Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: Where Nerds Come From

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

Hold the nerds. Treasure them.

“Mr. Spielberg and George Lucas, his friend and sometime collaborator, helped to revive a dormant Hollywood tradition of big, accessible, popular spectacles, but their blockbusters have often been criticized as contributing to the eclipse of the smaller-scale, personal filmmaking that flourished in the 1970's. What makes E.T. so extraordinary -- what makes it one of the exemplary works of popular art of the last quarter-century -- is that it effortlessly combines two approaches to filmmaking within a single story. It partakes equally of the fantasy-adventure tradition of the Star Wars pictures and of the gritty, somber realism of the New Hollywood.” – A.O. Scott, from a 2002 review of the E.T. re-release

I begin with that giant A.O. Scott quote from his excellent reflection on E.T. because it does a tidy job of summarizing box office conditions in 1982. When Scott describes E.T. he’s also describing the ideal blockbuster, and when he discusses the filmmaking shift that took place between the 70s and 80s he touches on the genesis of the modern summer season. Part of the reason that I rank ’82 so high is its historical importance; the beloved franchises and “fantasy-adventures” that made growing up in the 80s so awesome really begin to roll out here.

More significant, at least to me, is that ’82 is responsible for such a disproportionate amount of quality science-fiction. It’s a god damn nerd paradise. Of course, it all begins with Spielberg’s E.T. which is, along with Star Wars, basically an indoctrination program for young nerds. Yes, it packs the usual Spielberg bittersweet sentiment (although his suburbia here is more grim than expected). And yes, the film is really just a lost dog story. But, E.T. also teaches the burgeoning nerd some important lessons, ones that leave a deeper impression on a kid’s mind than anything in Star Wars: it’s cool to be an outsider, adults are cruel and stupid, outer space is where it’s at.

The epic adventure of the Star Wars films and the more relatable Earthbound drama of E.T. are a potent combination, one that I think turned part of an entire generation into mini Steven Spielbergs. Nerdy dreamers, sweet and cynical, with a genuine taste for the fantastic. As these E.T. kids outgrew pet aliens with glowing fingers, the summer of ’82 was still there for them, boasting sci-fi classics that would heavily influence the next 30 years of filmmaking.

Nerds grow up to be wasteland badasses. (I wish)

(#3) 1982
Tickets Sold:   443.9 million (12 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – $359 million gross
Most Critically AcclaimedThe Road Warrior (#16 at the box office)

The Elliotts of the world might have grown up aspiring to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo but, if they had any sense, by the time they made it to college they were trying to channel the loner swagger of Max Rockatansky. Okay, maybe Max never quite had his “I love you – I know” moment, but doesn’t Gibson at the near zenith of his badassedness make roaming the post-apocalyptic wasteland in the last of the V8 Interceptors look strangely appealing?

The Road Warrior is more than just an unimpeachable action classic. It’s one of only a handful of sci-fi films that claims a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (not even Empire Strikes Back or E.T. can boast that). It has what I consider to be some of the finest – if not the best ever – car chase sequences of all time. And, while obviously not the first post-apocalyptic film ever made (it’s predated by Don Johnson’s similar yet cringe-worthy A Boy and His Dog, for instance), it is the first to be truly successful at hybridizing the sci-fi and western genres, thus becoming the standard for post-apocalypse movies, influencing everything from zombie flicks to rap videos.

$200 million less charming than Han Solo.

Equally influential is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (#14), which should be seen as a precursor to the neo-noir and cyberpunk movements in sci-fi. Han Solo isn’t so charming here, gunning down femme-bots in crowded dystopian shopping centers while undergoing a complicated existential crisis. The film was considered something of a flop in ’82, not because $27 million was a particularly bad number for that year, but because the last two Harrison Ford summer flicks had drawn over $200 million each.

We weren’t ready for Blade Runner. It’s the grown-up science fiction that films like E.T. would make my generation hungry for. That seed of distrust in grown-ups that E.T. plants? Here it takes full bloom in the shape of evil corporations stripping away the very essence of humanity.

What else did summer ’82 have in store for sci-fi geeks? How about the death of Spock! In Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (#4) we find a popular franchise reinvigorated. Deep mining its own canon to surprise and shock fans, Khan is an early example of how blockbuster franchises would eventually come to operate. Rather than the extended episode format that left Trekkies lukewarm after the franchise’s initial leap to film, Khan gives us a story that is both easily accessible to first time viewers and deeply satisfying for longtime fans, leaving audiences wanting more and setting the stage for the next two decades of Trek films.

Oh, and Tron (#11) happened too. I’ve always found the Disney neon lightshow goofy to the point of unbearable, but there’s no denying its (perhaps unfortunate) cultural relevance. Light Cycles might seem cheesy as all get out now, but in ’82 they were a $10 million leap of technological faith for Disney. Tron has the distinction of being one of the first films erected entirely around visual effects, something summer movie fans have now become intimately familiar with.

Of course, there are loftier elements of pop culture than sci-fi.

The lasting pop culture impact of ’82 isn’t limited only to sci-fi films. A close second to E.T.’s “phone home” in terms of iconic lines is creepy child Heather O’Rourke’s announcement that “they’re hee-eere” in the Spielberg penned and produced Poltergeist (#5). Really a hell of year for Spielberg – convincing a generation of children not just of the possibility of having an alien pet, but of the danger of malevolent ghosts trying to murder their families. How many goth kids that would go on to film unsuccessful ghost hunter pilots in their local cemeteries were inspired by Poltergeist?

For geeks inclined more toward swords and sorcery than ray-guns and aliens, ’82 also had Conan the Barbarian (#9). Arnold Schwarzenegger in his badass black war-paint? The Tree of Woe? The lamentations of the women? Come on! This is iconic stuff here – the Citizen Kane for the Dungeons & Dragons set.

Oh, and of special importance for horror junkies (and Culture Blues readers), ’82's Friday the 13th Part III (#10) was the first time Jason Voorhees decided to leave the burlap sack behind and hide his gruesome mug behind a goalie mask.

If you’re any part pop culture junkie, nerd, or cinephile – and if you’re reading my essays where I pointlessly rank summers, you sort of have to be – then there’s no question that something from ’82 impacted your development. In the midst of the Star Wars craze, when it seems like aping space operas would be the safest play for Hollywood, we instead get a year rife with original ideas that would come to define genres and a generation. Jaws and Star Wars might have announced the existence of blockbusters, but summer ’82 is when the floodgates truly opened. Thank you, ’82, for making us all such nerds.

(31) 2006
(29) 1983
(23) 2007
(21) 1996
(19) 1988
(15) 1995
(14) 1985
(13) 1993
(11) 1990
(10) 1997
(9) 1998
(3) 1982

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