The summer blockbuster has been absent from cinema screens for the past couple of years, as the pandemic put paid to sitting in the dark, eating popcorn and cheering along with fellow film fans.
But with Fast & Furious 9 and A Quiet Place II emerging as big box-office hits of 2021, the summer blockbuster has returned with a vengeance.
The concept of the Hollywood summer blockbuster emerged in the 1970s. Up until then, the summer – from the end of May to September 6, Labour Day weekend in the US – was considered a “dead zone” for movies, with winter the most popular time for studios to release their new offerings.
Then along came a film which changed everything. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released in June 1975, heralding the start of the modern-day summer blockbuster. The trend for huge film releases across June, July and August continued, with Rocky (1976), Flashdance (1983) and Titanic (1997) some of the most notable summer smash hits.
It wasn’t until the monster-hit Spider-Man was released on the first weekend in May 2002 that a new benchmark was established, extending the summer blockbuster window and making May the favoured release month for the likes of The Avengers (2012) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).
Here are 10 of the biggest summer blockbusters from the past 50 years to revisit or watch for the first time this summer …
1. ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’
Released: May, 1977
Worldwide box office gross: $775 million
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ... Cinemagoers were first treated to George Lucas’s epic space vision back in 1977, when Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo were introduced to the public, going on to cement their eternal places in pop culture.
Fun fact: The film was originally called Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars.
Released: June, 1978
Worldwide box office gross: $387 million
The most successful movie musical of all time made household names of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, who played Danny and Sandy. The song Sandy sings, Hopelessly Devoted to You, won the Best Original Song Oscar the following year, and although Newton-John and Travolta met to discuss returning for Grease 2, the studio didn’t pursue the pair after the initial meeting.
Fun fact: Although the cast were playing teenagers, Stockard Channing who played Rizzo, was actually 33 at the time of filming.
3. ‘The Fugitive’
Released: August, 1993
Worldwide box office gross: $368 million
Harrison Ford starred as Dr Richard Kimble, a man accused of murdering his wife. When he escapes and goes on the run after his prison transportation crashes, Deputy US Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) is dispatched to find him. As well as the one-armed man’s involvement, Jones’s “Every farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” speech has become a pop culture fixture.
Fun fact: The big crash scene between the prison bus and the train was meant to be filmed with miniatures, but the director discovered it was cheaper to use the full-size versions, with the locomotive costing just $20,000.
4. ‘Independence Day’
Released: June, 1996
Worldwide box office gross: $817 million
While there are still some corners of the internet debating how Will Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller and Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson knew where to plug their virus-delivering laptop into the mothership, there’s no denying the success of the film, which was rebooted in 2016 with Liam Hemsworth. The destruction of the White House by alien forces remains an enduring cinematic image.
Fun fact: The US military withdrew its support for the film and use of army bases as locations when they realised that the secret military base Area 51 was a major part of the film.
5. ‘Men in Black’
Released: July, 1997
Worldwide box office gross: $589 million
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones teamed up to become “the first, last and only line of defence against the worst scum of the universe”, and created a franchise that spawned a further three films. Smith plays J, a police officer recruited by Jones’s K to serve as a celestial immigration officer and hunt down an intergalactic terrorist. Plus, there’s the awesome soundtrack courtesy of Smith.
Fun fact: Clint Eastwood was the producers’ first choice to play Agent K, but he turned the role down.
6. ‘Coming To America’
Released: June, 1998
Worldwide box office gross: $288 million
The movie that gave the world Soul Glo, was one of star Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. Murphy starred as Prince Akeem, who, facing an arranged marriage, leaves his fictional African country of Zamunda to find a bride in the US. Accompanied by his sidekick, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), the film is credited for having paved the eventual way for the hit, Black Panther.
Fun fact: The fictional country of Zamunda came from stand-up comedian and actor Richard Pryor, who spoke about a fictional tribe of the same name in a sketch.
7. ‘The Matrix Reloaded’
Released: May, 2003
Worldwide box office gross: $739 million
In the sequel to 1999 hit The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) reunited to save humanity from extinction at the hands of the Machine Army. Reeves, who earned around $250 million from the franchise thanks to a profit-sharing deal, handed over a huge chunk of his earnings to the special effects and costume design crews.
Fun fact: The third instalment in the franchise, The Matrix Revolutions, was released just six months after Reloaded, in November 2003.
Released: June, 2007
Worldwide box office gross: $709 million
Renowned action director Michael Bay helmed the Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox-starring hit about the Autobots and Decepticons. So far, there have been seven films in the franchise, which started life as a line of Japanese toys.
Fun fact: Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime, also voices Eeyore the donkey in the Winnie the Pooh TV shows and films.
9. ‘The Dark Knight’
Released: July, 2008
Worldwide box office gross: $999 million
The most critically acclaimed Batman film to star Christian Bale in the titular role was a global success. The Christopher Nolan-directed film received eight Oscar nominations and Heath Ledger, who died in January 2008, a few months before the film’s release, posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Fun fact: In the scene in which the articulated lorry is flipped over, a stuntman named Jim Wilkey was actually driving the truck when it was filmed.
10. ‘Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation’
Released: July, 2015
Worldwide box office gross: $682 million
Tom Cruise’s fifth outing as superspy Ethan Hunt had him come up against the shadowy Syndicate. When his mission to track down the group while leading a team of rogue agents fails, Hunt ends up living as a fugitive in Paris. Eventually, he works his way back into the Impossible Missions Force's good books with a little help from Simon Pegg’s Benji, Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust.
Fun fact: Tom Cruise performed the famous aircraft stunt himself, suspended outside the aircraft 5,000 feet in the air.