The Movies of Summer 1997
97 has more in store
It's time once again, Retrojunkers, to dive head-first into the cinematic summer offerings of the past. This time, we're looking at 1997.
For me, summer 97 was when I had finished my first year of college. It was a mixed experience, and one that would remain that way. In the end, college did not really help me get a job like I thought it would, but I did manage to find a path in life that I was happy with.
Again, I apologize for the lateness of this installment, but with overtime at work and having to re-watch these films for this article, it eats up a lot of time.
As always, feel free to disagree with me on any of these films. I love to hear differing opinions, as long as they don't lead to childish insults, mud-slinging, and/or death threats. And yes, as a film critic, I have heard all of these from readers who disagree with me.
So, let's take a look back at the Summer movie offerings of 1997, and separate the good, the bad, and the rightfully forgotten.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT
RELEASED: MAY 9
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: In the 23rd Century, a former mercenary turned cab driver (Bruce Willis) finds himself pulled into a battle for the Earth when a mysterious woman (Milla Jovovich) literally falls into his life. She is being pursued by some aliens who are trying to prevent her from fulfilling her mission of finding four elemental stones that she can use to protect humanity. With the aliens on our heroes' trail, the cab driver becomes determined to help this woman fulfill her mission.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: This early English film from French action filmmaker Luc Besson had just about everything a guy like me wanted out of a movie at a time. A lot of crazy action, stunts and effects, an attractive female lead, a sense of humor, and a lot of bizarre visuals. I remember being impressed with this one back in the day. It was visually impressive, but knew how to kid itself, and it looked like it was just a lot of fun to make. This movie just seemed awesome to me at the time.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Let's just slay it's slipped quite a few notches on the "awesome" chart. Oh, it's not a bad movie, it just feels very much a product of its time, especially the obnoxious supporting performance from a then relatively unknown Chris Tucker. The visuals are still actually pretty good, though they don't pack the wow factor that they once did. Overall, I can see why the younger me loved this movie so much back in the day. It just hasn't held up personally for me.
RELEASED: MAY 9
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A straight-laced lawyer (Billy Crystal) and a depressed goof off (Robin Williams) both have a run-in with the same woman that they dated at different points in their lives (Nastassja Kinski) that her teenage son has run away, and that she thinks one of them is the father of the boy. Both men start off individually on a madcap quest to find the boy, but they soon run into each other, find out they are looking for the same kid, and decide to work together, while also trying to find out who the real father is.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Much like Multiplicity from the previous summer, this sounds like a can't miss concept on paper. Crystal and Williams have always worked great together during their Comedy Relief charity projects, so seeing them in a movie together would seem to be comic gold. Plus, you have Ivan Reitman (the director of Stripes and Ghostbusters) at the helm. Well, take this talent, give them a weak script, and then seemingly strip the two stars of any talent while they were shooting the film, and you have a depressing film that is a "comedy" in theory, not in execution.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I had pretty much forgotten about this film, as I had tried hard to forget it after seeing it at the theater. Catching up with it, I'll be trying all over again to forget it. Both Crystal and Williams seem lost here. They're trying to make this material work, but it just wont let their talent show through. It gets to the point that you wish the stars had just thrown out the script, and improvised the entire movie themselves. There's a good reason why few people remember this movie, and why it flopped back in the day, despite Crystal and Williams promoting this on every talk and news show known to man. Stay far away.
THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK
RELEASED: MAY 23
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: Four years after the events of Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) learns that there was another island where the dinosaurs were bred before they were brought to the island park. He is forced to join a research team that travels to the island to study how the dinosaurs are surviving on their own since the island was abandoned. However, there is another team on the island that wishes to profit off of the creatures. It turns into a battle between the two teams for control over the wondrous creatures that John Hammond created.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Like the rest of the world, I was anticipating this sequel more than anything that summer. I remember back in the day this being viewed as an inferior movie, and while it definitely didn't stack up to the first one, I remember having a great bit of fun with it. I liked that there was more of the dinosaurs in this one, I liked some of the action and stunt sequences (such as the vehicle teetering over the edge of the cliff), and I even had fun with the climax of the T-Rex stomping around the city. Did the movie have its faults? Oh my, yes. Parts of the plot only happen due to the stupidity of the characters, and there were moments that are very cheesy, such as the little girl taking out the raptors with her gymnastics. But, I still found the movie to be fun.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I know that it's cool to hate on this movie, but you know what, I still can't bring myself to do it. The film's faults are plainly visible, but I still am left with a goofy grin on my face when I watch this. Of course, I know I am in the minority, but I don't think this is a terrible sequel, despite the obvious stuff that doesn't work. The dinosaurs are still handled really well, and there are some suspenseful moments. No, this is nowhere near the original movie, but I just don't hate it like so many others seem to.
RELEASED: JUNE 6
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A former Army Ranger (Nicolas Cage) who was charged with involuntary manslaughter after getting in a fight with some drunks, and kills one of them. When he is released from prison, he boards a plane to fly home, but unfortunately must share the flight with some of the country's most dangerous criminals, including the vile Cyrus "the Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich). When the prisoners get free of their restraints and take control of the plane, our hero must play along, all the while trying to figure out a way to stop the criminals and land the plane safely so that he can be reunited with his wife.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Much like The Rock from the previous summer, this was just a great pure action film. Lots of fun, some funny one liners, a lot of impressive stunts, and an impressive cast that also includes Danny Trejo, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi. This movie was obviously made to cash in on the success of The Rock, and while it's nowhere near as good or as fun as that film, it's a decent follow up for the production company and lead star.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Nothing has changed. This is a good, "check your brain at the door" movie that is goofy, but not so much so that you lose interest. Malkovich had a knack back in the 90s for playing psycho killers, and he pulls it off again here as the lead villain of the film. It's not a classic, but then it never pretends to be. had a lot of fun catching up with this one.
BATMAN AND ROBIN
RELEASED: JUNE 20
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: If 95's Batman Forever tried to go for a more slightly more kid friendly Batman film, than 97's Batman and Robin goes completely off the edge into the level of pure camp the likes of which Adam West and Burt Ward would not have touched in their day. This time, the dynamic duo of Batman (George Clooney, stepping in for Val Kilmer) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) are taking on Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), who despite having very opposite goals (he wants to freeze the world, she wants to cover it with plants) decide to team up. There's a new ally in Batgirl (a miscast Alicia Silverstone), bat nipples, bat credit cards, about a million ice-related puns from Schwarzenegger, and the overall sense that nobody here was even trying to make a good movie in what ultimately became probably the most notorious comic book movie of all time.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Where do I begin? Where do I end? Most importantly, what do I say that hasn't already been said? I remember seeing this at a Midnight show when it opened, and I don't think I have ever seen a more angry crowd when the movie was over. There was some excitement in the audience when the movie started out, but as it played on, the room got quieter. Everyone there knew that they were watching something truly awful - something that would never be forgotten. The awful jokes, the garish and ugly designs, the bloated special effects and action sequences, the terrible script, the hammy performances...This movie actually killed the comic book movie for a while, and turned them from a guaranteed summer franchise into a gamble. It wouldn't be until Marvel took a chance with their X-Men and Spider-Man films in the early 2000s that things would finally improve for the genre.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I have never been able to sit through this movie since seeing it in the theater, and sitting through it for this article was no easy feat. Is it the end-all bad movie as most make it out to be? Honestly, no. But it does symbolize everything that was wrong with summer movies in the 90s - especially the loud, incoherent and effects heavy action sequences that have little rhyme or reason. People involved with this film, such as George Clooney and director Joel Schumacher have actually gone on to apologize for the film. It's obvious that this was a total corporate product more concerned with flash and selling toys than anything else. If anything, this movie did convince the studio to go a more serious and adult route when they rebooted the Batman franchise in the next decade, so there's always a silver lining.
RELEASED: JUNE 27
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: An FBI agent (John Travolta) has been tracking a notorious criminal (Nicolas Cage) for years, and when the two finally confront each other, the villain is knocked out cold. When it turns out that the criminal has a bomb hidden somewhere that can destroy all of L.A., the FBI agent goes under a new medical procedure which allows him to switch faces with this rival, so that he can pose as him and get information from the villain's friends and colleagues about where the bomb is. But when the criminal comes to, he does the same thing, taking the agent's face, and taking on his identity destroying the agent's career and personal life. The two rivals must duke it out, while the agent figure out how to get his life back.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: It's amazing that a movie built around the idea of two people switching faces and identities could be taken seriously, let alone become a summer blockbuster. And yet, it happened. While the movie was completely ludicrous, I had a lot of fun watching it. Yes, it was goofy as all hell, but Travolta and Cage knew how to sell this material. (This was back when both of them were still considered cool, instead of...well, weirdos.) Even if you did not buy the premise for a second, the expertise of Chinese action director, John Woo, still knew how to impress with effects and stunt scenes.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: This movie is as goofy and as ridiculous as ever, and while it's not a great film, it does work as kind of a guilty pleasure. Unlike The Fifth Element, the movie hasn't dated as poorly, and can still be as much fun to me now as it was back then. This was back when Cage could be off the wall crazy, and still be entertaining, instead of just being ridiculous. You can tell that both of the stars are having fun playing off (and as) each other, and that they know this is silly, but just don't care.
RELEASED: JUNE 13 (LIMITED) JUNE 27 (WIDE)
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: This summer's animated offering from Disney is a modern humor spin on Greek Mythology. Young Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan) grows up amongst the humans, always feeling out of sorts and an outcast, not realizing that his rightful place is up amongst the gods with his father, Zeus (Rip Torn). In order to rejoin the gods, Hercules must become a true hero, and takes lessons from grizzled and hardened hero trainer, Phil (Danny DeVito). However, the evil lord of the Underworld, Hades (James Woods, hilarious here), who was responsible for our hero being banished to the mortal realm to begin with, will do whatever it takes to prevent Hercules from succeeding in his mission, as an ancient prophecy states that Hercules is the only one who can stop Hades' plan of taking over the realm of the gods.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: I know that this movie has its fans, but I have never exactly been one of them. Oh, it's not a bad movie, really. It just feels like it's trying to hard to recapture the mix of adventure and modern day comedy of Aladdin from a few years before. It never quite comes close, though I do admit, James Woods' performance as Hades was brilliant. He was always the best part of the movie for me, and I loved how he played him like a fast-talking Hollywood agent. (I'm sure Woods relied on some personal experiences to create the character.) Hercules himself never struck me as that interesting of a character, personally, and not someone who could carry a movie. There was some fun to be had with this one, but whenever Hades wasn't on the screen, it seemed like a disappointment.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: After the previous summer's Hunchback, I can understand why Disney would want to do something a lot more comical, but again, I don't think the mix of a classic story with modern day humor and references doesn't work as well here as it did in Aladdin. Basically, as I said, Hades is the main reason to watch this. The songs aren't that great, the jokes miss more than they hit, and none of the major characters really interest me all that much. The art style is interesting, and there are some funny moments, but this movie has just never really grabbed me.
MEN IN BLACK
RELEASED: JULY 2
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A tough NYPD officer (Will Smith) is brought into an entire secret world when he is recruited to join the MIB, a top secret government organization that works with aliens who mingle amongst humans, tries to keep the peace on Earth, and most importantly, try to keep the whole thing a secret. He is teamed up with an MIB agent known only as K (Tommy Lee Jones), and as they learn to work together, they will uncover the evil plot of a not so friendly space visitor (Vincent D'Onofrio) who is going on a rampage across earth in order to find an energy source.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: If last summer's Independence Day turned Will Smith into an overnight Hollywood celebrity, then Men in Black pretty much cemented it. This went on to surpass The Lost World (the movie everyone thought would be the king of the summer movies) to become the big film of summer 97. And just like most of America, I loved the movie from the opening day. It was wild, a lot of fun, and really unlike anything we had seen before in a blockbuster. Smith and Jones were great together, the special effects were fun, and the whole premise of this agency trying to keep the existence of aliens quiet as well as under control just really appealed to me. It's easy to see why this movie captured the imagination of so many people.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: This is not a movie that has held up well for me. While I can see why I loved it back in the day, it's just not exactly a movie I can have fun revisiting these days. It's not as funny as I remember it being, and it just really is kind of slow. Catching up with the film for this article, there's a lot less action than I remember it being, and it really kind of seems dragged out at times. Smith and Jones still do a good job of selling the material, but looking back on the film, the script really should have been better for this. This is one of those movies that is not terrible, I just remember it being better. Still, we do have a great music score by Danny Elfman here.
RELEASED: JULY 11
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A woman who has been obsessed with finding the existence of alien life ever since she was a little girl (Jodie Foster) thinks she may have found proof when she receives a mysterious radio signal that they think comes from a faraway planet. The government and even religious leaders get involved, trying to take the project away from her. But when the mysterious messages are decoded, it turns out that they may help the woman and her scientific team build a device that could possibly allow someone to travel to that distant planet, and make contact with the alien life form.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Thanks to the runaway success of Men in Black, aliens were on everybody's mind, so it was probably good timing for the studio to release this just one week later. This is obviously a more serious take on the subject, being based on a rare fiction novel written by famed astronomer, Carl Sagan. I remember really enjoying this one, having been a fan of Foster's for years. Having always been fascinated by the idea of life on other worlds, I liked the more realistic view that director Robert Zemeckis took. It did feel like what would happen if we did somehow receive and decoded a message that came from another world. This was an intelligent, interesting and well-realized film.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Not much has changed, and this is definitely my favorite "alien-related" movie of summer 1997. What I appreciate about the film is how accurate the film is in terms of astronomy and technology at the time. This was most likely due to the fact that Carl Sagan served as a consultant on the film until he passed away back in December of 96. This is also a highly emotional film, as it's just as much about Jodie Foster's character finding meaning in her life, as it is about the aliens and special effects. Suspenseful, dramatic and powerful, this remains one of my favorites of this particular year.
GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE
RELEASED: JULY 18
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A live action adaptation of the old cartoon series, Brendan Fraser steps into the loincloth (or "butt-flap", as the character calls it) of the accident-prone Tarzan-wannabe. It tells the story of how George, who has lived amongst the apes his whole life, meets his first female human, Ursula (Leslie Mann), how she introduces him to civilized life, and how they fall in love. Along the way, George will have to deal with treacherous poachers who want to steal his talking ape friend, Ape (voice by John Cleese), Ursula's even more treacherous parents, who are not pleased with the fact that their daughter has fallen for a wild jungle man, and Ursula's evil former fiance (Thomas Haden Church), who is also not happy with her new love interest.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: I remember thinking the movie looked really dumb from the commercials on TV, but a friend of mine at the time wanted to see it, so I went along. Much to my surprise, I found the movie to be a lot of fun. While no one would ever mistake it for a great movie, there was a certain innocence to it, and I actually found myself enjoying the film's goofy sense of humor. Plus, the cast was great, and obviously having a lot of fun. Fraser tackled his loopy character head on, and went all out, which is the way the character should be played. It didn't always work for me, but I remember laughing quite a bit at certain moments.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I thought this would be one of those movies that would have not held up well, but you know what, I still found myself laughing. Sometimes I was kind of ashamed at myself for laughing at some of the dumber moments, but there are some genuine laughs here provided by the off camera Narrator (who frequently argues with the characters on the screen), and John Cleese's voice performance as George's friend Ape, who talks and behaves like a British butler who feels he is above everyone else in the movie. And again, the entire cast just lets themselves go, and tackles this silly material the way it should be. Everybody is having fun here, and it carries through the movie, making this more fun than it probably should be.
AIR FORCE ONE
RELEASED: JULY 25
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A group of terrorists (led by Gary Oldman) take control of Air Force One as the President of the United States and his family fly home from Moscow. This turns out to be a bad idea, as the President is none other than Harrison Ford. The President takes matters into his own hands in order to protect his family and everyone on board, and a battle of wills breaks out between the President and the terrorists.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Like Face/Off, this was an inherently goofy, but still enjoyable movie. Yes, the movie was terribly cliched, and you pretty much never worried about what will happen to the President and his family, as you knew they were obviously going to survive. But the star power of Ford and Oldman really lifted this material up. They knew how to sell it. When all was said and done, you paid to see Harrison Ford as the President kicking butt and taking names, and the movie delivered.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: This isn't as much of a goofy pleasure as Face/Off is, but it's still fun to watch from time to time. Again, you can pretty much predict this movie from beginning to end, and there are really no surprises at all. But the two veteran actors as the leads really play off of each other well. You want to see Ford get revenge on Oldman's character, and you despise the villains. It's a simple, but still somewhat effective movie that doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, but is still fun nonetheless.
RELEASED: AUGUST 1
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: Assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is killed and betrayed by his superior (Martin Sheen). When Al's soul goes to Hell, he makes a deal with the Devil Malebolgia (voice acting legend Frank Welker) to return to Earth as one of Malebolgia's Hellspawn, so that Al can see his wife and child again. As a Spawn, Simmons finds himself tormented by one of Malebolgia's henchmen - a demonic clown known simply as Clown (John Leguizamo), who wants Al to use his new demonic powers for the service of evil. Now Al must choose between the path of Heaven and Hell, as he must choose if revenge is really worth losing his soul eternally to darkness.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: I had known of the Spawn comics back in the day, but had never actually read them. I went to the movie with my best friend, who was a huge fan at the time. Seeing the film at the theater, I remember being impressed with the special effects, but finding the movie itself to be just average. There was nothing terrible about it to me, but there was also nothing that really stood out. I also found Leguizamo as the evil Clown kind of annoying, though he did do a good job hiding himself behind the make up. (If I had not seen his name in the credits, I wouldn't have known it was him.) My friend liked it much more than I did, but even he had some issues as a regular reader of the comic books.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Not much has changed. Spawn is the poster child of the edgy, 90s comic scene, which has become horribly dated and ridiculed today. This movie is pretty much a visual representation of that era. It wants to be really dark, foreboding and serious, but it really just kind of ends up being silly and laughable. The CG here has also not stood the test of time. While I can understand how young people found Spawn cool back in the day, the entire franchise and the character himself have not aged well.
RELEASED: AUGUST 22
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A scientist (Mira Sorvino) creates a new breed of bug in order to take care of a cockroach problem that is spreading a plague across Manhattan, mostly affecting children. The cockroach problem is solved, but the bugs that she created eventually begin to evolve themselves. Three years later, they have become dangerous to humans, and a team of scientists must now track into the subway systems in order to destroy what they have created.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: This was my introduction to Guillermo Del Toro, who has gone on to become one of my favorite current genre filmmakers. Despite the somewhat generic premise, Del Toro really did a great job of building the suspense here. He plays upon the audience's fears of being in dark places and the unknown, and uses the darkness and claustrophobic nature of the film's environments to his advantage. I found this to be an effective thrill ride movie back in the day, and a lot creepier than I expected it to be.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I hadn't seen this in years, so I was looking forward to see how it held up. Amazingly well, as it turns out. Watching this in the right environment (preferably with the lights turned off) can still make me jump when I watch this. The cast is surprisingly strong for this kind of film, and the movie is skillfully made by Del Toro. This is more than the generic "creature movie" that the premise makes it sound like. It's effectively creepy, suspenseful, and a lot of fun.
And that will do it for the summer movies of 97 that I saw! Again, feel free to comment and/or disagree. I know some of my opinions are not always popular, but they are how I feel, and I always welcome discussion.
It's time to look ahead to 1998. The 90s are drawing to a close, and so is this series. Next time, we have Godzilla trying to stomp America and only Matthew Broderick can save us! Jim Carrey tries his hand at a dramatic role. And Steven Spielberg takes us back to World War II in a way no filmmaker had at the time.
All this and more is waiting for you next time, so I hope you will join me for another nostalgic cinematic throwback.
Thanks again, everyone, for the enormous support for these articles, and I will try to have the next installment of this series out soon!
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