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From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Independence Day,’ an excellent adventure down summer-movie memory lane

Classic summer escapism: "Independence Day" with Will Smith, left, and Jeff Goldblum.
(Claudette Barius)

With movie theaters closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer blockbuster season on hold, Times entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp and film critic Justin Chang sat down to reminisce about their favorite movies and moviegoing experiences of the season.

GLENN WHIPP: Summer’s almost here, Justin, and as we’ve been lamenting all the things we’ve been missing about going outside — backyard gatherings, wading into the ocean, a ballgame at Dodger Stadium, taking in the cherry blossoms at Descanso Gardens (it’s an endless list) — can I take a moment to be the weirdo and mention the thing about being indoors that I’m yearning for right now?

I wish it were possible to see a big dumb blockbuster surrounded by people in a movie theater.

And in my mind, those people could even be hogging the armrests, talking to the screen or eating popcorn with their mouths open (though not constantly checking their cellphones; we haven’t yet descended into madness) because all that commotion and chatter is just an inherent part of the summer moviegoing experience.

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Giant screen. Air conditioning. Darkness. It’s my Xanadu. One time when I was a teenager, literally my “Xanadu,” with Olivia Newton-John (on roller skates!), not quite, as the song goes, the dream that came through a million years … but still, something to see on a hot August weekday in 1980.

I don’t want to wallow in nostalgia. But allow me just to dip a toe into these waters during a time when we’re all looking to take a little comfort where we can find it. Seeing summer blockbusters in big public movie theaters is the one thing that has remained constant in my decades of moviegoing. We see a lot of movies at festivals and screening rooms, but studios still want us to see their populist, escapist efforts in big theaters full of people. I can watch “Independence Day” at home with my kids, but its silliness just doesn’t play the same without the sticky theater floors and high-fructose corn syrup.

Am I losing my mind, Justin? Are you jonesing for an overpriced box of Milk Duds too?

A scene from 1990 summer hit "Dick Tracy" with Al Pacino and Madonna.
(Touchstone / Kobal / Shutterstock)
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JUSTIN CHANG: I’m more of a Sour Patch Kids kind of guy myself, Glenn, though what I’m really craving right now, speaking of high-fructose corn syrup, is an extra-large Icee. Either cherry- or Coke-flavored (I can never decide).

I know, I could probably just swing by a convenience store and get one, but that behavior frankly seems irresponsible right now, and it just wouldn’t be the same without a loud, Dolby-fied, nutrient-free blockbuster to go along with it. I am surely not the only moviegoer who used to time those extra-noisy last few Icee slurps so that they’d be drowned out by screeching car tires and fiery explosions and whatever unintelligible things Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were yelling.

And not to dwell on the concessions aspect of it all, but the truth is that what we consume during a movie, if we consume anything at all, can help forge a lasting memory. The earliest summer moviegoing experience I can recall happened in June or July 1990, when I caught a double bill of “Ghost Dad” and “Dick Tracy” — neither of which, with apologies to Warren Beatty and Madonna, I remember quite as fondly as the bag of McDonald’s my dad smuggled in with us. If you haven’t chomped on Chicken McNuggets while Al Pacino chomps on the scenery, you haven’t lived.

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All of which is to say that yes, I’m right there with you in lamenting this long (and completely justified) summer of our moviegoing discontent. It’s funny that you should mention “Independence Day,” Glenn, which my teenage self caught on opening weekend and thoroughly, giddily enjoyed — up until the point in the lobby afterward, when I overheard a few of my fellow moviegoers complaining about hackneyed plot twists and cardboard characters. For better or worse, I like to think of this as one of my formative exposures to film criticism.

Summer, of course, is theoretically the season for critic-proof movies, the season when even the most discerning/demanding among us are supposed to put down our notebooks and shut off our brains. The truth is that while I’m going to miss the big dumb blockbusters originally scheduled for 2020, I’m also going to miss the smart, crafty, precision-engineered entertainments that Hollywood has sometimes seen fit to give us in the summer, if not as often as we’d like.

“Piranha“ swam into theaters in summer 1978, directed by Joe Dante.
(Piranha Prods / New World / Kobal / Shutterstock)

WHIPP: The National Association of Theatre Owners may dispute this, but I believe there was some study that showed that food smuggled into movie theaters actually tastes something like 30% better. I like Alamo Drafthouse’s food fine, but they’ll never be able to replicate the taste of forbidden McNuggets.

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To your point, Justin, about the other exotic pleasure of summer moviegoing — the buzz that comes when the lab-engineered, audience-tested movie actually boasts style and feeling and transcends formula — I can only affirm and add: John Wick approves this message.

And that prompts another thought about movie-theater contraband, namely, the thrill that comes when you smuggle yourself into the theater.

My son, Sean, was 16 last summer, too old for the unnecessary, unimaginative Disney live-action re-creations of “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” too young to buy a ticket to see “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.” So he did what every other teenager has done in the Age of the Multiplex: He bought a ticket for “The Lion King” and then drifted into the theater showing … well, actually, it wasn’t “John Wick,” it was “Midsommar.” As a father, needless to say, it was a proud moment.

That kind of chicanery is a fundamental part of summer moviegoing. When I was 14, I really wanted to see “Piranha,” because … well, because I was 14. And “Jaws” was still fresh in my mind. And “Piranha” wasn’t just one shark, it was hundreds, nay, thousands of genetically mutated fish that, the trailer promised, could “churn quiet streams into rivers of living death.” It was absolutely terrible, and I loved it, probably because R-rated summer movies are at least 25% better if you sneak into them. That’s another scientific study I read somewhere. Probably Wikipedia.

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Midsommar
Florence Pugh, center, in last summer’s big scare “Midsommar.”
(A24 )

CHANG: I wish I’d been a cool enough teenager to be able to match your “Piranha” story, Glenn, or better still, your son’s “Midsommar” story, which fills me with hope for the next generation of movie lovers. Alas, my summers were a lot lamer than yours. As a decidedly squeamish kid in the ’90s (years before I would become a semi-squeamish adult), I was frankly all too happy to stick with “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” — the superior animated originals, of course — and leave the R-rated likes of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Species” to my much braver friends.

Hell, they didn’t even have to be rated R. I honestly can’t recall when I first saw “Jurassic Park,” as definitive a Steven Spielberg summer blockbuster in its day as “Jaws.” But alas, in contrast with the experience of every other person who was alive at the time, it was not in a theater in the storied summer of 1993. Looking over that season’s release list, the only movie I definitely recall going to see in a theater was the un-fondly remembered “Hocus Pocus,” which I seem to recall loving at the time. Must have been a really good Icee.

Some of my other favorite summer movies from that era have aged better. “Speed” was perfection, of course, and having rewatched it last year for the first time in decades, I can attest that it has lost none of its freeway-hopping velocity. The original “Mission: Impossible” — which I watched and rewatched obsessively in 1996 and afterward, determined to grasp a bit more of the plot each time — remains a high point of a franchise that is still going improbably strong 24 years later (a recent coronavirus-related production shutdown notwithstanding). I remember enjoying the hell out of “The Rock.” A terrific Michael Bay movie? Man, those were the days.

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Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in the 1994 bus thriller "Speed," a summer movie that still holds up.
(Richard Foreman )

But for pure summer moviegoing pleasure, few of them have topped the sheer bliss of going to see “There’s Something About Mary” and finding, to my shock and amazement, that the movie itself was somehow even more hilarious than the very funny previews had led me to hope. What a movie to see in a packed house; I laughed so hard during the hair-gel scene that I was honestly afraid I might pass out. I have no expectation that the next big theatrical comedy we see will be anywhere near as good, Glenn, but as long as it’s with a big crowd, it’ll be enough.

Cameron Diaz in the iconic hair gel scene in "There's Something About Mary."
(Glenn Watson / 20th Century Fox)

WHIPP: It sounds like I’m trolling (and maybe I am), but “Mary” is the movie that should have earned Peter Farrelly his Oscar. I’d watch it right now over “Shakespeare in Love,” though that probably speaks more to my current mental state than any measured assessment of worthiness.

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Your generous appraisal of my 14-year-old self made me laugh as it was only one summer removed from me standing in line — a good dozen times — to see “Star Wars.” I went with friends the first couple of viewings. Then I made my parents see it. And then I pretty much ran out of people who wanted to stand in line with me to see it again. But that didn’t deter me from repeatedly asking my dad to drop me off at the massive, single-screen Valley Circle Theater in San Diego, often on his way to work, meaning that I’d sometimes hit the matinee and then buy another ticket and wait another couple of hours for the chance to watch Luke Skywalker gaze out to the twin setting suns of Tatooine, John Williams’ score rising to a crescendo, empathizing with Luke’s feelings about being stuck in place. (Yes, the irony was completely lost on me.)

I already loved movies by this point. But summer movies, this summer movie in particular, turned me into an obsessive movie lover, the kind of nerd who’d watch “Star Wars” a dozen times, read everything I could find about it and then want to consume the films that George Lucas cited as influences. That led me to Kurosawa and hundreds of other great movies and, eventually, the privilege and pleasure of writing about film, talking to its creators and having the kinds of conversations that I’m having now with you, Justin. So ... thanks, R2!

Mark Hamill
The 1977 summer blockbuster that created a generation of movie obsessives, “Star Wars Episode IV — A New Hope” starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.
(Lucasfilm / Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock)

CHANG: What would you say, Glenn, if I confessed to you and L.A. Times readers and the whole damn internet that I saw both “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shakespeare in Love” before I ever saw a single “Star Wars” movie? Actually, you can’t say anything, since this is the last round of this delightful conversation, which is already nearly as long and bloated as, well, a Michael Bay movie.

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But no, I’m not kidding: The “Star Wars” movies were not childhood staples for me. I didn’t see them in theaters; I didn’t rent them on VHS or laserdisc. When “The Phantom Menace” came out in May 1999, I read Kenneth Turan’s unenthused Times review and opted not to join my high school friends in those long lines. But a couple of years later, I did eventually have my own DIY “Star Wars” summer: I spent three days in the hot months of 2002 watching the original trilogy with two college friends, one a series buff, the other a total neophyte like myself. (We do exist!)

And since then, of course, professional obligation has compelled me to watch and sometimes rewatch every “Star Wars” movie under the sun, every prequel and sequel and stand-alone caper. I like and even love some of them; I’ll never be an obsessive. It’s worth remembering that the cinephilia you extolled so nicely, Glenn, has many different portals and points of entry. What does fascinate me about these films — and also “Jaws,” of course, which launched Hollywood’s blockbuster paradigm two years before the first “Star Wars” anchored it for good — is the long shadow they continue to cast over industrial moviemaking and moviegoing practices today.

Many of the movies that were slated for release this summer and have now been postponed — including “Black Widow,” “F9” and “Wonder Woman 1984” — are franchise movies, installments in ongoing and highly bankable cinematic properties. Some of them, like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” are sequels arriving decades after their previous installments. It’s not that I’m not excited. But the titles that intrigued me most were the ones that would seem to promise a glimmer of originality: Pixar’s “Soul,” Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (which, as of now, is still scheduled to open July 17). I know we’ll be there to see them all, Glenn, whenever they are before us, Milk Duds and Sour Patch Kids at the ready.

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Join us: The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown


For week one, Times readers chose “The Avengers.” Give it a watch (or rewatch) and then join us for a live conversation hosted by film critic Justin Chang.

When: 6 p.m. May 7

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter.

Vote: Justin Chang on Twitter @justincchang and vote for your favorite films each week in the #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown.


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