The Movies of Summer 1998
1998 can be a long and rough road
It's time, ladies and gentlemen, for another trip back to the cinematic past. As we approach the end of the 90s, we can look back and realize that there's been some great stuff. Sure, there's been plenty of garbage, or stuff that just hasn't held up. But for the most part, it's been quite a lot of fun, and I've been having fun catching up with these movies, even if I didn't necessarily like some of them.
But now, here is 1998, and while there is some good stuff to find here as well, this is probably one of the blander summer movie seasons on recent record. I knew I was in trouble when I started researching this article, and I couldn't remember a lot of the stuff I had actually watched that summer. And catching up with the films I watched that year, I can see why I almost drew a blank thinking back on this year, because honestly there's just not a lot that's all that memorable here.
But let's not get too negative here. Let's look at the bright side. We do have some good and even great stuff here mixed in with the forgettable, just like any other year. It's just this particular year, the forgettable kind of overpowers. But maybe that's just me. You may feel different. As always, feel free to share your thoughts.
So prepare yourself, my fellow retrojunkers! This is a revisit to the cinema of 1998!
RELEASED: MAY 8
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: The first of two movies we got this summer about Earth being in danger from a falling object from space. This is a somewhat realistic and dour look at how humanity would react in its potentially final moments. We have a variety of storylines, dealing with different people and how they react to the events. The large cast includes Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States, Tea Leoni as a reporter dealing with family problems, Elijah Wood as a high school student trying to find his girlfriend during the chaos, and Robert Duvall as the head of a team of astronauts being sent up to deal with the comet that is set to strike Earth and doom everyone.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: This movie had some tremendous talent both on and behind the camera, with a cast most summer movies would kill for at the time. And while I didn't think it was bad at all, I did walk away a little bit disappointed. I remember thinking the movie was too heavy with plot and characters. There would seem to be four different plots running at the same time, with too many characters vying for our attention. The characters did not seem as developed as well as they could have been because of this. There was some great acting, obviously, and I kind of liked the film's dramatic and somber tone. I just remember thinking that a leaner cast could have helped the audience care a little bit more about what was going on up on the screen.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Honestly, I view this as an overly ambitious film that tried to fit too much in. While it's never confusing, it just tries to shuffle around too many plots, characters and personal storylines surrounding those characters. There are some really good moments in the film, and even a few powerful ones that made me tear up a little. But the movie would have been better if it had just scaled back just a little, and focused on a smaller group of people. Still, the acting is great, and we have a beautiful music score by the late, great composer James Horner.
RELEASED: MAY 20
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: The creators of 1996's Independence Day turn their sights to Japan's most famous giant monster, and unleash him upon New York. And who is going to save us? None other than Ferris Bueller and half the cast of The Simpsons, for some reason. (Seriously, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer and Nancy Cartwright all appear in this movie.) Other than making me wish for a Simpsons vs. Godzilla movie, the film doesn't seem to have a lot in common with the classic Godzilla movies of old.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: There is summer movie hype, and then there is Godzilla summer movie hype. You could not escape this movie during the lead up to its release. There were literally billboards and bus signs that hyped the size of the creature without really showing it. (A billboard on a building would say something like "He is taller than this building".) After almost a years worth of hype (the trailers hyping up the size of Godzilla had been playing since summer 97), the movie released, and promptly fell on its face almost right out of the gate. What was supposed to be another Independence Day-sized juggernaut wound up disappointing almost everyone who saw it, due to its bland human characters and even blander monster who you often could not see, due to the fact that 95% of the movie is set in the dark or the rain, making the movie look murky and underlit.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: This is the very definition of a 90s corporate product film. The studio focused all of its attention on the hype, merchandise and shilling the soundtrack with that stupid Puff Daddy song that forgot to focus on the film itself. And it really does show. Without the Godzilla name, this would have been just another generic monster movie with nothing to distinct itself from the variety of others. Fans wanted to see Godzilla topple some buildings, and maybe fight other monsters. What we got was Matthew Broderick trying to squeak out an emotion as the lead character, and a giant lizard who seemed camera shy and whose size seemed to change off and on throughout the movie. I think the immortal Roger Ebert put it best in his review when he described the film as "a big, ugly, ungainly device to give teenagers the impression that they are seeing a movie".
THE TRUMAN SHOW
RELEASED: JUNE 5
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: An ordinary man (Jim Carrey) begins to suspect that his life is not as normal as it seems when a piece of TV lighting equipment seemingly falls from the sky on his way to work one morning. From that point on, he begins to notice weird things happening. Everyone around him acts oddly, as if they are working off of a script. As he investigates, the truth is revealed that his life is actually being filmed 24-7 for a TV show. His neighborhood, his friends, and even his neighbors are all actors being controlled by a ego-maniacal director (Ed Harris) who watches Truman's every move, and dictates where his life will go. Will Truman seek freedom and escape from the world that's been created for him, or will the director refuse to let him leave?
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: This movie got a lot of hype, as it was the first big screen role for Jim Carrey that wasn't exactly a comedy. He got to show some dramatic range here, and I remember there being quite a lot of Oscar talk at the time. I remember loving this movie back when I saw it. The script was wild and unpredictable, especially since I knew little about what the movie was supposed to be about when I saw it. Carrey really impressed me with his performance, as did the entire cast, really. This had a great combination of satire and effective drama, and I remember it really leaving an impression on me at the time.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I was actually surprised I hadn't watched this film since seeing it at the theater, considering how much I loved it back then. Catching up with it, I still find a lot to love here. Again, the performances are great here. Carrey really does a fantastic job, especially during the film's final moments that manage to be suspenseful, heartbreaking and ultimately joyous all at once. I also love the music score by Philip Glass, and decided to track it down after I watched the film. What I love about the movie is how it's intentionally shot from strange angles at times, to represent the hidden cameras filming the main character at all times. A lot of people I've spoken to have kind of forgotten about this movie over time, and it's too bad, because it's such a clever and well done drama.
RELEASED: JUNE 19
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: The popular TV show got its first movie this summer. Agents Mulder (David Duchovney) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) specialize in dealing with cases involving the paranormal, and this time, they uncover a conspiracy that seems to tie into a virus that may be of alien origin, and could threaten all of Earth.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: I'll be up front, I never really watched the TV show back in the day. My older brothers were huge fans, but it never really grabbed me for some reason. I went to the movie with my brothers with no real knowledge of the characters or the show itself, and I wound up enjoying it. Sure, I would have enjoyed it more as a fan, but the movie was designed so that even non-fans could watch the film and not be confused, which I appreciated. The movie was exciting and suspenseful enough that I could get engaged. This was not exactly my favorite movie of the summer, but I liked it well enough.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Catching up with this, I still liked it, but really I just couldn't get all that excited about it. Oh, it's well made, and it's still easy enough to follow having no knowledge of the show. It just sort of feels like what should be a really long TV episode, rather than a feature length film. Most shows adapted to the big screen try for something much bigger than what would be on the show. But here, I kind of felt like I was just watching a show that was somehow designed for people who did not follow it regularly. It's certainly not bad, it just doesn't strike me as anything special.
RELEASED: JUNE 19
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: The classic Chinese adventure story and legend is the next basis for a Disney animated musical. The titular character is a young girl (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) who decides to fight in her father's place when war breaks out and China is on the verge of invasion. In order to do so, she must disguise herself as a man, and hope that no one learns her secret. Along the way, she is teamed up with a "guardian spirit" - a fast talking dragon (Eddie Murphy) who guides her and provides comic relief.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: After the disappointment of Hercules the year before, I kind of had mixed feelings about this one leading up to its release. I was interested in the film, because I was aware of the original story, and I thought it was a different and kind of unique subject for Disney to be tackling. On the other hand, based on the clips I saw of Murphy's performance, I wasn't sure of how it was going to fit into the story. I saw the film opening weekend, and was pleasantly surprised how well it turned out. It still wasn't quite as good as Hunchback, but I loved the characters, the songs were catchy, and I actually found myself greatly enjoying Murphy's performance. I don't remember this being a huge hit back in the day, but I remember having a lot of fun with it.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: This movie is still strong to me, and I like it for the same reasons now that I did back then. As for Murphy, I actually think he's a little bit funnier here than he is in the Shrek films that came out a few years later. He's basically playing the same character, but some of the lines he gets off here are truly hilarious to me. I also like the way Mulan herself was depicted, and I love the voice performance of Ming-Na Wen. This movie doesn't get a lot of attention these days, but it's always been a pleasant and easily watchable film to me that I have returned to many times.
RELEASED: JUNE 26
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: Noted medical doctor, John Dolittle (Eddie Murphy), had the unique ability to talk to animals when he was a boy. Over time, he lost that ability, but he gains it again at an unexpected time in his adult life. Now animals from every walk of life are coming to him, asking for help with their problems, and John finds himself unable to explain what's going on to his family, and especially to his co-workers, who think he is cracking up under the pressure of a big business deal going down at the hospital he works for.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Remember back in the intro when I said I couldn't remember a lot of the movies I had watched from that summer? This is one of them. I remember seeing the movie the weekend it came out, but I couldn't remember anything about it, or even what I had thought of it. I think I may have liked it at the time. I don't remember hating it, at least. So, I guess I could put just about anything in this paragraph. I could put a recipe for chocolate chip cookies here just to fill space, because I honestly don't remember what I thought of Doctor Dolittle back in the day.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I did watch the movie recently, and my reaction was general blandness. It's one of those movies that's not necessarily awful, it just kind of goes in one ear and out the other. You remember watching it, but nothing sticks with you. Nothing stands out here. Not the performances, not the talking animals, and certainly not the jokes. Well, okay, to be honest I did laugh once at this movie when a reference to The Usual Suspects ("I am Keyser Soze")snuck in. Other than that, there is little to remember or recommend.
RELEASED: JULY 1
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: The second "Earth is in peril from a falling object from space" movie of the summer, this one takes a more action-heavy approach, and tells the story of a team of drillers (led by Bruce Willis) who are hired by the government to fly into space, drill into a giant asteroid that's threatening to destroy Earth, and blow it up with a bomb. Yeah, the plan obviously wasn't thought through very well, but what can you do? We get a love subplot between one of the drillers (Ben Affleck) and the daughter of Willis' character (Liv Tyler), and quite possibly the worse song Aerosmith has ever done, which sadly became a huge hit that year. It all joins together to become what would ultimately be the most successful film this particular summer.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: The main thing I remember about this movie is that a lot of my friends loved it, and I just couldn't stand it. The movie was loud, nonsensical and obnoxious to me. It would also begin the trend of director Michael Bay making some of the worst action movies imaginable, and yet having them be tremendous successes at the box office. Seriously, all I can think of is rage when I think back on this movie. It's overlong, sappy, idiotic and just a chore to sit through. If you like it, more power to you. I just could never stand this movie.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Do you really have to ask? I was actually sort of dreading this article, as it meant having to sit through this overly long piece of goofiness again. It's so sappy and melodramatic and tries to take itself so seriously, but it's impossible. Deep Impact at least had some human emotion to it. This movie is pretty much all noise, special effects and booming music. And when it tries to get emotional or heartfelt, it just feels cold and calculating. This is a total corporate product that somehow managed to strike gold at the box office.
LETHAL WEAPON 4
RELEASED: JULY 10
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) return for one last adventure, this time dealing with the Chinese Mafia, who are dealing in human trafficking. Meanwhile, the two cops have personal problems of their own, as the new rookie on the force (Chris Rock) is actually secretly married to Murtaugh's oldest daughter and doesn't have the nerve to tell him, and Riggs' girlfriend (Rene Russo) is pregnant, putting Riggs into the position of wondering if he can remarry and keep the memory of his former wife alive.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Having grown up watching the Lethal Weapon movies with my dad, we actually used this movie as an excuse to get back together for a day and spend some time together. The day went well, and as for the movie, it still did not match up to the quality of the first two, but I liked it better than the third. If you remember my 1992 summer movie article, I thought Lethal Weapon 3 resembled a sitcom, with non-stop wisecracks from the lead characters. There's still a lot of goofy humor here, but it seems scaled back just a little. Chris Rock doesn't get to add much as the newest cast member, but it was fun seeing the older characters get back together.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Not much has changed, really. It's not my favorite in the series, but I certainly don't mind it. This movie was the big Hollywood debut of Chinese action star, Jet Li (he plays one of the villains in the film), and I always thought he could have been used a lot better here. I also always thought the film's final scene in the hospital was a bit corny. But, there are some good action scenes here, and a couple laughs to be had. A mixed bag all the way around, but certainly not a bad one.
RELEASED: JULY 10
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: This surprisingly dark and violent movie targeted at family audiences tells the story of a new toy line that is equipped with highly advanced military microchips. The toy line is comprised of the militaristic Commando Elite, led by Chip Hazard (voice by Tommy lee Jones), and the peaceful alien-like Gorgonites led by the gentle monster-like Archer (voice by Frank Langella). The toys are programmed to fight with each other, but due to their advanced programming, they are armed with actual military intelligence, and make their war real, turning a small suburban neighborhood into a battlefield.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: I remember really anticipating this movie, as I've been a big fan of director Joe Dante ever since Gremlins, and I thought the premise was perfect for his mix of dark humor and Looney Tunes-inspired slapstick. When I saw the movie, I remember having a mixed reaction. There were a lot of things that I did enjoy, such as the special effects, and the overall premise of the film. But I remember also being surprised with how dark it was, especially for a film that was being heavily marketed to kids. I mean, the idea of a girl's Barbie-like fashion dolls coming to life and torturing her is funny in a dark way, but I had to wonder if the kids at my screening were getting kind of freaked. I remember liking parts of this movie, but not finding it as fun as I thought it should have been.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I still can't quite put my finger on a total reaction to this film. I really want to love it, and it works in a lot of ways for me, but in a lot of other ways it doesn't. I do love the voice casting, how they hired the cast of The Dirty Dozen to do the voice of the Commando Elite, while the cast of Spinal Tap play the Gorgonites. That's a nice touch. This was also one of the late Phil Hartman's final films, as he was tragically killed during this summer right before the movie came out. Really, I can't exactly like this movie, but I don't hate it either. It's too weird and too unique for me to fully hate. It just doesn't always work. Consider me on the fence with this one.
THE MASK OF ZORRO
RELEASED: JULY 17
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: In this new take on the Zorro tale, a young thief (Antonio Banderas) must take on the moniker of the hero when the aging original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) passes the mantle to him during a time when the peasants and poor people of Spain need Zorro the most. There is a new evil villain causing trouble (Stuart Wilson), a new love interest (Catherine Zeta Jones), and much swashbuckling to go around.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: Having never been a huge fan of the old Zorro TV show as a kid, I wasn't sure what to expect with the film. What I did find was a fairly fun old fashioned adventure comedy film that had some decent stunts, humor, and enough action to work. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the film, this is another one of those movies from this summer that faded from my mind over time. I never had a huge desire to revisit it. It just was one of those movies that I kind of liked, then forgot about over time.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: Revisiting the movie, I still had a lot of fun. Is this a great movie? Not really. Again, it does little to stay in my mind when I'm done watching it. But when I do watch it, I am involved, and there is a sense of old fashioned adventure to it that I really enjoy. Sure, some of the stunts are very over the top and resemble a live action cartoon, but that is also part of the fun of the film. It doesn't really take itself all that seriously, and it's probably better off for it.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
RELEASED: JULY 17
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A man (Ben Stiller) has been obsessing over his high school sweetheart (Cameron Diaz) ever since a disastrous Prom night that ended humiliatingly for him. Even as an adult, he still pines for her. He hires a sleazy private eye (Matt Dillon) to track her down and find out what she's doing with her life. But when the private eye ends up falling in love with her, it turns into a bizarre competition to win her heart between the two men. In fact, it seems that she has quite a few suitors, including some unexpected ones...
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: This was the big surprise hit of 1998, and back then, I was right with the crowd. I think a big part of my enjoyment had to do with the crowd I saw the film with. Everybody was into the movie, and the energy in the room was easy to get wrapped up in. At the time, I thought it was one of the funniest movies I had seen, and I even went to see it twice at the theater. The film's twisted sense of humor and ability to turn romantic comedy cliches on their head really won me over.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: I still greatly enjoy this film, although I've never found it quite as funny as I did the first time I saw it. Like I said, I think the energy in the theater I saw it in had a lot to do with my tremendous enjoyment of it. I still find this to be one of Stiller's better comedies, and it does have a certain off key sweetness to it to go with the raunchy humor. This was the movie that kicked off the "gross out comedy" boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your taste in humor, or complete lack there of.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
RELEASED: JULY 24
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: After the battle of Normandy, two brothers are killed in action. A third brother had been killed earlier in battle, and now their mother is set to receive all three death notices on the same day. However, a fourth brother by the name of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is still alive. A small team of soldiers led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is set out to find the surviving son, and to send him home.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: This was a war movie unlike anyone had seen at the time. The opening battle scene set at Normandy was not only the most brutal and realistic that had been attempted on film, but it was also amazing accurate to those who had seen the battle back in the day. Despite some moments of somewhat forced sentimentality, this was an amazing film, my favorite of this particular summer.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: To this day, this still stands as an amazing achievement for director Steven Spielberg. The impact the film has is not lessened with time, and it's quite obvious it's been a huge inspiration to other filmmakers and even video game designers who have tackled the subject of World War II. It's powerful, emotional and ultimately gripping and raw. This film deserved the Oscar this year, though it sadly lost to Shakespeare in Love (a movie I enjoyed, but has not held up for me). This is the rare summer blockbuster that truly is emotionally effective, instead of just offering thrills.
RELEASED: AUGUST 21
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?: A half-human/half-vampire warrior named Blade (Wesley Snipes) rages a war against his full vampire brothers and sisters, trying to save humanity from their evil plans. Blade rescues a human doctor (N'Bushe Wright) from a vampire attack early in the film, and then proceeds to go on the warpath with the head vampire (Stephen Dorff) who is plotting the total annihilation of all humans.
WHAT I THOUGHT OF IT THEN: After the embarrassment comic book movies went through the previous summer of Batman and Robin, as well as Steel with basketball star Shaq (which I didn't even bother to see that summer), Blade felt like somewhat of a return to form. It was gritty, violent and didn't seem to be camping it up at every opportunity. Sure, Stephen Dorff as the lead villain could have been better, but this movie worked very well for its time.
WHAT I THINK OF IT NOW: There's a reason why I haven't revisited the film since then, and that's because I think the second Blade film (directed by Guillermo del Toro) topped it. That, and also I just haven't had a strong desire to sit down and watch it in recent years. Catching up with the film, it's definitely a product of the late 90s. It's one of those films that I can see why I liked it at the time, but just doesn't hold up too strongly for me. It's not terrible by any means, but it's just not anything to get excited about today when comic book movies are at the top of their form.
And that should do it for the summer of 98. Some good stuff, but overall not a very memorable summer movie season to me. We only have one year left to cover, and brother, is it a big one.
In 1999, we're going to get to see a low budget horror film shot on handheld cameras become a national phenomenon, the return of Austin Powers, South Park hit the big screen, and a small little independent film you might have heard about that has something to do with menacing phantoms.
The 90s close out with a bang, so please look forward to the next and final installment.
Until next time, keep the past alive!