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Was Summer of ’83 the Worst Movie Summer Ever?

Movie Talk

Was Summer of ’83 the Worst Movie Summer Ever?

Stroker Ace

"The Lone Ranger," "White House Down" and "R.I.P.D." landed with a thud. Steven Spielberg predicted a studio apocalpyse. A general feeling of Everything Is Terrible gripped the land. Could a case could be made that 2013 was the worst movie summer ever? Sure, if the case was made by someone who wasn't aware of and/or hadn't revisited the 30th anniversary of one of Hollywood's truly terrible, really awful seasons of all-time.

Back to the present for a bit: For all the hand-wringing and "Hangover Part III"-disappointing, 2013's May-to-Labor Day run was marked by the successful rebirth, at last, of Superman ("Man of Steel"), a death-defying, bomb-defusing by Brad Pitt ("World War Z"), the introduction of crowd-pleasing awards-season contenders ("The Butler" and "Blue Jasmine"), a hit film based on a book without pictures and word bubbles ("The Great Gatsby") and, no easy task, two critically acclaimed comedies about the end of the world ("This Is the End" and "The World's End").

Overall, the box office, led by "Iron Man 3," an entirely watchable movie especially for a movie that was made to make a lot of money (which it did—$1.2 billion and counting worldwide), was on track to surpass the summer of 2012, and set a new domestic record.

Krull

Compare all this to 1983, a movie summer that works best a drinking game.

Take a sip whenever you hear a Frank Stallone song. Do the same whenever a 3-D movie tries to make you duck. Chug away if you manage to stay with "Stroker Ace" long enough to catch the Elvira cameo.

Now, that was a bad summer.

In the same way the "Twilight" movies have led Hollywood to chase the Next Big Young-Adult Lit Franchise (and brought audiences non-classics, such as "The Mortal Instruments"), the "Star Wars" movies inspired a mess of early-1980s sci-fi, with titles that gave away just had bad they were: "Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn," "Yor, the Hunter From the Future," "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" and "Krull." Just "Krull."

Superman III

Yes, all were released in the summer of 1983.

If only the season was marked by bad sci-fi, but, no, it wasn't. There were a slew of other bad ideas: James Bond in a clown outfit (for the worst titled Bond film, "Octopussy"); "Superman III" with Richard Pryor; "Curse of the Pink Panther" without Peter Sellers, who had died three years prior; "Psycho II" with Anthony Perkins but without Alfred Hitchcock, who likewise departed in 1980; "Jaws 3-D," without Roy Scheider, Steven Spielberg or anyone of the big names from the classic original (or even from the first, pretty-good sequel); "Porky's II: The Next Day," without the memorable voyeurism, "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3," with very little Burt Reynolds," and "Stroker Ace," with too much good-ol' boy Reynolds, whose five-year run as the nation's No. 1 box-office draw ended with the chicken suit-boasting "Stroker Ace." Reynolds turned down "Terms of Endearment," released later that fall en route to the Oscars, in order to make the stock-car comedy and saw his career irretrievably damaged.

Staying Alive

And then there was "Staying Alive," which apparently was made by Martians who'd never seen "Saturday Night Fever," but actually was directed by the usually-on-the-money Sylvester Stallone. If you don't have the 90 minutes to watch the Stallone-John Travolta sequel in its entirety, then try the Patrick Swayze-Chris Farley Chippendales "Saturday Night Live" sketch. It's basically the abridged "Staying Alive," but funnier and without the forgettable Bee Gees tracks and Frank Stallone ballads. (To be fair, Frank Stallone's "Far From Over" is awesome.)

Best of all, the horrific summer of '83 was horrific in 3-D. Just as Hollywood had looked to the format to spur ticket sales during the TV invasion of the 1950s, it embraced the supposedly improved technology during the box-office slump of the early 1980s. Nearly a half-dozen titles that summer hurled water and assorted pointy objects at audiences: "Jaws 3-D," "Metalstorm," "Spacehunter," a retrofitted "Friday the 13th Part III" and the Steve Gutenberg invisible-man comedy (not the Coen Brothers drama), "The Man Who Wasn't There." Only "Jaws 3-D" made significant money. The 3-D film format would again go largely dormant until the late-2000s.

Metalstorm

True, there were moments and movies: Tom Cruise slid across the floor in his socks and became a star ("Risky Business"); Matthew Broderick tapped into NORAD and likewise became a star ("WarGames"); Eddie Murphy swapped socio-economic statuses with Dan Aykroyd and became a bigger star ("Trading Places"); Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, of the as-yet unnamed Brat Pack, lent a touch of class to the teen comedy with "Class"; Woody Allen made "Zelig," while his hero, Ingmar Bergman, made "Fanny and Alexander"; "Blue Thunder" was the thinking-person's popcorn flick; "Mr. Mom" proved Michael Keaton a box-office draw, and gave writer John Hughes the capital to direct; "Easy Money" was a big enough of a hit to ensure Rodney Dangerfield would one day give us "Back to School"; Chevy Chase found himself with franchise courtesy "National Lampoon's Vacation"; and, of course, "Return of the Jedi" unfroze Han, united Luke and Leia in siblinghood and completed the journey (or so we were told at the time) begun in "Star Wars."

But if "Jedi" was the story of the summer—it smashed the opening-day box-office record, and outgrossed the summer's next-biggest money-maker ("Trading Places") by nearly three times—then it also highlighted the season's quality-control issues. While "Star Wars" and "Empire Strikes Back" were met with near-universal acclaim, "Return of the Jedi" was not, even if Roger Ebert found it "magnficent." In time, the critical discontent would spread to the fanboy universe—see Film Threat's landmark takedown, "50 Reasons Why 'Return of the Jedi' Sucks." (Reason No. 1: "Ewoks, Ewoks, Ewoks.") After the arrival of the "Star Wars" prequels, it became clearer that "Jedi" had not been the end of the original trilogy, but the beginning of the end of the George Lucas honeymoon.

Jaws 3-D

The funny thing is forecasters thought the summer of '83 slate looked Tony the Tiger grrrreat! And while "Jedi" delivered, "Superman III" massively underperformed for the Christopher Reeve franchise. (Also, it sucked.)

While this scenario sounds like something out of 2013, with "Iron Man 3" delivering and "The Lone Ranger" massively underperforming, it's not. "The Lone Ranger" was ostracized; it paid for its movie sins, and may not end up in the summer's Top 20. "Superman III" was a Top 10 "hit." As was "Octopussy." As was, unbelievably, "Staying Alive." This summer, audiences had options; 30 years ago, they had "Superman III," their Atari 2600 or nothing. (The 2013 summer Top 10, by comparison, is stacked with generally well-regarded movies, including the not-yet name-checked "Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Conjuring," "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2.")

The best thing that can be said about the movie summer of '83 is that, with Hollywood having exhausted its supply of awful movies, it gave way to "Ghostbusters," "Indiana Jones," "Gremlins," "The Karate Kid," "Purple Rain" and the rest of the solid summer of '84.

The next-best thing that can be said about the movie summer of '83 is that it only lasted one summer.