THE ’80S

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.

Total Film - - Contents - Words matt maytum

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,


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.

com­edy cen­TrAl

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


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.


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