Star Wars kicked off the eighties, but this sci-fi show ended them
If 'Star Wars: A New Hope' is really an '80s movie, even though it came out in 1977, where do the real '80s begin and end?
As a famous time-traveling, two-hearted alien once said: "People assume time is a strict progression of cause and effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's a more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey, wimey, stuff."
The sci-fi and fantasy films of the 1980s might not be entirely non-linear, but they do challenge our notions of how we define a decade, at least in terms of its genre movies. You might assume that any film released in the '80s is, by definition, an "eighties movie." But what makes an '80s movie an '80s movie isn't just the year it came out. Strictly talking about sci-fi and fantasy, the short definition of an '80s movie is that it feels like the '80s: poppy, confident, a little populist, and, almost always, fast. Most of all, '80s movies have a timeless quality that (usually) makes them less tacky than the sci-fi/fantasy of previous or subsequent decades. Blade Runner is definitely an '80s movie. So is Back to the Future. But what about Ghostbusters 2 or Tim Burton's Batman? Would you really put those films in the same category?
No, you wouldn't. Ghostbusters 2 and Burton's Batman are spiritually '90s movies even though they both hit theaters in 1989, and this gut-test rule can be applied more broadly. When do the "real" sci-fi/fantasy '80s begin and end? The non-linear and totally subjective answer is from 1977 to 1987. It's still ten years, and, it's the real '80s.
This version of the '80s — we'll call in the sci-fi '80s — clearly starts in 1977 with the original Star Wars. Star Wars is not a '70s movie. I don't care that Luke Skywalker has "seventies hair." I don't care that Han Solo's chest hair has a Saturday Night Fever vibe. Star Wars is not a '70s movie, it's the moment where the '80s truly begins.
Star Wars changed everything, but the biggest favor it did for other movies was to create a viable market for science fiction and fantasy. The demand had always been there, but Star Wars proved there was a way to release big-event genre movies in a way that could get non-nerds excited too. The '80s are when sci-fi and fantasy went mainstream.
So if the '80s start in 1977 with Star Wars, that means every sci-fi/fantasy movie that comes out after Star Wars is an '80s movie, right? Well, yes and no. I would argue Alien (1979) is really an '80s movie, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is definitely still a '70s movie. This isn't something I can prove, but if you think about it for three seconds, you realize how it works.
Mad Max is an '80s movie, right? Yes, even though it came out in 1979. Is The Black Hole, also a 1979 release, a '70s movie even though it tried to rip-off Star Wars with a cutesy robot? Yes. The eighties-ness of Alien and Mad Max are fairly apparent. I'm not saying '70s sci-fi movies are less cool than '80s sci-fi movies, but I also am kind of saying that.
Look, Logan's Run (1976) is one of my favorite movies ever, but let's be honest, that slides towards the Planet of the Apes side of '70s sci-fi. Logan's Run came out one year before Star Wars, but it feels like it came out ten years earlier.
You can tell Blade Runner came out after Star Wars even though the two sci-fi movies couldn't be more different. If Blade Runner came out in 1976, people would have shit their pants. But because it came out in 1982, everyone was already spoiled. (Sidenote: Blade Runner's poor performance at the box office probably has something to do with it premiering the same summer as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Tron. Would it have done better in a different summer? Maybe? Would Alien have done as well as it did have it come out in 1980, the same summer as The Empire Strikes Back? No way.)
To be clear, I'm not saying these movies are better because of their status as '80s movies. I just mean the swagger of certain sci-fi/fantasy films has that undeniable '80s magic. Some movies have it, others don't.
Here's the weirdest thing about most successful '80s sci-fi/fantasy movies: Almost none of the big ones take place in the '80s. (Ghostbusters does, but it barely matters) From movies that take place in the future, or a galaxy far, far away, that's kind of a given, but even the most famous science fiction '80s movie — Back to the Future — isn't actually about the eighties, and barely even happens there. Back to the Future has very little to say the '80s, and yet, from the pacing to the dialogue, to the overall feeling of the film, it is '80s to the core. Nothing about this dates Back to the Future. When you watch a random '80s sci-fi movie – like, say, The Last Starfighter — you don't cringe at the dumb '80s stuff, you just kind of go with it.
The same can't be said for sci-fi movies made in the '60s or '70s. Contrast a movie like Enemey Mine (1985) with Silent Running (1972) or the original Westworld (1973). I'm not sure Enemy Mine is a better film than Silent Running or Westworld, but it's certainly more confident.
Ditto The Last Starfighter (1984), a movie about an arcade game being used as a recruitment device for a space armada. If it had been made in the '70s it would have been depressing. If it had been made in the '90s it would have looked like shit. But, it's great, and that's because it was blessed by the timeless magic of '80s sci-fi.
Again, this doesn't mean all these movies are good. Masters of the Universe came out in 1987 and makes absolutely zero sense. It's an objectively bad movie, which is saying something considering it's based on a cartoon about a guy named He-Man who feels the need to give his green tiger a secret identity.
And again, Batman (1989) is a great movie, and would have been great in any "decade" it was released. That said, I think the era of the '90s genre movies truly begins with Tim Burton's Batman. That movie is a little more arch, more goth, and a little more ironic and knowing than a true '80s movie. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure also came out in 1989, and if the launch of Keanu Reeves into superstardom doesn't prove that's actually a nineties movie, I don't know what does.
Deciding when the '80s ends is trickier, but sticking with 1987 makes the most sense. Sure, 1988 had some sci-fi movies that feel like eighties movies (Short Circuit 2, I guess?) but the dream of the '80s, relative to genre movies, is over by 1987. That's the year of RoboCop, the most aggressively violent movie that's somehow also aggressively anti-violence.
Infamously, director Paul Verhoeven wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as RoboCop/Alex Murphy. But because of scheduling conflicts, we got a brilliant performance from Peter Weller instead. If Arnold Schwarzenegger had been RoboCop, it would have been a '90s movie. It still would have been good, but something about its essence would have been lost. A true '80s sci-fi/fantasy movie doesn't directly address the audience with cynicism, even when the movie is overtly cynical, like all the Mad Max films.
RoboCop is right on the line. It's almost a satire, and I think if Arnold had been RoboCop it would have pushed it over that line. Peter Weller saying "There will be trouble," is a lot different than Arnold saying, "Get your ass to Mars!" in Total Recall (1990.) Both are great movies and both are directed by Paul Verhoeven, but they clearly belong to different eras.
If you're still unconvinced by this argument, I'm going to cheat a little bit. Talking about sci-fi/fantasy TV in the '80s versus the '90s is another very long discussion. But guess which year Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted? That's right, 1987, the same year as RoboCop, but three months later in September.
July 1987 is the end of the eighties. Nobody thinks Star Trek: The Next Generation is an '80s show, even though almost half of it aired in the '80s. TNG is a '90s show. Just ask anybody.
So, if Star Wars created the '80s in the '70s then it seems like Star Trek created the '90s in the '80s. But that's a story for another time.
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