There are few things sweeter than the reassuring gust of cool air that greets you when step out of the blazing hot, summer sun and enter a movie theater. When the heat and humidity team up to make life unbearable, the promise of a few hours of air-conditioned bliss while watching the latest blockbuster with an outrageously large fountain drink at arm's reach is, well... it's the sort of thing that can bring a tear to even the most jaded cinephile's eye.
While the growing ubiquity of air-conditioning has made the hottest days a little more tolerable with each passing year, I can't help feeling a little nostalgic rush every time summer movie season rolls around. From my early, hazy memories of a snowy battle in The Empire Strikes Back to the more recent thrill of seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor circle up and prepare to defend Manhattan from an alien armada in The Avengers, the movies of summer have always occupied a special, geeky place in my heart.
With the summer movie season kicking off this week, it seemed entirely appropriate to spend a little time celebrating those films that make hot days cooler and turn a trip to the movies into an adventure that – at the very least – takes you to a place far, far away from the stuffy, sweaty world outside the theater doors.
Here are some of my favorite, geeky summer movies (in chronological order), beginning with the very first film I remember seeing in a theater:
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (May 1980)
The Empire's assault on the rebels' base amid the frozen landscape during the first act of this film remains one of the coolest (literally and figuratively) moments of any movie I have ever seen, and I'm not sure I'll ever match the feeling of wonder that my first glimpse of the four-legged AT-ATs inspired. There's a part of me that's quite certain this movie is responsible for setting me on the path to professional geekery.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 1981)
The first time I saw this movie, I covered my eyes when they opened the Ark of the Covenant – not because I was scared of what it did to the bad guys in that climactic scene, but because Indiana Jones told me not to look at it. That's how invested I was in Indy's adventure. Well played, Mr. Spielberg.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (June 1982)
Back in December, I wrote about some of my favorite movie-related Christmas gifts over the years, and the first item I described was a stuffed, plush version of E.T. that I begged my parents for after seeing that movie. My alien pal and I were inseparable back then – just like Elliott and his extraterrestrial buddy.
Ghostbusters (June 1984)
What's geekier than a bunch of scientist superheroes? I can't help thinking this movie – which holds up amazingly well 30 years later – was way ahead of the curve when it comes to spreading a nerd-positive message.
Back to the Future (July 1985)
Having a name like Marty McFly is just asking to get picked on, so it's that much sweeter when this time-travel adventure's hero (Michael J. Fox) beats the bad guy, helps empower a fellow nerd (who happens to be his dad), reunites with his scientist pal, and even gets the girl. This movie is like a geek anthem.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (June 1988)
The Superman movies made me believe a man could fly, but this mix of live actors and cartoon characters made me believe I could fall in love with an animated woman. Jessica Rabbit, you were my first summer-movie crush.
Batman (June 1989)
Not only did I make multiple trips to the mall to see this movie – which completely blew my comics-obsessed young mind – but I'm fairly certain I only listened to music from this movie's soundtrack for an entire summer. To this day, my parents still twitch when they hear a Prince song.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 1991)
I never quite grasped the magic that went into the special-effects side of summer blockbusters until I saw this movie in a mall theater in Albany, New York. The moment when Robert Patrick's liquid-metal assassin first “melted” and reformed his body during a brawl with Arnold Schwarzenegger's heavy-metal alter ego was the moment when I realized what a summer “blockbuster” really meant – and more importantly, how that term translated to the screen. Suddenly, summer movies felt like an event.
Jurassic Park (June 1993)
Much like with Terminator 2, the spectacle of seeing a summer movie in a state-of-the-art theater really hit home when I first saw a massive brontosaurus come to life in the opening act of this film. When this film premiered in theaters I was well past the typical age when kids develop an obsession with dinosaurs, but in one burst of summer-movie magic, dinosaurs became the coolest things in the world.
Independence Day (July 1996)
I'm not sure when I stopped being able to recite Bill Pullman's speech in this alien-invasion epic, but I'm a little sad that it's no longer in my repertoire. There's nothing quite like a packed theater shouting that monologue in unison – especially when it gets to the big finale. (“Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”) How do I know? Let's just say I saw the White House blow up a lot that summer.
Spider-Man 2 (June 2004)
I adored Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie, but it was the sequel that made me feel like a little kid with his nose in a comic book, completely absorbed in the adventures of Peter Parker and his supporting cast. I was a little too young when Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie hit theaters, but Spider-Man 2 was the movie that made me believe in superheroes – and it remains the film I measure every other superhero movie against to this day.
The Dark Knight (July 2008)
The film that caused the most overt shift in public and critical perception of comic book movies also just happened to be the biggest movie of the year when it was released in 2008, and the latest in a long line of films everyone needed to see just to be part of the conversation. That it happened to be a Batman movie was just icing on the cake (but oh, what nerdy icing it was). Basically, if you didn't see The Dark Knight in theaters that summer, your friends and family were probably concerned for your well-being.
The Avengers (May 2012)
Whenever a film does something no other movie has done before, it's a big deal. When that film is carrying the weight of a decade of expectations and hype, and attempting to prove a world of doubters wrong on the sheer force of its movie magic, that's more than a big deal. Marvel's superhero team-up extravaganza not only challenged every preconception of cinematic world building, but it did so on the strength of costumed, comic book superheroes – who were, at that point, entirely unexpected architects of a Hollywood renaissance. Beyond the movie itself, which managed to make even the most extravagant best-case scenarios for box office and critical success seem like they were underselling it all along, The Avengers somehow managed to make itself a cultural touchstone. Children and adults alike wanted to see the movie over and over again, and the push for “grim and gritty” superhero movies suddenly seemed antiquated. As the massive box office numbers for the film can attest, there has never been a summer movie to rake in more revenue than The Avengers – and as anyone who's seen the movie can attest, there's a very good reason for that.
Honorable Mention: While I wasn't old enough to see these movies in the theater when they were initially released, I'd be crazy not to acknowledge two of the most influential movies to debut in the summer: Star Wars (May 1977) and Dawn of the Dead (May 1979). The importance of Star Wars in the realm of geekery goes without saying, but any fan of the modern zombie genre owes a heap of thanks to George Romero's sequel to Night of the Living Dead, which took the seeds planted in the original movie and let them grow to their gory, creative ends in Dawn of the Dead.
Question of the Week: What are some of your favorite geeky summer movies?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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