The 1980s saw the rise of the personal computer, the end of the Cold War, the culture of "greed is good," and some of the goofiest fashions since… well, since the 1970s. But it also saw the rise of the blockbuster, precipitated by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and ultimately engulfing the whole of Hollywood. That proved a boon for genre films, which thrived under higher budgets and the studios' insatiable desire to produce the next Star Wars. They also benefited from the rise of home video, which allowed box office disappointments like Blade Runner and The Thing to find their audience. While corporate dominance kept most of them rigidly formulaic, a number of unique, innovative and just flat-out cool genre films still left their indelible stamp on cinema. Let's count down Mania's list of the 10 best genre films of the 1980s.
Big budget Hollywood may not have possessed copious amounts of originality, but they can still make formulaic pictures hum like a T-Bird's engine. Case in point: John McTiernan's 1987 Alien revamp, featuring a jungle-bound space lizard hunting human soldiers for sport. Arnold Schwarzenegger continued to flex his star muscles as the Über Bad Ass targeted by the creature for its trophy wall. He also made the first slow steps away from the hero-as-unstoppable-killing-machine template which dominated action movies before it. As tough as his character is, he's out of his league against the monster, and ultimately has to think his way to victory instead of just pounding the bad guy flat.
When it first appeared in 1984, Ivan Reitman's horror movie spoof nearly drowned in its own hype. Incessant quoting, mountains of t-shirts and the omnipresent Ray Parker, Jr. theme song on the radio turned it into a marketing monster run amuck. Only after the cacophony dimmed did the film's joys truly emerge, allowing us to appreciate what a funny, clever and delightfully enduring roller coaster it is.
8. Time Bandits
Terry Gilliam took his first big steps away from Monty Python with this dark child's fantasy that some feel he has yet to top. The rollicking trip through human history--viewed from the perspective of a lonely English boy (Craig Warnock)--encompassed God, the Devil and everyone in between. Though coated in absurdist humor, it already showed signs of Gilliam's auteurial stamp: a mistrust of technology, an embrace of imaginative misfits, and a keen grasp of how banal and ordinary true evil can be.
In some ways, Paul Verhoeven's blood-soaked satire of 80s corporate greed is as dated as keyboard ties. In other ways, however, it might have been made yesterday. Regardless of subtext, it remains a gleefully grown-up comic book actioner, as Peter Weller's resurrected policeman cleans up the streets of Detroit and the various ne'er-do-wells who inhabit it.
6. The Thing
Released in the wake of E.T., The Thing died an ugly death at the box office: its themes of paranoia and doom just didn't jibe with Steven Spielberg's feel-good cuddliness. Even more surprising was the universal critical condemnation, which branded it one of the worst movies ever made. Time has shown its true strengths however, elevating it not only to the ranks of director John Carpenter's very best films, but also to the ranks of the best horror films ever made. The effects which brought its shapeshifting monster to life remain as horrifying today as they were in 1982 (unlike E.T., whose creations apparently needed a crude CGI update), while the gritty paranoia underlying its story still packs one hell of a punch.
Sigourney Weaver deserved the Oscar for her definitive portrait of Ellen Ripley--sent back into space with a contingent of Marines to wipe out the species which first menaced her in the original Alien. Not only do director James Cameron's crackerjack action scenes continue to hold up in an era saturated with onscreen explosions, but the film's core connection between Ripley and the little girl (Carrie Hewn) she vows to save shifted the perceptions of women in action films forever.
4. The Terminator
Aliens wouldn't have happened, however, had Cameron not scored an unexpected hit with a low-budget sci-fi thriller about a robot who comes back in time to destroy the future. So far has The Terminator's influence spread (four movies and a TV show to date) and so high does it stand in the annals of science fiction that it's easy to forget how little the filmmakers had to work with and how much they accomplished with nothing more than grit and a belief in their story. It also starred this guy Schwarzenhoozit, who I'm led to understand went on to a rather successful career.
3. Blade Runner
Like The Thing, Blade Runner suffered for its dystopic vision in an era when fuzzy optimism was the order of the day. But Ridley Scott's post-industrial sci-fi noir has since become an uncontested masterpiece--studied by generations of film students and leaving a stamp on every dark future movie to come along since.
2. The Empire Strikes Back
Now this is pod racing. Star Wars had already blown the world's socks off, but with the much-anticipated follow-up, George Lucas single-handedly raised the bar for what a sequel could do. Empire broadened his space-opera universe by leaps and bounds, aided by Frank Oz's wondrous puppetry and a revelation from Darth Vader that has remained a pop-culture buzzword for over three decades. (More subtle but perhaps of even greater importance was the presence of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who--unlike Lucas--actually knows how to write clever dialogue.)
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
In a decade drenched with blockbusters, it took the genre's two masters to show everyone how it was done. While there may be better movies than Raiders, none capture the essence of popcorn fun so completely, or give us a hero so winning as Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. The secret lies in the character's quiet vulnerability--the mistakes he makes as much as the skin-of-his-teeth escapes--and in the fact that no matter how many thousands of Nazis he bashes, you still get the feeling that he never quite gets a break.
Honorable mention goes to E.T., The Princess Bride, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Fly, Big Trouble in Little China, Brazil, Wings of Desire, The Road Warrior, Labyrinth, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
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