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18 unforgettable sci-fi movies released on the Fourth of July weekend, ranked

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Jul 2, 2021, 4:01 PM EDT

Ever since the 1980s, Hollywood has used the Fourth of July weekend to flood movie theaters with their biggest and, hopefully, most successful blockbusters and sequels. Most of the time, movie fans feast their eyes on quality popcorn entertainment, like Terminator 2 and Independence Day — which turn 30 and 25 this summer, respectively. Other times, we get a (shudder) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

As we celebrate the Fourth this year, and give ID4 another rewatch on its 25th anniversary, SYFY WIRE revisited some of the most memorable mega-blockbusters (and not-so-mega) for a ranking of the best and worst Independence Day weekend releases. 

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines puts the first nail in this venerable franchise’s coffin, as it turns Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature character into a caricature — one prone to too many lame-even-for-2003 puns.

In what is clearly a cash grab for Ahnuld, whose bona fides at the box office were suffering at the time of this July 4 release, Rise of the Machines uses the CG tools James Cameron’s classic T2 pioneered but in ways that make the digital stitches very obvious and more dated than in its 12-year-old predecessor. What does work in this lackluster threequel is its third act, which pits John Connor once again against a murderous, liquid metal Terminator (this time a woman, played by Kristanna Loken) as the plot rockets to a Twilight Zone-worthy ending. Here, in the movie’s final scenes, audiences witness John losing in his attempt to save the future from the nuclear holocaust Skynet needs in order to turn the world into a post-apocalyptic battleground between man and Terminator. 

Transformers_Pic1

Transformers (2007)

A friend once described the Transformers franchise like this: “Saying you like any of these films is like saying, ‘Of all the times I let the Transformers movies punch me, the first film was the one that hurt the least.”

Ever since director Michael Bay helped bring Cyberton’s most famous citizens to life in 2007, fans have hoped that this franchise will give them a movie that’s actually great. But, after five sequels in the main series of TF films, the first Transformers is still the best entry... and it's fine. In this Bayhem-packed blockbuster, Optimus Prime (voiced once again by the animated series’ Peter Cullen) joins forces with Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky and Megan Fox to take on the evil forces of the Decepticons and their leader, Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving). The hard-to-make-out, over-complicated robot designs aside, the best part of this movie, the main reason why it set the then-record for biggest July 4 opening weekend ever, is ILM’s photo-real visual effects. Fourteen years since its release, that daylight battle on the highway between Optimus and a Decepticon still holds up. 

[Photo credit: Paramount Pictures/Fandango]

Hancock (2008) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Hancock (2008)

The undisputed king of the Fourth of July weekend was forced to hang up his crown after the noble misfire Hancock was released in 2008.

Directed by Peter Berg and based on a very popular original superhero script, Tonight, He Comes, written by Vy Vincent Ngo and future Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, the movie centers on Smith as Hancock — a burn-out superhero, seemingly the only one of his kind. This clever aspect of the character gives the movie its most interesting moments, as Hancock — almost despite himself — tries to make the best out of being that which he does really want to be: A hero. His irritable, shoulder-shrug approach to the job is challenged when Charlize Theron shows up and Hancock gets involved with her and her husband Jason Bateman. The secret Theron’s character holds is not quite the earth-shattering twist the movie thinks it is, and Berg struggles to make it — or much of the film’s dramatic scenes — land with anything more than “time-to-make-the-donuts” efficiency. As always, Smith lends Hancock all of his star wattage in a movie that can’t do anything to harness it. 

The Shadow (1994) Official Trailer HD

The Shadow (1994)

Universal wanted to turn The Shadow, the popular pulp hero from books and radio dramas of the ‘30s, into a movie franchise. The studio tasked Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp to come up with their version of Tim Burton’s Batman and what we got was, well, not that. 

Alec Baldwin plays the titular vigilante, and his alter ego, Lamont Cranston, with an interesting but uneven mix of squared-jaw, noir heroics and downright weird personality touches. The whole movie is just weird from the jump, with its origin story centered on Lamont’s brief time as a shirtless, opium den-dwelling crime lord who finds redemption behind the mask and under the fedora of The Shadow. His mission? To stop a magical, power-hungry descendant of Genghis Khan (a scene-chewing John Lone). Mixed reviews torpedoed the movie’s box office on July 1, 1994, making it one of the more disappointing studio films released over the holiday. But The Shadow has its fans, whose passion for the film’s impressive, art deco production design, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, and Baldwin’s, um, everything, helped elevate the film to just shy of cult status. 

Marvel Studios' Ant-Man and the Wasp - Official Trailer

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man and the Wasp is the ideal movie to watch on a plane.

It doesn't radically reinvent the shrinking superhero wheel, but it does improve upon the rocky foundation built by its 2015 predecessor. Both movies are directed by Peyton Reed, who seems to have a real affection for Paul Rudd’s microscopic hero; he invests Scott Lang with a constant likability, in either action scenes or comedic beats, thus making Ant-Man a far more interesting character this time around. 

It also helps that this sequel puts Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp prominently in the spotlight, creating a never-dull dynamic duo with her and Lang as they battle Ghost, a baddie who can go invisible and intangible. The heroes and their villain engage in some truly impressive action scenes, which capitalizes on Ant-Man’s power set in ways that make the first movie seem small — or big, whichever is the less successful size for this franchise. 

Superman Returns (2006) Official Trailer #1 - Superhero Movie HD

Superman Returns (2006)

Warner Bros. made the dubious choice to position Superman Returns as a sidequel to the original Richard Donner films, rather than do a complete reboot a la Batman Begins. The result was that Superman Returns channeled some of the appeal of those films, but never escaped their shadow. 

While Returns is overly concerned with being a love letter to the previous era, and as a result struggles to establish its own touchstones, the movie does succeed at finally giving Superman the big-budget canvas the DC hero deserves. It also doesn’t shy from the then-novel approach of having Superman expand more upon his heartfelt relationship with his adoptive mother, Martha (the great Eve Marie Saint). The story doubles-down on the themes of identity, and the cost of leaving the only home you’ve ever known, Earth, in search of what’s left of the one that’s long been gone. 

At the time of release, almost 20 years had passed since audiences saw Supes on the big screen. When Returns finally reveals Brandon Routh’s Last Son of Krypton in action, it’s a riveting and inventive aerial sequence where he has to save a passenger jet (and the space shuttle attached to it) from crashing into a baseball stadium full of fans. There’s a certain awe to this sequence (thanks to that classic John Williams theme) that is missing from the current take on the classic hero. And while fans like Kevin Smith complained that Superman doesn’t get to punch anyone in this movie, that didn’t seem to be a problem in 1978 when Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel didn’t punch anyone, either. 

Die Hard 2 (1990) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

“How can the same s*** happen to the same guy twice?” 

Thankfully, Renny Harlin’s excessively R-rated summer hit doesn’t let John McClane’s meta-y rhetorical question get in the way of a good time at the movies. What Die Hard 2 and Harlin lack in terms of the original film’s sophistication and pure-polished action filmmaking, it more than makes up for with the charisma of Bruce Willis once again finding action-packed ways to solve to another terrorist problem during Christmas. This time, terrorists — led by naked Judo enthusiast Col. Stuart (William Sadler) — have taken over Dulles Airport and the planes full of frightened passengers (including McClane’s wife) that circle its snowy runway. It is up to (shocker) John and his endless supply of bullets and post-kill puns to save the day, and Die Hard 2 does it with explosions, laughs and intense, never-before-seen set pieces — like a fist fight atop the wing of a moving 747.

Innerspace (1987) Official Trailer - Martin Short, Dennis Quaid Movie HD

InnerSpace (1987)

The 1980s proved to be Hollywood’s testing ground for releasing high-concept, funny sci-fi. While Joe Dante’s InnerSpace failed to reach the box office highs of fellow ‘80s sci-fi comedies like Ghostbusters, it did make a memorable dent with its story about a washed-out Navy test pilot (Dennis Quaid) who goes on a fantastic voyage inside the body of a hypochondriac (Martin Short, in all his physical comedy glory.) The impressive ILM visual effects, paired with Steven Spielberg’s oversight as executive producer, were not enough to convince mainstream audiences to flood multiplexes in droves 34 years ago. But those factors did help InnerSpace gain significant traction on cable over the years, helping turn this very entertaining but little-seen entry in ‘80s sci-fi into a cult classic that gets better (and funnier) with each rewatch.   

Armageddon (1998) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Armageddon (1998)

Armageddon dominated the Summer of 1998, and this movie couldn’t be more a product of the ‘90s unless it was directed by a Tamagotchi. Director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and six credited screenwriters (including J.J. Abrams!) set the mold for ‘90s disaster epics/popcorn-fests. And they did so by putting Earth in the path of a planet-killing comet the size of Texas and the only people that can stop it are… oil drillers. Never mind why it is easier to train a bunch of roughnecks, led by Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, to go into space than it is to train astronauts to be oil drillers. (When Affleck asked Bay about it, the director basically told him to shut up.) Armageddon just wants you to enjoy the ride as an untested crew of underdogs get strapped to two experimental space shuttles and brave “space dementia” as they bravely try to save the world from an extinction-level event scored to an Aerosmith power ballad. After Bay’s unique (but limited) visual vocabulary assaults you for nearly three hours, it’s no surprise why Armageddon beat out the similarly plotted Deep Impact during the Summer of ‘98 as the biggest moneymaker of the year. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is an exceptional piece of summer matinee entertainment; when it's not throwing set pieces grounded in character at you, it's making you laugh — a lot. 

The diverse cast that comprises Peter Parker’s fellow students and their effortless dynamic finally gives Peter's high school life justice on the big screen. This is the first live-action Spider-Man movie to give its hero a high school experience that his fans can relate to, and Tom Holland effortlessly captures the duality that comes with his web-slinging alter ego being tethered to a life stuck in the classroom. Homecoming is also the funniest Spider-Man movie ever, and the best one since 2004. And that killer twist/reveal, when Peter realizes that his crush’s dad is Vulture (Michael Keaton), is one of the best “clutch the pearls” moments Marvel has ever pulled off. 

Big Trouble In Little China (1986) - Official Trailer

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

When Kurt Russell and John Carpenter get together to make a movie, fans know they are in for something special — even if it is another cult-fav, non-mainstream hit. Big Trouble In Little China might be their most popular cult movie, as the mere mention of Russell’s always-in-over-his head truck driver Jack Burton or quoting some of his best “Jack Burton always says…” idioms makes fans’ eyes light up almost as bright as bad guy Lo Pan’s.

When a woman with green eyes is kidnapped at an airport, Burton and his very capable friend Wang (Dennis Dun) are forced to team up to get her back from the evil (and immortal) Lo Pan. Their rescue mission takes them on a tour of several Chinese hells that are full of boss battles with flying-kick action, sorcery, magic, and a generous supply of quotable, LOL-worthy one-liners. 

Big Trouble In Little China is a studio movie that feels like it was made with zero studio fingerprints on it — minus the opening framing device that sets up the movie’s go-for-broke mystical world that execs demanded Carpenter add after disappointing test screenings. There’s a reason why the movie never returns to or bothers to acknowledge later that tacked-on bit of business, because the movie isn’t for mainstream crowds. It’s for every ‘80s kid who grew up idolizing a “hero” like Jack, who either (hilariously) fails at virtually every attempt to be heroic as Wang kicks all the ass throughout the movie or literally stumbles into victory when staring down monsters and a Rayden-like henchmen that controls lightning. You either “get” what Russell and Carpenter are doing by subverting certain action movie tropes, or you don’t and will wish you did. 

War of the Worlds (2005) Trailer #2 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

War of the Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s blockbuster follow-up to 2002’s Minority Report is a very grounded (and chilling) take on the H.G. Wells classic. The first half of this underrated sci-fi family drama glides along like dance choreography, as dad Tom Cruise struggles to survive with his estranged son and daughter in tow as alien tripods slowly and surely take their ray-guns to humankind. Cruise has made a career out of playing selfish (but likable) loners who arc by way of becoming selfless, and his Ray Ferrier may be the actor’s most compelling and complicated version of that archetype. Ray allows the mega-star to go to darker, more vulnerable places than fans expect, especially in a PG-13 summer movie from the guy who gave us E.T. Leave it to Spielberg, the guy who made young Elliot’s extra-terrestrial pal so damn cute, to make War of the Worlds’ aliens so damn terrifying. 

From the harrowing sequence when the tripods emerge from underneath a suburban street in Jersey, to the moment Ray and his family realize at gunpoint how quickly what’s left of humanity can devolve into something scarier than their would-be exterminators, War of the Worlds grabs you by the throat with a near non-stop delivery system of thrilling set pieces, 9/11 allegory, and ILM-powered visuals that will make you think twice about wanting to know if we are not alone. 

Apollo 13 Official Trailer #1 - Tom Hanks Movie (1995) HD

Apollo 13 (1995)

Ron Howard’s box office hit and awards contender was marketed as a “rah-rah, ‘Merica” true story chronicling three real-life NASA astronauts stranded in space in 1970 when their mission to the moon required them to tell Houston they had a problem. Heroes Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) would defy the odds as NASA techs in Houston worked in tandem to help bring these astronauts home and splash down safely.

But in between those efforts is a harrowing, white-knuckle thriller that lets Howard surpass his usual journeyman, director-for-hire fare to deliver one of the best films of the ‘90s. He turns Apollo 13 into “competency porn,” while showing how essential tenacity and hope are to finding the solution to any problem, especially those we face when venturing to the stars.  

Independence Day | Official Trailer #1 |1996

Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and in the last quarter century it has become as synonymous with the Fourth of July as grilling in the backyard and fireworks. Director Roland Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin pack this cheesy, four-quadrant overachiever with plenty of fireworks as Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Bill Paxton and, ahem, Judd Hirsch struggle to save the world from the number one cause of destruction for easily-identifiable U.S. landmarks. 

Yes, we know the story kinda sucks and his full of logic potholes (we’ll believe aliens exist before we will ever believe that Jeff Goldblum is both a cable techie and capable of getting from New York City to D.C. in gridlock traffic before the clock ticks down to a blast of alien death ray.) But we have spent the last 25 years learning to not care and love the movie for the piece of bombastic, old-school patriotic Hollywood summer movie fare that it is. The practical effects hold up exceedingly well, as does Will Smith’s scene-stealing performance that made him a movie star and Mr. Fourth of July at the box office. ID4’s goals are simple: Entertain the masses and remind them not to go gently into the night when facing threats foreign, domestic, or intergalactic. It succeeds on all counts. 

Spider-Man 2 (2004) - Trailer

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Where Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man tends to show its age in dated CG and uneven pacing, its sequel is still pretty much the pre-Marvel Studios movie to beat. 

This emotionally compelling summer hit, one that ends on one of the most gut punch-y beats in a blockbuster ever, amps up the character drama and stakes of the original. The entire movie hinges on the constant struggle Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker endures in trying to have a “normal” life when he’s not wearing the Spidey suit. The script, co-written by the late Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), constantly gives Peter mini-victories and then takes them away. Or piles on a series of micro complications that weigh Parker down, to the point where he literally has to lose his superpowers in order to find who he really is. That discovery, and the consequences of it, lead to the aforementioned bittersweet ending. Here, after he gets the girl, MJ (Kirsten Dunst),  Peter swings off into another adventure — completely unaware that his girlfriend watches him go with growing dread and heartbreak in her eyes. Because, in one brooding final shot, the trouble with duality that Peter just spent an entire movie grappling with finally hits her.

In that regard, Spider-Man 2 is the most exciting and kickpunch-filled exploration of an identity crisis pre-MCU. And Raimi’s inspired sophomore outing also delivers by far the best villain in the series: Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus. Doc Ock and Spidey’s fight on and around a speeding train is enough to establish Spider-Man 2 as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.

Men in Black (1997) Official Trailer 1 - Will Smith Movie

Men In Black (1997)

One of the biggest movies of 1997 — and one of the biggest of Will Smith’s career — seems to have become almost a pop-culture footnote. But this massive Fourth of July hit is worth revisiting, especially for its inventive mix of sci-fi, trailer-friendly set pieces and witty comedy. 

Smith and straight-man Tommy Lee Jones are a perfect pairing in director Barry Sonnenfeld’s take on the titular organization charged with protecting Earth from the scum of the universe. When the grossest alien ever makes an unsanctioned visit to our planet and wears Vincent D’Onofrio as a meat suit, Smith and Jones must use a variety of entertaining means to stop him. Men In Black is a funny and charming piece of escapist fare that packs its brisk 98-minute run time with a very rewatchable mix of action and laughs. It’s one of the most entertaining sci-fi comedies ever made, and a perfect way to spend the holiday. (Just don’t blame us if its damn catchy end-titles theme song gets stuck in your head like it’s 1997 again.)

Back to the Future Trailer

Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future ranks up there with Star Wars as one of the most rewatchable movies ever made. 

Director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale’s script is a Swiss watch of structure; every scene just clicks into place as Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) must go back in time to 1955 — in a DeLorean — to ensure his existence by helping make sure his teenage parents fall in love. Joining him for the timey-wimey antics is Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown, whose insane comic timing opposite a game-for-anything Fox makes BTTF one of the best two-handers ever. The movie has big emotional stakes wrapped in easily digestible comedy and sci-fi antics, which is a very tricky needle to thread. The fact that Zemeckis, Gale, and the rest of the production are all seemingly on the exact same page, at all times, to help thread that needle is why the movie is so fun and satisfying. Before this movie, the Fourth of July was often a dumping ground of sorts for Hollywood to off-load projects they felt were less-than-sure bets. The film’s impressive box office ($389 million domestic) and enduring legacy helped change all that. 

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

“I would submit that there wouldn’t have been a Jurassic Park if Terminator 2 hadn’t been the right impetus at that moment.”

James Cameron’s pull quote from The Ringer’s recent oral history on Terminator 2: Judgment Day couldn’t be more accurate, and audiences couldn’t have been less prepared for how much that moment from July 3, 1991, that the writer-director speaks of would forever change how they watch — and how Hollywood makes — movies. 

Cameron’s follow-up to his successful 1984 indie is one of the best theatrical movie experiences in the history of ever, thanks to Dennis Muren and ILM’s pioneering CG visual effects that paved the way for future blockbusters to use (or abuse). Muren’s team and their pioneering work in the CG space allowed Cameron to create one of the most iconic movie villains ever, the T-1000, so that he could share the screen with Cameron’s other iconic villain-turned-hero, the T-800. 

Despite the role affording Arnold Schwarzenegger a limited amount of dialogue scenes, the actor manages to speak volumes with his less-is-more take on Skynet’s MVP finding the very humanity he’s used to taking from his targets — just as his former target, a traumatized and buff Sarah Connor, risks losing what pieces of her humanity she has left. In an effort to protect her estranged son, John, (then-newcomer Edward Furlong), and save her race from nuclear holocaust, Sarah becomes the very thing that tried to wipe her out, a terminator. On her mission to kill Richard Dyson (Joe Morton), the future creator of the world’s destruction, Sarah finds herself just one misfiring neuron away from crossing the frayed line that separates her from becoming a killer. It is in that moment that Sarah rediscovers what it means to be human and the movie transcends its genre trappings to become a character-first, big ideas drama that just happens to be about time-traveling, killer cyborgs. 

T2’s storyline is at times a beat-for-beat remake of the 1984 Terminator, just with bigger and more complex action scenes. But it also doubles down on the emotional payload of the story, making T2 one of the standard-bearers for how to make an excellent sequel that’s better than the original. And that is in large part why T2 is a great Fourth of July movie. Pound for pound, it packs in as many emotional fireworks as it does actual explosions. Its Peak Cameron, as the filmmaker flexes his greatest strengths as a genre filmmaker to tell arguably his most complete and satisfying action film. He gives his battered heroes the victory they deserve, a victory that the future literally broke the laws of physics to deny them of it. So take a break from the holiday and treat yourself to your hundredth viewing of this modern classic.