This summer will be the biggest "blockbuster" movie season ever, with no fewer than 23 would-be smash hits coming out between early May and mid-August. It didn't used to be this way. Back in the mists of time — like, say, in the late 1990s — there were only one or two big science fiction movies per summer, and only a handful of huge summer movies total. But summer movies have gotten bigger and more franchise-driven in the past decade, and science fiction is at the center of that transformation. We chart the rise of summer-movie gridlock, with a list of every summer scifi hit since 1980.
The 1970s: 1975's Jaws is widely considered the first summer blockbuster. The original Star Wars came out in May 1977 and grossed about $307 million domestically in its first run. The other big summer blockbusters of the late 1970s were Jaws 2, Animal House and Alien, according to this site.
The 1980s: Science fiction scored about one summer blockbuster per year, or maybe two in a good year. Except for the late 1980s, when science fiction had a bit of a slump. Here's the roundup, by year. (A year with an asterisk is one where no science fiction film hit the top 10 movies of the year, box-office-wise.)
1980: Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back ($209 million)
1981: Superman II ($108 million)
1982: E.T. ($359 million) and Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan ($79 million).
1983: Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi ($252 million), Superman III ($60 million) and War Games ($80 million)
1984: Ghostbusters ($260 million) and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock ($76 million)
1985: Cocoon ($76 million) and Back To The Future ($211 million)
1986: Short Circuit ($41 million) and Aliens ($85 million)
* 1987: Predator ($60 million) and Robocop ($53 million)
* 1988: None. (Although Big and Willow were big summer hits.)
1989: Batman ($251 million), Honey I Shrunk The Kids ($131 million)
The 1990s: The number of science fiction movies in the summer's biggest movies increased slightly, with some ups and downs. Some years, the biggest blockbusters included films with a lot of special effects and action-adventure themes, but no overt science fictional elements.
1990: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($135 million), Total Recall ($119 million), Back To The Future Part III ($88 million), Flatliners ($61 million).
1991: Terminator 2 ($205 million)
1992: Batman Returns ($163 million)
1993: Jurassic Park ($357 million)
* 1994: None. (Although True Lies, Speed and The Mask were in the top 10, and non-summer films Stargate and Star Trek: Generations were in the top 20.)
1995: Batman Forever ($184 million), Apollo 13 ($172 million), Waterworld ($88 million)
1996: Independence Day ($306 million), Phenomenon ($105 million)
1997: Men In Black ($251 million), The Lost World: Jurassic Park ($229 million), Face/Off ($112 million), Batman And Robin ($107 million)
1998: Armageddon ($202 million), Deep Impact ($140 million), Godzilla ($136 million), The Truman Show ($126 million)
1999: Star Wars Episode 1 ($431 million), Wild Wild West ($114 million)
The 2000s: It's really just in the last five years that we've seen more than two or three big science fiction movies dominating the summer pretty much every year. A lot of these have been franchises, comic-book movies and sequels, or some combination of the three. The box-office take of the top 10 movies has increased dramatically, with every year's top 10 movies each grossing well over $100 million.
2000: X-Men ($157 million)
2001: Jurassic Park III ($181 million), Planet of The Apes ($180 million)
2002: Spider-Man ($404 million), Star Wars Episode II ($302 million), Signs (228 million), Men In Black II ($190 million)
2003: The Matrix Reloaded ($282 million), X2: X-Men United ($215 million), Terminator 3 ($150 million), Hulk ($132 million)
2004: Spider-Man 2 ($374 million), The Day After Tomorrow ($187 million), I, Robot ($145 million)
2005: Star Wars: Episode III ($380 million), War Of The Worlds ($234 million), Batman Begins ($205 million), Fantastic Four ($155 million)
2006: X-Men: The Last Stand ($234 million), Superman Returns ($200 million)
2007: Spider-Man 3 ($337 million), Transformers($319 million), The Simpsons Movie ($183 million), Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer ($132 million)
Note: Data is from BoxofficeMojo.com. Dollar figures aren't adjusted for inflation. I left out movies like the original Indiana Jones trilogy, which is clearly fantasy. (Unlike the new Indiana Jones movie, if all reports are to be believed.) I also left out spy movies that might have a few science-fiction touches aren't really about a science-fictional premise. Feel free to bitch at me in the comments.