Usually my idea of a good movie summer is one with a bunch of really high quality big budget action/sci-fi type movies. Popular entertainment that we can get excited about and enjoy together and talk about as a collective cultural experience – summer blockbusters, popcorn movies, the sons of JAWS. For example a famously great movie summer was 1982, which gave us CONAN THE BARBARIAN, ROCKY III, POLTERGEIST, STAR TREK II, E.T., BLADE RUNNER and THE THING, among others. Or what about 1990, which gave us TOTAL RECALL, DICK TRACY, GREMLINS 2, DIE HARD 2, DARKMAN and THE WITCHES. There have been some good ones before.
1998 wasn’t really one of those good ones. Two of the big event movies, GODZILLA and LOST IN SPACE, were widely hated garbage. Another one, ARMAGEDDON, is highly influential garbage. Its rival space debris epic, DEEP IMPACT, is kinda dull. Most people despised THE AVENGERS. Even in the animation category it’s a shitty summer, with Disney’s mediocre MULAN and Warner Brothers’ embarrassingly bad QUEST FOR CAMELOT.
I think the best traditional summer movie of the year is MASK OF ZORRO, a hit at the time that’s not discussed much anymore. In the R-rated world the best and most influential was obviously BLADE, a surprise smash released in the supposed dumping ground of August. I also think LETHAL WEAPON 4 is a pretty impressive if messy and offensive action sequel. But that’s about it for those types of movies.
The highest domestic grosser of the summer, and of the year, and arguably also the most influential and still respected of the group, was a “serious” movie (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). There was also a breakout comedy hit (THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY) that holds up. There was a good late sequel to a horror classic that I forgot to mention came out this summer because I’d reviewed it pretty recently (HALLOWEEN H20). There were a couple notable indie debuts (Vincent Gallo’s BUFFALO ’66, Darren Aranofsky’s PI). And there was one amazing sex thriller (WILD THINGS).
But if you’ve been following along with these reviews you know the real magic of ’98 was the number of cool/arty/indie directors who got to work with medium sized or at least bigger-than-their-usual budgets. Spike Lee’s HE GOT GAME, Terry Gilliam’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Peter Weir’s THE TRUMAN SHOW, Whit Stillman’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT and Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES are all good mixes of visionary artistry and slick mainstream entertainment. One of the best types of movies.
It was interesting to look for connections between movies across the season. One is the prevalence of characters who are reporters or writers. DEEP IMPACT, GODZILLA and SNAKE EYES all had sympathetic depictions of people working in broadcasting taking advantage of tragic circumstances (a comet, a Godzilla, an assassination) to become on-camera reporters. In FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, of course, he was writing for Rolling Stone. MR. JEALOUSY and HENRY FOOL both have characters who are supposed to be acclaimed voice-of-his-generation writers, and in LAST DAYS OF DISCO they discover the writing of one of those (though he’s not seen). In THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY Ted is said to be a writer. But THE HORSE WHISPERER and SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS both had heroines who found purpose and romance escaping their fancy lives editing women’s magazines in New York City.
If we are to combine these into one overall message, I guess it’s that women need to work hard and get lucky in order to achieve their dreams in the media. But once they do they will be overworked and out of touch and will need to get back to nature with a real man who understands animals and/or engines.
Meanwhile, men set aside petty thoughts of career in hopes that they are brilliant awe-inspiring acclaimed genius artistic type writers. (In fairness, that archetype is satirized in these movies much more than romanticized.)
Also there’s the ROCKY III theme. DIRTY WORK, DR. DOLITTLE and SNAKE EYES all have characters talking about the movie. Yes, specifically part III. BASEKETBALL also has a joke about Mr. T. So fuck being a news anchor, fuck being the voice of a generation, be a true original like Mr. T., in my opinion.
And of course a major thing I learned is that pop-punk-ska was used on many soundtracks in 1998 and it is not a style that has grown on me at all. To me the best soundtrack is OUT OF SIGHT, which is old soul and soulful retro David Holmes scoring. Runners up are the period ones: FEAR AND LOATHING and the two disco movies.
Movies that held up best: OUT OF SIGHT, HE GOT GAME, MASK OF ZORRO, WILD THINGS
Movies that really deserve to be remembered more: THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, MASK OF ZORRO
Let’s consider the legacy of the Summer of ’98.
First of all, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO and ARMAGEDDON have all been released by the Criterion Collection. And BLADE told Marvel it was okay to make movies, as long as they were generally very good but not as good as BLADE. So it’s not as though this era of film has been entirely forgotten.
ARMAGEDDON was definitely the more popular of the space debris movies. Michael Bay, like the asteroid, burned through all he came in contact with, and continues to be a juggernaut despite a popular reputation as a guy who makes dumb movies. His works would become both more skilled and more excessive than ARMAGEDDON, but clearly the work of the same mind.
DEEP IMPACT still plays on cable, but neither director Mimi Leder or star Tea Leoni became major players in movies. That baton actually went to astronaut Jon Favreau after he directed IRON MAN. Elijah Wood went on to be a hobbit and now uses his clout to produce cool low budget horror movies.
It’s possible that no one extrapolated any lessons from the battle of the hurtling space objects, but they might’ve learned “Don’t make the more thoughtful one.”
Sadly, John McNaughton was not able to ride the popularity of WILD THINGS into more movies. His most notable followup was the made-for-cable LANSKY starring Richard Dreyfus, and his only theatrical features have been SPEAKING OF SEX (2001) and THE HARVEST (2013), with some TV episodes in between. For Bill Murray, however, I think it was part of the momentum that led to a career reinvention when he started working with Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch.
The Farrelly Brothers rode the THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY wave for several years, but never matched their first three films in popularity or quality. THE THREE STOOGES is underrated, though. Also Peter has now solo-directed GREEN BOOK, a more serious film starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali that just won an audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Brian DePalma (SNAKE EYES) took another shot at big budget filmmaking with MISSION TO MARS (2000), pleasing very few. But then he retreated into one of the most De Palmy movies of all time, FEMME FATALE, so it was worth it.
Though FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS was clobbered by GODZILLA and boring popular sensibilities at the time, it now seems like Gilliam’s last movie to connect with the mainstream. It was seven years before the release of THE BROTHERS GRIMM, a compromised Miramax disaster. TIDELAND was weird and inaccessible, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS was hampered by the death of Heath Ledger, and even I haven’t seen THE ZERO THEOREM. He finally got THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE made this year, and a rights dispute might prevent it from being released in the U.S. I bet he yearns for the good old days of fighting to not give Alex Cox a writing credit.
Steven Soderbergh sure made out good though. OUT OF SIGHT announced his rebirth as the platonic ideal of a filmmaker who alternates between slick mainstream fun and challenging experimental tinkering, allowing each to inform and advance the other. Clooney, meanwhile, was solidified as a genuine movie star of great charm and artistic integrity.
Jim Carrey (THE TRUMAN SHOW) did achieve his goal of being an actor who can do drama – he starred in MAN ON THE MOON, THE MAJESTIC, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE NUMBER 23, for example. Mike Myers (54) – not so much. I’m not sure his scene in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is enough to count. I see that he’s in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, but that might just be a “ha ha, because of WAYNE’S WORLD, remember?” cameo, I’m not sure.
Matt LeBlanc (LOST IN SPACE) didn’t really get to become a movie star. He eventually achieved some respect starring in the acclaimed show Episodes. Blarp quit acting and used her residuals to buy a small ostrich farm in North Carolina.
’98 might’ve been the peak of The X-Files as a cultural phenomenon, and making a movie might’ve been a slight overreach. The show continued on TV for four more years in its original run. I tried to research if there have been any other still-airing live action series with theatrical movie spin-offs since then. The only ones I came up with were RENO 911!: MIAMI, HANNNAH MONTANA: THE MOVIE, and ALI G INDAHOUSE.
I was wondering how much the types of summer movies have changed, so I looked at the releases from April through August in 1998 and 2018 for a non-scientific (practically Creationist) comparison.
By my count Summer of ’98 had 7 sequels, 4 remakes, 3 based on TV shows, 2 based on old pulp characters, 1 based on comic book characters, 1 monster movie, 3 thrillers, 2 action movies, 1 Spike Lee joint. 2018 had 12 sequels (+5), 2 prequels, 2 remakes (-2), 2 based on TV shows (-1), 3 based on comic book characters (+2), 4 monster movies (+3), 4 thrillers (+1), 6 action movies (+4), 3 original horror movies, 1 Spike Lee joint.
If the movies of ’98 seem a little quaint now, one reason might be that the very next year had two major paradigm-shifting hits. Say what you will about THE PHANTOM MENACE (actually, don’t), it’s a fact that it
1) Pushed the envelope for how much digital effects and backgrounds could be in one movie
2) Was the first live action movie to have a major all digital character who wasn’t a cartoon ghost
and these things, for better or worse, set the stage for what most big budget movies are like now.
Meanwhile THE MATRIX set a new standard for how much training and on camera fighting could be expected of Hollywood actors, not to mention how effects could be integrated into action. And an argument could be made that it also encouraged people to try to put more sophisticated ideas into their action and sci-fi blockbuster shit.
Also FIGHT CLUB, MAGNOLIA and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH were a pretty big leap for the hip niche audience directors. I can’t really picture a BLACK DOG or a SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS coming out after those movies.
Anyway, I want to thank you all for sticking with me during this retrospective. I personally experienced nostalgia, enlightenment, revulsion, etc. It was worth it just to write about OUT OF SIGHT, MASK OF ZORRO, WILD THINGS and SNAKE EYES, but it was also cool to have a reason to see movies I never normally would’ve watched (THE HORSE WHISPERER, MR. JEALOUSY) or had mostly forgotten about (THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, BLACK DOG) and even to take a scalpel to movies I always kinda hated (GODZILLA, ARMAGEDDON). I had a fun time, and I hope you did too.
(If so, as always, consider supporting me on Patreon, which helps me work fewer hours at the day job and more going in depth on the good shit.)
Here is the full list of Summer of ’98 reviews. Ones in parentheses are old reviews written before this series.
I GOT THE HOOK-UP
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
THE MASK OF ZORRO
HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER
DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.