walking out convinced that it was going to be a big ol' monster hit. After all, MTV was showing the video for "I Can Dream About You" in heavy rotation, and it was such a slick, cool-looking film that I was sure people were going to show up in droves. That was not the first time I was mistaken about how many people would end up going to see a Walter Hill movie, nor was it the last, but that summer, my shameless Diane Lane crush kept me going back to see the film repeatedly.
The second weekend of June was by far the biggest of the summer in terms of movies that became a permanent part of the film geek firmament. While MGM tried to get into the breakdancing game with "Beat Street," everyone was busy with two other films. "Gremlins" accelerated the talk that had started with "Temple Of Doom" about how the ratings system seemed broken, upsetting parents who found the film too creepy and violent to be a PG. And while I really liked "Gremlins" and its rowdy sense of dark humor, the film that landed on me like a ton of bricks was "Ghostbusters." I saw the film on a Saturday afternoon, and the next day, I had to leave for a two week stay at Skymont, a Boy Scout camp. I was one of the few kids who managed to see both "Gremlins" and "Ghostbusters" before I left for camp, and so for those two weeks, I was able to share my impressions of the film to my increasingly rabid friends. It was an incredible currency to possess, and by the time I finally got home, "Ghostbusters" had become a phenomenon.
One of the things I remember most vividly about that summer was it was the first time I had unfettered access to R-rated movies thanks to the older brothers of several of my friends. The older brothers were ushers at the various movie theaters in the area, and they were perfectly happy to let us spend a day hopping from one theater to the next, ratings be damned. So while not every kid my age could say the same, I saw "Pope Of Greenwich Village" opening night and fell head over heels in love with it. It was such a brash, funny, vulgar movie, and Mickey Rourke was seedy charisma incarnate. That same weekend, I also went to see "Top Secret!", the insane Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy that first introduced Val Kilmer, and I laughed so hard the first time that I had to go back the next day to see it again. Even now, I think it's my favorite of the films those guys made. I love the insane mix of WWII action films and Elvis musicals, and it felt like they were willing to do anything for a laugh.
The box-office titan that weekend, though, was "The Karate Kid," and this was one of those moments where I felt like I was totally out of step with other people. I saw it and thought it was fine. It didn't blow me away, I certainly didn't imagine that it would become one of the biggest hits of the year. I thought Ralph Macchio was flat out perfect the year before in "The Outsiders," but I didn't buy him as a physical force to be reckoned with. Admittedly, that's sort of the point of casting him, but at that age, all I knew was that I didn't think he was cool enough, and it just wasn't for me.
I found myself starting to really question the notion of sequels thanks to several in a row that felt like they just didn't work. "Cannonball Run II," which was a sequel to a film that wasn't very good in the first place, was annoying and dull, no matter how many people they packed into it, and "Conan The Destroyer" made me actively angry. The first "Conan" had been an important movie for me, and it felt like "Destroyer" betrayed everything that was great about it. I remember walking out of it furious, disgusted by what they'd done to the character. Even "The Muppets Take Manhattan" felt to me like a lesser effort, a pale version of what had seemed so fresh just a few years earlier.
I was already a Tom Hanks fan at that point thanks to "Bosom Buddies," but "Splash" had been a huge, surprising spring hit, and "Bachelor Party" seemed to confirm Hanks as pretty much the prototypical '80s comedy lead. He was like the less malevolent version of Michael Keaton, and while "Bachelor Party" wasn't a very good movie, it seemed completely out-of-control and filthy to me at the age of 14, and my friends and I took special pride out of being able to say we'd seen the film that no one else's parents would let them see.
One of the reasons I was most excited about "The Last Starfighter" was because of the pre-release hype about how the visual effects had all been created by a computer. It may seem today to be so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning, but at that point in the '80s, the idea of a movie with effects that were made by a computer was tantalizing. What did that mean? What would they look like? The answer turned out to be "oddly textureless cartoons," but it was still exciting. I liked the film way more than I liked the effects, and I particularly loved seeing Robert Preston in it. He'd made a huge impression on me in "Victor/Victoria," and that had led me to "The Music Man," and I was happy to see him get another chance to charm. I was a fan of the way it repurposed the King Arthur myth for the arcade age, and while the effects have aged badly, the film still played like gangbusters for my own nascent film nerds when we tried it a while ago.