7 of the Bleakest Summer Blockbusters

Chris Tilly
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi DC Star Wars

Summer is a time when Hollywood releases fun flicks, giving audiences a couple of hours of entertaining escapism via movies about fast cars, giant robots, and men and women in capes. But every now and then something a little more serious hits screens during the silly season. Movies that don’t have you punching the air with joy, but rather leaving the cinema feeling downbeat and depressed. The following are seven of the bleakest blockbusters to ever hit screens.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In the summer of 1980, film fans received an unexpected gut-punch in the shape of The Empire Strikes Back. The sequel to Star Wars was a much more sombre affair, with George Lucas and his writers and director extinguishing all that “New Hope” over the course of two hours. There’s betrayal thanks to Lando Calrissian handing over Leia and co to Darth Vader. Torture, with Han Solo imprisoned in carbonite. While Luke Skywalker loses an arm and — in one of the great twists in movie history — discovers that Vader is his father. Then the movie just ends, with audiences having to wait three long, agonising years for closure via Return of the Jedi.

Cocktail (1988)

"When they pour, they reign" -- Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown in Cocktail.

On the surface, this is a fun flick that stars good-looking people and revolves around bartending in hot New York night-spots and on hot Jamaican beaches. But dig deeper and what appears to be a light-hearted Tom Cruise flick is actually a pretty dark cautionary tale. Largely thanks to Bryan Brown’s character Doug. Who seems like a happy-go-lucky guy, but who makes some pretty serious mistakes as the movie progresses, using women, ruining friendships, and losing all his wife’s money. He commits suicide at the end of the movie, which inspires Cruise’s character to do the right thing. But left audiences feeling pretty miserable.

AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Haley Joel Osment (r) as David in AI.

Based on a short story by Bryan Aldiss, developed by Stanley Kubrick, and eventually made by Steven Spielberg, AI is hard, thought-provoking sci-fi. That’s also pretty upsetting. Set in the late 22nd Century, Haley Joel Osment plays an advanced robot boy who has been programmed to love. And only wants love in return. But he ends up having a pretty grim time over the film’s 146 minutes, being bullied by his human brother, abandoned in a forest, thrown into a ‘Flesh Fair’ where ‘Mecha’ like him are destroyed for entertainment, and then trapped at the bottom of the ocean for two thousand years. David finds peace at the end of the movie, receiving the love he so craves. But only for a single day.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Claire Danes and Nick Stahl in T3.

Terminator 3 makes the list because of THAT ending. Before the climax, it’s an OK action movie that fails to hit the heights of Terminators 1 and 2. But then it gets oh-so-bleak. John Connor (Nick Stahl) and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) think they are heading to Skynet’s system core to shut it down and prevent Judgement Day. But there is no core. And Judgement Day is inevitable. Instead, they end the film in a fallout shelter as the first nuclear missiles are fired. Safe as the world outside burns, but resigned to a pretty grim fate.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face.

Batman claims, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” And that’s exactly what happens in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a terrorist. An agent of chaos who ensures that Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie is one of the most messed up superhero flicks ever made. He breaks the decent and honest Harvey Dent, killing his girlfriend Rachel Dawes, and precipitating his transformation into crazed killer, Two-Face. To bring Joker down, the good guys have to do some pretty unpalatable things too, using a sonar device to spy on everyone in Gotham City. The film ends with Joker being caught, but with Batman taking responsibility for Harvey’s crimes and going on the run. As Commissioner Gordon puts it, “We have to chase him. Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him.”

2012 (2009)

John Cusack in hero mode in 2012.

‘Master of Disaster’ Roland Emmerich specialises in big, expensive movies in which the world nearly ends. Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow are both filled with the deaths of millions. But for sheer scale and magnitude, we’ve picked 2012. In which the earth’s core heats up, causing earthquakes to hit, volcanoes to erupt, and mid-way through proceedings, Los Angeles to slip into the Pacific Ocean. Tsunamis arrive, followed by mega-tsunamis, and unless you’ve got passage on one of nine specially designed arks, you’re pretty much toast. There are a few minutes of hope at the end of the movie, with the film’s hero Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) reunited with his family. But it doesn’t make you feel that much better about the orgy of death and destruction that came before.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

It all kicks off at the end of Rise.

We could have picked any of the Apes films — old or new — as a franchise that has you rooting against man is doing something unusual for a blockbuster. But the recent rebooted trilogy is particularly bleak, kicking off with Rise in 2011. In which the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease triggers intelligence in apes. What follows is a tale of cruelty and torture that results in the apes rising up, and doing battle with humans on the Golden Gate Bridge. They escape into the Redwood forest, but war has begun. While the film’s final scene documents a virus travelling around the globe and wiping out much of humanity. A barrel of laughs it ain’t.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.