The Great Summer Movies: Hold On to Your Butts

Written by Film

It is the summer of 1983. I sit in the River Oaks Theaters with my dad. I watch R2D2 get blasted by a stormtrooper, and I gasp.

It’s the summer of 1993. I sit alone in the theater at Chicago Ridge Mall. I watch a Tyrannosaurus Rex attempt to eat an obnoxiously precocious child, and I gasp.

It’s 2003. I sit at the AMC Lowes Streets of Woodfield with my fiancé. I watch Laurence Fishburn fight an albino on top of a moving semi truck, and I gasp.

It’s 2013. My Father’s Day present is a ticket to watch Kirk and Spock once again attempt to save the galaxy. At some point, I probably gasp.

(apologies to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)

I can’t let go of summer movies. It’s still a near-perfect form of escape. Writing about them lets me escape too, a kind of critical nostalgia that lets me pretend I’m participating in a conversation that actually ended decades ago. All those summer afternoons and evenings, escaping into the chilly coccoon of an A/C-filled darkened theater…they’re all inside me still, jockeying for my brain’s attention every May and June.

The summer of 1993 specifically sticks to my bones. If you’ll be so kind as to imagine the rest of this paragraph narrated by Daniel Stern, I had my first girlfriend during that summer, a winsome lass named JoAnn. Whilst I was ensnared in the rapture of teenage love, a second girl named Renee also had a crush on me. It never got pointy enough to be a love triangle; it was more like a love oval, or at best, a love rhombus.

In between the hectic committments of my burgeoning love life, I was involved in a community theater production of Oliver! It was either Oliver! or Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? When you’re playing Rapscallion 3 or Student 12, the details get blurry.

For all those pungent memories of the summer of 1993, I don’t really recall seeing Jurassic Park for the first time. I do, however, recall seeing it for the third time, at that shabby little screen in Chicago Ridge Mall. I remember that becuase it was the first movie I’d actually seen at the theater more than once. Having a fresh new drivers’ license in 1993 meant that I could go where I wanted, when I wanted. And I wanted to see Jurassic Park three times, so I did.

It feels like yesterday, that rush of blood to the head as Steven Spielberg’s camera pans up to reveal those CG dinosaurs for the first time. Viewing that sequence now, in an age when computer effects have become commonplace, it’s easy to see how shamelessly manipulative it was. Still, with the John Williams score effortlessly lifting the camera to view the craning neck of a giant dinosaur that still looks damned real twenty-one years later, it’s hard not to get carried away by it all. Especially when Spielberg’s smart enough to show us how astonishing his dinosaurs are by letting his characters react first. Sam Neill goes nuts, then Laura Dern, and THEN we see the dino. Masterful.

It’s appropriate that Jurassic Park is a Universal production, because its ancestors lie long ago in the classic Universal monster flicks of the thirties and forties. There’s more than a little of Doctor Praetorius from Bride of Frankenstein in Sir Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of John Hammond, the daffy and childlike billionaire who brings Jurassic Park to life. And while seeing those first dinosaurs is pure wonder and awe, our first encounter with the T-rex is as horrifying as the first glimpse of the Frankenstein monster must have been to the moviegoers of 1931. Like Frankenstein, it’s a classic horror parable of mankind tampering with forces beyond its understanding.

Jurassic Park wasn’t the last summer movie I’d see more than once. When the right movie hits, I think there’s something essential in the summer movie experience about repetition. It’s addicting, the adrenal rush of it all. You have to feel that rush again, even if it loses its kick gradually each subsequent time. You still get a whiff of it, and that’s as gratifying as the boozehound’s first taste of the bourbon, or the heroin junkie’s first shot in the veins.

I think about movies a lot in the summertime, and I think about summertime a lot at the movies. As I get older, I see fewer movies than I’d like. Whether it’s June or December, every time I do make it to the show, I feel a tiny tickle of nostalgia for days gone by, when I could just drive to the multiplex in the freedom of a teenage summer and surrender to the screen over and over again. It makes me want to walk right out of the theater and back into the ticket line. For whatever reason, it also makes me want to write. So I do.