80’s Sci-Fi Films are the Best…Why?
I’ve been on a sci-fi kick lately. Reread Arthur C Clark’s Childhood’s End. Rewatched two of my favorite sci-fi films ever, Akira and Blade Runner, fairly recently. Many nerds like to talk about the three kings of sci-fi writing from the early 50’s to 60’s (Aasimov, Clark, and Heinlein), and for good reason. They are among some of the greatest writers to ever exist.
Yet strangely enough they neglect the 80’s. As a child of the 90’s, the 80’s often influenced and informed my opinion of science fiction. I have a lot of strangely nostalgic memories of the Sci-Fi Channel back in the day (back before it had the ridiculous moniker of SyFy). If I’m ever in a creative slump, I’ll just look at the old bumpers from the 90’s Sci-Fi Channel to get me back into focus. That and the old Toonami bumpers from Cartoon Network, which were also heavily informed by old-school sci-fi imagery.
Anyway, when watching Akira and Blade Runner I noticed the similarities between their aesthetics. Obviously, they are both cyberpunk stories, but there was something else to them. Both films told a separate story through the background details. The viewer had a total grasp of the world through subtle imagery and description of the world. The viewer learned more from the background details than actual character conversations. The world felt inhabited, but the inhabitants felt grounded by the world.
This got me thinking about other sci-fi movies that influenced me a ton as a kid. Obviously, Star Wars and Star Trek are big ones, but what else? Aliens? Predator? Back to the Future? The further down the rabbit hole I went, the more classics I found. Films that profoundly influenced me as both a writer and a fan of fiction. The sort of things I associated intrinsically with good sci-fi. Robocop. Terminator. The Thing.
Of course, all these films remained influenced by years and years of sci-fi before, but there is something about the 80’s where all these elements blended perfectly. Not just the influences in genre, but also in the outside world.
The 80’s sucked.
Cold War panic. AIDs. Nukes. The rise of plastic surgery. Though many feel nostalgic for that era, there were so many factors that made life unstable. Uncertain. The things that we as a society take away from a decade decades later are not the negatives, but the positives. Which is why, more often than not, we fall back on entertainment. Because the reality we escaped from sucked, but the entertainment brought us great joy. Or, rather, brought you joy. I wasn’t alive for any of it.
But entertainment draws from the culture in which it is created. All of sci-fi draws from societal fears of some kind. For this, look no further than David Cronenberg. Every one of his films feature societal fears personified in a dark, grim manner. Videodrome tackles the idea of augmented reality decades before our internet obsessed society. Yet tackles it in a way that, despite dripping with the 80’s aesthetic, remains oddly relevant. And gory.
Maybe that’s another factor as to why the 80’s worked for sci-fi. Effects finally could realize the imaginations of the creators. We could make whatever we want. What used to be restricted to the pages of novels could be brought to the flesh. Cthulhu no longer could remain an explainable shadow. We could bring him to the forefront, and make him look good.
Maybe. But I don’t think there was any one reason why everything just clicked in the 80’s. It just did. Films since then have captured elements of the best of their films. Some have even surpassed it. But there has yet to be a wave of consistently great sci-fi films that really push the boundaries of understanding. So many films try to remain grounded and real (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but I hold to it that the best sci-fi film of the last decade or so remains District 9, with very little competition on the horizon to challenge it (though Sunshine, The Martian, and Ex Machina are all brilliant).