Somewhere along the way, summer turned into a movie season virtually devoid of serious movies. You'll see nary a drama in the multiplex come summer; action pictures and kiddie movies rule. The kids are out of school, which explains the proliferation of kid-flix; but who decided that summer was the optimal time to see explosions, car chases, aliens, dinosaurs and snakes on planes? Did we all collectively and unconsciously decide that winter is the time for sad, serious, dramatic, literary movies? As long as we're all cold and miserable, why not be miserable at the movies too? Conventional wisdom is that it has something to do with Oscar season: The award-winning pictures tend to get released all in a rush at the end of the year, so as to be fresh on the minds of Oscar voters. But are their memories really that short?
I don't mind a good summer action movie; I rather like them, in fact. But I do mind that summer has become a season of endless sequels - not so much because sequels are inherently bad, but because so many sequels are...well, not so good. Can we mix it up a little? Have some serious, thoughtful summer action movies and some smartly funny winter dramas?
For me, the quintessential summer movie experience is watching a movie at a drive-in, even though the drive-in experience is only partly about the movie: sitting in a car on a warm summer night, watching the flickering pictures and the people in the other cars...ahhh, it takes me back. And the quintessential summer movie for me is The Road Warrior, which I first saw at a drive-in in eastern Oregon in the summer of 1982. It's got heat, and cars, and it's set in an arid post-apocalyptic world, and it's about a road trip that turns into a spectacular car chase; if that's not summer, I don't know what is.
The Road Warrior starred a young Australian hottie named Mel Gibson as a desperate loner (long before all the crazy anti-Semitic unpleasantness of recent years turned good ol' Mel into drunk Uncle Mel who always ruins Thanksgiving). The Road Warrior is an action movie par excellence, and it's not for kids: There is violence and carnage, and an exhilarating road chase involving motorcycles, tanker trucks, a school bus, relentless villains and a feral kid who throws a mean boomerang. It's a deadly serious action movie, directed by George Miller (an MD who later directed the marvelous Babe, of all things), and a remarkably prescient movie too: In the war-ravaged, post-nuclear desert, petrol is more precious than gold - a commodity worth killing and dying for.
In a way, I was destined to love The Road Warrior because - and bear with me here - the first movie I really, truly loved was also about a desperate loner in the desert: Lawrence of Arabia. Heat, sand and dashing Peter O'Toole as weird, conflicted camel warrior T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia was not originally released in the summer; it was a December movie, like any good Oscar bait. Lawrence of Arabia and The Road Warrior are rarely mentioned in the same breath; but for me at least, there's a direct line from one to the other: They are both essentially cowboy pictures, about the lone hero who saves the town from the desperadoes. Lawrence saves the Arabs from the Turks, and Max (that would be Gibson's Mad Max) saves a handful of nuclear survivors (and gasoline distillers) from a gang of vicious, nihilistic hooligans on motorcycles.
As long as we're talking sand, we shouldn't neglect the sea, which is the setting for two other great summer movies: Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), which made everyone afraid to set foot in the water, and The Abyss (1989), James Cameron's overlooked masterpiece, and the movie that made Titanic possible. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for underwater movies. Get some underwater cinematography in there and I'll watch just about anything. Jaws is pretty great for a movie in which most of the action takes place in a boat and the bad guy only really shows up at the end. It's fun and dramatic, serious and seriously scary, and terrifically entertaining. It's early Spielberg, and an excellent example of moviemaking that is both technically superb and emotionally rich and satisfying.
Which is exactly what I love about The Abyss. I first saw it during a rainy summer in Seattle, much like our own summer here this year. As long as you're damp, you might as well get soaked. The Abyss was filmed almost entirely underwater, in a seven-million-gallon tank: the largest underwater set ever used in a film. Technical challenges aside, The Abyss is that rare (nowadays, anyway) character-driven summer action movie in which the characters feel like real people and matter more than the action and special effects. There's a drowning scene in The Abyss that is breathtaking (in more ways than one) - an emotional kick in the gut, and a scene that, 20 years on, I still think about often. (When you watch it on DVD, make sure you get the director's cut, which is longer, but far better than the version originally released in theatres.)
Like most summer movies, The Abyss was largely snubbed come awards season (although it won a well-deserved Best Visual Effects Oscar); but I still maintain that Ed Harris, who has done some mighty fine acting over the years, did some of his best work in The Abyss. Harris has made a specialty of Westerns, and The Abyss is a kind of underwater sci-fi cowboy movie - which makes it the perfect summer movie, if you ask me.