Ah, 1980’s America: a decade where women wore their hair big, people unironically listened to synth-laden pop, and the only mark of success was excess. In this overblown materialistic and consumerist atmosphere, studio-funded “high concept” movies caught fire and were produced in such a volume that video rental stores (remember those?) had their shelves overflowing with the latest releases.
In this environment, it seemed, if you had a solid elevator pitch or could convince a studio executive that your idea was going to be another money-maker like Star Wars, you would likely get greenlit and given a budget to bring your vision into reality. The sci-fi genre boomed in 1980’s American film, largely thanks to the success of the Star Wars franchise, but also because of dystopian future films like Blade Runner and Escape from New York.
This sort of mentality produced many strange films over the “greed decade,” in particular, those that decided to highlight the 80’s aesthetic–whether the style contextually made sense or not. Novelty was key in 80’s American culture in general, and sci-fi films were a genre that promised all sorts of possible avenues to introduce something new (and hopefully, profitable).
As you will find out from this list, the idea of novelty is an elastic one, and while many of these films became cult classics and some were genuine hits in theaters, the novelty was lost on many audiences at the time. They are a true reflection of the excess (and with that, a certain amount of freedom) that the decade allowed its volumnuous cinematic output.
1. Night of the Comet
Two totally tubular southern California girls are some of the only survivors after the Earth passes through the tail of a comet (hence the title), and these gun-toting gals celebrate by going to the mall. Their fun is short-lived, however, as zombie survivors attack them and a nefarious group of scientists have other less light-hearted ideas for how to survive the apocalypse.
Featuring two strong female protagonists and a humorous approach to what should be a dark premise, Night of the Comet is pure 1980’s high-energy fun. Made for only $700,000, it eventually grossed $14.4 million at the box office, making it a huge success.
Without ever being exploitative of its young stars, it’s a surprisingly feminist film made in the mid-80’s, and its flippant attitude towards the eradication of nearly all life on earth would set the stage for future films (such as Shaun of the Dead) that approach the concept of the end of days with a knowing smirk on its face.
2. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
It’s your run-of-the-mill film about a scientist/brain surgeon/rock star and his posse of fellow musicians/adventurers (known as the Hong Kong Cavaliers) dealing with a potential alien invasion. Well, none of that is typical, and neither is this movie, released in 1984 and starring Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, and Jeff Goldblum.
When Buckaroo Banzai (Weller) tests out his new jet propulsion car, he also successfully tries out his latest invention, which allows for safe travel through solid objects. However, this ends up sending him briefly into the 8th dimension, awakening the interests of long-stranded creatures from said dimension that have been stuck on earth since 1938, when Buckaroo’s father and a colleague, Dr. Lizardo (Lithgow), first unsuccessfully tested this technology.
Lizardo was taken over by one of these aliens during the failed experiment and has been cooling his heels in a mental institution on Earth ever since–until Banzai’s successful test. Meanwhile, Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers are playing a rock concert later that night (after Banzai first performs some brain surgery) when a despondent young woman named Penny Priddy (Barker) fires a gun at them.
Reaching out to her, Banzai figures out that she’s the long-lost twin sister of his deceased wife. Also, those evil aliens from the 8th dimension are plotting to steal Banzai’s dimension-hopping technology and a secretly developed spacecraft from the government to return to the 8th dimension, while another faction of aliens get in contact with Banzai and threaten to destroy the planet unless the 8th dimension creatures can be stopped. And then the movie takes one weird turn after another.
Now considered a cult classic and one of the more confusing movies ever made (it takes a few screenings to catch everything that’s going on), Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is a far-out sci-fi/comedy/adventure flick that was hoping to become a franchise, but after its dismal performance at the box office, opening against Star Trek II, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Ghostbusters.
Plans for a sequel (promised at the end of the film as Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League) were dropped. The film itself is pure 1980’s excess, with wild sartorial choices, particularly cheesy music (such as The Hong Kong Cavalier’s saxophone-heavy band), and a premise and subsequent execution that could have only been produced from a culture with entirely too much money on its hands. The result is one weird, overstuffed sci-fi comedy that may leave the viewer puzzled but enjoying what they’re watching entirely too much to care.
3. The Ice Pirates
Think about Star Wars, only made on a much lower budget with sleazier heroes and a much more comedic bent, and you have The Ice Pirates. The story: a band of pirates in space steal water, which is now the most precious commodity in the universe, and are captured by a princess who wants them to help find her father, who was looking for a fabled planet covered in water. En route, they battle galactic empire forces and get caught in a time warp, and at some point an Alien-like creature also gets loose on the ship.
It’s a raunchy, raucous film that makes Star Wars look like it was made for infants; sexual humor is everywhere, and the harder sci-fi elements take a backseat to the bumbling pirates and meandering comedy on display. This effort by director Stewart Raffill–who went on to direct such dubious entries like Mac and Me and Mannequin Two: On The Move–is not exactly high cinema; it’s more of a salacious B-movie. But it’s wildly campy and, although taking place in a galaxy far, far away, is firmly rooted in the attitudes and aesthetics of the 1980’s.
But audiences in 1984 weren’t looking for a goofy send-up of the more serious-minded Star Wars (that would change with the release of 1987’s Spaceballs) and it flopped at the box office. For a bit of mindless sci-fi fun that doesn’t take itself seriously (and doesn’t expect the audience to, either), you could do a lot worse than screening The Ice Pirates.
4. Repo Man
Punk rocker Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) quits his awful job at a supermarket and starts working with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) repossessing cars for thrills and cash. Their series of bizarre adventures lead them to chasing down a ‘64 Chevy Malibu being driven by a scientist that contains some sort of weapon that instantly vaporizes anyone who opens the trunk to look at it.
Otto comes to find out from a UFO enthusiast he meets that the weapon in the trunk are actually aliens who emit a high amount of radiation. Government scientists, a UFO group, and even a televangelist end up chasing after the car–and Otto, who has now taken possession of the Chevy. He and a mechanic from the repo yard literally take off in the car, which has begun glowing bright green, and zoom around the Los Angeles sky.
Directed by cult filmmaker Alex Cox and released in 1984 (that seemed to be a popular year for sci-fi comedy movies), Repo Man was widely hailed as one of the best films of the year. Its offbeat humor (for example: brand name items never appear in the film; any food product is labeled in black letters with a white background exactly what it is [Beer, Dog Food, etc.]), L.A. punk rock soundtrack, and weirdo cast of characters made it an instant cult classic and a film that captures the 80’s Los Angeles punk ethos.
Although the sci-fi elements of the film are loosely thread throughout the plot, the utter strangeness of the characters and surreal situations they find themselves in sets this darkly funny and weird film firmly in the realm of The Twilight Zone–only with no moral lesson to be learned, other than not to cross the repo man.
On a planet far, far away, a monster is converted into a beam of energy and, after bouncing around some planets for a while, finds a new home by striking the satellite dish of the totally 80’s Putterman family, who are themselves a group of weirdos. While the Cyndi Lauper-like daughter and her metalhead boyfriend O.D. go out for the evening and the parents go to meet some swingers (yes, really), leaving the young son and grandpa home alone, the creature from outer space comes through the television set.
The beast eats the grandfather, and when the boy’s parents come home with a pair of swingers, they don’t believe their son’s warnings and lock him up instead. They are summarily eaten, as well. The alien that initially sent the monster appears on the TV and warns them to destroy their satellite dish (and the entire Earth to dismantle their communications systems and leave them like that for 200 years) before the destructive beast spreads any further.
Then the daughter and her boyfriend come home and, upon becoming somewhat friendly with the beast, start thinking of the best ways to capitalize on the hideous monster. This all leads to a climax that suggests the beast is just getting started in its invasion through the air waves.
This colorful and campy sci-fi comedy film was released in 1986 to limited release, and although it fared poorly at the box office it has since attained a small cult following. As with all of the films in this list, it’s a distinctly American 1980’s creation, where satellite dishes were impressive status symbols, teenagers dressed somehow sillier than ever before or since, and bland, self-involved yuppie parents were the only kind portrayed in the movies.
Meanwhile, the practical effect of the beast creature is affectingly grotesque and although the film’s performances are over-the-top, they are appropriate for this kind of movie, which has its tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s cheesy, but also all in good fun, and for a little-known sci-fi movie, today it reads like an affectionate parody of the 1980’s–with a space monster thrown in for good measure.