Summer of ’98: The Thrilling Conclusion

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 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.)

Yours truly,


Here is the full list of Summer of ’98 reviews. Ones in parentheses are old reviews written before this series.

March 20

April 3

April 10

April 24

May 1

May 8

May 15

May 20

May 22

May 27

June 5

June 12

June 19

June 26

July 1

July 10

July 15

July 17

July 24

July 29

July 31

August 5

August 7

August 14

August 21

August 28

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 20th, 2018 at 12:49 pm and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Summer of ’98: The Thrilling Conclusion”

  1. Surprised you didn’t cover RUSH HOUR (a movie I’m VERY mixed on), which turned 20 on Tuesday.

    With ‘one of those’ comments out the way let me just say that I always love these retrospectives from you and this one was no different.

  2. Enjoyed this series, but bummed we didn’t get a Permanent Midnight (Sept. 18) review. Maybe some day.

  3. The summer of 98 was a fun ride, that mostly tickled my nostalgia bone for a much more innocent time, where my best friend and me could be super hyped over the upcoming release of something like LOST IN SPACE, thanks to SciFi and popculture magazines, that wrote about this stuff months in advance. A time, where the only thing that helped me keep my sanity (more or less) was renting a shit ton of movies after school. A time, that I talked about way too often on here, so I will just shut the fuck up.

    Thanks for doing shit like that, Vern. Hopefully one day I will be able to increase my monthly Patreon donation to more than “At least he can buy a bag of chips or two” level.

  4. CJ: Preach it!

  5. Loved this series. Loved it. I’ve said before I consider 1998 the end of the ’90s, a full two years early, and this retrospective kind of puts that into perspective. It’s a last gasp for big event type movies, most of which failed. You just couldn’t do original high concept like you used to, or they just did it so badly that they stopped trying.

    Perhaps the proliferation of bad CGI (or visually incomprehensible in the case of Armageddon) paved the way for the real CGI era. Star vehicles stopped working. Maybe I just think about it this way because it was my last summer in college, so I was entering a new phase in life.

    Anyway, if ’99 won’t work next year, it will be the 25th anniversary of summer of 1994. That was a good one!

  6. Yeah, these themed kind of retrospectives are what first drew me here, and they’re always a treat to go through and reminisce over. With so much of the internet and culture in general focused on what’s the newest hottest thing, I think it’s nice to take some time and look at the past and remember where we were not too long ago at all, culturally-speaking.

  7. @Franchise Fred- you are absolutely correct that 1998 was the last year of the 1990s, 1999 was the birth of the “new millennium” era which roughly lasted from 1999 to 2004 before it ceased to be any novelty to live in the 21st century and the culture moved on.

  8. To echo the preceding comments, I found this whole series absolutely riveting. I look forward to Vern achieving excellence and leading our journey through the cinematic paradigm shifts of 2019-minus-20 and beyond

  9. Really enjoyed this series, thank you.

    Was the TV Series still going when THE LIZZIE MAGUIRE MOVIE came out? It does seem to be the prevision of kids entertainment, I guess because seeing characters they already know and love is a good first or early cinema experience for them, and they don’t have the “why pay for something we can see on TV?” hang-ups.

    Did EPISODES ever get any good? I watched all of the first series/season, and at the end I wondered why I had done that.

  10. Hey Vern, finally signed up on your Patreon page. This series was amazing, and ’98 represented the completion of my disillusion with mainstream “Hollywood” and pushed me almost entirely into mainly injecting genre and cult cinema into myself, where I happily remain today. I usually only catch a flick in first run if you give it the high sign, so you’ve saved me lots of money and time. Least I can do is send a few bucks your way every month, right?

  11. Yeah, Vern, this series was great! Hit all the right nostalgia buttons for me, didn’t make me depressed about being 20 years older, I found solace in the post about grieving with the community’s collective words (thanks everybody!) plus it lasted all summer long so I would always have something new to look forward to!

    Excellent work again, thank you. (When i make regular money I promise to become a patron, but maybe its about time to buy that Val Verde shirt at least)

  12. Off topic but I just wanted to say it’s been fucking impossible, having awareness of what is going on in this country for the last week. Fucking horrifying stuff afoot. That is all.

  13. I can’t handle current events and do my best to just ignore it and pretend it’s not even happening, it’s all so outlandish and bizarre that it doesn’t even feel real anyway, which makes it easier to ignore.

    Maybe that’s not the best method but for my sanity’s sake I have to, I’m sorry for anyone whose life is directly affected by all this though.

    It’s times like this that I am so thankful to be a gamer, nothing beats the feel of literally stepping into another world that video games provide, the real world keeps getting worse while the virtual world keeps getting better.

    I have a feeling the future is going to be exactly like READY PLAYER ONE.

    Oh and to keep things a little more on topic, what would people in 1998 think of 2018?

  14. “what would people in 1998 think of 2018?”

    This is a pretty great question and gives you a lot to think about in my opinion.

    To some extent 1998 would be like “oh sure, we knew exactly what would happen, that’s why we made DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON in the same year!”

    On the other hand they would perhaps not understand the level of emotional investment in politics? I believe Mr. Subtlety commented on this: that there used to be a sort of perceived luxury to pick apart the trappings of privileged angst, and we don’t feel like we have that luxury anymore. …I can’t see 1998’s Vincent Gallo or Christina Ricci acting credibly upset about a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation proceedings being mishandled.

    And another dimension is the idea of virtual reality, which was a cool narrative concept that we were scared shitless about in 1998. We distrusted Gates and Jobs and suspected they had no scruples in their zeal for marketable technological progress. Now, we look to our savior Elon Musk to save us from the apocalypse while he discusses the mathematical near-certainty we’re already in The Matrix, over a joint with Joe Fucking Rogan. I don’t think 1998 expected that shit to happen for another 50 years at least.

    I suspect I’ll have more to say on this topic after I smoke some weed.

  15. I watched MANIAC on Netflix last night, and without spoiling too much I hope, I hypothesized that it was set in a present world where Donald Trump was already president in 1998.

  16. I think Renfield makes a very important point there. By 1998, we were scared of burgeoning corporate power, and considered the government a more minor annoyance in our lives. There was still some post-Watergate paranoia swirling around (see, the X-Files, Waco, Ruby Ridge) but generally Americans’ impression of the government was more of partisan incompetence than tyrannical malevolence. After Bush, and after nearly 20 years of right-wing propaganda comfortably occupying the mainstream, I think a lot more Americans are much more afraid of the government, and, equally important, see it as less a tool for governing and more as a referendum on social values.

    Corporations, on the other hand, have completed their rise to power (The Independent just published an article with the headline –and this is true– “Should Apple Buy Greece?”) and their march to monopoly, and have infiltrated themselves into every aspect of our lives, and nobody seems concerned about it in the slightest. Even a huge debacle like Facebook’s data leaks results in a shrug and a “what can you do?” and meanwhile half of all Americans actually fanatically support LESS corporate regulation.

    That’s a surprising reversal, and I think it’s worth asking how exactly that happened, and what forces helped shape it.

    Specifically in 1998, you can see that a little bit; There are some movies where the villains are some kind of corrupt government officials (MERCURY RISING, THE NEGOTIATOR, SNAKE EYES) but really only the X-FILES, BULLWORTH and MASK OF ZORRO posits the government itself as the problem. Meanwhile, SMALL SOLDIERS, BASEKETBALL, HE GOT GAME, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and to some extent SPECIES II, are all on some level about evil corporations (to varying degrees). And I think DISTURBING BEHAVIOR too, although I can’t really remember what exactly the deal was with that. But way more of these deal with forces of nature (GODZILLA, DEEP IMPACT, ARMAGEDDON, LOST IN SPACE, SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS, PI) or some kind of criminal enterprise (WILD THINGS, THE BIG HIT, BLACK DOG, THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, I GOT THE HOOK-UP, A PERFECT MURDER, DIRTY WORK, OUT OF SIGHT, BUFFALO 66) usually with the heroes at least partially involved. I’d guess all the crime is more a holdover from the post-Tarantino boom than a reflection of popular anxiety about crime, but you never know.

  17. Thank you for that analysis, that’s great stuff.

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