A High Concept: Why the 80’s is the Best Decade in Film

80's Last Supper

Big hair, big stars and even bigger budgets: on the surface it could be argued that the eighties didn’t contribute anything to the world of film that any other decade past or present hasn’t already given us or equalled. Yet for a decade that ended 24 years ago its films and its cultural impact are still talked about and felt today.

It’s a decade that had nearly every genre at the top of its game with new sub-genres taking over and making waves. It produced films that were consistent with the events of the time – films that allowed you to connect to current affairs (post-Vietnam War/Cold War) and cultural significances (music, fashion, being a stereotyped teenager in High School) or, particularly with the advent of the high concept blockbuster, they offered unfaltering escapism from life for a couple of hours to watch some muscle bound action man blow shit up and save the day.

The 1980’s was a difficult time for the world (when isn’t it, right?). The Western world felt the effects of industrial migration to the East resulting in an economic downturn and a major recession; wars were fought all over the Middle East including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that would have lingering consequences for all involved; Live Aid was launched, bringing to the attention of the West the suffering and famine that was occurring in Africa; the World Wide Web was invented, an actor became President of the United States, the United Kingdom was governed by the first female Prime Minister and Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. In the world of film, John Belushi died, VHS beat betamax to be the new pioneer of watching movies at home, Disney came back from the brink of obscurity and Robert Redford ushered in a new wave for independent film by launching the Sundance festival. But for me, it brought a whole lot more than that.

Back to the Future

This is probably an ideal juncture for me to mention that I wasn’t really around in the eighties to experience all of this. I was around, sure, but only for three years of it, spending most of that time learning to talk, stand and walk for myself (most would argue I’m still learning). I never got to live my childhood like I was a Goonie or spend my teens as the Geek in a John Hughes movie, and I didn’t grow up to be a naval aviator, the leader of the The Resistance or a detective with issues in the good cop/bad cop pairing. I’m more of the Jurassic Park, bullet time, toys coming to life, Mrs. Doubtfire, comic book movies, that boy wizard and journeys through Middle Earth kind of movie kid yet I can’t speak about those films and that period with the same boundless enthusiasm and nostalgia as I can about the eighties. I think for me and for a lot of other people out there around my age, our childhood and adolescent movie diet consisted of the films that were popular in the 80’s. The increased availability of VHS and the hand-me-down nostalgic behaviour of our peers made this possible.  And now, for me at least, I’m starting to feel nostalgic about a decade I didn’t even experience firsthand. When a specific period in film history can have such a dramatic effect on a number of generations, it’s definitely a contender for a ‘greatest’ accolade – and that’s what I’m going to give it.

Top Gun

The 80’s is the decade that the high concept blockbuster became prominent and cemented the foundations set by Spielberg with Jaws in 1975 and the first Star Wars film in 1977. It was the decade for the ‘popcorn movie’, the summer action film that set your pulse racing but your mind placating. These films aren’t Oscar contenders; they are two hours of escapist fun but they set a trend that actually made these films loved and cherished. It was pioneered by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer producing such films as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop 2 and probably the most famous, Top Gun, with a simple but high concept idea that was intended to put bums on seats for a rollercoaster ride which resulted in lots of money in their back pockets. Studios set a trend by this that still exists today whereby their most prized movies that are guaranteed to bring in the revenue are released in the summer, in direct competition with other studios. I’m a lover of all things film and though sometimes I watch a $200m flop and wonder about the 200 smaller films I could’ve seen, I am a bit of a sucker for the summer blockbuster for a bit of entertainment late on a summers evening after a long hot day in the sun (although I don’t think us Brits will be calling it summer for much longer). The 80’s also made this high concept idea a star-driven vehicle and it is often these films that made and defined the careers of some of the biggest known movie stars, particularly Tom Cruise in Top Gun, a high concept film that now has a firm cult status. Spielberg staked his claim as the king of the blockbuster in the 80’s with three Indiana Jones films and E.T. The Extraterrestrial. James Cameron staked his claim with The Terminator and Aliens, and many other directors made their mark on the decade with this kind of movie.

ET

To be a kid growing up in the 80’s you were spoilt for choice when it came to movies. Action, adventure, fantasy – the films were at your fingertips and perfectly captured the imagination of kids everywhere. For me what I love about the 80’s the most is the fact that it produced those family friendly movies that you can watch on a Sunday afternoon wind down with a cuppa after a family roast and a couple of beers; the ones that have that strangely nostalgic feeling to them even if you can’t quite figure out why. The ones that make you happy and relaxed but most of all they awaken that sense of adventure inside you, that adventure and imagination you once had as a kid where you could genuinely see yourself leading your friends on a treasure-finding mission to seize the gold from One Eyed Willy (now there’s a joke that was intended for parents) or rescue a sibling from an elaborate fantasy maze. Even films like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future managed to produce the thrills and laughs required for both parent and child and this is something I’ve not seen rivalled until Pixar really came to prominence in the late 90’s. Skip through the channel listings on a Sunday afternoon and you’re bound to find a family classic from this decade: The Goonies, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, E.T., Indiana Jones, Short Circuit, Uncle Buck, Labyrinth, *batteries not included, The Never Ending Story,  Superman II – the list goes on. The eighties got the concept of the family film; it was the decade that seemed to understand that both parent and child were to be entertained. They are the kind of films you really can call ‘family films’ because they cater to all – your child as well as your inner child.

The Goonies

Now we all look back at the 80s and find some of the fashion choices… questionable to say the least. There certainly were a lot of bright colours and big hairstyles (I’m sure we can attribute the ozone layer damage to the units of hairspray used in this decade – I’m looking at you here, Mel Gibson). The fashion styles were very distinct and almost stereotypical when it came to the movies – you knew which social category you fell into when you could identify and relate to what the characters were wearing. Along with the fashion, the social worries and strafes of teenagers in the 1980’s were captured perfectly by John Hughes.  Okay, so maybe his films were a bit too stereotypical of the attitudes and behaviours of American high school kids and his films were positively sentimental, portraying the kind of happy ending you would never normally see in real life but dammit if they didn’t make you feel good. Hughes’ movies embodied the 80’s – the fashion, the music (Don’t You (Forget About Me) takes anyone back to The Breakfast Club as soon as that synthesiser kicks in), the attitudes of teenagers, the hairstyles, the quips and one-liners but most of all, the bottom line of what it is to be a teenager: to fall in love and have sex (not necessarily in that order). Through his films the media created The Brat Pack nickname for the young stars that he frequently cast. Though no official affiliation was made it certainly increased the popularity of his films. There is a certain idolatry to the characters he wrote that many growing up the 80’s identified with and even those watching now can still connect to. Characters like Ferris Bueller are timeless – the archetypal everyman that pursues the dream of being truant for just one day and having the best day with his girl, his best friend and a bitching car. Who doesn’t want to be him? Who doesn’t want to be Keith in Some Kind of Wonderful who achieves the unobtainable when the girl of his dreams says yes when he asks he out? What girl hasn’t identified with Sam’s concerns over popularity and her sexual status in Sixteen Candles? And come on lads – who hasn’t wished as a teenager that they could create the perfect woman like Gary and Wyatt did in Weird Science?  Hughes also wrote and contributed to many 80s comedy classics – the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors and Uncle Buck are just a few. Along with the comedy of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and the rest of the Saturday Night Live ensemble, the 80’s was blessed with memorable comedy that lives on in its cult status.

The Breakfast Club

The introduction of home video to households in the late 1970’s was a completely new way of experiencing film – now viewers had the ability not only to control when they watched a film but they could also record a film when it was screened on television and have it permanently at their disposal. A format battle (similar to the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD battle five years ago) was hard fought until the mid-80’s when the VHS trumped the Betamax to be the leading home video format. With the ability to reach audiences in a new and somewhat cheaper way, low-budget films were produced and distributed using the home video format. What’s the cheapest yet most entertaining film to make? Yup, horror. A wave of Italian ‘Giallo’ and American horror films, including the incessant sequels to Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, made their way to UK shores on VHS and though the BBFC was established, its influence on the home video format was lenient meaning that people of all ages had access to these films. The media furore that surrounded the eventual realisation of the content readily available on high street shelves lead to the Video Recordings Act 1984 whereby the BBFC certificated films released on the home video format, cutting footage from some to pass certification and outright banning others. Films like Maniac, The Evil Dead, Cannibal Holocaust and Dead & Buried were either cut or banned completely, only later being released years later with more lenient cuts or passed uncut. The advent of home recording technology coupled with the cult status these films earned by being banned led to piracy and an underground society that made the uncut versions readily available. Though this is essential piracy it’s nothing on the scale that we see today. No, this was more akin to bootleg recordings of Springsteen gigs – an appreciation and an appetite for something you love that isn’t commercially available yet you have to own it. Those films that typified the ‘video nasty’ era are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray pretty much uncut but back then it was a whole new playground for filmmakers with a small budget but a big imagination to have a format in which their films could be readily available. As a result of this a lot of gory, violent, shocking but entertaining horror films came about and pioneered a concept we still see today (just not done as well): the straight-to-video movie. Aside from the low budget horror films produced, the 80’s also brought us some horror classics (and some unforgivable sequels): The Fog, The Thing, The Shining, Halloween II, Poltergeist, Videodrome, Fright Night, Child’s Play, Hellraiser to name but a few. A lot of horror films (particularly the slasher films) featured teenagers that were the antithesis of the John Hughes teens: one dimensional, drinking, smoking, drug-taking, loin-driven adolescent’s that were there to be picked off one by one. They still had the same hair and fashion though…

The Evil Dead

I could talk about the 80’s for days. There are a number of films and genres that surmise its impact on our culture and the world of film. From adventure films to the buddy cop movie, the child stars to Do the Right Thing, the ABC’s of the 80’s would roll three times over for me. So rather than go on and on, let’s create what every music loving teen of the 80’s did for their crush when they wanted to use the synths and beats of the latest pop track to convey their emotions: a mix tape. A two-sided tale of everything that sums up my love for the 80’s and why – despite all that has been and all that will be – it will forever be classed as the greatest decade in film.

Mix Tape

Side One: For A Sunday Afternoon

 1. The Goonies (1985) Dir. Richard Donner., 114mins

A mischievous kid that can talk Spanish, a disfigured hero with cinemas greatest catchphrase and Samwise Gamgee not afraid to go on an adventure: perfect escapism with just enough nostalgia to stir memories and the imagination of what it was to be a kid growing up with your best friends.

  1.  E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) Dir. Steven Spielberg., 120mins

Have the tissues at the ready, because you will cry. Even the hardened amongst us will shed a tear as the Gail Platt-alike extraterrestrial touches down on earth and warms the hearts of the children in the community that try to save him from the men in black. It’s Spielberg at his most nostalgic and like The Goonies it allows you to reminisce about your childhood summers.

 3. Back to the Future (1985) Dir. Robert Zemeckis., 116mins

Can you imagine Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly? Me neither. The heavens aligned to ensure that Michael J. Fox gave the performance of his career alongside Christopher Lloyd as the dishevelled genius Doc Brown in this entertaining and engaging sci-fi comedy. The film is just a ride: a thrilling time travel twist of a plot that keeps you hooked from beginning to end. And damn it if that ain’t the coolest car to travel back in time in!

  1.  Ghostbusters (1984) Dir. Ivan Reitman., 107mins

Featuring two of comedies greatest performers and Saturday Night Live alumni Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, the concept of the supernatural comedy is a win. Whilst the supernatural aspect is serious the performances by the cast, particularly Murray and Moranis, balances the content and provides an entertaining family film with a great, beaty theme tune. And who hasn’t wanted to see a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man walk the streets of NYC?

 5. Airplane! (1980) Dir. Jim Abrahams/David Zucker/Jerry Zucker., 87mins

Just laugh. Laugh for 87 minutes at some of the most ridiculously quotable lines in comedy film. It has somewhat of a plot that parodies loosely the story of a Dean Martin vehicle but mainly it’s a film for gags by the dozen and a laugh a minute to relax and wind down to. You’ll be quoting it at work the next day.

 Side Two: For Sunday Night

1. The Breakfast Club (1985) Dir. John Hughes., 97mins

To identify with your younger, stereotyped self look no further than The Breakfast Club. It’s for later in the day because thematically it deals with a few more serious issues than picking the wrong week to quit sniffing glue, but it’s a humorous and emotional tale of connection between high school stereotypes serving detention together on a Saturday morning. And as we all wished to write in our leavers books when parting ways at the end of school: Don’t You (Forget About Me).

 2. Stand By Me (1986) Dir. Rob Reiner., 87mins

Thematically similar to The Goonies only a much more realistic tail of youth and childhood summers spent venturing out into the woods, this is Stephen King’s love story to childhood. It deals with the idea of true friendship and the bonds forged so early on in life you find it hard to believe that they may soon fade. Four boys go on an adventure to find a dead body encountering bullies, dogs, trains and leeches along the way but most of all, themselves. The bittersweet ending will have you reaching for the tissues.

 3. The Terminator (1984) Dir. James Cameron., 108mins

James Cameron’s sci-film that features Arnie as the bad guy and begins the complex tale of time travel, the rise of the machines and the resistance. It’s a film that almost borders horror with the tense and frightening scenes involving these flesh covered machines (not those); it’s a well written science fiction film that brought something interesting to the genre and provided many cult and quotable lines.

 4. Die Hard (1988) Dir. John McTiernan., 131mins

An unwilling action hero is born in John McClane who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wise quips, bullets, blood, a camp but sophisticated villain and fuck-load of explosions: this is the 80s action film at its best. It doesn’t compromise for a lower rating to get more viewers: this is a balls-to-the-wall action film with a hero you can root for and a villain that is strangely appealing.

 5. Aliens (1986) Dir. James Cameron., 137mins

Mr Cameron again working his sci-fi magic on the sequel to the popular 70s film Alien. Cameron really shows his penchant for writing strong female characters as Ripley takes centre stage in this sequel and takes the series to new and better heights. It’s tense and invigorating sci-fi with Sigourney Weaver on fine form – and who can forget that showdown at the end? The makings of Avatar are scattered throughout this film but it’s a sequel that really stands alone in this series of films.

So there you have it, my somewhat condensed love of the 80s. No doubt I’ve missed films you cherish or have waxed on my favouritism for those you don’t, but the beauty of the 80s is that it has many films that people cherish and covet. It’s a decade truly worthy of its cult status in the world of film and it should wear its big hair and cheesy synthesised soundtracks with pride; it’s a decade that established genre rules and studio attitudes; it’s a decade that served its purpose better than any other I’ve seen. Despite the advances in technology and the formats we have at our disposal today I still cherish the feel of the 80’s: from the grainy low budget horrors to the big high concept spectacles, from the star-driven vehicles to the nostalgic feelings of a Spielberg or Hughes movie. The 80s just had it. It did something that for me as a writer I struggle to surmise in just a sentence (hence this 3,000 word spectacle) the feelings I get from watching a film from that decade. Whatever it is and whatever they did, they got it right. “Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them.” 80’s, you were more than just one.

Originally posted at Generic Movie & TV.

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