Do you remember the 1980s, or know the decade second-hand by wading through 30+plus-year-old news stories, MTV videos, and movie clips on YouTube? Either way, it’s easy to grasp that mullets, ultra-perms, leg warmers, shoulder pads, and acid wash jean jackets were all the rage.
For science fiction and horror flicks, advances in practical effects were all the rage too! These high-tech strides helped propel moviegoers’ theatrical and home video experiences, but hey, filmmakers couldn’t rest on their new technological laurels. Audiences need compelling stories and characters too, because wondrous imagination is the key to memorable sci-fi.
The 1980s had its share of gripping science fiction, and here are 10 classic moments from the decade. Although most have special-effects components, the films’ characters drive these wondrous big-screen minutes, and for some reason – either through reverse serendipity or cinematic hopscotch – no leg warmers appear on-screen. How about that?
10. The “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” reveal – “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983) – Rod Serling’s sci-fi television show “The Twilight Zone” burst with waves of ironic (and sometimes) sinister pomp and circumstance as well as ingenious writing for five magical seasons on CBS, so directors Joe Dante, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and George Miller had enormous shoes to fill by taking this legendary program to movie theatres. Even though Warner Bros. made a healthy profit with 29 million dollars of box office receipts, the film critically suffered mixed reactions.
The film contained four episodes, and arguably the best of the bunch is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, when John Lithgow plays a stressed-out passenger who sees a demon of some sort causing havoc on the plane’s wing! George Miller directed this installment, but it was a remake of the original 1963 episode starring none other than William Shatner. In 1983, is John Valentine (Lithgow) – a hysterical, sweaty mess – hallucinating, or is he a truth-teller?? This classic ’80s moment will answer!
9. Don’t touch the toaster! – “Time Bandits” (1981) – Director/writer Terry Gilliam’s fingerprints are all over this bizarre journey, as a band of time-traveling dwarfs recruit Kevin (Craig Warnock) to join them on their outta-this-world adventure. While Gilliam employs his trademark steampunk visuals and tones, John Cleese plays Robin Hood, Ian Holm is Napoleon Bonaparte, and other famous actors jump into the fray, including Michael Palin and Sean Connery.
Of course, most everyone has to avoid Evil (David Warner), who sports a sinister getup that might make Darth Vader run for cover, and Kevin has seen him up-close! At the very end of the picture, Kevin warns his mom and dad not to touch Evil “who” sits in their toaster oven, but do they listen? What do you think?
8. Put the glasses on! – “They Live” (1988) – Horror movie legend John Carpenter frightened millions of fans during the 1980s with “The Fog” (1980), “The Thing” (1982), and “Prince of Darkness” (1987), but he capped off the decade with a different kind of scary movie. “They Live” (1988) was his political take on Reaganomics married with a secret alien invasion.
WWE wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, of all people, plays the lead protagonist to decipher friend from foe, but of course, he naturally comes with his own brawny and mouthy bent. Although his iconic line of “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum,” should be enjoyed over and over on YouTube for the next 2,000 years, Nada’s (Piper) six-minute fistfight with Frank (Keith David) is our 8th greatest sci-fi moment from the decade. Just put the glasses on, Man.
7. Clarence and his gang kill Murphy – “RoboCop” (1987) – Lathered with ultraviolence, wild special effects, terrific action set pieces, and some humor along the way, Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” proudly holds up 34 years later and still towers over its sequels and a remake.
What is the adage? An action film is only as strong as its villain! Whoa, this movie has its lion’s share: Clarence Boddicker played by the grumpy dad in “That ’70s Show”, Kurtwood Smith.
Clarence and his band of baddies are cruel dudes, as evidenced by their sick murder of Office Murphy (Peter Weller) during the first act. Quite frankly, this scene sets the brutal tone for the rest of the film and cements Boddicker as one of the all-time best villains. I’ll buy that for a dollar.
6. Bud desperately attempts to revive Lindsey – “The Abyss” (1989) – Ed Harris always bring intensity to every role, whether he’s a mobster in “State of Grace” (1990) and “A History of Violence” (2005), an astronaut in “Apollo 13” (1995) or a legendary painter in “Pollock” (2000). Intensity might as well be Bud Brigman’s middle name in James Cameron’s dramatic sci-fi masterwork “The Abyss”.
In a scene that will trigger tears in the most hardened hearts, Bud desperately tries to revive his wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and begs her to breathe. Harris has over 100 magic moments in cinema, but none like his emotional, repeated pleas for Lindsey to “fight.”
5. Tic Tac Toe with Joshua – “WarGames” (1983) – With PC sales lighting up during the early 1980s, the nation’s fascination with computers also brightened. Although “Return of the Jedi” (1983) was the big box office winner that year, “WarGames” became the surprise hit!
A high school hacker, David (Matthew Broderick), believes that he hits the jackpot when he easily finds his way into the U.S. Military’s computer systems. The problem? David accidentally ignites a supercomputer “named” Joshua, who begins a countdown towards global thermonuclear war. In the film’s climax, he asks Joshua to play Tic Tac Toe, a game that no one can win (if you are playing correctly), hoping that “he” will learn the same conclusion with a potential nuclear holocaust.
Oh, if only David stuck to Space Invaders on his Atari 2600.
4. Roy Batty’s “Tears in the Rain” speech – “Blade Runner” (1982) – To some (including us), Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” feels five hours long, even though its runtime is less than two. Still, there is no denying the movie’s impact on science fiction cinema that still can be felt 39 years later.
Our #4 ’80s sci-fi moment comes from a replicant, an artificial being named Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). He knows that his “life” is ending and pours his heart to Deckard (Harrison Ford). “Moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” Ooof.
3. I’ll be back – “The Terminator” (1984) – In James Cameron’s groundbreaking movie, time travel, cybernetic beings, gunplay, and hair-raising chase scenes are all thrown together into a bastion of action-packed thrills, concepts, and visuals that have never been experienced on the big screen before.
Oh, and “The Terminator” has Arnold Schwarzenegger in his most iconic role. Even though we could choose from three-dozen Arnold-scenes, it has to be the one line that the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 (Schwarzenegger) utters at a Los Angeles police station.
We’ll be back too, Arnold…every single time.
2. Spock’s sacrifice – “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) – After the dull and obtuse Star Trek feature film debut “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) reached the silver screen three years earlier, fans might have been skeptical walking into “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in 1982. Well, this swashbuckling adventure peppered with Shakespeare is arguably the best of the series, and the dual between Kirk (William Shatner) and Khan (Ricardo Montalban) is nothing short of illustrious celebration and intricately planned carnage.
It would be challenging to find a dissatisfied fan, but broken-hearted ones are everywhere, as they/we shed oceans of tears. Spock (Leonard Nemoy) makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the Enterprise, and massive disbelief and sorrow filled theatres in 1982 and in living rooms after repeat visits on TV.
“I have been, and always shall be, your friend,” Spock says to Kirk.
Where are the tissues?
1. Darth Vader’s reveal – “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) – June 20, 1980 is a day that shook the world. The much-anticipated sequel to “Star Wars” (1977) hit the big screen, and in the film’s third act, Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) reveals that he is Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father.
No one saw this coming, and this seminal moment forever altered fans’ perceptions of the series and its characters, and it became the fulcrum for every “Star Wars” film afterward, except for stand-alone pictures “Rogue One” (2016) and “Solo” (2018).
Yes, this has to be the #1 sci-fi moment from the 1980s. Even “Star Trek” fans will begrudgingly admit it.
Image credits: 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Orion Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, MGM, Universal Pictures, and HandMade Films