Every few years, a sci-fi/fantasy film comes along that changes every thing; the rules, how films are made, our expectations, the industry, the whole enchilada. In 1968, the release of 2001 set it all off. 1975 gave birth to the summer blockbuster with teeth when Jaws scared the living crap out of its audience. In 1977, Star Wars rewrote the concept of sci-fi movies and the world's culture was changed forever.
Then in 1986, a sequel to a movie about a stowaway alien was taken to the next level with a commando of marines wiped out, leaving a woman and her flame thrower and an assault rifle. She took on a 15-foot tall alien queen and her army of drones in order to save a little girl and audiences in the theaters stood up in Super Bowl glee, cheering like mad raging fans when the bay door opened and Ripley stepped out with her yellow loader. With Aliens James Cameron re-wrote the "us vs. them" alien theme and created the first tough-as-nails heroine. That alone was a revolution that merited Sigourney Weaver the front cover of Time magazine.
But Cameron would come back a few years later, proving that with an astronomically insane budget (for the time) of 100 million dollars, one could make a special effects driven movie and still have a superb story to boot. And he also managed with great directorial skill to actually make Arnold Schwarzenegger semi-funny. With Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron created a rift in cinema. Film buffs can now tell simply by looking at a movie's special effects, that the movie is either pre-T2 or post-T2. After T2 things changed. Movies like Jurassic Park were now possible. And the string of disaster movies that followed were also made possible. You can thank James Cameron's vision for this.
Then in 1999 the mother of all cinematic culture shocks took place when The Matrix gave birth to the third millennium. The Wachowskis simply tossed the book out of the window and inspired themselves from so many other sources it's hard to point to a sure source; but one thing is certain — The Matrix changed it all. Special effects were completely innovative. The storytelling was unheard of in mainstream cinema. The visuals were unparalleled. The philosophical complexity is still perplexing philosophers of all kinds to this day. The lay masses were prepared for some flashy, wire-fu, gunslinging, fast-talking coolness, but what we got was something that changed our culture forever.
It was time for the next step, the next bounding leap to the next level. There have been some contenders. The shoulda-coulda-beens, like the Sin City blunder. Or even the Lord of the Rings trilogy – which I affectionately call the Bored of the Ring trilogy – which was nothing more than a big bucks production of a not so interesting book which replayed variations of the same fringing score over and over again.