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10 Forgotten Sci-Fi Movies from the 1980s Worth Your Time

06 December 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by D.M. Anderson

forgotten 80s sci-fi movies

In the late 1970s, Star Wars and Alien left such a huge mark on modern science fiction cinema that both films arguably redefined the genre for the average moviegoer. For the most part, we now thought of outer space as an action-filled playground populated by creatures both wondrous and horrifying.

Well into the following decade, studios used the same template to try and create the next Star Wars, the next Alien. Sure, there was still a lot of earthbound sci-fi being made at the time, but if you were a producer trying to hit one out of the park, you aimed for the stars.

The 80s were a strange decade for science fiction. Though many tried, nobody managed to come-up with the next Star Wars (other than its sequels, obviously). Then Steven Spielberg’s E.T. came along and cemented the notion that science fiction was most-lucratively presented as family fare, exasperated after more adult oriented (but no less expensive) films like Blade Runner, The Thing and Dune became notorious critical & box office disasters (hard to believe today, isn’t it?).

But there was still enough room for creative filmmakers with more limited budgets to grab a slice of the sci-fi pie. The fledgling Star Trek franchise finally found its voice with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. John Carpenter had his biggest post-Halloween hit with Starman (a grown-up variation of E.T.).

With Spielberg’s help (and clout), Robert Zemeckis struck absolute box office gold with Back to the Future. George Miller’s Mad Max 2 and James Cameron’s The Terminator served as calling cards promising greater things to come. All the aforementioned films have become classics in their own right.

There are also a lot of decent films from the same genre and era which have fallen by the wayside, some which were just as ambitious as those with mega-budgets and bigger names in the credits. A few of the films on this list were actually minor box office hits at the time, but simply never resonated for too long afterwards, while others never really had the opportunity to find an audience to begin with, perhaps because they were too dark, indefinable or esoteric to be marketed effectively.

There are also a couple of titles which, on the surface, are low budget sleaze, but display enough ambition or talent behind the camera to render them somewhat memorable. However, something they all have in common is one or more qualities which make them worth discovery…or rediscovery.

 

10. Virus (1980)

Virus (1980)

In the year 1982, a pandemic known as the “Italian Flu” has wiped out everyone on Earth, save for several hundred people stationed in Antarctica (where it’s too cold for the virus to survive). But that’s just the beginning of their problems. An earthquake prompts the United States’ automated missile systems to commence launching, which in-turn will make the Soviets’ own system counter-attack, with one missile aimed right at the station where the survivors are located.

Featuring a huge international cast and epic production values, Virus was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time. However, it was a colossal flop, never given a wide release and later truncated from its original 156 minute running time to 108 for cable TV showings. These cuts rendered the narrative disjointed and occasionally nonsensical. A shame, really, since the original cut is beautifully bleak and truly epic in scope.

While the edited film has been widely available for years, finding a decent print of the much-superior uncut version is more difficult, but well-worth the effort. That version of Virus is a smart, politically-charged, somber and timely sci-fi disaster film.

 

9. Chopping Mall (1986)

chopping-mall-1986

This earnest little sci-fi/horror film was originally released as Killbots (a more accurate title). Initially unsuccessful, it was later re-released as Chopping Mall, presumably to capitalize on the popularity of slasher films at the time, with a new ad campaign which makes no reference to the malevolent robots in the story. Still, Chopping Mall has more in common with such technology-run-amok classics as Westworld than Friday the 13th.

The premise has several state-of-the-art sentry robots programmed to provide security in a suburban shopping mall, using non-lethal methods to thwart would-be thieves. One night, several folks decide to party in the mall after hours. At the same time, lightning strikes the mall, which messes with the robots’ programming and turns them homicidal.

Considering its low budget and goofy concept, Chopping Mall is actually pretty ambitious, raising it above much of the usual junk which glutted video store shelves at the time. It’s no masterpiece and far from the most original movie ever made, but with a surprising amount of humor and above-par performances (including such beloved cult favorites as Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel and Dick Miller in small roles), Chopping Mall is a good bit of (deliberately?) cheesy fun waiting to be rediscovered.

 

8. Enemy Mine (1985)

Enemy Mine (1985)

Though David Lynch’s notorious Dune debacle has gone down in history as the biggest sci-fi bomb of the 80s, Enemy Mine actually fared worse. Nearly as expensive, with a budget which spiraled out of control during its own equally troubled production, millions were spent on production design, special effects and Louis Gossett Jr’s elaborate alien make-up. But whereas Dune was a newsworthy financial fiasco, Enemy Mine came-and-went almost noticed.

While Dune gained a rather sizeable cult following over the years (as well as a few critical reassessments of its worth), Enemy Mine has been largely forgotten. Too bad, really, because while not a great film, it’s an entertaining tale of two warring space pilots (Gossett and Dennis Quaid) stranded on a hellish uninhabited planet and forced to depend on each other to survive.

The first half of the film is pretty interesting, with impressive alien make-up and some imaginative production design. Gossett and Quaid make amusing foes, important for a film which is ultimately more character-driven than the usual sci-fi epic.

Admittedly, Enemy Mine doesn’t totally live up to its intriguing premise, eventually descending into cornball, sloppy sentimentality and an abrupt ending which suggests they ran out of time or money. The special effects are also pretty terrible, even for the 80s. Still, while no classic, but far more entertaining than Dune.

 

7. Explorers (1985)

Exporers (1985)

Gremlins notwithstanding, director Joe Dante’s quirky, whimsical tendencies have always been phenomenally underappreciated by both audiences and the studios who hire him. Most of his films contain elements which directly pay respectful homage to his influences, specifically old science fiction and classic cartoons. This sort-of makes him a geek version of Quentin Tarantino, only Dante’s obscure references to the past are largely lost on the modern mainstream.

One of Dante’s more personal films is Explorers, his first after hitting the big time with Gremlins. This one concerns three pre-teens of various backgrounds who build a spaceship from instructions given to one of them by extraterrestrials. Much of the first act focuses on the home lives and personalities of these kids, which is crucially important if we’re to have any stake in their fates. Alas, not every childhood is a happy one, which Explorers touches upon in a non-obtrusive way.

So while we share the emotional wonder of one kid whose sci-fi dreams are realized, we’re equally depressed by a close friend who comes from a broken home with parents who are indifferent to his well-being. Despite a final act that sort-of descends into cartoony slapstick, these feel like real kids placed in an unreal situation.

Though belatedly notable for featuring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix in early roles, Explorers bombed in theaters and is largely forgotten today. A shame, really, since it has much of Dante’s patented quirkiness and goofy charm, coupled with a level of pathos and sentimentality not present in his more popular films.

 

6. Bad Taste (1987)

Bad Taste (1987)

Years before he stunned the world with his Lord of the Rings Trilogy (and rendered The Hobbit as exciting as reading a textbook cover-to-cover), director Peter Jackson dedicated much of his energy aiming straight for the gag reflex. Two of his early films, Bad Taste and Braindead, were splatter comedies loaded with absurd levels of onscreen violence. Braindead, in particular, has since become a cult classic and is widely considered one of the goriest movies of all time.

Bad Taste, Jackson’s first film, is a grassroots production featuring a small group of government agents (including Jackson himself) trying to prevent aliens from harvesting the human race for a galactic fast food chain. This premise provides numerous opportunities for hideously gory set-pieces, as well as some splatstick moments which would be right-at-home in an old Monty Python sketch.

The over-the-top special effects range from sickeningly realistic to downright amateurish, but considering nearly all the gore gags were created by Jackson himself (in his mom’s kitchen) with almost no budget, one can’t help but be impressed. Performance-wise, it’s strictly amateur night, and attempts at humor run the gamut from clever to juvenile. Still, there are brief, shining glimpses of the auteur Jackson would later become.

 

 

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  • Sercan

    Quiet Earth and Outland are amazing.

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    Never heard of Miracle Mile before. I’m watching it because of this list.

    • SupernaturalCat

      It’s definitely (science) fiction leaning to the speculative fiction side of things …which is to say, it’s not a very stereotypical ‘sci-fi’ flick, but an apocalyptic love story grounded in human elements/drama. They did what they could with such a lo-fi budget. The best thing about it are the scenes inside the little cafe where the protagonist is desperately trying to explain this frightening phone call he’s just taken in the phone booth out in front of the cafe, and the reaction from the various patrons are spot on accurate (minus the woman who takes him seriously—what are the chances someone from the deep state loop would just happen to be having coffee there in the small hours of the morning? Slim to none.

      Still and all, a memorable romantic tale that simultaneously does and doesn’t end well for the young lovers.

      • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

        Thanks! More reasons to watch it!

        • Rafael Castilho Monteiro

          watch for the first time on cable in 1996. its a FUCKING CLASSIC. one of the great nuclear holocaust flicks from the 80s, classy, classy stuff.

        • JustaDude

          Where can I find it???

  • Paul O’Connor

    Enemy MIne is simply a great story, Bad taste is utter crap and I can’t believe it came from the same person who directed the brilliance of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy where’s Altered States, Turkey Shoot (ozploitation), Xtro, The Last Starfighter, Morons from Outer Space, Howard the Duck, The Wraith,Killer Klowns from Outer Space

    • Dave Sykes

      these are supposed to be “forgotten”sci-fi (although i don’t agree with the list) so flight of the navigator, howard the duck (which is absolute garbage), killer klowns, and altered states are all out of the list because everyone knows them, they’re far from forgotten.

    • Dave Sykes

      Also, you do realize that Peter Jackson was a gore horror director before he made TLOTR?

    • Captain Sarcasm

      Agreed. The Wraith and Altered States belong on this list much more than Alien Nation, Enemy Mine, or The Final Countdown. A case of Millennial bloggers from Portland thinking something is obscure because they’ve only recently learned of it.

      • Kane Leal

        Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but the Wraith and Altered States are no more “forgotten” than these other movies.

        • fiddlebom

          How is Altered States a sci-fi film?

          • Kane Leal

            The basic premise requires science beyond the capacity of hallucinogenic drugs to allow the main character to revisit the evolutionary past of our species and reconstitute those previous iterations upon his corporeal self. How is that not science fiction?

          • fiddlebom

            The “science” was not fictional they were using immersion chambers and drugs which existed at the time. It’s a thriller.

        • Captain Sarcasm

          That very well could be the case.

          • Kane Leal

            Very true on the subjective nature of “forgotten.” The Wraith and Altered States happened to be very popular with my particular group of friends. It could have something to do with the Wraith’s repeat on late night USA and later TNT, and Altered States was one friend’s favorite movie.

  • JRK

    There was an animated film from the late 80’s called Light Years that I loved growing up that would be perfect for this list.

  • Veronica Clarke

    Reckon ‘Enemy Mine’ is way better than ‘Dune’. Certainly haven’t forgotten ‘Outland’, ‘Alien Nation’, or ‘The Quiet Earth’. All great movies.

  • Flork

    Nice list. Some real good stuff here. I would also add “1984”, although it was depressing as all hell, it had excellent imagery and a great score supplanted by the Eurythmics. Also, “2010” (to go along with Years as Movie Titles Theme) was a great, if maybe not equally brilliant sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Again, even though it didn’t match the grandeur and art-house sensibilities of the first, it was a solid sci-fi film with a powerful message. It also has a young Helen Mirren as a Russian astronaut and Roy Scheider as,…Roy Scheider 🙂 I would also throw in “Solar Babies” which, in all its dystopian-bizarreness-with-kids setting, predates the message of Hunger Games. Just, way, way, way more cheesy, and thus, awesome.

    • Dave

      If you treat 2010 not as a sequel to 2001, but as a good Star Trek episode, it can be a perfectly serviceable film

  • Here are a few more. The Ninth Configuration isn’t exactly science fiction but I wanted to mention it anyway.

  • Tronman90

    Are you kidding me? You’re rating Enemy Mine over Dune? Dune may have bombed at the box office, but that was only because most people were too dense to understand half of what was going on. That’s the thing about Frank Herbert’s story, it wasn’t flashy, cutesy sci-fi. It was very cerebral and required a level of intelligence. It was a socio-economic, family dynasty drama set against the backdrop of a complex society. It’s not easy to capture all of the necessary details in a 2 hour movie. Made today, a Dune retelling would be done on the order of Lord of the Rings or The Matrix trilogy.

    Don’t get me wrong. I loved Enemy Mine for its kitschy look and dialogue, but Dune was a FAR better movie, with much better technical effects and story. It should have been explored in later sequels that would have fleshed out more of the story. It was definitely ahead of its time.

    In my own, humble, opinion.

    • sleepd

      The Lynch production of Dune was fundamentally flawed. What Herbert wrote and what Lynch did to it on screen are two very different things. I was there on opening night and I can report. “Most people” were looking forward to something deep and serious. The laughable half-whispered narration, and the embarrassing overuse of slow motion – plus a hideous soundtrack from Toto at the wrong moments – left people laughing at the screen, and not in a good way. The 6 hour mini series on Sci-Fy produced in the later 90s went a little more in the right direction but lacked the production values to become a blockbuster. Made today? Um, no one wants to see it again. Especially not spread over 9 hours. Enemy Mine wins some points for being an ensemble piece of two, but it isn’t any great prize either.

      • Tronman90

        For me it was the opposite. I saw the movie before ever hearing of the books, and enjoyed it very much, although I was a young teenager, so that may have colored my perception of it a bit. I did read the books over the years and they were massive, sweeping in scope. I think remaking it a la LOTR, with the right director, would be an amazing reboot. Thanks for your reply.

      • Kane Leal

        Hey now, I love the Toto soundtrack.

  • Tronman90

    LOVED Outland! Space mining is the future and this was a first, great look at what humanity might look like as we move further into the solar system.

    • Captain Sarcasm

      We will never move far enough into the solar system to make space mining profitable. It’s good sci fi, but practically speaking, it’s not practical.

  • i remember “Outland”, it was aired many times on the 80´s in brazilian TV. We had many “Sean Connery” late night movie marathons

  • Chris Rue

    I need see Buckaroo Banzai…on this list #NoMatterWhereYouGo

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  • Biffy Oliver

    Love Enemy Mine and Quiet Earth, so good to see them on this list 🙂

  • Captain Sarcasm

    More amateur hour at Taste of Cinema. Cringeworthy article.

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  • La Condenada Nausea

    When i was a young boy i watched “Enemy mine”, and it was amazing, damn thing was over the top, it was great being a kid growing up in the 80’s thanks to films like that one… anyway, i would love to add “Invaders from mars” by Tobe Hooper to this great list…

  • Serbian Wolf

    Flight of the Navigator

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091059/

  • pmdr

    The comment about John Scott’s score for The Final Countdown is spot-on. The music from that movie finally got a CD release a few years ago, with some extra unused tracks included. It ends up being far more ambitious than the film itself and the way the tracks line up reveal some sloppy edits in the original film that only show up when you hear how the music was supposed to have worked. Still it is also a very fun what-if movie. I am pleased to say I saw it in a theatre and enjoyed it very much at the time.

  • lkchild

    You should add “12:01” to that list, as it’s inspired so many other more famous time travel stories (like groundhog day). Also “Harrison Bergaron” is a forgotton masterpeice.

  • Enemy Mine has always been one of the worst movies of all time for me. Long scenes where nothing happens, this movie is terrible and you should not waste your time waiting for something to happen in the movie.