The 80s was quite a renaissance for sci-fi, coming from the kitschy Rocket Man style 50s and 60s Sci-Fi was still considered to be a rather odd past-time. In 1977 a fairly well known movie would plunge Sci-Fi firmly back into the mainstream. You may have seen it? It was a little known flick called Star Wars. We very much couldn't start a look at the 80s without mentioning Star Wars could we and our first film does more then this bacause it is….
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.Released: May 1980
Director: Ivan Kirschner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
If Star Wars was the break through film for sci-fi then this was the one that cemented the story deeply into the worlds psyche. Following the events of the first film and the destruction of the Death Star, Empire is a far grimmer beast showing the desperation of the Rebels as they try to evade capture by the angered Empire. If anything this film was also the vehicle that created Darth Vader. Really just a lapdog to Moff Tarkin in the first film, this one shows Darth in full command murdering all and sundry (including Grange Hills Mr Bronson as Admiral Ozzell). His villainy is beyond compare...for now. With one of the most spectacular fights in the series and a truly shocking revelation Empire, rather than being the tricky second movie, is arguably the best in the trilogy.
Battle Beyond the Stars
Released: September 1980
Director: Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman (uncredited)
Starring: George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, Richard Thomas and John Saxon
Battle beyond the stars is quite bizarrely, a remake. based heavily on “The Seven Samurai” a Japanese movie from 1954 about a Village that employs Seven Samurai to save them from the bandits ravaging their village. If that sounds familiar that is because the film also served as a basis for the 1960 Western “The Magnificent Seven”. This reiteration of the “hired heroes” mythos extends the battlefield to space. Made on a noticeably lower budget then Star Wars (which sadly must remain the benchmark for all 80s films) the movie overcomes its monetary constraints by simply being a lot of fun. Of course having employed John (Nightmare on Elm Street) Saxon, George (A-Team) Peppard, Robert (UNCLE) Vaughn and Richard (John-Boy) Thomas the cast is truly Stellar (groan).
Released: December 1980
Director: Mike Hodges
Starring: Max Von Sydow, Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson
Just bear with me while I get this out of my system.
FLASH AHHHHH AHHHHHHH
That's better. Flash Gordon is one of the more colourful Sci-Fi’s of the 80s. Gone are the realistic spaceships (and semi-realistic physics), gone are smoky bars and grimy spaceports. Instead we have guts, glory and an all American hero. Flash Gordon tells the story of an intergalactic attack from the Uber Evil Ming The Merciless. Taunting the Earth with storms and devastation he unwittingly bring his own end by underestimating the blonde Football Player Flash Gordon. Based on the 30s film serials and Comic Books Flash Gordon has more style the Paris Fashion Week. The score by Queen is fantastic and you can also see a pre-bond Dalton, a VERY LOUD Brian Blessed and and a worryingly young Pre Blue Peter Peter Duncan.
Released: April 1981
Director: Richard Lester, Richard Donner (uncredited)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman
Originally intended to be released as a direct and contiguous sequel to 1978s Superman the seeds of this film were laid at the beginning of the saga explaining what happened to the villains exiled by Supermans Father. Filmed in conjunction with the first film the tone was originally intended to be far darker then the resultant comedic movie. However falling outs between Richard Donner and the studio chiefs resulted in his firing and Richard Lesters hire as a replacement director. He dramatically changed the tone of the film so Supermans fight against his own humanity and 3 superpowered villains from Krypton is rather muddied with humour and slapstick. This makes Superman II a rather polarising film. Some love it for this humour, some see it as being ruined. Luckily today we can get an idea of what was originally intended as the film holds the odd accolade of being one of the few (if not the only) film that is available in a cut by a totally different director (the 2006 Richard Donner Cut)
Escape from New York
Released: July 1981
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine
It is the future (1997!) and New York has been walled in, it is a maximum security prison for the absolute worst criminals that America can generate. A lawless scum filled penitentiary. Which is a problem as the President has ditched there and he was en-route to a summit that could save or doom the world. The Solution, employ “Snake” Plisskin (Russell) to get in there and extract him. As a convicted Bank Robber we could even offer him a “pardon” after all he was headed for New York anyway...
John Carpenters B-Movie is a wonderful epic and showcases the Director /writer/composer at the height of his talents. Oddly enough this isn't the only film from Carpenter on this list.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Released: July 1982
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly
After the visually stunning but really rather dull “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” one could be forgiven for thinking that the chance to make Star Trek movies had passed. This rethink, with new designs throughout pulled the nascent franchise to its feet and shook it soundly.
The Wrath of Khan is essentially a direct sequel to the story “Space Seed” that saw Kirk and Co. Leaving the genetically superior Khan and his crew as exiles on the pleasant Seti Alpha 6. Following a global disaster and a chance encounter with one of Kirks old crewmates, Khan seizes the chance not just for revenge but to gain control over one of the greatest primal forces created. With the most tear jerking and shocking finale in any Star Trek this is considered by many to be the best movie produced.
Released: August 1982
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Keith David
The second film on the list coming from the stable of Carpenter, The Thing is a (loose) remake of the 1951 movie “The Thing from Another World”. On an isolated Antarctic base what appears to be a dog comes running for help from a pursuing helicopter. The pursuer is killed after shooting wildly and the dog placed into the team of dogs for the base. The problem is the dog is not a dog at all and, hiding amongst the team, it begins to take control of the base. The Thing has some truly jump out of the seat moments and fantastic effects and music. a true highpoint in Carpenters career it is a film best not watched alone...or maybe best watched alone unless you are sure of the person with you!. The Thing expertly bridges the gap between Sci-Fi and horror and excels in both genres.
Released: September 1982
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Haur and Sean Young
Often cited as a perfect example of studio interference the theatrical version of Blade Runner is now rarely seen. This movie, adapted from a typically bonkers Phillip K. Dick story, was deemed to complex for the general cinema goer and had notorious edits forced upon it. These included a voice over explaining the narrative and a changed ending that is far more upbeat than originally intended. Even in this hampered version Blade runner still shines as a beacon of style, majesty and passion. It is so multi-layered that fans still analyse it today and new facets of the story emerge even for those that know it well. The studio meddling was rectified when the unedited original version was rediscovered and this later “Directors Cut” is now considered to be the superior movie. The film follows Deckard an Android chasing bounty hunter and is a truly stunning piece of art for both the eye and the mind.
Released: October 1982
Director: Steven Lisberger
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and David Warner
Tron was one of the first CGI movies, using a combination of live action, traditional animation and computer animation Tron told the story of a computer programmer called Flynn, dragged into the computer world. Visually it was outstanding and even today has an entirely unique look with massive amounts of time and effort poured into the production. Scenes such as the lightcycle chase have percolated into popular culture and Tron is now a byword for 80s cool. On release, however, Tron did not perform as well as expected and started to sour Disney ideas on live action. Like Blade Runner it is now regarded as a classic.
ET: The Extra Terrestrial
Released: December 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Peter Coyote
Spielberg's second bite of the Sci-Fi cherry shares some of the spectacle with its predecessor “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with similar clever and innovative usage of lights and shadows creating a truly spectacular experience. Unlike “Encounters” however ET is a far more personal movie. Elliot, on discovering a lost Alien, develops a truly close bond with his little brown friend. Oddly there are really no truly bad people in this film. The government scientists are truly trying to help and even the controversial removal of weapons in the later versions of the movie see justified given the cuddly nature of the agencies involved. The climax of the film is truly tearjerking in the way that leaves you feeling empty and hollow. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sometimes called overrated ET is far from being so
Return of the Jedi
Released: June 1983
Director: Richard Marquand
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
1983 would be notable as the closing chapter in this remarkable trilogy. In fact if you ask anyone worldwide to name a trilogy of movies you could be pretty sure they would say Star Wars. Still far darker in style then the original film the movie works admirably with themes of loss and redemption. It isn't without its flaws, as anyone who has wondered about the strength of Ewoks will tell you, but the climactic ending and the masterful handling of and old mans use of the force almost atone for this. A strong enough film to create great anticipation for the promised prequels this would be the high point of Star Wars and spawn a huge franchise known as the expanded universe. Only a fool would meddle with this...
Released: July 1983
Director: Peter Yates
Starring: Ken Marshall. Lysette Anthony and Freddie Jones
Fitting into the fantasy sci-fi subgenre Krull manages to take a sword and sorcery epic and turn it into something slightly more special. Prince Colwyns quest to save his princess who has been taken by “The Beast” is depicted excellently and he is joined in this by many well known faces in very early roles. Liam Neison, Robbie Coltrane, Bernard Bresslaw and Todd Carty all appear and the film manages to create an iconic weapon in The Glaive a mind controlled throwing star.
Released: July 1983
Director: Richard Lester
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor and Margot Kidder
Unlike the odd styling of Superman II this third sequel is far more coherent. This could be explained by Richard Lesters full taking of the reigns for the Man of Steels third outing. We move away from Lex Luthor this time and the plot revolves around the intentions of a computer magnate to build the ultimate computer. The film was not a huge success. This is unfair in my opinion as it features such iconic scenes as “nasty superman” and “Superman vs Clark Kent”. Rather then part of the decline in Supermans fortunes that would be tipped by the woeful “Quest for Peace” I prefer to see it as a high point.
Part 2 will be released …. when I feel like it! 1984 here we come.