Kevin: It looks like a lot of Americans were more interested in cooking hot dogs and hitting the beach than going to the movies this past Memorial Day, as box office earnings for the four-day weekend were the lowest for that period since 1999, mainly due to the underperforming “Pirates 5,” the second-week nosedive of “Alien: Covenant,” and the outright flop of “Baywatch.” As we leave this weekend’s cinematic offerings in the rear view mirror, I decided to go back and take a look at some of the best and worst from what used to be Hollywood’s premier summer movie weekend:
1996 and 2000
“Mission: Impossible” set a Memorial Day weekend record in 1996, back when secret agent Ethan Hunt was still using public phone booths to call headquarters in an emergency. The film is also notable for the fact that Tom Cruise’s character never fires a gun, which he would rectify in 2000’s Memorial Day champ “Mission: Impossible 2” by shooting pistols in both hands as if he were in some kind of John Woo movie. Oh wait, he actually was in a John Woo movie. Fun fact, before Woo took the reins, Cruise’s original choice to direct the sequel was Oliver Stone!
The “Mission: Impossible” Memorial Day box office title was taken just a year later when “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” handily devoured all the competition, although the Meg Ryan-Matthew Broderick stalker comedy “Addicted to Love” could have at least tied it had it grossed an extra $80 million. I’ve seen worse Steven Spielberg movies but I can’t remember one that seemed more phoned in, not surprising since he had “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan” waiting to film back-to-back.
1993, 1988, 1986, 1985, and 1982
Memorial Day weekend is usually the domain of family friendly entertainment, which apparently to Sylvester Stallone means awesomely R-rated bloodbaths like “Cliffhanger” in 1993, “Rambo III” in 1988, “Cobra” in 1986, and “Rambo: First Blood Part II” in 1985. He did deliver the PG-rated “Rocky III” in 1982, although the obvious homoerotic subtext between Rocky and Apollo in that film makes it more adult-oriented than it would seem.
1987 and 1994
Talk about a huge career chasm: Eddie Murphy had one of his biggest-ever live-action hits with “Beverly Hills Cop II” in 1987, and one of his biggest flops on the same Memorial Day weekend seven years later with “Beverly Hills Cop III.” While the original “Beverly Hills Cop” was a comedy with some action, the Tony Scott-directed sequel weirdly focused on being an action movie with some comedy. Meanwhile the John Landis-directed third film, taking place mainly at an amusement park, set its own course by being neither funny nor action-packed. If nothing else it at least had the good sense to feature an appearance by Al (“Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard,” “Action Jackson,” “Last Boy Scout,” “Rapid Fire”) Leong:
2008, 1989, 1984
Speaking of an even larger chasm, this time in quality, all three Indiana Jones sequels came out on Memorial Day weekends: “Temple of Doom” in 1984, “Last Crusade” in 1989, and obviously the best one of all, “Crystal Skull” in 2008. I admit that I was one of those kids that had to leave the theater a couple of times during “Temple of Doom,” not because of the heart-ripping scene but because of the cave full of bugs and the dinner scene at the palace before that. Little did I guess that I would want to flee the theater for another reason as an adult while watching “Crystal Skull.” Although for as much grief as it gets – including from us right HERE – the fourth entry somehow legged it to $317 million domestic in 2008, just a little less than “Iron Man.”
If you are old enough it’s possible you were able to see two bad “Alien” sequels in the theater on different Memorial Day weekends: “Alien: Covenant” last weekend and “Alien 3” in 1992. I know the latter has received some revisionist appreciation due to being David Fincher’s first film, but whenever I try and watch it again it’s just as dreary and unpleasant as it was when I sat through it opening day. From killing off Hicks and Newt (why couldn’t this have just picked up a few years after “Aliens”?) to making the protagonists a bunch of rapists and murderers with shaved heads so we couldn’t tell them apart, it’s like everyone involved read a book called How to Alienate Your Audience before production.
Yes Virginia, it was possible for a future Best Picture winner to be released on Memorial Day weekend, as “Braveheart” proved in 1995 (even as it got handily defeated that weekend by “Casper”). This summer was notable for the fact that the two leading contenders for Best Picture that year – “Braveheart” and “Apollo 13” – came out on the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, showing the studios that not every summer film has to be mindless trash to make money (don’t worry, Hollywood immediately forgot that lesson).
And on that note, we’ve already written extensively about how 2001 was the worst year for movies in history, but just to reiterate, here were the top five movies in theaters on Memorial Day weekend of that year: “Pearl Harbor,” “Shrek,” “The Mummy Returns,” “A Knight’s Tale,” “Angel Eyes.”
While Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” was one of the few bright spots for most of 2001, the next year he directed another rare quality Memorial Day weekend opener with “Insomnia.” While the Al Pacino film made $26 million over the four-day period – a great number for a serious grown-up thriller in late May – the studios were still focused on “Spider-Man” opening May 3rd and breaking the $100 million opening weekend barrier. After that Hollywood put a premium on trying to get their cash cows out first rather than waiting until Memorial Day, which is just as well since with movies like “Baywatch” and “Pirates 5” as alternatives, spending time outdoors with family looks a lot better by comparison.
Post Script: Apparently Hollywood has come up with a perfectly logical explanation for why fewer people are going to the movies so far this summer: It’s not because movies like “Baywatch” and “King Arthur” are bad (hell they’ve been suckering people into seeing bad movies for decades), it’s that Rotten Tomatoes is committing the sin of warning people how bad they are before buying a ticket. Now while I would never suggest studios start making better summer movies (I mean let’s not go nuts), I will offer a possible explanation for three of the biggest disappointments so far:
1) “Baywatch”: I’m glad to hear that test audiences liked this film, and I’m sure if the rest of America got to see it for free as well it might have done better. But while everyone involved can claim that the critics scared people away from a fun and entertaining film, the fact is that most people would be embarrassed about the idea of buying a ticket to a “Baywatch” movie unless it scored “21 Jump Street”-level RT numbers (85%).
2) “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”: We’re five movies into this franchise and the only good one came out during George W. Bush’s first term. Even the dumbest animals stop doing something that causes them pain (also these movies are so interchangeable that I actually used the title for the fourth entry here and you probably didn’t notice).
3) “Alien: Covenant”: Yes “Prometheus” made just enough money to justify a sequel, thanks largely to a really good marketing campaign. But once people saw it they didn’t like it, and some openly hated it, which is why they were less interested in coming back for more of the same. How was this a hard concept for Twentieth Century Fox to understand!