If sci-fi came of age in the 1950s with B-movies about giant insects and films that raised real-life questions about man’s place in the universe, and married in the 1970s with films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars–which combined elements of both schlock and high brow philosophy–it had a family in the 1980s. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that so many sci-fi masterpieces hit screens in the ’80s. Films which combined schlocky adventure, scientific theory and domestic life dominated the decade. Maybe too, that’s why so many of the genre films of the era focused on children and families.
Critics are loathe to find another decade that produced so many classic sci-fi films. With names like Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Dante and Scott all on creative highs, directors began making personal films which used elements of science fiction to make audiences reexamine the world around us all. Perhaps that’s why audiences still line up today for the endless string of sequels and reboots of titles first popularized more than 30 years ago.
Granted, the ’80s had its share of sequels—some of which even landed here among the masterpieces. For the most part though, the decade saw original films become cultural landmarks, forever changing the cultural zeitgeist.
Here then, are The 15 Best Sci-Fi Movies Of The 1980s.
15. Repo Man
Cult filmmaker Alex Cox spearheaded this little-seen gem, which starred a young Emilio Estevez and acclaimed character actor Harry Dean Stanton. A satirical take on teens of the 1980s, the movie followed the adventures of the teenage Otto and his mentor Bud, a car repo man. Otto gets caught up in a weird (even by the standards of science fiction) conspiracy involving aliens, the government and a Chevy Malibu. Hijacks ensue as Otto tries to repossess the Malibu, which contains radioactive alien corpses.
Repo Man pokes fun at the fads of the 1980s, including rebellious teenagers, street gangs and televangelists. It also sends up Los Angeles, with its car-obsessed, elitist and cliquish population. Sporting a great punk soundtrack, the movie became a surprise critical and commercial hit, and maintains a rabid cult following today. Repo Man would introduce Alex Cox as a unique and ambitious director, and afford him the clout to make his next film, the cult drama Sid & Nancy.
Disney made a rare foray into science fiction in the 1980s with Tron. Taking a chance on first-time director Steven Lisberger, the studio decided to fund his ambitious and technologically innovative story about a man who discovers another world occupied by computer programs. The film combined early CGI with traditional animation and back-lit rotoscoping. The combined process created a world made of energy, where programs surged with light and dueled in video game gladiatorial matches.
Though a modest hit on release, Tron won a devoted cult which only grew over the years. The film proved quite prophetic. More than 15 years later, The Matrix would utilize a similar premise and become a smash—society had finally caught up to the concepts Tron introduced. A big budget sequel in 2011 helped reinforce the legacy of the original film as a sci-fi classic, and while successful, it offered little in the way of the visionary achievement the original film realized.
Terry Gilliam’s esoteric nightmare Brazil became the subject of controversy before it even opened in the United States, owing to a dispute between Gilliam and studio Universal over the content of the movie. Though it played in Europe to wide acclaim, Universal feared Brazil would alienate American viewers with its dystopian setting and dark themes.
Of course, Universal also overlooked the fact that Brazil contains some wild humor, and that its unique style would make it an instant cult classic. Director Gilliam eventually got his way, and Brazil went on to become one of the best—and most overlooked—sci-fi movies of the decade. The film pokes fun at a totalitarian bureaucracy so dysfunctional and ineffective that air conditioner repairmen have become terrorists! Loaded with surreal imagery, astonishing set design and featuring a fine (and rare) lead performance by Jonathan Pryce, Brazil may not satisfy everyone’s tastes like the two films it’s sandwiched between on this list, though that doesn’t make it any less of a great film.
12. The Fly
David Cronenberg never gets enough credit as a master filmmaker, nor as a master of science fiction. For proof look no further than his 1980s filmography, which includes the magnificent Videodrome (one of our honorable mention films) and his masterpiece, the 1986 remake of the classic Vincent Price film, The Fly.
Cronenberg re-imagines the schlock sci-fi into a modern context, providing more backstory and scientific theory to give the story credence. He also casts two fine actors, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, in the leads, who help sell the otherwise ridiculous premise. The Fly also benefits from state-of-the-art special effects by Chris Walas to make the transformation of the lead scientist into a fly more spectacular and frightening. Cronenberg injects the story with his biopunk sexual symbolism, which only adds to the creepiness of the film.
Goldblum delivers his best performance in the role of Seth Brundle, the ill-fated inventor of a teleportation machine which accidentally combines his DNA with that of a fly. The film would become a runaway hit, winning an Oscar for Walas’ effects and wide acclaim for Goldblum and Cronenberg. The director would later gravitate back to smaller, more cerebral films, though his work on The Fly remains some of the best of the era.
11. The Abyss
James Cameron had a hell of a decade in the 1980s, rising from directing b-movie dreck to the top of the Hollywood A-list. He capped off his run of success with the wildly ambitious offering The Abyss. Set aboard an underwater oil rig which discovers evidence of alien life, the film featured a diverse and interesting cast and ground-breaking special effects. The movie would also become known for its cost overruns, hellish working conditions, and for Cameron’s treatment of the actors. Star Ed Harris refuses to discuss the film, confessing that he broke down in crying fits after filming. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, meanwhile, suffered a nervous breakdown!
The Abyss flopped on release, in part because of heavy competition from Tim Burton’s juggernaut Batman, and in part because Fox released an incomplete version of the film to theatres. For DVD, Cameron restored several key scenes and completed several effects to complete the film. When viewed as a whole, however, The Abyss is nothing short of spectacular.
10. The Dark Crystal
At first glance, The Dark Crystal barely qualifies as sci-fi. The plot revolves around a mystical crystal, prophecies, spells and magical races. But, as the opening narration makes clear, the events take place on another world. The odd sciences peppered throughout the film—a celestial observatory, draining the life out of slaves, etc.—add an ominous sci-fi layer to the fantasy proceedings. The strange mix of fantasy and sci-fi only add to the film’s mystique, however. Simply put, it’s a totally unique and widely overlooked masterpiece.
Conceived by Muppet mastermind Jim Henson, his longtime collaborator Frank Oz and fantasy artist Brian Froud, The Dark Crystal plays as a live-action film without any humans on screen. Henson and Oz, who co-directed, accomplish their story using only puppets that startle with their life-like qualities. Loaded with breathtaking visuals, the movie also introduces unique characters like the witch Aughra and the race of evil Skeksis in its creation of a rich world of mystery and fantasy. Unique, innovative and captivating, The Dark Crystal deserves a place alongside the other classics listed here.
9. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
Paramount tried to again capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars with this first Star Trek sequel. Contrary to popular belief, The Wrath of Khan did not intend to reinvigorate the Trek franchise and result in a whole series of films. In actuality, the movie tried to cap off the series with a proper finale, as symbolized by the death of Spock.
Rather than enlist Gene Roddenberry, whose demands for script control caused major—and expensive—delays on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount turned to veteran producer Harve Bennett and fledgling director Nicholas Meyer. Meyer combined various unsuccessful drafts of the script into a single story, and injected the characters with a hint of Shakespearian pathos. Bennett recruited Ricardo Montelban to reprise his series role as Khan, and clever direction helped keep the cost of the film low. Upon viewing the film, Bennett feared the movie too somber for audiences and, along with Leonard Nimoy, believed that the movie was good enough to refresh the sluggish Trek franchise. A few reshoots added a chance for Spock’s survival to the movie in hopes of capturing a wider audience.
In short, it all worked. The Wrath of Khan became a major hit, winning critical praise for the direction, writing and performances. The movie has the courage (intended or otherwise) to do something even the series never could: it lets the characters grow. Kirk and company have gotten old, they’ve faced death, and they’ve owned up to past mistakes. The Wrath of Khan is not only regarded as the best of the Trek movies, it’s also one of the best sci-fi films of the decade.
Internet trolls who protested the rebooting of Ghostbusters with an all-female cast not only displayed their own ugly sexism, they also showed how little they understand the original film! In fairness, though, so did Sony studios…
The original Ghostbusters is the rare kind of film that masters multiple genres at once: while it’s obviously a hilarious comedy, the movie also works as a sci-fi adventure and supernatural thriller. That has as much to do with Ivan Reitman’s skilled direction as it does the screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Reitman’s versatility as a director is on full display here, as scenes of raunchy comedy work just as well as those of genuine terror. The screenplay finds a great balance between all these conflicting elements and provides a cast of memorable characters to fuel the adventure. It helps that the movie has a stellar collection of A-list talent too, all of whom deliver fully realized performances that somehow make us believe they could be real people living down the street…who happen to fight ghosts.
While entertaining and respectable, the new Ghostbusters missed what really made the film such a great experience—its aspiration. While the reboot did try (and succeed) to be funny, and while it boasts another fine cast and top-notch effects, it neglected the sci-fi ripples that added a whole other dimension to the original. The original film aspires to thrill and amuse, succeeding in becoming a rare hybrid of sci-fi and comedy, not to mention a classic.
7. Back to the Future
Great scott! Back to the Future exploded onto movie screens in 1985 and became a runaway hit. Director Robert Zemeckis has said many times that he and co-writer Bob Gale had always intended the movie as an ’80s comedy. And so it is: Zemeckis’ keen direction keeps the plot moving and provides some great action set pieces, the special effects are first-rate, and the comedy remains hilarious after 30 years. While the tropes of the period—a Huey Newton soundtrack, a “happy ending” where the hero ends up with rich parents and a new car—threaten to date the film, Back to the Future has a certain quality that makes it timeless: heart.
At the center of Back to the Future is the friendship of one of the most memorable duos in big screen history: Marty McFly and Doc Brown. As played by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, the two characters cherish their odd couple relationship, helping the other to do what he couldn’t on his own. Marty’s interaction with his teenage parents also strikes a chord. In essence, Marty’s friendship helps them become better people; that he also creates a better future for himself is just an added bonus. Exhilarating, hilarious and even inspiring, Back to the Future is one of the best films of the 1980s, or any decade.
James Cameron continued his winning streak with this unlikely sequel to Alien in 1986. Reviving Sigourney Weaver’s iconic heroine Ripley, Cameron dispensed with the scientific weirdness and creepy atmosphere of the original film in favor of relentless action and suspense. The result, while not evoking the kind of primal fear of the original film, nevertheless petrified audiences with unyielding tension. Even better, the movie further develops Ripley as a character, adding a new level of resourcefulness and maternal empathy to the role. Aliens also introduces a cast of memorable characters equal to those of the first film, chief among them the scavenger child Newt, pragmatic Marine Hicks, warrior woman Vasquez, and the benign android Bishop.
Cameron created a rare kind of sequel with Aliens: one that adds new layers to the universe established in the original movie and still manages to find its own character–without contradicting that of the first entry. In a telling development, Aliens nabbed seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Actress. That the Academy, known for snobbery when it comes to the sci-fi genre, would nominate Weaver in 1986 for a sci-fi thriller, testifies to the film’s impact. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece.
5. The Terminator
“I’ll be back” became the signature line of the title character in The Terminator, yet another masterwork of ’80s sci-fi by James Cameron. Given that Cameron’s movies occupy three spots here, the director could well have uttered the line himself without fear of contradiction!
The Terminator landed Cameron on the map as a serious, talented filmmaker. Combining the best elements of dystopian fiction and X-Men time-travel stories, the movie followed a young woman destined to give birth to a great leader in the future. Two time travelers—one a man, the other a killing machine—travel back in time to either kill or protect her, and in essence, the movie becomes one extended chase scene punctuated with great effects and memorable characters.
The Terminator would also introduce numerous tropes that would become director trademarks throughout Cameron’s career: strong women who become leaders, unrelenting action, corporate duplicity and weary warriors chief among them. It would also introduce Arnold Schwarzenegger to American moviegoers as an action hero, which would have long-lasting effects on Hollywood. Still breathtaking all these years later, The Terminator marks an ambitious start for one of Hollywood’s master craftsmen. It also happens to be one hell of a great movie!
4. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
As a general rule, sequels don’t quite match the highs and innovations of their cinematic predecessors. Several of the films on this list suggest otherwise, including this, the third entry in the Mad Max series.
The Mad Max franchise is the odd kind of movie series that actually improves with each passing entry (for further proof, see Mad Max: Fury Road, the best film of 2015). This third entry marks the high for the franchise in the 1980s, a grand spectacle of action and sci-fi weirdness. Mel Gibson returns in the title role as a former cop living in an Australian nuclear wasteland, who, as usual, is just trying to get by in the world. He stumbles upon BarterTown, a rebuilt civilization in the desert, complete with electricity and other amenities. High above the city, the regal Aunty Entity lords over the commerce, played with mystique and a hardened beauty by Tina Turner.
Director George Miller had intended Beyond Thunderdome as his farewell to the Mad Max series after the death of his longtime friend Byron Kennedy. As such, the movie has a new dimension of emotion not found in the previous entries. The action, too, hits new highs for the series, and the finale—a chase aboard jeeps, trucks and a runaway train—matches anything found in the movies of the period. Funny, weird and always engaging, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is one of the best (and most underrated) films of the era.
3. Blade Runner
Writers have already documented the woes of Blade Runner during its hellish production period. Night shoots and difficult working conditions pushed the cast and crew to their psychological limits, and last minute meddling by the studio altered the film with needless voice over and an illogical happy ending. Despite the studio meddling and the fact that the movie flopped on its initial release, nothing could eclipse the majesty and provocative themes of Blade Runner. The movie developed an immediate cult following, and its growing influence would later allow director Ridley Scott the funds and schedule to refine the film into a true masterpiece.
Though this writer would argue Blade Runner did not achieve full masterwork status until the “Final Cut” version of 2007, the film is, nevertheless, a movie of 1982. Practical effects, art design and the cast all reveal the time at which filming took place, and while audiences of the era didn’t quite know what to make of all the discussion of replicants, overpopulation, pollution and genetic engineering, certainly by the 1990s, the world had caught up to the brilliance of Blade Runner. Today, critics can easily trace the influence of the film, apparent in everything from Battlestar Galactica to The Dark Knight to the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Dark, cerebral, atmospheric and intriguing, Blade Runner might be a film of the 1980s, but it is also a film for all time.
2. ET: The Extra Terrestrial
The only name more prolific than James Cameron when it comes to ’80s sci-fi masterpieces has to be Steven Spielberg. Credited today as a genius, master craftsman and Hollywood entrepreneur (incidentally, he is all three), Spielberg has a reputation as an important filmmaker. Once upon a time in the ’80s though, Spielberg made important films; that is, movies that are important not because of their subject matter, but because they were just so damn good. With ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Spielberg changed the face of pop culture…not to mention the way people explain their need to give the folks back home a call.
Timeless, sensitive and rich in detail, ET—perhaps more so than Jaws, Close Encounters, or even Raiders of the Lost Ark—marks Spielberg’s true masterpiece. The story of a boy and his alien, the film also touches on other ’80s hallmarks: divorce, suburbia, paranoia, technology and precocious children. All would become Spielberg’s hallmarks as well, though rarely has the director used them as well as he did in ET. Despite a dearth of sequels or spinoffs, ET endures in the public consciousness thanks to an unforgettable story. One could argue that Spielberg has made better movies since, but never have they been this captivatingly personal.
1. The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi
Can two movies share a spot on this list? Well yes, if they comprise 2/3 of the Star Wars Original Trilogy.
And so they do. The Empire Strikes Back may not have the whimsy and fun of the original film, but it makes up for it with spiritual philosophy and more adult themes. Luke, Leia and Han become more than just a trio of crazy kids on an adventure: they become fully-realized humans facing real moral and ethical dilemmas. The Empire Strikes Back also introduces new characters memorable enough to match those of the initial film in the series, with Boba Fett, Yoda and Lando Calrissian all making their first appearances.
Return of the Jedi carries on that tradition with Jabba the Hutt and Emperor Palpatine, two of the series’ most iconic roles. The third film strikes a good balance between the tone of the first two movies, mixing fun and action with philosophical quandaries. Fans may long debate which movie in the trilogy outdoes the others, but that wrestling misses the point. The beauty of the Original Trilogy isn’t the twists or technical innovations the movies make, nor is it the gravitation to more adult elements. The Star Wars trilogy sustains its characters and story in such a way that all three movies seem like they need one another, like legs on a tripod…
…Or members of a family. Much as Han, Leia and Luke represent the heroic trinity of the series, so too does the original Star Wars trilogy become the cultural and spiritual convergence of ’80s sci-fi. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi aren’t just masterpieces. They are the reason a whole generation of audience members go to the movies in the first place.
Did we leave off your favorite ’80s sci-fi flick? Tell us in the comments!
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