Every decade has a collection of films that define the era. Films that permeate our collective pop culture consciousness to such a degree that a quick reference can conjure iconic images and transport us back to our childhoods, forever providing us with a movie reference shorthand that we can all still use and understand today. Films like these not only reflect their era but also are instrumental in creating them. The era in question? 1980s. So let’s look at 10 landmark films that shaped and defined the decade:
10. E.T (1982)
The story of a young boy and his alien. ‘E.T.’ was one of the highest grossing films of all time back in 1982 and it’s not hard to see why. We’re introduced to Elliot, a young lonely boy dealing with the recent divorce of his parents and all the sadness and confusion that comes with it. Steven Spielberg originally wrote the film as a down to earth, personal story that reflected his own childhood but decided to heighten the concept by introducing an equally lost and lonely little intergalactic being. The bond between the two lead characters is funny, sweet and at times genuinely moving.
The film never sacrifices its emotional core in order to overly explain E.T.’s origin or the hardware that brought him to Earth, instead the film focuses on the central relationship. The classic moment in which Elliot’s bike begins to fly and he rides in silhouette across a full moon has become one of the most recognisable images, not only from 80s cinema, but from cinema in general. The ending is as exhilarating as it is sad as the film builds to a bittersweet emotional climax that’s burned into the hearts and minds of 80s kids everywhere. I’m not crying, you are.
9. Highlander (1986)
Awesome sword fights. Check. Awesome music by Queen. Check. Clancy Brown. Check. Highlander wasn’t a super hit back in 1986 but grew steadily over the years on home video and beyond to become a cult classic. You might not see this film in every top 10 list but, to many, it’s strangely overlooked. Highlander manages to balance its story between the ages, partly set throughout various points in history and partly set in contemporary New York. It explains and expands its mythology and Connor MacLoed’s story as it goes, yet never feels bogged down in exposition. Instead, the law and motivations in Highlander are revealed to us slowly, one layer at a time. We learn that there is a race of immortals battling through time for ‘the prize’ and only the sole remaining immortal can claim it.
The tone of the film is varied, dark and violent at times yet uplifting and fun at others. There is, however, a consistent melancholy that follows the title character around. He’s a man who can never get close to people, a man who has had to watch his loved ones die, and a man that is literally out of time. Sean Connery lights up the screen in the ‘yoda role’, playing a wise and flamboyant fellow immortal who, though spanish, sounds exactly like Sean Connery. Weird. Clancy Brown’s Kurgan is the classic villain you love to hate. Imposing, brutal but with a twisted sense of humour. Unfortunately for its fans, Highlander has one of the worst sequels of all time. If not the worst. Ever. Giving even more meaning to the film’s tagline ‘there can be only one.’
8. The Breakfast Club (1985)
The late John Hughes had a knack for creating coming-of age-comedies in the 1980’s and The Breakfast Club is arguably his definitive work within the genre. It’s the story of five high school students, all stuck in Saturday detention. All desperate to go home. And, as we learn, all desperate to fit in. We have the brain, the athlete, the criminal, the princess and the basket case. Together, yet alone. Thanks to the note-perfect dialogue by Hughes and the unforgettable central performances, The Breakfast Club is a story that still resonates today. Though the characters could be described as archetypes, they still feel three dimensional and, between them, manage to definitively capture the 80s high school experience.
The film poetically points out that the differences between us are actually superficial. We’re all as confused, scared and lonely as each other and we can find comfort in that. Include the classic song Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds and that iconic fist in the air and you may find yourself in a 1980s top 10 list. There’s a reason that in 2016 the film was selected for preservation in the United States film registry by the library of congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. I’m sure Barry Manilow’s stylist was ecstatic.
7. The Thing (1982)
Possibly one of the greatest horror films ever made, The Thing delivers nearly 2 hours of paranoia, claustrophobia and intense body horror. After nearly 40 years, this film is still not for the faint-hearted. A shape shifting alien that destroys anything living via assimilation is quite the concept. Say goodbye to trust and say goodbye to any form of solace. The Thing is an ice-cold classic. The amazing practical effects alone are enough to include it in any genre-defining list, but the film’s tight, no-nonsense direction from horror master John Carpenter, the stellar performances from the cast and the simple, pulsing main theme guarantee The Thing a place in the horror pantheon. Being tied to a sofa will never feel the same again.
6. Aliens (1986)
Creating the sequel to a sci-fi horror classic from the 1970s is no easy task. Many sequels have fallen short over the years plus in the 80s the law of diminishing returns was pretty much guaranteed. Enter James Cameron. Hot off the heels of 1984’s The Terminator (guess what’s next in the list) the multi-talented mega writer/director managed to knock it out of the park. With more emphasis on action this time, while still keeping the horror and suspense of the original, Aliens supercharged an already established world. The fast-paced film still manages to explore Ripley’s character and her motivation to return to LV-426 after such a terrifying ordeal, as well as the deep sorrow she feels as a mother that’s lost her child.
Keeping Ripley central to the story in this way proved to be one of Cameron’s master strokes. The practical effects gave a dynamic physicality to the aliens that we hadn’t seen before in any ‘creature feature’ and the Queen alien took things even further, both in terms of effects and expanding the established mythology. The motley crew of colonial marines give the film that rugged, dirty, ‘lived in’ feel. They’ve clearly been doing this for quite some time and they’re arrogant, aggressive, even complacent but most of all believable. Each character is unique and developed, regardless of their time on screen. Plus, let’s be honest, the pulse rifle is still the coolest gun in movie history.
5. The Terminator (1984)
‘I’ll be back’. About as iconic as 1980s film quotes get. The Terminator is the film that put both Cameron and Schwarzenegger on the map, yet in lesser hands, it could have been cheap, dirty, straight to video schlock. With Cameron behind the camera though, we get a smart, fast-paced, relentless film with every aspect of the production firing on all cylinders. The T-800, in many ways, is the cyborg counterpart to Michael Myers. He’s equally iconic, if not more so, he’s terrifying in his emotionless, obsessive focus as well as being a seriously imposing figure that will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead. A police station full of cops found out the hard way. Never forget.
Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton bring heart and humanity to the film, and their growing romance really grounds an outlandish, sci-fi story as well as giving the film true stakes. They also happen to create the entire time paradox itself (spoilers) but maybe that’s a discussion for another time! James Cameron has stated that his intent with The Terminator was to make ‘the definitive robot movie’ and I think it’s fair to say he achieved that. The film has it all — horror, sci fi, action, romance. What else could you want? A liquid metal guy you say?
4. Batman (1989)
After the campy 60s TV series and the casting of Michael Keaton (then known mainly for comedies) hardcore Batman fans could be forgiven for being a little worried during the making of 1989’s Batman. However, their concerns were quelled once Batman was released. The film was an undeniable success both critically and commercially and elevated superhero films to a whole new level, still casting a shadow over the genre to this day.
Tim Burton’s gothic style works perfectly here, with the citizens of Gotham inhabiting an ‘out of time’ noir world, somehow stuck between the 1930s and the contemporary era of the day. The amazing production design by Anton Furst really brings Mr Burton’s vision of Gotham to life with beautiful gothic and expressionist designs. Michael Keaton’s tortured portrayal of a man consumed by his own duality and Jack Nicholson’s deeply menacing yet manically comical Joker make it hard to imagine any other actor of the era in those roles.
The brilliant score by Danny Elfman, with a main theme to rival any of the big names in composing at the time, heightens the film and to many is still the definitive Batman theme. It’s fair to say 1989’s Batman delivers on all fronts and, post Nolan, still holds up very well today. And yes, I’ll say it. Michael Keaton is the best Batman.
3. Back To The Future (1985)
Arriving in a world where H.G Wells’ The Time Machine and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol already existed, Back to the Future has managed to become the definitive time travel story. With a script, written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, that is now literally taught to film students as ‘the perfect screenplay’, Back to the Future is a genre-defining, era-defining masterpiece. Like many films on this list, it uses sci-fi elements to propel the story and characters into extraordinary situations and while these elements are fun, exciting and interesting, it’s the relationships at the heart of the story that allow the film to work at such a high level.
The relationship between Doc and Marty, for example, feels genuine and sweet. God knows how and why they became friends, but I’m glad they did. The chemistry between the pair is so natural you’d be forgiven for thinking they had been a double act for years, but Michael J Fox had actually joined the cast 6 weeks later than everyone else after the infamous recasting of Marty Mcfly. The embrace between the two, as Marty is about to leave 1955, is a truly moving moment and it’s this kind of heart, and along with the film’s comedy, sense of wonder and adventure, that has afforded Back to the Future the opportunity to endure and become a multigenerational favourite.
The film is so perfect in so many ways that it’s actually hard to praise it without sounding repetitive. For example, the casting – perfect. The script – perfect. The direction – perfect. The score – perfect. The songs – perfect. Using the pre-existing DeLorean as the time machine – yes, how did you guess…perfect. Repetitive, okay, but true. Though there is certainly an unsavory whiff of overt materialism to the ending of the film, Back to the Future ultimately promotes a message of hope. That we can change, that it’s not too late and that it’s worth finding the courage to stand up for ourselves. Pretty heavy.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
You have Harrison Ford in the lead role, John Williams as your maestro and Steven Spielberg directing. You’re guaranteed a sure fire hit! Right? Well, at the time Mr Spielberg was coming off 3 films that had gone wildly over budget and his most recent film 1941 was not a financial success. He had something to prove, and prove it he did. With his friend George Lucas producing and co-writing, one of the most iconic characters of all time was born. Transcending the 80s, Indiana Jones has become an international cultural icon and Raiders of the Lost Ark is where it all started.
From the heavily parodied opening scene with that bolder, the epic truck chase, to the amazing main theme and overall score, Raiders is the definitive action adventure film. It gives us characters we love, and a lead character that is not perfect. Indiana Jones isn’t a superhero. While it’s true that he won’t hesitate to leap into one of his archeological adventures, it often feels like he’s in over his head, but perhaps that’s why we love him so much. He’s making it up as he goes along. Raiders provides an amazing updated concept by George Lucas, a razor sharp script by Lawrence Kasdan, some of the best directing by Spielberg (no small compliment) and one of the best performances of Harrison Ford’s career, making this a must see for all film fans.
1. Ghostbusters (1984)
Show the ‘no ghost’ logo to anyone in the world, they’ll tell you its Ghostbusters. Ask ‘who you gonna call’ and you’ll get the same response. Ghostbusters is the perfect blend of comedy, sci-fi and horror. The central idea of a group of men working much like firemen yet their business is actually catching and containing ghosts, might seem inevitable to us now, but at the time it was an incredibly unique, interesting and funny concept.
In the early 80s, Bill Murray and Dan Akyroyd were both wielding plenty of star power from Saturday Night Live and recent comedy hits such as Stripes and Trading Places which gave Ghostbusters some serious pre-release buzz but it’s the addition of the late, great Harold Ramis as co-writer and co-star, that may have been the ace up their collective sleeve. Ramis brought a wisdom and believability to the role of Egon Spengler that not many could manage, as well as co-writing the script. Director Ivan Reitman was on top career form here too, seeing great potential in a notoriously wacky script by Dan Aykroyd. Along with Ramis, Reitman decided to ‘pull it back’ to the real world, turning Aykroyd’s crazy, multi dimensional concept into a more relatable ‘going into business’ story set in modern day New York.
The mundane and the supernatural were juxtaposed in a way that people hadn’t seen before and it worked unbelievably well. The chemistry between the four ghostbusters is equally exciting as the overall concept and central to the film’s success. Ghostbusters wouldn’t have been the giant hit it was without these four specific ‘busters playing off each other so perfectly, often using dry, sardonic humour in the face of immense danger and absurdity.
However, the film is not always played for laughs. That might sound strange for a comedy, but this approach managed to keep the scary parts scary and the funny parts funny. Thus when the two tones do eventually collide, the film produces some of its best moments. Ghostbusters also happens to be one of the most quotable films of all time. It’s reported that though some of the iconic one liners were in the script, many were ad libbed by Mr Murray on set. Talk about perfect casting –
“Back off man, I’m a scientist”
“If someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!” “Listen, can you smell something?”
“Yes, it’s true. This man has no d*ck”
The hardware used, from the proton packs to Ecto-1, are as functional, deliciously home made and as cool as they come. Every child of the era wanted a proton pack and I was no exception. Just as iconic as the Light Sabre or the DeLorean, these key design ingredients added another layer to the Ghostbusters world. They also told us that the Ghostbusters fight the supernatural on their own terms. They aren’t using ancient spell books to vanquish the demon, they’re using their own, science based technology to confront the spirit world. No wonder ‘bustin’ makes them feel good.
It’s more than fair to say that Ghostbusters is one of the best films ever made. The planets aligned in a way that the movie gods rarely allow, and the result was a film that people are just as passionate about 37 years later. It’s ‘lightning in a bottle’ and a worldwide phenomenon. The thought of growing up without this film, and these characters, can make one feel terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. Thank god this film exists. A true original if ever there was one.
Rest in Peace, Harold Ramis.