With "Super 8" looming, it is time to reflect back on the ghosts of summer movies past. Back when not every single movie that opened was a tired sequel or an unnecessary remake.
Anyone who grew up in the '80s and frequented the local multiplexes of the pre-stadium theater era can recall when the films of Amblin Entertainment were the dominant fare of summer escapism.
Although Amblin Entertainment still exists as a production company, it only functions today like most production companies do today, as a facilitator of material and a deal-maker. There was a brief period of time from 1984 to 1987 when the Amblin logo was a very distinct trademark and meant a very specific type of film.
The wave of Amblin Entertainment productions came in the wake of the massive success of E.T. in 1982. Each movie was an attempt to recapture not only the magic of that classic, but also the sense of adventure of 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark", and the cosmic mystery of 1977’s "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
It was an elusive quest for the Spielberg touch. But unlike those films above, these Amblin productions were not personally directed by the filmmaker turned mogul, but by his friends and protégés.
Here is a look at some essentials from the golden era of Amblin Entertainment.
Gremlins (1984) directed by Joe Dante
Hot off the 1981 cult werewolf classic "The Howling"and his "It’s a Good Life" segment of the 1983's "The Twilight Zone"movie, Joe Dante brought his irreverent sensibilities to what was originally written as straight, gory horror spec by a young Chris Columbus. Joe Dante went on to make "Explorers" the next year, a criminally underrated gem that might be the best Amblin Entertainment movie not actually made by Amblin.
Back to the Future (1985) directed by Robert Zemeckis
The title says it all. A classic that holds up well and it is still the best time travel screenplay ever written. Followed by the dark, gripping and complex "Back to the Future II", and the lightweight finale, "Back to the Future III".
The Goonies (1985) directed by Richard Donner
I admit, I am in the minority on this one. I was expecting an Indiana Jones type adventure but with kids. Instead it felt like being trapped in a Chucky Cheese for two hours.
I thought maybe I had misread the credits when I first saw this in 1985. Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press was one of the few critics at the time who called Spielberg out for attaching his name to such a sloppy mess. The film has a monstrous and devout cult following today, more so than any other Amblin films of that era including "Back to the Future".
Amazing Stories (1985-1987) NBC television
One of the most hyped pop culture television events of the 1980’s, "Amazing Stories"premiered in September 1985 with the 30 minute episode "Ghost Train"directed by the man himself. Critics were absolutely savage. I still recall Rona Barret on Entertainment Tonight angrily railing against the director and accusing him of "showing off" his technical skills with a tracking shot (masterfully executed by the way) and other flashy cinematic flair.
However uneven the story quality might have been, each episode was literally a piece of innovative short filmmaking. The series brought cinematic techniques to the small screen with young talents like Phil Joanua and Lesli Linka Glatter as well as A-list directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood.
Of special note are the following episodes:
"The Mission", a one hour episode directed by Spielberg in top form and featuring a sensational John Williams score, and a cast that includes Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland.
Robert Zemeckis’s outrageous Halloween horror "Go to the Head of the Class".
Peter Hyam’s scary "The Amazing Falsworth".
Phil Joanou’s two episodes, the slasher "Santa ’85", and the charming Richard Matheson penned love story "The Doll".
Leslie Link Glatter’s deeply moving tear-jerker "Without Diana".
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) Directed by Barry Levinson
If only this movie had been marketed with the same fevered pitch and championed by critics the way "The Goonies" was. Maybe this should have been a summer movie. Amblin never did have much success with December releases.
"Young Sherlock Holmes" has a witty and character driven screenplay by Chris Columbus (I still cannot believe he is one of the perpetrators behind "The Goonies").
The direction by Barry Levinson is sharp and understated. An entertaining, exciting, well-acted, involving film, "Young Sherlock Holmes" was ignored when it opened in December 1985 by everyone except those in the SFX industry who took notice of the ground breaking visual effects, including the first on screen CGI character.
The sensational musical score by Bruce Broughton is in a class with the best of John Williams.
One does not have to look hard to see the obvious influence this forgotten film had on the "Harry Potter" books. And it is easy to see why Chris Columbus was the perfect choice to helm the first two Harry Potter films. In many ways, this was the "Harry Potter"of its day, except no one actually went to see it.
Harry and the Hendersons (1987) directed by William Dear
The "E.T" formula of the magical visitor entering the dull world of suburbia and helping teach us something about ourselves is re-used here. But this time it is a Bigfoot instead of an alien.
Played more for laughs this time around, "Harry and the Hendersons"is a charming, sentimental film, the kind of live action family oriented fare that is not made anymore. Wonderful closing credits sequence (see video below) featuring a terrific song by composer Bruce Broughton "Love Lives On" sung by Joe Cocker. Beautiful on location shooting just outside Seattle.
Innerspace (1987) directed by Joe Dante
Joe Dante returns to the Amblin fold for this entertaining comedy adventure.
Featuring an engaging performances by a young Dennis Quaid, a pre-star Meg Ryan, and Martin Short at his comedic peak. The movie has nifty (and Oscar winning) special effects, and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith.
A nice blend of comedy, action, and romance, the film should have been a summer smash. But after it tested through the roof, Warner foolishly played cheapskate and backed off on the advertising campaign, and like Amblin’s other summer 1987 film "Harry and the Hendersons", "Innerspace" tanked at the box office.
Batteries Not Included (1987) directed by Matthew Robbins
Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn star in this sentimental re-telling of "E.T." but this time the setting is an urban environment. The miniature UFO’s are a special effects treat, and like "Harry and the Hendersons" and "Young Sherlock Holmes", this is a terrific family film.
The big band influenced score by James Horner has become one of the most sought after out of print CDs in the collector’s market
Maybe it was the December release date. Maybe it was the oversaturation of Amblin product including the mega-hyped ground breaking anthology NBC series "Amazing Stories". Or maybe Amblin had gone to the well once too often with the "E.T." formula and drove it into the ground.
Whatever the reason, by the end of 1987 audiences had grown weary of the Spielberg touch, and "Batteries Not Included" turned out to be the swan song of the golden age of Amblin Entertainment, ending the era on the perfect sentimental touch.