By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 2, 2014 at 12:29PM
The Dissolve's series on the 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters wraps up today with its Top 10, which turns out to be an even mixture of (deservedly) foregone conclusions and surprises. (I contributed three writeups, including the #6 entry on "Aliens.") The list is topped by "Jaws," whose 1975 release is generally marked as the beginning of the modern blockbuster era; before its phenomenal success, summer wasn't considered an especially desirable, or profitable, time to release a movie. Apparently it's been downhill ever since.
As editor Scott Tobias said on Twitter, the votes from the Dissolve's staff and contributors put "Jaws" so far over the top it wasn't even close, and in his writeup, Mike D'Angelo suggests that the "involuntary restraint" forced on Steven Spielberg by his temperamental mechanical shark is part of what has helped the movie weather the years so well: "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."
Not surprisingly, Spielberg is once again enshrined as GOAT, with four entries in the Top 10 alone; "Raiders of the Lost Ark" comes in at #4, "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" at 5, and "Jurassic Park" at 9. But it's a pleasant surprise to see Robert Zemeckis making a strong showing, with "Back to the Future" in second place and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in eighth. Zemeckis has spent so much of the last decade plus toying around with technology at the expense of everything else that it's easy to forget what a deft and often brilliant craftsman he was in his prime.
The aforementioned blurb on "Aliens," incidentally, doubles as my response to Tasha Robinson's great essay on what she calls "Trinity Syndrome," the phenomenon by which putatively strong female characters are rendered dramatically inert through their lack of complicating factors. Watching James Cameron's movie again, I was stuck by the extent to which Cameron and Sigourney Weaver emphasize not only Ellen Ripley's badass butt-kicking but her fear, a vulnerability that makes the character's triumph that much more significant.
Weaver 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.
Also in the Top 10:
Matt Singer praises "Back to the Future's" deft shuttling between time frames: "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."
Noel Murray on "The Empire Strikes Back's" precedent-setting twist: "'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."
Genevieve Koski explains how "Jurassic Park" breaks the rules Spielberg established in "Jaws," turning dinosaurs from an unseen menace into characters that rival the movie's humans: "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."
The Dissolve's Top 10 Summer Blockbusters
"Back to the Future"
"Raiders of the Lost Ark"
"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"
"The Empire Strikes Back"
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit"
"The Dark Knight"