By: Lucas Henkel | Arts & Entertainment Editor
May 25, 2018
Here we are again. Another whole semester of absolute pain and what do ya know, another break has nearly arrived. For me, this will be the last article I’ll be writing for this school year and for this school in its entirety. Like every senior, it’s time for me to move on from high school and into the deep-ends of college with unfamiliar faces and situations. But hey, enough of that depressing schlock! You’ve clicked on this article to see a movie list, not a written graduation speech.
Every summer break, I’m fairly certain that each and every one of us takes the time to watch–or rewatch–some groovy action films. You know the ones: The ones that can be described as “less-plot, more-shooting”. Yeah, because as much as I enjoy over-analyzing movies and tear them a new one, even I have the cravings to watch something for mere mindless entertainment. Of course, that’s not to say this list consists only of those kinds of movies, far from it. Either way, I’m certain that at least one of these recommendations will suit even the pickiest of moviegoers to enjoy.
I want to let it be known now that this list doesn’t suggest every single good summer movie out there. If that were true, we’d both be here all day. So as much as I want to talk about Godzilla, Back To The Future, Indiana Jones or even Day Of The Dead and The Thing (Yes, those are technically summer movies), I won’t be. Instead, I will be talking about some of the more immediate movies that come to my head. I also want to say that the movies I’ve listed are all great movies. Just because I actually ranked these movies doesn’t mean that the lower ones aren’t worth watching. Think of it like the Olympics, you always hear about the top three athletes with their medals and you almost completely forget all of the other contenders exist. If they all weren’t the best of the best, they wouldn’t even be there to begin with.
For each of these movies, I will be discussing a few things about them. Apart from a general overview as to why I see each these films as something worth watching, I will go into detail about how I feel about the audio and visuals. Now it’s pretty obvious as to why I’d talk about visuals, after all, no one wants to watch a movie where all of the effects stick out like a sore-thumb. However, as for the audio, that may seem a little perplexing to some of y’all. I look at a movie’s soundtrack in specific not because of how they sound necessarily, but because I’m a firm believer in George Lucas’ quote, “Sound is half the experience”.
Now then, time to stick your bag of popcorn in the microwave and crack open a nice cold can of cola. It’s time I talk about some of what I think are the top movies you need to watch this summer!
10. Avatar (2009)
A paraplegic marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.
I’m going to say something that may be a little controversial to some: I don’t really care much for Avatar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good movie for many reasons, but it’s one of those movies where I don’t really get the hype all around it. However, considering how big of a success it was when it came out and all that, I think it’d be wrong to not include it here on this list.
The thing everyone remembers about Avatar is really just the visual effects. I mean sure, the James Horner soundtrack is nice and fitting for the on-screen images and helps set the tone of the film, the performances are all pretty good and the story isn’t bad, albeit just retelling the story of Pocahontas except with aliens instead, everyone remembers the eye-popping CGI this movie had.
I never saw Avatar in theaters, let alone in theaters, so I really can’t tell you how it looked when it first came in 3D–which seems to be something people thought was amazing. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was this movie looked and still looks absolutely gorgeous. Not only does everything look colorful and lively, but everything looks realistic; Motion capture makes a world of a difference. A lot of effort was put into the CGI and it clearly shows, allowing the viewer to be immersed the world of Pandora with a sense of awe and disbelief that you probably haven’t felt since you were a little kid.
So I suppose as people wait for the supposed sequels that’ll likely never come to fruition in my opinion, now wouldn’t be a bad time to look back at this ground-breaking movie. In fact, I think I will since I actually haven’t seen it in a while. Maybe I’ll appreciate it more now than before.
9. Transformers (2007)
An ancient struggle between two Cybertronian races, the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, comes to Earth, with a clue to the ultimate power held by a teenager.
Remember when the Transformers series wasn’t awful? I know I do. Although I never even saw the last entry, and I had major problems with the third entry, the second and fourth being just okay, I’ll always find the first movie to be a bit of a childhood gem and a fun action movie.
Being directed by Michael Bay, I’m pretty sure you know what to expect from this film: Explosions and lots of them. This is definitely not something I would watch specifically for the story or performances, however, I can always appreciate this film as something where you can turn your brain off for the most part. But let me just say though really fast, at least this movie’s plot is sensible. I mean sure, it’s may be no Armageddon when it comes to the story, but compared to Dark Side of the Moon, this movie is an idol made of gold.
In tandem with the plethora of intense action we are also given an interesting compilation of “current” rock songs and original scoring to provide background music for the movie. There’s only one track in the entire score that’s actually notable, the rest of it is pretty average and / or piggybacks off of the motifs set by that one track. It doesn’t really matter though since you’d barely even hear any music with the Michael Bay action blaring over it.
So if you’re looking to take a little trip down memory road, watch explosions or just want an excuse to watch Shia Lebouf pre-meme or the origins of the “prune juice” meme.
8. The Avengers (2012)
Earth’s mightiest heroes must come together and learn to fight as a team if they are going to stop the mischievous Loki and his alien army from enslaving humanity.
Here’s the obligatory superhero movie that every summer movie list needs–for the record, don’t take that joke negatively. With the recent release of Infinity Wars, I felt that now would be a good time to take a few steps back and check out the first Avengers film and appreciate it for what it was: A massive mash-up film that actually worked.
You see, looking back, I kind of realized that The Avengers was something special. It took a whole bunch of Marvel IPs and actually made a cohesive movie out of combining them all into one big melting pot. This was something hardly any movies in the past did successfully, let alone dared to. It’s like watching a good movie based on a video game, it’s just something you see once in a blue moon!
Not only was this movie special for having started the shared universe trend, but it also had some great eye-candy in combination with its decent story. The mayhem that occurs in this movie is absolutely ridiculous! Although all of the destruction was done with CGI, it all still looks pretty good. The soundtrack is also pretty decent as well; It’s one of the few scores where I can wholeheartedly approve a loud-mouthed soundtrack to coincide with the bombastic visuals. Not that it’s particularly anything special, but it certainly works.
I mean, what more can I say about this movie really. I’m pretty sure everyone saw this when it first came out, and I’m pretty sure everyone can agree that it’s something you can easily sit down and enjoy even without any prior knowledge of past Marvel films or characters.
7. Jaws (1975)
A local sheriff, a marine biologist and an old seafarer team up to hunt down a great white shark wrecking havoc in a beach resort.
Ah yes, the movie that started Steven Spielberg’s career and the mass genocide of sharks: Jaws. I’m fairly certain everyone has at least heard of this movie nowadays, it’s one of those films that’s so ingrained in pop culture that I’d be genuinely surprised to hear that someone out there has never seen this movie.
Jaws is what I consider to be a well-made suspense film. I wouldn’t exactly call it a horror movie due to the surprisingly light-hearted atmosphere it has for the most part, but I will not say that this movie isn’t scary, it’s a surprisingly unsettling movie when it wants to be. Although about two / thirds of the movie are pretty mellow consisting mostly of melodrama and bits and pieces of humor, that one / third of the movie that sets out to unnerve the audience does it with great success.
This is a movie where minimalism is all you need at times to generate fear out of the audience. I’ve always loved Steven Spielberg’s decision in keeping the shark mostly hidden for most of the film, because not only did it hide how fake the shark animatronic looked for the most part, as well as justifying the innumerable break-downs it had during production, but it allows the audience’s imagination to take a firm hold, an approach to horror I wish Hollywood would use more often.
John William’s famous orchestral soundtrack is probably one of the things people remember the most from this movie–and is probably the most referenced thing actually. Although the score doesn’t aim to creep the audience out for the most part, in the few times it does, it does it perfectly. Most notably: The infamous music motif whenever the shark appears on-screen. I think the best descriptor for this score would be that it reflects what occurs on-screen, it’s dark and foreboding whenever the movie is.
If you haven’t seen Jaws yet, put it on your watch-list, like, right now. Because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, I want to know how you’ve managed to avoid such a classic all these years.
6. Independence Day (1996)
The aliens are coming and their goal is to invade and destroy Earth. Fighting superior technology, mankind’s best weapon is the will to survive.
I don’t think you can have a summer blockbuster movie list without some sort of disaster piece in it. Case in point, Independence Day is here to scratch that destructive itch.
Although the movie itself isn’t anything special if I had to be honest, it’s one of those popcorn flicks that you can still sit down and easily enjoy despite its mediocrity. Much of the story isn’t anything I find particularly remarkable and the actor performances get the job done, however, the special effects are the real star of the show here. Not only is this movie famous for its awesome city-destruction sequences, but a lot of the other effects used in the movie look still pretty good today. This, of course, includes both the CGI and the practical effects; I especially love the alien puppet / animatronic used during the autopsy scene!
Of course, all of that eye-candy has to make up for something, and in the case of this movie, not only does it cover up its unexceptional story, but it also covers up its mostly average soundtrack. It’s not that it’s bad or anything like that, it does at least have a distinct militaristic and patriotic style, however, there just aren’t that many notable compositions that actually served the visuals justice. But hey, it could definitely be worse; At least the score doesn’t intrude nor sound out-of-place within the movie.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’re not necessarily missing out on a whole lot, but I would check it recommend for you to check it out for one of the three following reasons. The first reason would be if you wanted to watch something specifically for the fourth of July–although there are a ton of other movies I would recommend over this like The Patriot or Jaws even as discussed earlier. The second reason why would be if you’re in a Will Smith movie-binge for whatever God-forsaken reason–because if you are, no one can save you from the horror that is known as Suicide Squad. The third and final reason why I would go back to this movie, would to simply watch crap being blown to smithereens, which is the only reason I re-watch this movie from time to time.
5. Aliens (1986)
Ellen Ripley is rescued by a deep salvage team after being in hypersleep for 57 years. The moon that the Nostromo visited has been colonized, but contact is lost. This time, colonial marines have impressive firepower, but will that be enough?
As much as I love the darker, more isolated vision that Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott had in the first movie, it’s undeniable how James Cameron’s take on the Alien universe is equally–if not more–great. Although the change in tone is a bit jarring, Aliens is much more refined film in many different ways.
The most notable change between films is the change in scale for a lack of better terms. While Alien takes place within the tight confines of a single spaceship with one Xenomorph, Aliens takes place within a massive colony infested with countless Xenomorphs; I think you get the picture. Although Aliens doesn’t boast detailed visuals–in comparison that is–as it did the first time around, the movie offers a whole lot more to make up for that. Namely, you actually get to see the Xenomorphs run and chase after people in intense action sequences. Like I said, very different from the first film when it comes to the actual thrills, but again, that doesn’t make it a weaker film.
All of the visual effects used were all pretty solid with some clever practical effects to allow the viewer to be immersed in the action, and the soundtrack is a bit of a step-up from the last film. As much as I enjoy Jerry Goldsmith as a musician, most memorably his score for The Mummy, his compositions for Alien lacked a certain discomfort factor to it; It felt a little too lush for a lack of better terms. In fact, it actually makes me wonder who scored the trailer for the movie since that actually felt a lot more fitting–and horrifying–honestly. But I digress, James Horner’s score for Aliens is definitely something that works best in-context of the movie, serving as something to either build up hype or tension in many scenes.
So overall, as much as I love Alien, I’d have to award Aliens for being the better film here. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should definitely check it out.
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.
I’m pretty sure everyone who had a childhood has seen this movie by now. Jurassic Park is a movie I find myself coming back to time after time weirdly enough. It’s just one of those movies I can never get enough of really and is something I still look back to with each new installment in the series.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park hits the right sweet spot when it comes to suspense and drama. When I was younger, I loved this movie to death. Not only do the awesome action sequences still work today, the dinosaurs themselves still looking convincing even to this very day thanks to the right combination of CGI blending and practical effects, but I loved how the film was not just eye-candy like how it has devolved in recent years. In fact, I was perfectly content with the melodramatic moments as well whenever I watch this movie, they never really felt out of place and always made sense. That was something that I felt pretty much all of the other Jurassic movies failed at, for the most part, they pretty much horseshoed in family issues like as though it was a quota that had to be fulfilled, not something that felt genuine.
Another thing that I always liked as a child was the soundtrack composed by John Williams. In fact, I actually think–at least for me personally–that this is his best soundtrack to date. In fact, this is one of the few orchestral soundtracks that I can think of that I actually really appreciate. Everything from the iconic theme track to all of the other cues that play throughout always felt right and work great in the movie’s atmosphere.
So I suppose in anticipation of the next Jurassic World movie, now wouldn’t be a bad time to check out this classic again–or for the first time, I mean hey, I know some of y’all out there looped Star Wars as a kid instead.
3. Escape From New York (1981)
In 1997, when the U.S. president crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in to rescue him.
I’m not sure if I would call this movie a blockbuster really, in fact, there’s hardly any action now that I think about it. I wouldn’t exactly call this a cult-classic either, more along the lines of a forgotten success. Escape From New York is one of those movies that sort of drifted away from the public eye over the past some years, especially if we’re talking about the modern young audience. So bare with me please, because I’m about to tell you why this is one of my personal favorite late-night flicks.
Directed by–I can already hear the groans–John Carpenter, Escape From New York showcases a dystopian future where New York has become a maximum security prison, surrounded by a massive wall–cue Donald Trump joke–and guards armed to the teeth. Of course, you probably knew that after reading the synopsis and / or watching the trailer. Now I don’t know about you, but to me, the idea of it all is really unique even to this day really. But that sums up a lot about this movie actually: Unique.
The plot is unique, the characters are unique, the setting is unique and the soundtrack is unique. Scored by the director himself and his associate Alan Howarth, the two composed something that still feels fresh to this very day if I were being honest. The duo has managed to make a soundtrack that not only successfully underscores the movie, but a soundtrack where every track feels different yet distinct; A combination of jazzy bass guitar strums and ARP synth sequences. What this leaves you with is a score with an amazing theme and some great action cues that’ll leave you craving for more. I would actually link some more tracks right around now, but if I did, I’d probably end up listing the entire playlist. It’s soundtracks like these that make me wish that synthesizer-heavy scores are utilized more in Hollywood.
The visuals are also pretty good surprisingly. Considering how it was made in the early 80s, there were a handful of clever tricks to give a futuristic aesthetic that still gets the job done today. Nothing looks out of place, everything looks like what it’s supposed to: Decrepit and massive. There’s a certain scale to everything in the movie that truly helps sell the movie, you never get the feeling that it’s just a movie set or a miniature or something like that, it all looks real and life-like.
Escape From New York is one of those movies where despite its small budget of $6 million, it has managed to create a world that manages to suck you in right from the get-go. If you’re in the mood for something dark and gritty, you should definitely check it out.
2. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
A rough-and-tumble trucker helps rescue his friend’s fiance from an ancient sorcerer in a supernatural battle beneath Chinatown.
Big Trouble In Little China is something special. It’s what I, quite frankly, find to be the quintessential blockbuster movie out there, and it’s not because it was directed by John Carpenter–in fact, I actually saw this movie way before I realized who he even was. The movie has every element you would typically expect: It has a decent amount of action, it has a good mix of comedy, a few dashes of romance, and a whole lot of 80s cheese; A perfect evening with friends!
If it isn’t obvious from that last statement, Big Trouble In Little China is one of those movies that seemed to have aged really badly. The acting feels a bit hammy at times, a lot of the visual effects don’t really hold up all that well, and then there’s the music. Oh God, the music. With this being a Carpenter movie, it comes with the expected 80s synthesizer score to accompany the visuals, only this time, it doesn’t feel quite as timeless as it did with most of his other films, far from it. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, I guess it’s just the synthesizers and drum machines he and Alan Howarth decided to use for that one score in particular. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad soundtrack, in the context of the movie it works pretty well and I’ve always enjoyed the charm of cheesy stingers and looping synth-bass sequences. In fact, I always get a real kick out of the main theme, especially its music video–which is just atrocious.
And it’s not just the soundtrack that solidifies this movie as a relic from its time, as mentioned earlier, the visual direction Carpenter went with this movie feels very off at times. I say this especially towards the later segments of the movie when much of the movie takes place underneath China town. Like seriously, there’s this one massive arena area that’s literally lined with neon lights! Like, what even? I remember I was choking on some popcorn the last time I saw this movie since me and Zach Thomas–local SCHS senior–kept calling it “Big Trouble In Little P.F. Changs” since all we could think about was how it wouldn’t be surprising if the film crew weren’t actually on a proper Hollywood set and were just in some random Chinese restaurant.
You see, crap like this is what makes this movie such a blast to watch though. It’s one of those few cases where a movie’s age actually makes it so much better. Big Trouble in Little China is a movie that I never understood why it initially flopped back when it was released. Looking past all of its 80s cheese, you have a pretty dang solid martial arts action-comedy starring Kurt Russell–who does a great job being a loveable onscreen idiot, constantly spewing out one-liners. Ah well, at least we can all agree that this movie is a cult-classic that deserved to be seen at least once in your life.
1. The Terminator (1984)
A seemingly indestructible Android is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a waitress, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against the machines, while a soldier from that war is sent to protect her at all cost.
Okay, okay, The Terminator is not exactly a blockbuster, that award belongs to its sequel. However, despite all of the acclaim T2: Judgement Day receives, I personally don’t think it’s quite as good as the first film. Don’t get me wrong, T2 is a great film, but I think James Cameron struck gold the first time around. The Terminator is one of those few movies out there that I find almost perfect: It always keeps you on the edge of your seat with a sense of dread and unease, something that I felt lacking in its sequel. I mean sure, Robert Patrick did a great job as the T-1000, but I’ll always prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s menacing performance in the first movie, he had a real presence that came with his built-up body.
Another one of the things I loved about the first movie was Brad Fiedel’s soundtrack that held an important role in heightening the movie’s visuals. Not only is there the downright iconic theme, but the rest of the soundtrack underscores the film in such a way that it never felt distracting nor nonexistent: The perfect balance of being subtle when necessary and bombastic when it can. Whether it’d be the minimalist pad and percussion motif whenever the T-800 was on-screen, to the looping Oberheim synth sequences that play during the many chase scenes. From the unique sounds of dissonance in the intense nightclub confrontation to the spine-chilling electric violin cacophony used in the finale. If it isn’t obvious, I love The Terminator soundtrack, and I find it to be one of the best audiovisual pairings out there in cinematic history next to The Fog.
Not only does the soundtrack help capitalize on the movie’s intense atmosphere, but the visual and script direction turns the movie into something akin to that of a slasher film at times. Everything from the way Arnold Schwarzenegger acted to the amazing practical effects by Stan Winston truly suspended my belief as a kid and it still does to this day. On that note, I should mention that the visual effects used in this movie are nothing short of amazing, using all manners of practical effects to visualize James Cameron’s nightmarish fever-dream. And because the movie uses forced perspective, miniatures, puppets, and stop-motion, it all blends together in a very believable way that still looks good even today. Even the effects that do look very dated today still look fine since it works in the context of the movie! A vivid example of this would be how the stop-motion sequences used for the T-800 endoskeleton during the finale works since it actually highlights the unnatural robotic movements, making what should be a dated effect seem almost timeless. It’s all very impressive stuff, especially considering the fact that this movie had only a small budget of $6.4 million.
The first time I saw The Terminator back in middle school, it kind of scared the hell out of me, but in a good way–obviously. It’s one of those movies that has always stuck around with me in the back of my head and it has certainly stuck around in pop culture since its initial release. So, if you haven’t already seen it yet, watch it: The Terminator is a great thriller and a great movie in general, it may not be as grand as its sequel, but the sheer raw and grit factor makes up for it, making it a movie I will always say yes to watching again and again.