Best Sci-fi Movies of the 80’s Part 1 (1980-1984)
The 1980’s gave moviegoers an embarrassment of riches in every regards, especially in genre films. This is why when I began to compile this list I realized this would be too much for a single entry on the site. Thus this will be a two-part series with this first entry looking at the science fiction films released between 1980-1984. You will see both blockbusters and cult classics as this decade gave us some of the all-time great sci-fi movies.
Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back (1980):To this day, the Empires Strikes Back is revered as possibly the best installment of the Star Wars franchise. While A New Hope was a rollicking space adventure which was fun for the whole family, the follow-up made sure the heroes faced consequences for their triumph over the Empire. Irving Kushner took over the director’s chair from series creator George Lucas and moved things in a far darker direction. After being defeated at the Battle of Hoth; Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca try to find refuge, but they have the Empire and a bounty hunter right on their heels. On the swamp planet of Dagobah, Luke Skywalker trains with Yoda and gain a far deeper understanding of the Force. It all comes to a climax at Cloud City when Han and Leia are betrayed by Lando and Luke learns a secret from Darth Vader which shook every Star Wars fan to their core.
Flash Gordon (1980): Based on the pulp comic strip of the same name, star athlete Flash Gordon and love interest Dale Arden journey to the planet Mongo to confront Ming the Merciless. Using natural the weapons at his disposal, Ming had been waging a campaign to destroy the earth. On an experimental spaceship, Flash Gordon and Dale end up on the planet Mongo to confront the evil ruler. After Ming kidnaps Dale, the dashing hero has to unite a world in order to save his girlfriend and defeat the villain. This rollicking fun space opera was made even better by the fact that Queen provides the soundtrack.
Time Bandits (1981): From brilliant Monty Python veteran, Terry Gilliam comes one of the most fascinating films of the decade which straddled the line between sci-fi and fantasy. A young boy named Kevin, gets the surprise of his life, when a group of dwarves burst into his room with a time machine and a map. Kevin joins in their adventures through history, along the way meeting the likes of: Robin Hood, Agamemnon and other figures. It is not all fun and games as a grand cosmic conflict between good and evil looms heavy over them.
Heavy Metal (1981): Everything cool about 80’s counterculture is here in this animated masterpiece. Based on the long running British comic series, Heavy Metal features a series of vignettes which ooze of coolness. Presented by an ominous glowing entity serving as a narrator to a terrified girl as well as we the viewers. We see a cab driver in the future thrown into protecting a woman, undead pilots in World War II, a warrior princess, and more crazy concepts all of which are loosely interconnected. Adding fuel to this fire is gorgeous animation and a kickass soundtrack. Bucking the trend of the era, Heavy Metal proved cartoons did not have to be for kids.
ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): A perfect showcase for the Steven Spielberg magic fans of cinema know and love. A young boy named Elliott, discovers a Reeses Pieces-loving alien he dubs ET, who was accidentally left behind on earth. He along with his brother and sister befriend the alien and vow to help him “phone home”. Naturally the nefarious government has interest in ET but their interest is in studying the charming alien. This Steven Spielberg masterpiece was a massive critical and commercial success, even attaining the status of highest-grossing movie of all time for a while.
Blade Runner (1982): From director Ridley Scott this noir-inspired science fiction flick was a game changer in genre cinema. In a dark future, the Tyrell Corporation has developed a series of android “replicants”, but they are now illegal. When the replicant Roy Batty and his associates return to earth, former “blade runner” Rich Deckard is brought out of retirement to handle the situation. Deckard can not rest as he investigates the bleak and neon Los Angeles of the future. While it was not exactly the box office smash it was supposed to be Blade Runner has gone on to be one of the most influential films ever made.
Tron (1982): While it never rose above the level of cult classic, it is impossible to argue that Tron left a massive legacy which films are still following. Programmer Kevin Flynn along with his friends Alan and Lora find themselves sucked into the world of a video game. In order to survive they must compete in a series of games overseen by the Master Control Program (MCP). While the plot is simple, the cutting edge special fx of Tron revolutionized filmmaking and drove a number of memorable action sequences especially the Light Cycle races.
The Thing (1982): Upon the release of this masterpiece science fiction/horror masterpiece it was hailed as a…critical and commercial failure. When horror legend John Carpenter got the chance to remake a favorite film of his, the Thing From Another World, he knew he had to do something completely different from the original. He went back to the short story the flick was based on for inspiration, and made his version of the movie a paranoia filled nightmare set in an arctic wasteland. A team is summoned to a research station which has seemingly been abruptly abandoned by those stationed there. They discover that those who were there before them had an encounter with an entity not from our earth, which is still there. A creature which can transform and adapt in order to survive terrorizes the group as they try to find a way to find it and stop it. One of the highlights of the Thing is easily the make-up and special fx from Rob Bottin who easily did some of the best work of his storied career.
Star Trek II Wrath of Khan (1982): This was not the first time the crew of the USS Enterprise was on the big screen, but Wrath of Khan is truly the follow-up the classic series deserved. Years have passed since their five year journey and James T. Kirk is no longer the bravado-filled captain in a gold shirt. He is older and slower, and his reward for his years of service is a desk job as an admiral. For old time sake, he and his friends decide to take one last journey on the USS Enterprise. Elsewhere in the universe, Kirk’s old nemesis Khan has found a way to escape the planet he was exiled to years ago in the original series. Khan has learned of the Genesis Device, a weapon which could have grave ramification on all of existence. In order to defeat Khan, Kirk must confront his own past, and the crew is pushed to limits they have never been to before.
Star Wars Return of the Jedi (1983): For many years all of us assumed that this was the end of the Star Wars saga (how naïve we were). Revelations about the Skywalker family came to light and the Rebel Alliance are at their strongest and the Emperor finally makes an appearance to end the war once and for all. Things were set in place for an epic finale to the trilogy. With the Empire seemingly vulnerable on a new Death Star still under construction the Rebels see their chance to deal a fatal blow to their enemies. Han and Leia must venture through the jungles of Endor with their new allies the Ewoks, to give their forces the opening they need. But Luke has a more spiritual quest in Return of the Jedi, he must confront Darth Vader and either salvage what good may be left in him or die trying.
The Terminator (1984): The breakout flick for director James Cameron. In a dark apocalyptic future, the machines united by Skynet, are eradicating humanity, but a hero named John Conner has rallied the human race to fight back. Rather than engage in an outright battle, Skynet sends an unstoppable killing machine, the T-800, back in time to kill John’s mother Sara Conner to prevent him from being born. The human resistance learn of this plan and send Kyle Reese to protect Sara at all costs. A cat and mouse game ensues as Reese and Connor have to outwit a machine designed solely to kill. While it’s sequels were known for their bombastic scope, the Terminator opts instead to be a dark thriller. If nothing else, the Terminator has earned its place in pop culture history for introducing the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 who has gone on to be one of the most iconic movie characters of all time.
Dreamscape (1984): The exploration of dreams has long been a source of inspiration for sci-fi storytellers. In this cult favorite, a program has been developed where those with psychic abilities can enter the dreams of patients to aid them as they suffer subconscious dilemmas or are terrorized by nightmares. Alex, played by Dennis Quaid is the best psychic at their disposal though he is reluctantly forced into this by his old mentor. The federal government’s liaison to the program sees the possibility to grab power, if he can have the nightmare-plagued president killed by a psychopathic psychic. This forces Alex to have his abilities to protect the leader of the free world across a horrific dreamscape.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension (1984): This cult classic flick featured an all-star cast….before most of them were actually famous. Peter Weller of RoboCop fame plays Buckaroo Banzai the world’s most respected; surgeon, rock star, martial artist, physicist, rocket car driver, etc. Backed up by his crew, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, Banzai accidentally opens the earth up to invaders (all named John) from the 8th dimension. Now the fate of the world depends on Banzai as he must find a way to thwart the alien conspiracy threatening the planet. As you may have gathered the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a very strange film, full of dry tongue-in-cheek humor which did not win over mass audiences at the time. However even now, thirty years later this film has a devoted fanbase which sings the praise of this flick.
That’s an impressive list indeed! Some of my favorites are there, including Star Trek II, The Thing, Time Bandits, and Heavy Metal! Blade Runner too, obviously… What a decade for genre movies, as you correctly pointed out! :–)