Best Summer Blockbusters Summer at the movies means big-budget, flicks with lots of action, special effects and little to no plot. We kick off our movie series with your choices for the all-time best blockbuster.
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Best Summer Blockbusters

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Best Summer Blockbusters

Best Summer Blockbusters

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. British police now have 20 people in custody in connection with the attacks on London's transit system. Officers arrested nine men in early morning raids today. And the energy bill now moves to the US Senate. It cleared the House of Representatives a short while ago. One little-known provision would benefit a natural gas research group based in Sugarland, Texas, which is the hometown of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. You can hear details on those stories and much more, of course, later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow it's "Science Friday." Guest host Joe Palca will be here to lead a discussion on the latest developments in weight-loss surgery: how it works and how much risk is involved. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday."

And now: the TALK OF THE NATION movie awards, episode one: summer blockbusters.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

Unidentified Man: In a summer of sweltering heat, on a diet of popcorn, Twizzlers and Raisinets, a nation driven to its movie theaters by an unstoppable appetite for alien attacks, menacing animals and non-stop mayhem. Will you join them? The summer blockbuster on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: Blockbusters are notoriously heavy on action, light on character development and cheesy on dialogue, though when the summer sun starts roasting your brain, there's little better way to turn off your head for a couple of hours than the dark cave of a movie theater, wrapped up in all the special effects and larger-than-life plot. In that spirit, we invite you today to nominate your favorite blockbuster. Which summer hit holds the fondest place in your heart? If you didn't get your suggestion in earlier this week, we're still taking submissions. Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

Our guest judge for these movie awards is Murray Horwitz. He's director and COO of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center here in Washington, DC. He joined us in the studio in Washington, Studio 3A.

Nice to have you on the program, as always, Murray.

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (Director, COO, Silver Theatre and Cultural Center): Thank you. Good to be here again.

CONAN: We're inaugurating the series with the blockbuster genre because blockbusters themselves celebrate a little bit of a milestone this year.

Mr. HORWITZ: They do. This is the 30th anniversary of, really, the first summer blockbuster, which is Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." And it's--one of the things that makes it a blockbuster, and one of things that qualifies a movie to be a blockbuster is wide release, and it's important to remember that in those ancient days before 1975, movies were released in patterns around the country so they didn't have to make too many prints, and a film that opened in New York wouldn't necessarily reach your neighborhood for another few weeks. But "Jaws" was the first one to be released on a wide scale to a bunch of screens at once. And now, sometimes, you get released on over five or even 6,000 screens right at the top.

CONAN: And those were the days when there was a theater as opposed to the `duodecaplex' that we all go to now.

Mr. HORWITZ: I have nothing bad to say about duodecaplexes. They serve a great function. But, well, as you know, I have the American Film Institute's Silver Theater, which is the greatest place to see a movie in the world.

CONAN: Seven at any one time. Are there any qualifications that define a blockbuster? I mean, air conditioning seems to be a big one, but...

Mr. HORWITZ: I think that's true. The--and, in fact, I think that--we right now are showing, for example, a non-blockbuster movie, but--we're showing "March of the Penguins," which is great. People get to spend 90 minutes in Antarctica in the middle of the Washington, DC, heat, so I think that's one qualification. But also, in addition to wide release, I'd say staying power. It's possible for a film to have a huge opening weekend and be a successful film and be a hit, but then drop off and...

CONAN: (Whistles)

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, like that. This summer--and nothing against it at all, but "Fantastic Four" was one such movie. It had a huge opening weekend, did well, and now it's dropped off by a great deal. I think for, really, a summer blockbuster, it's sort of got to stick throughout the summer.

CONAN: Well, this week we asked you to send in your nominee for best summer blockbuster of all time. The most popular suggestions were--no twist endings here--"Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Star Wars: Episode IV," and "Jurassic Park." And joining us now to defend her choice is Nell Mock(ph) of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. NELL MOCK (Listener): Hi.

CONAN: What was your favorite summer blockbuster?

Ms. MOCK: Well, it was "Star Wars: Episode IV." The reason why is I like science fiction, but if you went to any kind of science fiction movie back in those days, they were awful. They were science run amok, with giant ants and rabbits and so forth--"Night of the Lepus"--where the production qualities were awful. You had real close-ups, so you couldn't see you were actually looking at a little bunny rabbit, or it was very dark so you couldn't see the pieces of the costumes falling off.

CONAN: There was always a voiceover at the end that said, `There are things mankind is not meant to know.'

Ms. MOCK: Yes, and it was always--science...

Mr. HORWITZ: You were that voice!

Ms. MOCK: ...was the bad guy. You know, the scientist was the evil person and science and technology was bad. So we had just heard that there was this good movie, you know, "Star Wars," so we said, `Well, let's go.' Another couple and we went to it, and we got there and it was before the big boom, and there was a line, but it wasn't huge. And we go in and we sit down and there those words start scrolling over, and the first scene is with that little spaceship and--but you don't know it's little until you hear the rumbling from the speakers, and then the big battleship is chasing the little spaceship and there's this--these light beams coming. And, you know, here we are; we're sitting in the audience, and we're steering with the pilots and we're behind the controls of the laser cannon, trying to shoot things down. We came out of there, we were so excited; we were all of us talking over it: `Did you remember that? Did you see that?'

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Ms. MOCK: And the thing was, it had a plot, but the good and the evil were the people, the actions they did. It wasn't the science that was evil. And it just kind of set a new level that--if you wanted to entertain people with science fiction, you couldn't do it just with a `Gee whiz' anymore.

CONAN: Well, Murray, again, going back to your definitions, did "Star"--was it anticipated it was going to be a blockbuster? Did it get that wide release you're talking about?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. Everybody knew that was going to be a big picture. And I think that--first of all, I agree. And I think that you made a very important distinction there between science fiction--I mean, strictly speaking, it wasn't a science fiction movie about all-new lab procedures and gadgets and all that. It was a fantasy movie...

Ms. MOCK: Right.

Mr. HORWITZ: ...which may sound like splitting hairs, but I think that's--you don't see any science fiction movies, really, strictly speaking, on the list of biggest blockbusters, summer blockbusters of all time.

Ms. MOCK: Yeah, like "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's hard to believe that anybody doesn't remember the whole thing by heart, but here's a clip from--well, we used to think of it as "Star Wars: Episode I."

(Excerpt from "Star Wars: Episode IV")

Mr. MARK HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) Look at him. He's heading for that small moon.

Mr. HARRISON FORD: (As Han Solo) I think I can get him before he gets there. He's almost in range.

Mr. ALEC GUINNESS: (As Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi) That's not a moon. It's a space station.

Mr. FORD: It's too big to be a space station.

I have a very bad feeling about this.

"CHEWBACCA": (Roars)

Mr. GUINNESS: Turn the ship around.

CONAN: `Turn the ship around. Use the force, Luke!' (Laughs) And, I mean, Nell, did you like the subsequent films in the series? Of course, there are now five others.

Ms. MOCK: Well, number two--well, number--What was it?--number five--I felt cheated, because at the end it was so clearly a `continued next week' type serial thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOCK: But I did enjoy them all. The--number six, that got a little bit more childish, it seemed--less sophisticated, if you'll allow me to say that any of the "Star Wars" were very sophisticated. And, of course, I watched one, two and three, and they've been interesting, too. It's a really different thing to see the last half first and then the first half second.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOCK: So following the whole show, it will--I guess maybe this is going to be one that will live on in DVD with people doing these giant "Star Wars" parties, where they watch all six of them.

Mr. HORWITZ: I'm glad you played the clip, too, Neal, because that's one of the--if we look for commonalities among some of these films, the films listeners have chosen, like "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and "Jurassic Park," well, there are a couple of names that pop out. Those names are Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but also John Williams. They all have scores...

Ms. MOCK: Right.

Mr. HORWITZ: ...by John Williams.

CONAN: Music is great. Yeah.

Mr. HORWITZ: And recently George Lucas said--because he got the AFI Life Achievement Award. He sat next to John Williams. He said, `Without John Williams, I don't think this series would have happened.'

Ms. MOCK: No. I've heard that he gives a lot of the credit for his Oscars to John Williams.

CONAN: Nell Mock, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MOCK: OK.

CONAN: Nell Mock listens to KUAR in Little Rock, Arkansas.

And, well, here's an e-mail that we've gotten from Gary Parker. He nominates "Clear and Present Danger" with Harrison Ford. `You've got to love a movie where the hero slugs the president of the United States.'

Mr. HORWITZ: (Laughs) It was--it--I agree. I did love that movie. And what I'm not sure is, again, in the grosses. We're talking about films that were way into the top 10 or 25 films of all time. "Clear and Present Danger" didn't make it there, but it's a--it has one of the sort of artistic attributes; it's an action film. I mean, I guess the ultimate action is slugging the president of the United States.

CONAN: Even if it is James Cromwell, who was so nice to that little pig. I--you know--anyway, Laurie Carlson joins us now from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. LAURIE CARLSON (Listener): Hi there.

CONAN: What was your favorite summer blockbuster?

Ms. CARLSON: Well, you know, I hate to go with what the lead-in guy said, but I thought "Jaws" was the top of the heap.

CONAN: It was a really good movie, wasn't it?

Ms. CARLSON: Well, you know, what "Jaws" did for me--I was only 14 when I saw it the first time; lived in Oklahoma or Nebraska, never been to the ocean. After that movie, I didn't care if I ever went to the ocean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: And don't ever hate yourself for going with anything I said. It's a good thing to do.

CONAN: (Laughs) We here at NPR know Murray better than that. Let's--again, one of the great scenes in "Jaws" is--well, they finally ask Robert Shaw's character about why he hates sharks so much, and it goes back to his experience aboard the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis in the Second World War.

(Soundbite of "Jaws")

Mr. ROBERT SHAW: Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger, 13-footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, Chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, kind of like old squares in the battle, like you see on a calendar like the battle of Waterloo, and the idea was shark comes to the nearest man, then he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin'. Sometimes the shark go away. Sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you, right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark? He's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes.

CONAN: Ooh, the great Robert Shaw, the late, great, Robert Shaw, of course...

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: ...who played so well against Richard Dreyfuss in that movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's a great performance, and the other thing to remember about "Jaws" is, don't forget that it was a movie version of a blockbuster book. Peter Benchley's novel was a real best-seller. So it capitalized on--I don't say a national craze, but certainly big national popularity. And because this is America and you can't really ever separate commerce from art on one level or the--it was the first movie to get--or one of the first movies; it's not the first--to get a major national television ad campaign all at once because of the wide release.

CONAN: And, Laurie, we have--it's one of those movies where that is a great bad guy.

Ms. CARLSON: Oh, it's a fabulous bad guy. And the really cool thing is you hardly ever see him.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

Ms. CARLSON: The bad guy is the music. You know the bad guy's coming when you hear `Da-dun,' and all you have to do to scare somebody anymore is hum those two chords.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right. But--and it's true that you hardly ever see him, but you see his point of view all the time. Spielberg famously shot a lot of the shots with the lens half submerged, so you felt like you knew that shark very well.

CONAN: And buried way down in that music, there's the "All Things Considered" theme. This is really strange.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But, Laurie...

Mr. HORWITZ: It's a great score.

CONAN: Laurie, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. CARLSON: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: Laurie Carlson is a listener to KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We're talking about TALK OF THE NATION's summer movies, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Murray, let's get some more callers on the line. And this is going to be Steve, Steve calling us from Wichita, Kansas.

STEVE (Caller): Hey, Neal. How you doing?

CONAN: I'm all right.

STEVE: Well, good. "Alien" scared me more than any movie before or since.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, the creature popping out of somebody's chest.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Ugh!

STEVE: Right. And talking about very seldom seeing the bad guy, it seems like you're always seeing it from his point of view--you know, seeing the bad thing happen, without actually seeing him do it. I love that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HORWITZ: I agree. I think that, to this day, may be the scariest movie I ever saw. And I'm not sure if the release date--I can check it--was actually Fourth of July, but I saw it on Fourth of July weekend following a real classic sort of American summertime picnic, softball game in the park, then we all went into town and saw--this was in northern Jersey--and we saw this movie, and it just was chilling, which is, I guess, what you want on a summertime day.

But Fourth of July and Fourth of July weekend is another thing that summer blockbusters have in common. They're--a film that's released on Fourth of July weekend, they're aiming for summer blockbuster.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It was...

STEVE: I got to--sorry.

CONAN: ...released in May of 1979.

Mr. HORWITZ: There you go. So it...

STEVE: I got to see that movie at what they called the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha, Nebraska, and that was one of the first Cinerama 70mm...

CONAN: Ooh, you're lucky.

STEVE: ...projectors, and oh, man! You had "Alien" from eye to eye. It was just huge.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steve.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Murray, we talked about the "Star Wars" sequels. Is a way to judge a blockbuster by its sequels? The experience with "Jaws" was not so good.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, I think that's right, and the--but it's a good point, despite the experience of "Jaws." All of the "Star Wars" movies were, you know, summer releases, and even up into today, some of the more contemporary summer blockbusters--"Shrek" and "Shrek 2"; "Shrek 2" followed on as a big summertime movie. And unless I am--I think I'm right--with the number-one box-office draw last year.

CONAN: Well...

Mr. HORWITZ: Same thing, "Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man 2," you know, that kind of thing, so yeah.

CONAN: E-mail from Robert Blanchette in Tucson, Arizona: `"Terminator 2," most expensive movie ever made at the time--great stunts, plenty of explosions and gunfire. Linda Hamilton, woman of steel, and Arnold. He told you he'd be back. The most fun I ever had in a movie theater. The audience went wild when Arnold put on his sunglasses for the first time.'

Mr. HORWITZ: It's true. And, you know, we may think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but really, the kind of summer blockbusters, at least nowadays, is Will Smith. I mean, Will Smith has--I mean, think of him as Mr. July instead of Reggie Jackson as Mr. October, because he was in "Independence Day," he was in "Men in Black," he was in "Men in Black II," he was in "I, Robot" recently, and these were all big summertime winners.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Chris in Natchez, Mississippi.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm all right.

Mr. HORWITZ: Hey, Chris.

CHRIS: Hello. I was calling because I feel that probably one of the best summer blockbusters ever--not to discount "Star Wars or "Jaws," but it's got to be "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

CONAN: Ooh, maybe the best opening sequence of any movie, ever. In fact, we happen to have the clip of the very end of that opening sequence.

(Soundbite of "Raiders of the Lost Ark")

Mr. HARRISON FORD: (As Indiana Jones) There's a big snake in the plane, Jock!

Mr. FRED SORENSON: (As Jock) Oh, that's just my pet snake, Reggie.

Mr. FORD: I hate snakes, Jock! I hate 'em!

Mr. SORENSON: Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?

CONAN: And, of course, the snakes come back later in the movie. Chris, that's a pretty good film.

CHRIS: I really enjoy it. One of the things that really struck me about it is a lot of it had the feel of a lot of the old swashbuckling adventure type of movies, like "Bogas"(ph) or "Captain Blood" or things like that. But the problem with those movies is, although I love them now, as a kid--pacing has changed so much since the early days of cinema, and now the kids have a really hard time grasping on to those older movies and really enjoying them. And what "Raiders" sort of seemed to do is bridge the gap, at least for me, when I was a kid.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call and for the nomination. We appreciate it.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Murray Horwitz, thank you for being with us today.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you. It's a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz is director and COO of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater and Cultural Center. He was with us here in Studio 3A, and he'll be back next week. It'll be...

Mr. HORWITZ: (A la Arnold Schwarzenegger) I'll be back.

CONAN: ...team movies. Start sending your suggestions for the best team movie ever to totn@npr.org. Whatever happened to "Gidget" anyway? We'll continue our TOTN summer movie series.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Joe Palca will be here on "Science Friday" tomorrow. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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