It’s a big day for movie releases today, but there’s no doubt which one leads the list. Action and adventure have been a part of the movies since the Lumiere brothers sent audiences diving for cover with the approach of a moving train. We’ve seen some amazing entries in the genre over the ensuing 120 years, but none of them — not a single one — can touch the magic that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford created with one battered fedora. There may be more “important” movies, there may be more profound movies, there may be movies that challenge our perceptions more handily or stretch the medium in more creative ways. But if you can’t love this one, you have no business loving movies at all. The one and only Raiders of the Lost Ark opened today in 1981.
Of the other five entries today, the one that comes closest to Raiders in terms of stature is Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s celebrated horror movie about a nice young lady and the Satanists living next door to her. Frankly, I find the movie ridiculous and I suspect Polanski does too, but there’s no arguing with the skill on display, or the film’s status as one of the pillars of the genre. And Polanski’s eternal notion of innocence betrayed certainly finds fertile ground in the overheated material. Rosemary’s Baby opened today in 1968.
Five years earlier, 20th Century Fox embarked upon a boondoggle that almost sank the studio. Cleopatra, originally budgeted at $2 million, ended up costing over $30 million. In modern terms, that means the budget basically went from Get Out to Pirates of the Caribbean in one fell swoop. The elaborate sets and costumes were a part of it (Elizabeth Taylor changed costumes a record 65 times in the film), but so too was the relocation from London to Rome mid-shoot; the departure of original director Robert Mamoulian in favor of Joseph Mankiewicz (who himself was almost fired in the editing); and the legendary affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton (both married to other people at the time). The film is an enormous white elephant, though it retains a compulsive watchability, mainly because of the nuclear chemistry (in both good ways and bad) of its two stars. It opened today in 1963.
Zipping back to the 80s, we find a pair of notables that both opened on the exact same day. George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick became a bellwether for mainstream pro-feminist filmmaking as a trio of outsiders (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) in a small New England town draw the attention of the Devil… played to mischievous perfection by Jack Nicholson. A riotous social satire, a quietly brilliant horror film and an elegant statement about the mistreatment of women all rolled into one, its charms haven’t aged a day.
Then there’s Predator, a movie originally viewed as a quickie knock-off of Alien intended to capitalize on the rising star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the years, it’s morphed into a genre classic all on its own: partially because of the magnificent monster itself (created by Stan Winston and his crew), but also because of the quiet way it upended the era’s prevailing trends. Action heroes were largely unstoppable killing machines at the time, led by Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone whose good guys simply waded through the villains until no one was left. Predator set a whole squad of them up again a monster that treated them all like teenagers in a slasher movie. Director John McTiernan accelerated the trend with Die Hard a year later, but the first seeds were planted right here.
Predator and The Witches of Eastwick both opened today in 1987.
We’ll close with Inside Out, from the redoubtable Pixar studios, about the personified emotions that live inside a little girl’s head and what happens when they learn you can’t be happy all of the time. Pixar’s quality had slipped a bit with the previous few movies — though admittedly, the initial bar they set couldn’t be higher — and Inside Out represented a welcome return to their stellar best. It opened just two years ago in 2015, but it looks set for the long haul.