Three Decades Ago, In a Movie Theater Down the Street: Ten Favorite Science Fiction Films of the 1980s

March 6, 2013

By: Dayton Ward

The 1980s seems to be one of those “Love it or Hate it” decades. The clothes, the hairstyles, the music, the TV shows, and even the movies all have a very distinctive vibe that just screams “EIGHTIES!!,” right? I mean…neon and pastels, acid-washed jeans, leg warmers, mullets, trimmed beard stubble, Culture Club? Yikes. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe we made it to the 90s without nuking ourselves out of sheer embarrassment.

For those of us who grew up during those years, however, the 80s also carry with them a lot of fond memories, like the days we spent pumping quarters into video games at the arcade you seemed able to find on every street corner. And let’s not forget the first home video game consoles also made themselves known. Atari 2600 like a mu-uh fu-uh, yo!  Music gave us Metallica! Of course, we also got Wham! So, you know…tread carefully.

As for film, the 80s pretty much was the decade in which action movies as a genre were redefined for all time. You got your Die Hards and your Lethal Weapons and your Rambos, oh my! That alone is enough to enshrine the 80s as a decade for the ages.

For me, the 1980s also is a particularly fun time for science fiction movies. It was during this period that Star Trek finally got its act together, and it also brought the release of what many fans maintain is still the strongest Star Wars movie. A couple of 80s SF flicks gave us a peek into the future of movie-making itself, and others established looks and tropes which continue to inspire filmmakers and serve as benchmarks for how “good” is measured.

If you’ve read my previous guest blogs for Forgotten Flix or other sites, you know I don’t do “Top 10” or “Best of” lists. I’m just rattling off ten favorites here, and I’m hoping readers will offer up their own selections in the comments. To keep things simple, I’m presenting them here in order of their original release:

empire-strikes-back1The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – The first Star Wars sequel is still a lot of fans’ bet for the best of those movies set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” After having devoured the first Star Wars (excuse me, “A New Hope”) more times than I can remember when that movie was on the big screen, I remember standing in line for six hours in the hot Florida sun to see Empire at a theater that doesn’t even exist anymore. We all now know about the big revelations the movie brings so far as the heroes and villains are concerned, but back then? We were still nearly twenty years away from having to endure a prequel trilogy which would, essentially, de-ball one of this film’s defining moments and one of cinema’s most memorable bad guys. Grr. Argh.

 Outland (1981) – In a lot of ways, you can argue that Outland is something of a spiritual cousin of sorts to 1979’s Alien, particularly in its depiction of “blue-collar” types working amid dirty, well-worn SF-ish equipment and environments. Sean Connery plays Marshal O’Neill, sent to the ass-end of the solar system to be “the law” at a mining colony on Io, Jupiter’s moon. There, he pisses off the local company management after stumbling across their sweet drug-running operation, and the bad guys set out to whack him. Yes, it’s basically “High Noon in Space,” but it plays the gimmick very well. Connery is cast somewhat against type here in one of several roles he took during the late 1970s and early 80s in an effort to move beyond that whole James Bond thing. He’s aided by solid performances from Peter Boyle as the company scumbag, Sheppard, and Frances Sternhagen as the acerbic doctor who helps O’Neill unravel the whole scheme. Outland is one of those underrated movies that always seem to get overlooked in discussions like this.

Escape from New York (1981) – Here we go! The gold standard for near-future “the world’s gone to hell” flicks, Escape from New York is and remains one of writer-director John Carpenter’s most entertaining films. Elevating the premise from its B-movie trappings is Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, the cynical war veteran turned hero who’s given the opportunity to clear his record if he’ll do just one favor: Drop into the lawless, savage streets of Manhattan Island, which in the “far off” year of 1997 has been transformed into a maximum security prison, and find the President of the United States, lost somewhere amid the chaos following the crash of Air Force One. Russell owns the role of Plissken, one of the best action anti-heroes of the 80s or any decade. He gets a lot of help from screen veteran Lee Van Cleef as the lawman pulling his strings, along with a strong cast of supporting players that includes Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau. The 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A., largely is forgettable, and there of course are always rumors of another sequel or even a remake or a prequel, but Carpenter and Russell got this one right the first time.

star_trek_wrath_of_khan_movie_poster_01Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – After popping the clutch with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount Pictures went back to basics and brought in Trek virgins Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer to craft this first sequel. Star Trek II hits nearly every note just the right way while avoiding the traps and pitfalls of its cinematic predecessor. Performances from William Shatner and the rest of the core cast remind us why we loved this gang so much from the original show. They’re complemented by a troupe of top-shelf supporting players, and of course Ricardo Montalban pulls out all the stops as Khaaaaaaaaaaan!, the genetically-engineered badass he first portrayed in the original series episode “Space Seed.”

Blade Runner (1982) – In between stints as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford found time to add another iconic role to his soon-to-be long list of credits: Rick Deckard, “blade runner” charged with neutralizing renegade androids or “replicants” in 2019 Los Angeles. Adapted in rather liberal fashion from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this movie seems to have influenced the look of damn-near every other near-future/dystopian flick released since then. To this day, Blade Runner’s production aesthetic remains as breathtaking as it is unmatched in its execution. Yes, we’ve had something like two…three…eight dozen different cuts of the film, but Ridley Scott gets a pass on this because Deckard still shoots first, dagnabbit.

Tron (1982) – In the early 80s, with computers only just becoming something with which everyday John and Jane Smiths might have regular interaction, everybody seemed to have this weird, wacked-out idea of what life “inside the world of the computer” might be like. Tron is an embodiment of that weirdness, with an entire “other universe” existing amid the electrons, and programs that walk, talk, and look like the programmers (or, “users”) who created them. Indeed, “users” is a term of near religious significance in the computer world. Obviously, none of these programs ever worked an IT customer support desk. Still, Tron tapped into two things which were gaining popularity at the time: easy public access to computers and, of course, video gaming, which was all but born in those arcades about which I babbled upstream. The film is also the first to make extensive use of computer-generated imagery for several of its effects sequences, paving the way for films like The Last Starfighter and, indeed, a revolution in the art of realizing movie special effects.

2010 (1984) – As a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010 had what many figured to be a thankless, unwinnable goal, and viewed in that context a lot of critics are more right than wrong. On the other hand, 2010 works pretty well in its own right as a standalone SF film, with eye-catching production design and a lean script adapting from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel which sends a Russian spacecraft with a joint Soviet/American crew out to Jupiter to determine the true fate of the Discovery and its crew from the first film. The Russian ship Leonov, inside and out, presents a wonderful contrast to the clean, smooth lines of the Discovery, which was recreated in painstaking detail for this film. And it’s got the always bankable Roy Scheider taking over the role of Heywood Floyd from actor William Sylvester, who at the time of filming was too old to reprise the character from the first film. Definitely undervalued, for whatever the heck my opinion’s worth.

Back to the Future (1985) – How can I not include this one? A light-hearted, smartly-written take on the old time-travel gag, Back to the Future is so quintessentially 80s—from clothes to music to slang and other trappings—and yet never feels at all dated. It also manages to do the impossible: Make a DeLorean look like something other than the ill-advised, six kinds of useless midlife crisis-mobile it really is. Michael J. Fox is pitch-perfect as the fish-out-of-water Marty McFly, an 80s teen thrown back to the supposedly kinder, simpler, more wholesome days of 1955, when no kids drank, smoke, or fooled around. Right, Marty’s Mom? Yikes. Followed by two sequels, an animated series, and a fun-as-hell motion-simulator ride at Universal Studios, this one’s also dogged by endless rumors of a sequel or even a (:: gasp! ::) remake. Leave this one alone, movie-peeps. I mean it.

aliens_ver1_xlgAliens (1986) – Jim Cameron’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien is that rare animal: A sequel that is as good if not better, at least in some ways, than the original. Sigourney Weaver reprises her Ripley role in order to lead a team of space Marines back to the planet where her ship and crew found the original alien life form. While Ripley was in suspended animation for nearly sixty years after the events of the first movie, that planet has been colonized and terraformed. But when contact with the colony is lost? Ripley knows what’s what. Uh-oh. Whereas Alien is a claustrophobic horror story, Aliens is a testosterone-fueled rollercoaster ride. Cameron hits all the familiar beats from the first film, while at the same time turning them on their head and giving them his own spin. It remains my favorite of the Alien sequels and a damned fine flick all by itself.

RoboCop (1987) – Paul Verhoeven’s cheerfully ultra-violent action-fest borrows a few notes from Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg (aka, the basis for The Six Million Dollar Man) and wraps them up around a dystopic, satirical finger poking the eyes of media sensationalism and corporate corruption. In the unspecified near future, Detroit is a city rotting from the inside tanks to crime along with public and private sector exploitation. So, here comes Omni Consumer Products, laying the path to prosperity and privatization of everything including law enforcement as it seeks to build a new city on the bones and ashes of old Detroit. Of course, they’ll also be making a few bazillion fast bucks for themselves. When police officer Alex Murphy is brutally gunned down by a street gang, OCP takes what’s left of his brain and body and marries it to a brand new, state of the art cybernetic walking, talking battle tank: RoboCop. Peter Weller does a stellar job with the dual role as whatever remains of Alex Murphy fights to reassert his humanity from within the confines of his robotic prison. Ronny Cox is deliciously evil as the OCP suit, Dick Jones, doing a total 180 from all the good guy roles for which he’d been known to that point. But it’s Kurtwood Smith who steals the show as the maniacal gang leader Clarence Boddiker. The first sequel was okay, but it’s all downhill after that, and of course there’s a remake in production as I write this. It better not suck or there will be…trouble.

Well, that’s ten, and I’m out of slots. Other noteworthy favorites would include Predator, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Alien Nation just to name a few, but I think we safely could do this all day, right? Man, the 80s were awesome for this stuff. What say you?

Dayton Ward is the author or co-author of numerous novels and short stories, including a whole bunch of stuff set in the Star Trek universe, and often working with friend and co-writer Kevin Dilmore. He’s also written (or co-written) for Star Trek Magazine,,, and, and is a monthly contributor to the Novel Spaces writers blog. As he still is a big ol’ geek at heart, Dayton is known to wax nostalgic about all manner of Star Trek and other topics over on his own blog: The Fog of Ward

Retro Movie Geek © 2015