Let’s face it: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Miranda Priestly. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the summer of 1993, which featured a showdown between Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero.
There are many things I miss about summer movie season — chief among them, of course, the ability to go to a theater. But the one that’s surprised me concerns the strange void I feel on weekend mornings around the time that, normally, we’d be getting box-office reports. Saturday gives us a rundown of how Friday, opening day, went for new films, and Sunday provides an estimate for the whole weekend. Critics can talk all we want about a film’s quality, but Hollywood only cares about how much money these movies bring in. Those box-office reports serve as a scorecard, and we can all follow along.
It’s been this way for a while. In 1986, according to Tom Shone’s book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, news services began running stories about the weekend box office, which changed the way studios marketed their films. In Blockbuster, producer Peter Guber recalls, “The media got into a contest over these big blockbusters, saying ‘who’s number one for the weekend?’ That had never happened before. So the pressure was on to get more screens, so you could be number one, and herald your picture the second week as the number one picture in America. … It was just a popularity contest. … It was like entering a war zone.”
And in war, there’s always a victor — and there has to be someone who’s vanquished.
It was 27 years ago this month that one of the all-time great chasms between a box-office winner and loser occurred, and you can tell that bloodbath remains a big deal because journalists still write about it. The passage I quoted from Blockbuster, which was published in 2004, was an intro to the one-sided battle between Jurassic Park (which opened June 11, 1993) and Last Action Hero (which came out a week later). And in recent years, both Den of Geek and The Ringer have memorialized the drubbing that Arnold Schwarzenegger received at the hands of Steven Spielberg and his digital dinosaurs.
Why our lingering obsession with these two movies’ faceoff?
I think, in part, it’s because of the heavyweights involved — and the changes it foretold for summer movie seasons to come. Jurassic Park was always going to be a hit, but because at the start of that summer it was pitted against Last Action Hero in the press, its success was only amplified — and, conversely, the latter film’s commercial failure was all the more stunning. They now seem destined to forever be linked, and that’s because what the two movies represent is so different.
But, first, some quick backstory. At the time when Spielberg took on Michael Crichton’s bestselling 1990 novel about an amusement park populated by cloned dinosaurs, he seemed to be moving away from blockbusters (like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and focusing on smaller, more personal films such as The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Always. (When he tried to return to event movies, like on Hook, it felt strained.) The same year that he released Jurassic Park, he followed it up about six months later with Schindler’s List, which won him his first Oscar, as well as Best Picture. That movie was an artistic risk — by comparison, Jurassic Park was just him repeating himself, which he readily admitted. (Shone quotes the filmmaker, who acknowledged, “I have no embarrassment in saying that with Jurassic I was really just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws. On land.”)
In the other corner, you had Last Action Hero, starring Schwarzenegger, who’d been on a hot streak, equally successful with comedies (Twins), family films (Kindergarten Cop) and his bread-and-butter action movies (Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day). His new movie had a funny premise: He plays Jack Slater, a fictional Schwarzenegger-esque action hero who is played in the world of the film by … Arnold Schwarzenegger. Boasting a movie-within-a-movie conceit in which a young fan (Austin O’Brien) gets sucked inside a Jack Slater film, Last Action Hero was directed by John McTiernan, who had previously teamed up with Schwarzenegger on Predator and had gone on to make two excellent action-thrillers, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. Last Action Hero was primed to capitalize on Schwarzenegger’s action-movie persona as well as his comedic touch. What could go wrong?
Two titans of blockbuster cinema, battling it out on back-to-back weekends, is rare even today. (Christopher Nolan doesn’t put out a movie the Friday after Avengers hits theaters.) So expectations were high to see these two men go head-to-head. The problem was that Last Action Hero was neither exciting nor hilarious, failing to be a rousing action spectacle or a sharp satire about the excesses of blockbuster movies. The film wanly celebrated the muscle-bound shoot-‘em-ups that Schwarzenegger had popularized, while the far more thrilling Jurassic Park introduced viewers to the enticing possibilities of computer-generated imagery (or CGI), creating a whole slew of dinosaurs that were more lifelike than any effect of its kind on screen. (Prior to Jurassic Park, the most stunning use of the technology, ironically, was Arnold’s own T2.)
All of a sudden, Schwarzenegger’s physique was no longer the most impressive action-movie accouterment. As Shone put it, “The future would not belong to leviathans like Schwarzenegger but to the likes of Keanu Reeves and Will Smith: lean, springy types who could hold their own in this new world of cartoonish bend and bounce. In its way, Jurassic Park heralded a revolution in movies as profound as the coming of sound in 1927.”
That’s not hyperbole. Just as Jaws helped create the modern summer movie season, Jurassic Park announced the arrival of special effects as the principal element of event movies — not flesh-and-blood actors. Special effects had been around since the original King Kong, but now they were crucial to the storytelling. Superhero movies and action films didn’t need to exist in any semblance of the “real” world — you could have a digital character swing through New York (like in Spider-Man) or perform amazing fight scenes (like Reeves in the Matrix movies) with a push of a button. Although it’s worth pointing out that Jurassic Park wasn’t all CGI — sophisticated puppetry and other old-school techniques were also utilized — 1993’s biggest movie suggested to studios that audiences would happily cheer for (or be terrorized by) computer effects.
You could also argue that Spielberg’s film was an early indicator that franchises would soon outclass stars. As I’ve suggested before, the Jurassic Park movies don’t really rely on their human characters, who (outside of Jeff Goldblum’s groovy scientist) are utterly interchangeable. Fairly soon then, the prospect of going to an Arnold Schwarzenegger film simply because it had Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a thing of the past. You’d be more likely to buy a ticket if the film starred Iron Man or a Velociraptor.
Last Action Hero failed to win its opening weekend, absolutely crushed by returning champ Jurassic Park, and then quickly slid down the box-office charts from there. It didn’t just feel like audiences were rejecting the movie — they were turning their back on Schwarzenegger. Ironically, the funniest thing about Last Action Hero wasn’t actually in the movie but, instead, involved Arnold’s thoughts years later about why it failed, pointing to the fact that Bill Clinton was the new president. “It was one of those things where President Clinton was elected and the press somehow made the whole thing kind of political where they thought, ‘Okay, the 1980s action guys are gone here’s a perfect example,’ and they wrote this narrative before anyone saw the movie,” Schwarzenegger said in 2017. “The action hero era is over, Bill Clinton is in, the highbrow movies are the ‘in’ thing now, I couldn’t recuperate.”
Sorry, Arnold, but Jurassic Park was hardly highbrow. It merely saw the future in ways that Last Action Hero did not.
Ever since, the two movies have been chained together — and, amusingly, Spielberg occasionally seems to enjoy rubbing it in Arnold’s face that he bested him. In the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, there’s a quick shot of a video store, where we see a poster for an imaginary Schwarzenegger adaptation of King Lear. That sight gag could be interpreted as a playful dig at Last Action Hero, which includes a joke where Schwarzenegger tries to change up his image by doing a super-violent version of a different Shakespeare tragedy, Hamlet.
And more recently in the pop-culture-crazy Ready Player One, Spielberg again adds in a fake Arnold poster, this time for Jack Slater III. But even if those digs were completely innocuous, the truth is that the summer-1993 showdown turned out to be a pivot point for both men’s careers. Jurassic Park revitalized Spielberg as a commercial filmmaker who’s still very much in-demand — his upcoming remake of West Side Story looks like a possible Oscar contender — while the faded Schwarzenegger (who spent a few years as governor of California) can’t even get people to see him in a new Terminator movie. (“Steven Spielberg and I have talked many times about doing something together,” Schwarzenegger said in 2015 when discussing directors he admires. “It hasn’t happened yet but that doesn’t mean it won’t.”)
When you have two titans squaring off, one of them will inevitably come out on top, and as with sports championships, it can be tempting to assign too much meaning to that victory — or, likewise, that defeat. But Jurassic Park’s commercial triumph and Last Action Hero’s critical and box-office failure is simply too neat a narrative to pass up — largely because it set the course for the two men and the industry in general. You can make the argument that Last Action Hero’s brand of meta-humor is alive and well in the Deadpool films, but in retrospect, the film feels like the apex of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood reign — which meant the downward trajectory was about to begin. After the following year’s True Lies, he never found another project that was similarly successful.
Before Last Action Hero’s release, Schwarzenegger did promotion for the film, wholly confident in the movie’s greatness. Smoking his trademark cigar, he declared, “This is the best picture I’ve ever made.” He was wrong but, in a sense, he was accurate in that it encapsulated everything we loved about Arnold: his larger-than-life persona, his corny jokes, his giddily excessive action sequences. That the movie flopped made us see him in a new, unflattering light — the self-parody was too good, too accurate. At the end of Jurassic Park, those digital dinosaurs, no longer able to be contained by their human masters, rule the island and run amuck. It was a stirring image — and also a warning to both Schwarzenegger and the industry as a whole. The effects were now in charge.