What was it that made 1982 so special for science fiction on film? The US economy was in the midst of severe recession which lasted from 1978 to late in 1982. In the wake of the energy crisis, stagflation, and unemployment at about 8% the outlook was suitably bleak. Why then was there so much money available for science fiction filmmakers? Wall Street investors often look for alternative investments during a downturn: bonds, currency trading, futures, and, yes, movies. And as was seen during the Great Depression, audiences want escapist fare at the theater and science fiction fits the bill.
Then there is the Star Wars factor. Imagine you are the head of a movie studio or an investor and you see the box office returns for Star Wars in 1977 and then for Empire Strikes Back in 1980. You may not understand the films, but you understand business. Rule #1: give the people what they want!
1982 was a banner year for science fiction on film.
The top grossing film of the year was a science fiction/fantasy film, E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Steven Spielberg’s kid-friendly sci-fantasy pulled in nearly $360 million domestically in 1982. For comparison, the next closes total was Tootsie with $176 million for the year. E.T. was a summer blockbuster, won the Golden Globe for best picture (losing to Gandhi at the Oscars), and went on to earn nearly $800 million since it’s release.
E.T. hits all the right buttons for a kids film. The kids have an insight into the little alien the adults fail to grasp. The kids outwit the adults several times in the course of the film. The alien is not scary, but rather curious and friendly… child-like even. And best of all the film has a “sad to see you go, happy you can go home” ending which tugged at the heartstrings of kids and parents alike.
Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan – This film is still considered perhaps the best entry in the Star Trek franchise of films. For an early 80’s film, the special effect still hold up fairly well. This film pulled in $78 million domestically. Even for movie-goers who didn’t know anything about the original series or had missed Star Trek: The Motion Picture could still find the movie enjoyable. For fans of the original series, though, Wrath of Kahn is great on several levels.
It brings back a villain from the episode “Space Seed” superbly played by Ricardo Montalban(yes, that’s his real chest!). The movie includes enough “treknobabble” that we Trek fans are satisfied, but not so much as to confuse the plot. The battle sequences, especially the one in the Mutara Nebula, are quite well done. The nebula sequence is reminiscent of classic submarine movies like Run Silent, Run Deep and The Enemy Below. Wrath of Khan is a story about anger and revenge… with Kahn wanting revenge on Kirk for marooning his people and the death of his wife. It’s also a story about friendship… with the “last” goodbye between Kirk and Spock one of the best moments of the entire franchise.
Tron – The first film to feature lengthy computer generated graphics and to have characters enter the world of a computer, Tron hinted at the possible. It would take decades of computer and software development to realize the promise of Tron: a world on film which did not exist in reality, a world of pure imagination. It took decades to spawn a sequel–the sequel exists thanks in part to Tron‘s cult status among SF fans–and Tron:Legacy despite its flaws is a visual wonder. Tron pulled in $33 million at the box office.
Blade Runner – Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk noir science fiction film today is something of a cult masterpiece. I think perhaps the film is not as good as fans (including myself) believe, and it is better than its detractors believe. The element which keeps fans interested is the mystery. Detractors would call these items flaws. Is Deckard a replicant? What is the meaning of the dream with the unicorn? But beyond these contentious items, the film still has some very interesting elements. Rutger Hauer’s performance as a biological simulacra of humanity designed for combat, but only wanting “more life” is full of pathos and for many more endearing than Deckard. Hauer’s Roy Batty also has some of the best lines in the film. The notion of testing an artificial being, here a replicant, and being unable (or able only some difficulty) to tell the difference between the artificial and the human is fascinating to explore. This is the best extant cyberpunk film.
The Road Warrior – There’s not much science in this fiction, but it’s fun and the final chase/battle is worth watching. This is the film that (more than any other) introduced audiences outside Australia to Mel Gibson and launched a thousand cheap post-apocalyptic action copycat films.
The Thing – John Carpenter’s paranoia driven body-horror is a chilling blend of science fiction and horror. A remake of a classic 1951 film The Thing from Another World. The physical effects used to create the “thing” are some of the best ever created for film. This film helped make Kurt Russell a star. This one has gained in stature since its release, and has spawned a “prequel” also called The Thing.
Videodrome – Two words: David Cronenberg. Cronenberg has made a career of exploring all the ways we can get creeped out without resorting to standard horror fare. He’s thought provoking and interesting. Always worth a viewing, even if it makes your skin crawl. Videodrome is just plain bent.
There have been other great years in science fiction film, groundbreaking years, but few can compare with ’82.