10 Aliens (1986)
James Cameron? Sure, he was the kid who had just turned Conan into a cyborg with 1984’s The Terminator. But could Hollywood entrust the whippersnapper with one of the most anticipated follow-ups in sci-fi history? Sigourney Weaver was won over by the director’s passion for making the mother of all monster movies; embedded in his futuristic war film’s DNA was also an antimilitary critique and a strongly feminist statement about self-sufficiency. A tense shoot and last-minute editing didn’t help buzz but Cameron was already setting the template for all of his subsequent risks, double down on your own confidence and let doubters look foolish.
9 Face/Off (1997)
It must be the most ridiculous concept Hollywood ever threw money at – have our hero and villain surgically swap faces (never mind, how…). As a literalisation of action-movie psychology, the plot still gets giggles in theatres, and not just from medical professionals. Still, no summer movie was blessed with a more committed cast and crew. One leading man, Nicolas Cage, was just coming off a Best Actor win for Leaving Las Vegas; the other, John Travolta, was only recently rebounding as a mouthy, zesty star. Both studied the other’s mannerisms, allowing for plenty of self-parody and stretching. Still, the triumph belonged to Hong Kong transplant John Woo, finally in command of all his powers and gifts. He never topped this.
8 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
He said he’d be back. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time-travelling, mechanised killer returns as a good guy, ready to serve and protect future warrior John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a liquid-metal assassin (Robert Patrick). Director James Cameron continued to push the limits of CGI technology with Patrick’s T-1000 (he’s the water snake in The Abyss made spike-through-the-eye deadly). And Arnie gets to stretch some of those emotional muscles he worked in Total Recall with the boy-and-his-dog relationship between him and Furlong. This blockbuster still works best when Cameron lets his cybernetic creations whale on each other and anything in their way.
7 The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The reveal to end all reveals (“I am your father!”) is just the cherry on top of the darkest of the countless Star Wars movies. This instalment of the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia and the rest of the gang takes on a tragic grandeur that the other chapters never quite attain. There’s melancholy in every frame, from the unforgiving icy landscapes of Hoth to the swampy murk of Dagobah. And the ending, with the characters scattered and the future uncertain, is devastating. Empire never pulls its punches, which is pretty impressive given that this was easily the most anticipated sequel of all time.
6 Jurassic Park (1993)
The park opened up again recently, but all the new pretenders did was make us wish we were watching Steven Spielberg’s original, a terrifying balance of digital effects, animatronic puppet work and a brainy cast (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum) that discussed genetic ethics without boring the crowd. It remains the first and last word in toothy rumbles in the jungle.
5 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
After being left behind on Earth, a diminutive alien visitor (a triumph of animatronic effects work by Carlo Rambaldi) befriends young suburbanite Elliott (Henry Thomas). They’re both damaged beings (E.T.’s abandonment mirrors Elliott’s pain over his parents’ divorce) who learn to cope with their respective situations even as they look helplessly to the skies and, in the most iconic image, fly gracefully past the moon. E.T. is one of Steven Spielberg’s most personal works, yet was still a border-defying blockbuster. The highest grosser of all time until Jurassic Park supplanted it.
4 Ghostbusters (1984)
“Don’t cross the streams!” is sound advice if you’re operating a plasma gun. Ironically, that’s exactly what Ivan Reitman did with this blockbuster, mixing SNL’s snarkiness, horror-light spookiness and the breakneck pacing of an action flick. (Having Bill Murray, an instantly iconic logo and Ray Parker Jr.’s infectiously catchy theme song didn’t hurt either.) This monster hit broke the bank by demonstrating that mashing up popular genres equalled a something-for-everybody box office bonanza. Every big-budget sci-fi-action comedy that’s goosed multiplex audiences owes this movie a mother-pus-bucket of a debt.
3 Star Wars (1977)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people didn’t make pop-cultural touchstones from cannibalised bits of Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and Flash Gordon. In fact, when George Lucas screened a rough cut of his pulpy cosmic adventure for his film-brat peers, they offered better-luck-next-time condolences. (One person did congratulate him, Steven Spielberg.) When Star Wars finally came out right before Memorial Day, 1977, those same directors watched their bearded buddy reroute Hollywood for the next few decades. Suddenly, space was the place, a movie’s merchandising was enormously important, and the era of the global blockbuster went into interstellar overdrive.
2 Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Is there a more purely perfect action hero in all of adventure flickdom than Indiana Jones? (Tom Selleck must still be kicking himself for turning down the role.) Even if audiences knew nothing from the cliff-hanger serials from the 1930s and ’40s (the original inspirations) they did know about wrath and snakes. Lots of snakes. Furiously propulsive, Raiders is a triumph of cutting and craft, with composer John Williams having an especially good day in front of the orchestra. But the prime movers behind the project were producer George Lucas, a key creative collaborator, and director Steven Spielberg, brilliant with actors and redemptive moments of humour. If the boy geniuses had indeed won over Hollywood, this movie forecasted a benevolent kingdom.
1 Jaws (1975)
Imagine a mammoth, sharp-toothed creature that takes cold-eyed pleasure in terrorising its victims, one that must move forward constantly or perish, that quietly circles its prey before attacking with lightning speed. Now imagine a shark. Given the way that Steven Spielberg’s nail-biter goes after audience’s nervous systems, the film’s resemblance to its leviathan isn’t coincidental. Multiplex-thrill rides had never seemed so ruthlessly, efficiently predatory. This was the game-changer, the first to employ a “wide-release” strategy, the first to gross more than $100 million (Dhs367.29 million), the moment when this director became “Steven Spielberg,” the template for the must-see modern summer movie. After Jaws, every moviemaker who wanted to leave viewers giddy and gasping knew they’d need a bigger boat.