The sweet smell of excess… Buff’s reexamination of decades defined by movies reaches the ’80s, a time that saw blockbusters get bigger, brasher and bolder.
Our decades deep dive arrives at the neon-bright era of puffballs, legwarmers
and bum bags.
After the often grim and frequently gritty decade that came before, the 1980s proved to be a treasure trove of trashy cinema, guilty pleasures and dizzyingly high concepts. In an era when fashion was defined by gaudy excess, and the US was surging on an economic boom, the film scene was brasher and bolder than ever, and there were far-reaching developments in the way movies were made and consumed. Looking back, it’s no surprise that some of the most memorable, cult-worshipped movies and franchises got their start in the ’80s.
Against the backdrop of a United States boosted by its president’s “Reaganomics” plan, and with the advent of MTV (launched in 1981), consumers were guzzling more content than ever before. The bite-sized music video offered inhalable entertainment, and the rise of cable TV and proliferation of VHS technology were providing ever more home-viewing options. Capitalism was booming, so it’s easy to see
why movies became an even bigger commodity than ever. The fast-food model pioneered by McDonald’s was dominating the restaurant industry, and Hollywood was beginning to understand the power of “franchising”.
It’s pertinent to start looking at the story of 1980s cinema with a franchise entry that was arguably the first super-sequel, and the biggest film of 1980, not to mention a still-beloved fan favourite. Star Wars was born in the ’70s, but its world-building expansion began in 1980, with The Empire Strikes Back. Sequels, of course, had existed before 1980, but none had the seriescreating magnitude of Empire, which was key to securing the future of a saga that’s still going strong today.
The film still serves as a template for the best sequels, hitting the ground running while deepening and darkening its themes. In business terms though, it proved just how powerful a packaged property could be, and throughout the rest of the decade studios would tap into their movies’ sequel potential. Lucasfilm led the way with Star Wars (Return Of The Jedi followed in 1983) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, which got the boulder rolling on the Indiana Jones series in 1981, but many more would soon follow suit. Of the 10 highest-grossing films of the 1980s, only one would never have a sequel (with the long overdue Top Gun: Maverick finally underway).
That standalone film at the top of the 1980s chart is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The 1982 sci-fi classic indubitably proved the Berg with the Beard was a master storyteller with an eye for an all-ages crowdpleaser and an instinct for a box-office hit.
The film also helped to establish Amblin Entertainment (founded by Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall), a production company whose name defines the vibe of a particular type of ’80s film, the type of which is now frequently referenced by directors in the present day who grew up on those films (see J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, for example). Among the key films that define the Amblin tone are 1984’s Gremlins, and 1985’s The Goonies and Back To The Future. Featuring familiar visions of Americana, and young protagonists in fantastical situations, Amblin ushered in a new breed of edgy-but-family-friendly fare.
Brave new worlds
Spielberg wasn’t the only director to be working on big-idea sci-fi, a genre that flourished with the era’s advances in practical effects, combined with prominent fears of Aids and nuclear war. David Cronenberg made many of his most distinctly ‘Cronenbergian’ pictures during the decade, including Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers. With his trademark queasy body horror and metaphors made flesh, it remains the definitive portion of his oeuvre.
Ridley Scott pushed boundaries in serious sci-fi with his vision of a noirish future LA in 1982’s Blade Runner: oft-imitated, it’s not yet been bettered. Meanwhile, James Cameron, a director who still knows
a thing or two about pulling in punters with ambitious sci-fi material, made a name for himself with the nonemore-lean time-travel chase movie, The Terminator (1984), itself a franchisespawner. He’d go on to give the ’80s treatment (bigger, louder, more violent) to Alien sequel Aliens (1986).
Advances in practical effects and puppetry gave life to E.T., the Gremlins and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with otherworldly characterisation that has stood the test of time. In the later part of the decade, Cameron pushed CGI to new limits with The Abyss, but the technology wouldn’t take off until the ’90s. Audiences, and computer processing units, arguably weren’t quite ready, as Tron’s underpowered graphics and disappointing box office had suggested in 1982.
The flourishing of franchise fare was noticeable in the new breed of action star that would define the ’80s. Look at Sylvester Stallone’s major characters. In the ’80s, Rocky went from downtrodden underdog to bulging-veined superstar, and Rambo went from traumatised Vietnam vet to one-man army, his rippling, tanned physique an emblem of ’80s excess. For some critics, the transformation of Rambo and Rocky exposes the worst of the decade’s qualities, with subtlety nowhere to be found. For others, the OTT frills and thrills are the perfect companion to popcorn.
Audiences were certainly lapping it up, and Stallone’s biggest rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, also had his heyday in the ’80s. An Austrian immigrant bodybuilder flexing,
’AS STUDIOS TAPPED SEQUEL POTENTIAL, HOLLYWOOD LEARNT THE POWER OF FRANCHISING’
bench-pressing and power-lifting his way to the American dream, Arnie had only done documentary appearances and small-fry roles before the ’80s, when the Conan movies brought him to a wider audience and The Terminator transformed him into an international icon by making a virtue of his unusual accent, monotone delivery and imposing presence. He became a genre unto himself, his name on the poster on the likes of Commando (1985), Predator (1987) and The Running Man (1987) promising extravagant action
scenes, bulletproof one-liners and an unstoppable man machine of a hero.
Arnie and Sly weren’t the only movie stars whose stock went up in the ’80s. Tom Cruise made his screen debut in 1981, and before the decade was up he was Oscar-nominated and one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
Showing the relentless drive and business savvy that many later movie stars would hope to emulate, Cruise made a beeline for the directing greats (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott), and smartly balanced cheeky comedy (1983’s Risky Business) with action blockbusters (1986’s Top Gun) and awards-baiting drama (1988’s Rain Man, 1989’s Born On The Fourth Of July). He set a new bar for stars who could play any number of genres, and charm the hell out of the publicity circuit, demonstrating as big a personality off screen as on.
Cruise, Schwarzenegger and Stallone might have represented chiselled, superhuman perfection, but the ’80s were also a breeding ground for a different type of movie lead.
As well as the youngsters of Amblin, stars such as Eddie Murphy could also shine. A stand-up supernova, Murphy transplanted his wisecracking, motormouth comedy persona directly into the movies, starting with 48 Hrs. (1982), and following up with Trading Places (1983), sequel-spawning megahit Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Coming To America (1988). Whether the genre was gritty crimer, action-thriller or all-out comedy, Murphy would play a loose variation of himself, and audiences couldn’t get enough.
A new type of star frequently emerged from television origins
– Tom Hanks being a stellar example. Plucked from TV bit parts by director Ron Howard for boy-meets-mergirl romcom Splash (1984), he was a schlubby, frequently frazzled everyman; a James Stewart type reborn for the decade’s bolder, brasher output. Big (1988) was the, ahem, biggest of all Hanks’ hits, typifying the high concept that ruled in this decade, and the role of a 12-year-old kid trapped in a 30-year-old’s body played to his manchild strengths.
Yep, if you could pitch a comedy film in an elevator, you could get it made in the ’80s. Gag-a-minute disaster movie spoof? Airplane! (1980). Aussie bushman lost in New York? Crocodile Dundee (1986). Bachelors left to look after an infant? Three Men And A Baby (1987). Scientist dad miniaturising his offspring by mistake? Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989).
Ghostbusters (1984) also took the formula of TV comedy stars (mostly from Saturday Night Live), and high concept (the title says it all) for ’80s success. Also aided by burgeoning
’IF YOU COULD PITCH A COMEDY FILM IN AN ELEVATOR, YOU COULD GET IT MADE IN THE 1980S’
advances in practical effects, Ghostbusters represents what is so beloved about the 1980s’ biggest cult hits, in that it’s effectively a family film, but with far bigger scares and edgier humour than you’d get in most ‘four-quadrant’ blockbusters (that appeal to men and women, young and old) in the decades to follow. The introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1984 would help blockbusters to straddle the adults-only/familyfriendly divide, after a minor furore had been caused by the scarier scenes in Gremlins and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.
The rise of VHS – which also saw banned ‘Video Nasty’ horrors swapped, circulated and obsessed over – might have helped encourage the surge in raunchy teen comedies that were prevalent in the ’80s, but haven’t aged so well. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) featured Phoebe Cates in one of the most paused video moments ever, while Porky’s (1981) and Revenge Of The Nerds (1984) showed there was mileage for sequels from ribald teen comedies. Remembered slightly more fondly are John Hughes’ more sensitive teen flicks, which are among the definitive films of the decade. With a unique ability to capture adolescent issues without trivialising them, he wrote and directed Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), each with enduring teen protagonists who have outlived their fashions to still resonate today, although not entirely without controversy, as star Molly Ringwald explored in a powerful recent essay in the New Yorker in which she revisited The Breakfast Club in light of the #MeToo movement.
While bawdy teen flicks and OTT-actioners were dominating the box office, awards bodies were staying away from the trashy material clearly so popular with audiences and rewarding the worthiest of prestige pictures. Ordinary People (1980), Chariots Of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982) were among the Academy’s Best Picture winners; strong films all, but hardly the material ’80s film fans will turn to as definitive of the decade. As is frequently the case, awards bodies proved to be somewhat dismissive of the zeitgeist, opting for classical material over films that embody their moment.
And as the decade drew to a close, 1989’s Batman proved prophetic for years to come. The first step towards darker comic-book movies for adults – which could still be merchandised towards kids too young to see the film – it also began a trend of quirky indie directors being tapped up to helm huge franchise blockbusters. An underdog story for director Tim Burton; an iconic hero heading up a franchise powerhouse; edgy maniacal comedy from the Joker: it’s basically the ’80s in a nutshell.
NEXT ISSUE: THE ’90S – FROM FLOURISHING INDIES TO THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION.