In honor of the 2014 summer movie season, Team HitFix will be delivering a mini-series of articles flashing back to key summers from years past. There will be one each month, diving into the marquee events of the era, their impact on the writer and their implications on today's multiplex culture. We start today with a look back at the summer of 1989.
In many ways, 1989 is a fascinating case study for the direction populist filmmaking was already in the process of taking. Never before had so many sequels descended upon the multiplex. Franchises were exploding in the wake of “Star Wars.” Twenty-five years later, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.
As a 7-year-old living in small-town North Carolina, those franchises sucked me in that summer. It was a formidable few months for me, and so when we decided to crank out a Summer Movies Flashback series this year, I knew what I'd be writing about. I'd be writing about my multiplex awakening.
The summer of 1989 really took flight with Steven Spielberg's “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” on May 24. I grew up watching and loving the adventures of this hero, particularly wearing out the spools on my recorded-from-HBO VHS of “Temple of Doom.” And for a time, it seemed Spielberg and company had gone off on the highest of notes, an exciting action/adventure dipping in the separate wells of its predecessors and coming up with gold. So good.
This and that filled out the rest of the month. Phil Alden Robinson's brilliant “Field of Dreams,” which was released on April 21 (and therefore isn't quite within the parameters of this article), added more and more screens in subsequent weeks on the way to stellar box office receipts and, eventually, a Best Picture nomination. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were still at it in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” Patrick Swayze was ripping out throats in “Road House.” Clint Eastwood was under-performing with “Pink Cadillac” and an oddity called “Earth Girls Are Easy” was introducing some audiences to Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans. But mostly, it was all about the Joneses, and a waiting game for the real event of the year…
The marketing blitz for Tim Burton's “Batman” was out of this world. It was like you were an idiot if you weren't lined up for that thing. I've written about this before, but it was sort of my “Star Wars” moment, the first truly epic thing going down at my local movie theater that was screaming my name. And I kept coming back for more. At that point, I had never seen a movie more than once at the theater. I think I saw it three times. You couldn't escape it. That logo was EVERYWHERE. I still have my Taco Bell cup.
(By the way, while “Batman,” the movie, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Batman, the character, celebrates his 75th. The folks over at HeroFix have been cranking out lots of great content to celebrate.)
This was also a time when studios weren't too shy about releasing major movies opposite each other (probably because the glut was nothing like what it is today). “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” opened on the same day as “Batman” and was still a major hit. And how could it not be? Here was a high concept aimed right between the eyes of youngsters everywhere. It was a theme park ride (and soon enough, literally a theme park ride). Such a fun, rollicking, inventive movie.
I remember walking out of my first screening “Batman” and seeing a poster for “Ghostbusters II” on the wall and I lost my mind. “Ghostbusters” was by that time easily one of my favorite movies. But, wait, there was going to be another one?!? Yes, those were the days, when maybe you missed the commercials and could be surprised. We certainly weren't flooded with info on upcoming movies the way we are today. The movie opened a week before “Batman” and had a number of people involved with the project worried about what kind of business it would secure as a result. But it would be just fine.
An aside on that: Most people hate “Ghostbusters II.” I don't quite get that. To me, it's more or less the same movie as the first. Substitute the Statue of Liberty for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and there you go. OK, no, it's not that simple, though nevertheless, maybe the doubling down is what rubbed some people wrong. I don't know. People my age, we loved it, and most of us love it still. I watch that movie and I laugh and laugh. “Suck in the guts, boys, we're the Ghostbusters?” Anyway, moving on…
The rest of June had this and that. There was “Dead Poets Society,” the Peter Weir drama that became an awards player and still feels somewhat seminal. Hulk Hogan was trying to be a movie star with “No Holds Barred.” And there was also “The Karate Kid Part III,” which reminds that a number of these franchises hit the diminishing returns wall in 1989, from James Bond (“Licence to Kill”) and “Star Trek” to “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
One electrifying entry that brought June to a close, though, was Spike Lee's “Do the Right Thing.” No, at 7 years old, I wasn't lined up for that one. But when I would discover it years later, it would be a bit of an event for me, something I would grow to respect on a deep, deep level. It was probably the year's greatest film.
July was all about “Lethal Weapon 2.” The adventures of Riggs and Murtaugh were bound to see a sequel, and this time, they had the comic relief of Joe Pesci to keep them company. The film did gangbusters, landing at #3 on the domestic box office chart right behind “Batman” and “Indiana Jones.” Today, with its Apartheid drama, it feels a bit dated, but it's a pretty awesome little time capsule.
You may have heard that director Rob Reiner was honored by the New York's Film Society at the Lincoln Center Monday night. Well, in July of 1989, he offered up one of the reasons he's held in such esteem today, a piece of modern cinema legend: “When Harry Met Sally.” Elsewhere, Tom Hanks shared the screen with a French Mastiff in “Turner & Hooch” (even as a kid, I just could not stand this movie), while something I would grow to love and watch over and over and over again on VHS and cable hit theaters in the form of – yes – “Weekend at Bernie's.” (Oh, and “Weird Al” Yankovich made his big screen debut in July with “UHF,” in case you were wondering.)
August brought still more hits, like the John Candy starrer “Uncle Buck” (courtesy of a still-at-the-top-of-his-game John Hughes, who would deliver “Christmas Vacation” later on during the holidays). Ron Howard's “Parenthood,” seemingly aimed at kids yet not for them at all, was a huge success, too. It's also one of Howard's most underrated and ambitious pieces of work.
That reminds me. When I look at the box office chart for 1989, I love seeing how well adult filmmaking did with audiences. Weir, Reiner and Howard's films were all right up there with the popcorn fare. It's a wonderful balance of movies.
Speaking of adult filmmaking, there was “sex, lies and videotape.” Steven Soderbergh had arrived, and fiercely. Australian import and multi-hyphenate Yahoo Serious dropped “Young Einstein” on the world (a ridiculous movie I admit to watching constantly on Cinemax). And finally: James Cameron's “The Abyss.”
What a fantastic movie. It's riveting from the word “go” and has always stood out as quite possibly my favorite of his films. We wouldn't see the Special Edition for another four years, when the success of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” would allow the director and his effects team to go back in and complete the unfinished material (which made for a better movie, in my humble opinion). But what we got in the theatrical cut was still pure magic. Such an awesome way to close out the season.
I look back at the summer of 1989 and a huge smile splashes across my face. I remember the excitement of Hollywood's product and the impact it had on me. It's true, a number of those movies, you wouldn't accuse them of artistry. But I can't help but feel a deep affinity for a period of time that saw me fall in love with that towering screen. The franchise dependence of the industry may have caught fire and ensured an unfortunate future on that score, but such a thing is lost on a starry-eyed kid soaking it all in. For better or worse, 1989 gave us one of the great movie summers in history. It was big. It was memorable. It was historic.
Stick with us throughout the rest of this summer to see what other years we have in mind. For now, though, feel free to investigate more of 1989's facts and figures in the slideshow below. What was the summer's biggest flop? Who was the summer's MVP? Which movie moment would we be talking about for years to come?
Explore all of that and more, and vote for your favorite 1989 summer movie in our poll!