The 25 Best Sci-fi Movies of The 1980s
17. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Of all the big-screen Star Trek adventures it’s easy to see why Khan is so often accepted to be the best of the lot. Starting with Ricardo Montalban’s seriously pissed-off, revenge-fuelled, and near omnipotent mutant Khan out to get Kirk and his crew at any cost.
And while the measure for measure narrative is incredibly exciting and the tear-jerking climax kicks all kinds of ass, it’s the esprit de corp of the original cast, their warmth and amiability––particularly the bromance between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy––that make The Wrath of Khan so conquering and deeply satisfying.
“Of my friend,” Kirk says in eulogy, “I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”
16. Ghostbusters (1984)
“Ghostbusters, what do you want?” deadpans a slightly irritated secretary, Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) as she takes another in a string of unending phone calls for help in director Ivan Reitman’s comedy first, sci-fi second, blockbuster, Ghostbusters.
A quick-witted merry-go-round of a movie with deeply rumbling apocalyptic connotations, Ghostbusters became something of a pop culture phenomenon back in 1984, with everyone and their dog hip to the theme song verse; “Who you gonna call?!”
The game cast are all in fine form––Bill Murray especially––the special effects are equal parts eye-catching and astonishing, and the meaty script from co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis is elbow-to-elbow quotable, rightly considered a comedic classic. To wit: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”
15. Repo Man (1984)
Alien corpses, secret governmental conspiracy, psychopathic suburban punks, one-legged dames, a glowing Chevy Nova that flies and some reluctantly heroic debt collectors populate Alex Cox’s daring debut feature, Repo Man.
Absurdity, outsider art, and midnight movie mirth collide in this absurdist sci-fi farce that stars the ever awesome Harry Dean Stanton as Bud, who’s paired with the against-type casting of Emilio Estevez as Otto Maddox on an oddball adventure that sends up alien invasions, the LA experience, rampant consumerism, punk rock ethos, and all with an unerring energy and sense of sarcastic play.
Another pleasure of the film, of which there are so many, is cinematographer Robby Müller’s fresh perspective and cloudless camerawork. A postmodern pageant, Repo Man is one you should go searching for if you haven’t already.
14. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
It’s hard to think back to a time when Mel Gibson wasn’t an extensively despised rage-aholic and outspoken anti-Semite––to give the guy a modicum of decorum, some of his well-publicized rants have been taken out of context, but does that make him less a d-bag?––but back in the 1980s Gibson dominated the box-office and was everybody’s leading man du jour
. It’s all the more awesome, and odd, I think, that Mad Mel’s rise to fame began in the subversive post-apocalyptic sub-genre with Mad Max, in the ironically titular role. To date, George Miller has written and directed four Mad Max films, Road Warrior being the raddest by far (well, okay, let’s allow room for Fury Road to maybe share the distinction).
Set in a time after nuclear annihilation where roving bands of BDSM-approving leather bondage-adorned biker gangs maraud and pillage the highways and wastelands. Max Rockatansky (Gibson), a former member of the Main Force Patrol, now a tragic, nomadic figure, wanders the wastes, eventually befriending a community of settlers.
With its comic book aesthetic, tight pacing, snappy editing, and colorful characters––mohawked meathead Wez (Vernon Wells) and muscle-y, goalie mask-attired villain Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) are both memorable and menacing––all add up to one violent, and rambunctiously visceral thrill ride.
13. The Fly (1986)
“I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.”
Much more than a remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic, writer/director David Cronenberg’s vision begins as sweet romance between Geena Davis’ journalist Veronica Quaife and the eccentric scientist Seth Brundle, played with precision by a never better Jeff Goldblum. But soon some bad decisions and a fluke housefly in a telepod mishap mucks up everyone’s fun. The results, while terrifying, are pretty rewarding for the audience, too, if you can stomach it.
At the time, in 1986, much was made of The Fly being an AIDS allegory, but the all-embracing idea of death and loss is dealt with as well, along with Cronenberg’s pet fascinations with body horror and societal dry-rot as well.
12. Escape from New York (1981)
By the distant year 1997, the crime rate in the United States is so out of control that Manhattan has been evacuated of its citizens, essentially abandoned, and cordoned off into a maximum-security prison on a grand scale.
Enter a hijacked and downed Air Force One over the city and a missing American president (Donald Pleasence). The solution? Send in a dude so badass the island doesn’t stand a chance.
Enter larger than life merc antihero Snake Plissken (a scenery chewing Kurt Russell), prowling the decaying streets of NYC to the beat of John Carpenter’s own synth-soaked score. Big city rot rocks and rolls to Carpenter’s untethered cynical impulses and exploitation impulses.
Aided by a game cast that also includes Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, and Harry Dean Stanton, each doing an approximation of cartoonish villains, femme fatales and ne’er-do-wells, the resulting farce celebrates bad behaviour, brutality, tough guy posturing, and dystopian dalliance with a Sergio Leone flair. Seldom do apocalyptic epics unwind so enjoyably and with such escapist initiative as Escape from New York.
11. Akira (1988)
The most influential anime of all time, Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira is an ambitious and often breathtaking cyberpunk-addled post-apocalyptic pageant. Convoluted to a fault, Akira is set in Neo-Tokyo some years after a nuclear accident decimated the city, and it has been rebuilt, and yet still stands on the precipice of disaster thanks to government meddling with strange psychic superpowered kids.
There’s also a wealth of youth biker gangs, oversexed kids and Juggalos mostly, out for kicks and dollops of ultraviolence plaguing the city.
Akira is best enjoyed if the frequently nonsensical narrative leaps of the bloated third act are largely ignored, and emphasis is put on the vastly detailed images and first-rate animation––some of the best hand drawn imagery ever wed to celluloid.
Blade Runner and cyberpunk fans will enjoy the many visual cues and the cityscapes and bike chases are absolutely breathtaking. Add a pulsating soundtrack from Tsutomu Ōhashi and you’ve got one of the most phenomenal films of its kind.
10. They Live (1988)
Like a frenzied crash course in semiotics and media manipulation, John Carpenter’s They Live is a politically subversive B-movie combining horror and sci-fi with hair-raising results. Adapting Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, about mass alien hypnosis duping humanity via TV commercials, radio, and print media, Carpenter also steeps the proceedings in satire and casts WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as John Nada, our two-fisted hero.
Nada is sympathetic and relatable as a blue-collar drifter trying to get by when he stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that breaks the alien signal allowing their hidden messages to be visible––dollars bills suddenly read “THIS IS YOUR GOD”––along with their hidden-in-plain-sight swarms, secretly integrated amongst us. “You know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957,” quips Nada to an alien, giving up his element of surprise before he even knows the stakes.
They Live requires a little forgiveness from the audience as its plot holes are many, and leaps in logic are necessary to ignore, too, but the film’s a shit ton of fun if you surrender to it, and Piper’s back-alley brawl with Keith David is a highlight, and certainly one of the longest and most mirthful fisticuffs in movie history, too. A can’t miss cult classic.
9. Aliens (1986)
James Cameron’s sci-fi horror actioner catches up with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) some 57 years later. This time around Ellen Ripley––Sigourney Weaver, in an iconic performance––is rescued and revived after being in stasis since her last encounter with H.R. Giger’s phallus-like space demons.
It’s deeply satisfying and rewarding to witness Weaver’s Ripley becoming a maternal figure grappling with loss yet still maintaining enormous strength as she protects nine-year-old Newt (Carrie Henn). Also electric is Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, a self-mocking android, and Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson, a space marine who better keep his cool or he and his unit are in for some serious indigestion.
State-of-the-art sci-fi seldom looks this sinister and spectacular, and yes, while it’s arguably horror above all else, its siege-like stratagem pays off in spades, making for a sequel that is very different but just as good as the original. Excellent.