The 1980’s were a time of innovation and progress for science fiction films. The groundwork that had been laid in the late ’60’s with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and later in the ’70’s with Star Wars and Alien, allowed for leaps and bounds in the following decade in terms of storytelling, special effects, and subject matter.
Many sci-fi films were released during this time, running the gamut from awe-inspiring to terrible, but there are a select few that really stood out as prime examples of the genre, pushing the limits of what was possible on the movie screen. The films on this list all, in their own way, elevated cinematic science fiction in the ’80’s and beyond, through advances in visual effects, character development, story, and the invention of futuristic and alien worlds wholly different from anything moviegoers had encountered before.
20. The Last Starfighter (1984)
This must be every serious gamer’s dream: one day you’ll get so good at making pixels fight that an extraterrestrial used car salesman will take you aside and invite you to fight real aliens in a faraway galaxy, while you’re girlfriend tries to make sense of the clueless doppelganger left in your place. Meanwhile you do battle with a generic evil space warlord (they’re pretty much all the same) using first-generation CGI effects.
Last Starfighter is a quintessential 80’s family movie, awash in the kind of optimistic naiveté that characterized a lot of fantasy cinema in that era. Video games had magical properties in the movies then, because of course they did; computer technology was relatively new and little understood by the public, so it might as well be some kind of magic, or a doorway to another galaxy.
19. The Brother From Another Planet (1984)
John Sayles took ideas from blaxploitation, mixed them with E.T., and came up with this funny, profane, bittersweet tale of an alien fugitive who comes face-to-face with the stark realities of urban poverty in mid-1980’s New York City, all while being stalked by two otherworldly bounty hunters (one of whom is played by writer-director Sayles).
Unlike the Spielberg that inspired some of its elements (the protagonist can also heal with a touch, and has a way with electronics), its sentiments feel much more sincere than those found in its better-known counterpart, and the story is grounded in a world that is a gritty, realistic alternative to the rarefied suburbia that Elliot called home. It’s too bad Sayles doesn’t do more genre films along these lines; he has a real brilliance for it.
18. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
If Tom Robbins wrote science fiction novels, they might read a little like this movie looks. Eccentric and campy, it’s hard to believe Hollywood would produce something as conceptually weird as this. Peter Weller plays brain surgeon/physicist/rock star Buckaroo Banzai whose experiments with an interdimensional car take him through the 8th Dimension, spurring an attack by aliens from Planet 10. They are aided by the deranged Dr. Lizardo, played with energy and verve by John Lithgow.
The cast is a veritable Who’s-Who of That Guy actors from the ’80’s, including Dan Hedaya and the ubiquitous Christopher Lloyd (who was in Back to the Future the following year). Very much of its time (check out the wardrobe of the Hong Kong Cavaliers!), with some seriously quotable dialogue (“Laugh while you can, monkey boy!”), Banzai is every bit as fun as other sci-fi/fantasy films from this decade, and yet seems to be mostly forgotten today.
17. Scanners (1981)
Showing an early knack for queasy speculations on the human body, David Cronenberg crafted this weird and often unsettling riff on the thalidomide controversy of the 60’s, only instead of truncated arms and legs as a side effect, children are born with varying levels of psychic and telekinetic power.
Most famous for the disgustingly colorful shot of an exploding head that nearly earned it an X rating at the time of its release, Scanners actually stands out much more for being an evenly paced, eerie science fiction thriller that warned, well ahead of the prescription drug boom, of the potential dangers posed to the public by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies (not to mention private military contractors).
16. Tron (1982)
Way back in the decade when computers were rare, mysterious and magical items, it seemed halfway plausible that Jeff Bridges could be absorbed into a computer mainframe and made to do battle on light-cycles or play life-or-death jai alai.
While its premise is preposterous, Tron represented the absolute cutting edge in visual effects at the time, and is likely the first film ever to show actors in a more-or-less fully immersive CG environment. While the movie doesn’t really stand up to repeat viewings, it did inspire a pretty fun arcade game.
15. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
It is with this film that Steven Spielberg copyrighted childhood nostalgia. It was also, up to that point, one of the very few movies to portray an alien being as anything other than a metaphor for Communists (the other notable exception being The Day The Earth Stood Still). Every scene virtually oozes with a longing for a pre-adolescent fantasy land, before the harsh banalities of puberty raise their ugly heads.
One could almost argue that ET is himself a symbol of pre-adolescence and childhood, and what does he do? He goes away, leaving Elliot to deal with the rest of his humdrum life. Apart from Star Wars, its hard to think of another movie that was as much as a cultural phenomenon as this one was; ET stuff was absolutely everywhere, and pop culture references to it have never really disappeared.