Aside from the blockbusters, most science fiction movies of the 1980s seem primitive by today’s standards. But these forgotten films served up some quality movie magic.
Certain 80s science fiction movies evoke nostalgia for the decade. Others transcend time, establishing themselves as classic cinema. Then there are those 80s sci-fi films that brought joy to some but were missed by others despite their decade-defining quality. This article pays homage to five of those films.
The Last Starfighter: Director- Nick Castle; Cast – Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart
1984’s The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle and starring Lance Guest, was actually a financial success… by early 1980s standards. According to IMDb.com, the film grossed nearly double its budget of $15 million. Of course, by today’s standards, the lead actor in most action blockbusters makes as much money as The Last Starfighter brought in.
As far as endearingly corny goes, few science fiction films top Starfighter. Guest plays Alex Rogan, a teenager enlisted into an intergalactic war due to his mastery of an arcade game/starfighter training machine.
This fun yet simple premise masks The Last Starfighter‘s genius. It was one of the first films to use CGI (computer generated images), and it did so with considerable success, again by 1980s standards. The special effects techniques employed by the Starfighter team would serve as a stepping stone for the amazing CGI that would follow… and the Ang Lee Hulk movie, but one must take the bad with the good. Hollywood buzz says that a Starfighter sequel or remake may be on the horizon.
Enemy Mine: Director – Wolfgang Petersen; Cast – Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr.
Growing up in the late ’80s, kids and teens could always find three science fiction movies on television Saturday afternoons. If Disney’s Flight of the Navigator was for babies and The Last Starfighter seemed a little childish, it was time to graduate to Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine.
Starring Dennis Quaid as a pilot fighting for Earth in its intergalactic war against Dracon, Enemy Mine is about as anti-war and anti-racism as ’80s films got. Quaid’s character crashes on a harsh, uninhabited planet. A Drac, played by Louis Gossett, Jr., also crash lands there. The two sworn enemies must cast aside their differences in order to survive. In doing so, they build a bond of friendship and the beginnings of inter-species peace.
Despite its low budget, Enemy Mine makes the most out of its limited resources. Performances are strong, the plot is meaningful and well written, and the effects are better than adequate. And the best (or most disturbing) part? Viewers get to see Louis Gossett, Jr. give birth.
Runaway: Director – Michael Crichton; Cast – Tom Selleck, Gene Simmons, Kirstie Alley
Panned by many critics and mocked more than two decades after its release on a 2010 episode of Community, 1984’s Runaway certainly wasn’t Oscar material. Written and directed by famous author Michael Crichton, Runaway is neither mind-blowing nor introspective nor ground-breaking nor complex. But that’s what makes the movie so fun to watch.
Runaway‘s plot is formulaic. Tom Selleck plays the good guy, a cop. Cynthia Rhodes is his partner. Kirstie Alley is the femme fatale. Gene Simmons, sans Kiss make-up and tongue kept in check, is the sadistic killer. And with his early Bond-type arsenal of homing bullets, tracking missiles, and cheesy-good mechanical spiders that only a mentally challenged chimpanzee with no legs couldn’t realistically avoid, Simmons amped up the sci-fi action.
Runaway is a perfect movie for those who wish to grab a microwavable burrito, sink into the couch, and decline into a semi-vegetated state. In the film’s pointlessness, one can find true tranquility. And for those who think any hokey 80s film could serve that purpose, try watching Howard the Duck.
The Hidden: Director – Jack Sholder; Cast – Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Nouri, William Boyett
If there was ever a science fiction/horror film worthy of a 21st century remake or sequel, The Hidden is that film. There actually was a terrible sequel made in 1994 that is very hard to find and fails to do the original justice. Released in 1987, The Hidden was actually popular. But over the years, sci-fi fans of the film have become somewhat… hidden?
The Hidden is the story of a criminally insane, sociopath alien parasite that comes to Earth, injects itself into human hosts, and goes on a violent crime spree. What could be better than that? Michael Nouri stars as the human cop determined to take down the menace. With a little help from a friendly alien parasite (oxymoron?), played by Kyle Maclachlan, he might just have a chance.
Despite its what are now old school special effects, The Hidden is a fast-paced, constantly escalating film similar in concept to Fallen but pre-dating the Denzel Washington film and packing more punch. Simply put, The Hidden rocks!
They Live: Director – John Carpenter; Cast – Roddy Piper, Keith David, George “Buck” Flower
Certainly, They Live, much like its director John Carpenter, has a large cult following. But the movie lacked mass appeal. Made for approximately $4 million, the alien invasion film made mediocre money. Not bad, considering the film starred former WWF (now WWE) wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
The story of They Live goes something like this: Aliens live hidden amongst humans, their true appearances concealed by technology. They control society through the media. After finding a special pair of sunglasses, a drifter (Piper) can see the aliens and their secret agenda. He aims to stop them.
In the process, Piper runs out of bubblegum. His alternative to chewing it makes They Live “kick ass.” A fantastic blend of action, science fiction, dark humor, and true 80s feel, They Live will live on as a cult classic.
For some underrated science fiction cinema from the 1990s and the last 10 years, see “90s Forgotten & Underrated Science Fiction Films” and “Last Decade’s Underrated Science Fiction Films.”