Way back in 1949, an Englishman named Eric Blair warned us of a terrible time to come over 30 years in the future, a nightmare of totalitarianism where the people were cogs to be ground up in a machine, any pleasure in life snatched in hiding.
Writing under his pen name of George Orwell, Blair didn’t live to see the year of his dystopian future – he went to the great writer’s retreat in the sky barely a year after publication of his prophetic and immortal classic, 1984.
But if he’d been around long enough to go to the movies in 1984, he might have changed his mind. It was a watershed year in cinema, affecting so much of what we’ve seen on screens ever since that a few small butterfly effect-style missteps by a time traveller could result in a very different movie scene today. And on its 20th anniversary, it’s time to celebrate it.
The Amblin effect
You can’t even begin to talk about movies in the 1980s without acknowledging the influence of both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas affecting almost every aspect of the business, from production right through to marketing. Spawning protégés like Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis and JJ Abrams (who’d revitalise the Spielberg aesthetic years after Spielberg himself abandoned it), the Jaws and Star Wars directors were the twin pillars of populist entertainment.
Aided by a mix of old and new moviemaking technology that would bolster the biggest films of the year (and the decade), the Spielbergian/Lucasian modus operandi was to make movies something they hadn’t been during the dark, morally ambivalent 1970s – fun.
The biggest films of the 1980s were characterised by the crafts we equate with movie magic – models, puppets, miniatures and animation. CGI wasn’t widely used (although it got its own genesis in 1984 – more below), but the technologies that created the action sequences, thrills and otherworldly characters were a toy box we got to play in just as much as the directors and artists did.
In fact, movies were so much about having a good time that the popular films of 1984 have made the award winners little more than historical footnotes. Before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and sciences got the memo that it was looking increasingly irrelevant some time around the mid 90s, it was a fusty appreciation society for ‘serious’ movies that looked down its nose at everything else. After all, there’s a reason they’re remaking ”Robocop”, ”Dirty Dancing”, ”Weird Science” and ”Escape From New York” and not ”Amadeus”, ”Places in the Heart” and ”The Killing Fields”.
One of the two best good-time movies of 1984 had Spielberg’s stamp when Joe Dante, who’d come from the Roger Corman school (literally, as Ron Howard’s editor on 1977’s ”Grand Theft Auto”) and made ”Piranha” (1978) and ”The Howling” (1981), signed up to direct a 50s-style B movie at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Jaw-dropping puppetry and animatronics combined with a few shots of stop motion animation to bring us ”Gremlins”, about an army of tiny monsters popping up in the middle of a Capraesque fantasyland, a literal subversion of Cinema Americana as much as it was a love letter.
The other one – also the number one box office hit of the year – was partly the result of star Bill Murray wanting to be a serious actor. Feeling hemmed in as a comic after ”Meatballs” (1979), ”Caddyshack” (1980), ”Stripes” (1981) and ”Tootsie” (1982), Murray told Columbia he’d do the comedy about paranormal researchers from Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ script if they’d bankroll his passion project ”The Razor’s Edge”.
It bombed that same year, but special effects, one-liners, rock solid chemistry between the distinctive leads and a premise as new as it was intriguing – a comedy about scientists who capture ghosts with high tech machinery – won the year in ”Ghostbusters”.
1984 was also full of lesser (and dodgier) efforts to ride the Spielberg/Lucas/effects gravy train to the box office – everything from ”Dreamscape” to ”Supergirl” – but the quality elsewhere was just too high.
It was also natural that sci-fi would benefit so greatly, not just from the Amblin and Lucasfilm approaches but because Hollywood was still riding high on ”Star Wars” fever thanks to ”Return of the Jedi” just two years before. So in 1984 the expanded filmmaking toolsets also gave us ”Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”, a film more sweeping and visual than the stagier ”Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) and more about old fashioned, good-time thrills than the series’ dramatic high point of ”The Wrath of Khan” (1982).
With audiences swept up in 50s movie aesthetic driven by new effects techniques, many movies from 1984 that thought they were serious have ended up as guilty pleasures years later, like The Philadelphia Experiment.
A long legacy
1984 also gave us films that would cast other long shadows over genres or movements just like Spielberg and Lucas. Spielberg himself followed up ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) with ”Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, a classic (and the year’s third biggest film) no matter how much he now regrets the grisly lava pit scenes.
The Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team bought us ”Top Secret”, following up their 1980 hit ”Airplane/Flying High”. It didn’t do nearly as well as its predecessor, but gave us new star Val Kilmer and further cemented them as the godfathers of the scattershot spoof comedy. Even anime got one of its signature films, ”Macross: Do You Remember Love?” wowing Japanese audiences like the whole genre would a decade and a half later when DVD helped popularise it in the West.
Not that 1984 was all about commercial cinema. Though the term ‘indie’ wouldn’t come into wide use until 1989’s ”Sex, Lies and Videotape”, moviegoers who liked the esoteric fringes were well catered for. ”The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”,” The Company of Wolves” (part of Neil Jordan’s ascent to prominence), ”Paris, Texas” and ”Repo Man” are still classics to many.
1984 was also year zero for many of the styles and talent that have defined cinema ever since. The director behind the two biggest-selling films in history can be traced back to a constricted shoot in and around LA, mostly at night, for only $6m.
The script, about an android assassin sent from the future to erase the leader of the human resistance by killing his mother, made plenty of money, but more important is what it gave us. James Cameron is now the world’s most financially successful director. Arnold Schwarzenegger became the very embodiment of a movie star in the 1980s. But even more importantly, it gave us a character for the ages in ”The Terminator”, as recognisable as Maria the Robot, Godzilla or Darth Vader. Say ‘I’ll be back’ in a menacing monotone and people the world over know what you mean.
Another institution that would conquer Hollywood found its feet in 1984. ”Beverly Hills Cop” wasn’t the first movie from producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (that was 1983’s ”Flashdance”), but star Eddie Murphy’s motormouth schtick catapulted him to fame and made it the year’s second biggest film.
Simpson and Bruckheimer’s signature (some would say cookie-cutter) blend of rock music soundtrack, masculine thrills, action and American-as-all-hell heroics would crowd the box office for the next decade, launching careers into the stratosphere left and right from Tom Cruise after “Top Gun” (1986) to Denzel Washington after ”Crimson Tide” and Will Smith after ”Bad Boys” (both 1995).
Even though Simpson’s head virtually exploded in 1996 thanks to a lifetime consuming enough drugs to sideswipe a brontosaurus and Bruckheimer has moved on to family-friendly fare and TV, their combined spirit lives on in movies from the likes of Michael Bay – one of their original directors-for-hire.
The 80s wasn’t a great time for horror unless you count the frequently-banned titles at the tail end of the video nasty period. With no awards prospects and little box office return in the genre, studios just weren’t interested. The generation of kids who loved exploitation and slashers and grew up to be directors would stoke new appreciation in the genre and remake all those old classics to death (pun intended) years in the future, which is why we’re in the grip of horror fever today. It’s one of the few genre films you can chuck together for a few million and have your return on investment still rival ”Pacific Rim” or ”Man Of Steel” (a la ”The Conjuring”).
Even though horror was thin on the ground in 1984, it gave us one of the modern classics of the genre in ”A Nightmare on Elm Street”. It represented the evolution of a maestro from those video nasty days in Wes Craven, a director known for ”The Last House on the Left” but who recast himself as a hip commercial filmmaker for intelligent, scare-hungry teens.
”Nightmare” was also the first big movie from New Line Cinema, a company later bought by Warner Bros and lasting until 2008 before the disastrous box office of ”The Golden Compass” put the final nail in its coffin. New Line had also been locked in a draining lawsuit with Peter Jackson over ”Lord of the Rings” money since 2005, but its logo is still on ”The Hobbit” films today as one of the production companies.
1984 also spelled the end of an era, when earlier films like ”Lone Wolf McQuade” and ”The Octagon” were the closest thing to serious dramas found in the action genre at the time, released on the big screen and with something resembling plots. Star Chuck Norris was never exactly on track for an Oscar, but 1984’s “Missing In Action” was the start of his descent into straight-to-video hell (a legitimate new business model for low-rent studios at the time thanks to the rise of the VCR).
Norris would spend the rest of the decade in a string of cheap action romps, every one as indivisible from each other as they were forgettable. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later that he started getting attention again, the collective wisdom of the internet making him a one-man meme to the extent it’s revived his career, playing a pastiche of himself in the ”Expendables 2”.
Then there are the movies and movie institutions we’ll forever equate with the 80s, just like brick-sized mobile phones, shoulder pads and neon leg warmers. If it isn’t Don LaFontaine growling ‘in a world’ during trailers, it’s the personalities who have the decade all over them like Shelly Long, Rodney Dangerfield or Molly Ringwald.
There’s also a host of films quintessentially anchored to the mood, styles, money-spinning genres and political outlook of the 80s, and 1984 gave us plenty of them that – while not exactly standing the test of time (tied down as they are to such a recognisable slice of history) – are still fondly remembered.
“Police Academy”, for example, was the ”Saw” franchise of the day – the 1984 original spawning a series of seven films altogether, a 1988 animated series, a 1997 live action series and a stunt show at a Queensland, Australia theme park.
1984 also gave us the memorable, quotable and beloved ”Revenge of the Nerds”, Ron Howard’s urban fairytale romance ”Splash” and Bob Zemeckis’ love letter to 40s-era swashbucklers, ”Romancing the Stone”.
Effects come of age
It wasn’t only the year of puppet Mogwai, Slimer haunting the Sedgwick Hotel and miniatures of Indy, Short Round and Willie in a breathless, roller coaster-style mine car chase that would go down in history.
While driving a taxi, Jonathan Betuel had written a script about a kid living in what he described as ‘Spielberg’s suburbia’, just like the places ”ET”, ”Poltergeist” and ”Close Encounters” had been set. Director Nick Castle convinced him to rewrite it to heighten the sense of isolation, and the story was moved to an out-of-town trailer park.
Hero Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) – bored and wanting to do more with his life – gets occasional respite from his lot by playing the videogame outside the general store, and when he hits the highest score ever, it turns out to be a recruiting tool for an interstellar army looking for fighter pilots.
Castle and production designer Ron Cobb approached Digital Productions, a company getting in on the ground floor of the nascent computer animation industry. They wanted footage of the dogfights in space as Alex fights the forces of the Ko-Dan armada to be done entirely with computers. As the crew shot in a trailer park in the mountains north of Los Angeles, the Cray supercomputer on Digital Productions’ Culver City factory floor worked overtime to meet the deadlines.
”The Last Starfighter” didn’t contain the first use of CGI in a major film – that’s attributed to the 2D animation of Yul Brynner’s robotic point of view in ”Westworld” (1973). But it was the first use of integrated CGI, where the effects are supposed to represent reality. It can also be argued that ”The Last Starfighter” was the first film in which the CGI was such an integral part of the story there wouldn’t have been a movie without it.
Hollywood sat up and took notice, and today CGI is a double-edged sword. It has the most scope to take us to places we never imagined, but it’s also the most overused, ill-considered tool to deliver the same overblown, story- and character-free pap every year from May to August.
It’s certainly not impossible to think up memorable lines, characters or place names from movies in other eras, and every decade has its classics. Maybe it just takes 30 years for something to become a cultural touchstone, to leach throughout the lexicon and take its place as an anchor for a larger concept (‘Houston, we have a problem’, ‘If you build it, they will come’, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat’, ‘Show me the money!’)
But it’s the movies of the 80s more than any other that seem to have broken their own banks in such a way. You can bet one of the half dozen people left on Earth who haven¹t seen “Top Gun” or “Dirty Dancing” probably still know where ‘I feel the need, the need for speed’ and ‘nobody puts Baby in a corner’ came from.
Of those movies, you’d be surprised by how many were released in 1984. Everyone knows the music of ”Footloose.” Everyone knows why, when someone turns on a light in the middle of the night, we say ‘Bright light! Bright light!’ Everyone knows the accepted shorthand for hard, repetitive but ultimately beneficial work is ‘wax on, wax off’.
Everyone who knows anything about the slasher genre knows who Jason Vorhees is, and it was 1984 that gave us the amusingly-titled ”Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter”. It was the third film in a series that has so many sequels, reboots and spin-offs (including one with ”A Nightmare on Elm Street”’s Fred Krueger) even serious horror-philes have lost count. For trivia buffs, it was also the one that had the most star power, with Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover in the cast.
Then there’s ”This Is Spinal Tap”. Not only is everything from the characters to the lines instantly recognisable, it launched a genre (the mockumentary), gave Rob Reiner a career and its cast have helped make everything from ”Wayne’s World” to ”The Simpsons” what they are.
A brave new world
Was 1984 the best year for cinema? Maybe not – it’s already been argued 2013 has been because of films like ”Gravity”, ”12 Years a Slave”, ”Before Midnight” and ”American Hustle”. You’ll also find a lot of people in favour of 1974 because of ”Chinatown”, ”The Godfather Part II”, ”The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, ”Blazing Saddles”, ”The Towering Inferno” and a handful of others.
And the magic that started in 1984 didn’t by any means end there. Just a year later we’d see the one-man-army action chestnut find its blockbuster feet in “Rambo: First Blood Part II”. Richard Donner would take the Amblin style of kids on adventures getting in trouble even further with ”The Goonies”. High-grade commercial horror would have another hit with ”Fright Night”. And the kid from ”Family Ties” would accidentally drive a DeLorean back to the year 1955 and generate an incest plotline that would never get made today.
And in perhaps the ultimate irony, 1984 also saw the second adaptation of Orwell’s classic book of the same name. The London shoot (with John Hurt and Richard Burton in his final role) took place between April and June – the very period the author was writing about. History tells us Orwell was as smart as he was insightful, but if he’d spent at least some of 1984 in a movie theatre, it would looked better than he dared to hope.