This is the second part of a projected 5-part series showcasing the cinema of the 1980s, which has been much understudied and underrated, in my view, as a coherent body of work. I’ve chosen 25 films that I think embody the values, style and characteristics unique to 1980s cinema. Part I, the first five films (from 1980 and 1981), is here. This is not a “best-of” list, or a “my favorites” list. It’s thematic and analytical. Some of my choices may be unconventional. But here we go, inching our way through the early part of the decade, 1982 and 1983–which could be argued to be the nadir of ’80s cinema, but which still offers some interesting examples of the decade’s style.
Conan the Barbarian (1982; John Milius, Director)
Insipid. Ultra-violent. Irresponsible. Fascist. All of these words were used to describe John Milius’s fantasy adventure Conan the Barbarian, based on 1930s stories by pulp writer Robert E. Howard, which shocked many people upon its initial release in May 1982. Conan was the big break of Austrian bodybuilder and sometime actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which propelled him not only to a career of movie stardom, but also politics.
Ostensibly a fairly simple fantasy story set in the mythical medieval past known as Hyperborea, Conan follows the travails of the eponymous character as he quests for revenge against evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), who murdered his family and wiped out his village years before. Conan’s ethos is one of unabashed individualism and might-makes-right, which is why it was considered upon its release to the conservative “cowboy” ideologies that gave us Ronald Reagan. There’s more “80s” about Conan than its politics, though. Though the world it shows us is simple and brutal, capable of being tamed by a hero with a sword, it’s not a world that existed in real life in any country. Conan essentially recasts medieval history through familiar tropes–swords, castles, warriors, magic–that are familiar to us, but add up to a somewhat alien world at odds with reality. Constructing alternate worlds, especially about the past, and then acting as if they were real was a preoccupation of 1980s culture. It was also a criticism of Ronald Reagan by (I believe) his own daughter, Patti Davis, who said of her father, “He builds these fantasy castles in his head, and then lives in them.” Conan the Barbarian is the literal embodiment of this idea.
Wrong is Right (1982, Richard Brooks, Director)
Wrong is Right, a little-known 1982 vanity project for then down-on-his-luck James Bond actor Sean Connery, is a bad film. Don’t harbor any illusions about that. It’s clunky, improbably plotted, badly acted, and is openly racist in its portrayal of Arabs and the Islamic world. Yet Wrong is Right taps into a number of vibes and worries that coursed under the surface of 1980s America and the world: an unease with electronic surveillance, the abandonment of journalistic ethics by ratings-hungry media, jingoistic and trigger-happy politicians, and especially terrorism. Indeed Wrong is Right is eerily prescient in its depiction of terrorism, which drives the plot focusing on an adventurous reporter (Connery) who somehow gets mixed up in a political caper involving arms dealers and Islamic extremists. The film depicts not only a wave of suicide bombers striking on American soil, but a terror plot against the World Trade Center towers. The worst part? The film is supposed to be a comedy!
The contribution of Wrong is Right to 80s cinema is not just in its foreshadowing of political conditions that would become the norm 20 years later. It shows us the dangers of a world that is more complicated and nuanced than the people running it want to pretend. We ignore these complications at our cost. Like Conan, Wrong is Right is about world construction and the gap between constructed worlds and reality. Taking the analysis down a notch, it also features, on top of Sean Connery’s head, what has got to be the single most laughable toupee in the history of motion pictures.
Brainstorm (1983, Douglas Trumbull, Director)
Another sleeper that was a box-office bomb, and little-remembered today, the second and last of special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull’s directorial efforts is sort of a mess as a movie, but put some mind-blowing concepts (by 1980s standards) on the screen. The film is about three scientists, played by Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood and Louise Fletcher, who develop a machine that can record and play back people’s experiences. This gag has been used before and would be used again in science fiction, most notably in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), but Brainstorm deals with the philosophical and political implications of such a machine. In the 1980s people were just coming to grips with the potential effects that high technology, especially computers, were having on their lives, but unlike the simplistic 1980s trope of a “super-computer that can do anything,” Brainstorm is much more mature and contemplative about it.
That said, the film is a mess. Its production was truncated by the premature death of Natalie Wood in a drowning accident that still makes supermarket tabloid headlines 35 years later. Walken phones in his performance, and the film’s climax (spoiler alert), where the machine records what happens when a person dies, is improbable and corny. Still, it’s worth seeing if only for the audacity of its ideas, however poorly executed.
The Right Stuff (1983, Philip Kaufman, Director)
One of the best films of the decade, Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is a highly stylized and bombastic, yet intelligent, tribute to some real-life American heroes: the Mercury astronauts of the early 1960s. Based on the novel-like journalistic book by Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff is an audacious movie, tipping the scales at nearly 3 1/2 hours, but also a careful one. Beginning not with astronauts but with postwar test pilots like Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield, the film takes its time to build up to its main subject, and in doing so cross-examines the phenomenon of public heroism in America and how it changes. Fewer more incisive looks at the psychology of the American public have ever been put on film.
And The Right Stuff was perfect for the ’80s. This film would not have worked in the 1970s, when it would have been too preachy and dark, or the 1990s, when it would have been pumped up on CGI steroids and packaged purely as feel-good candy. The Right Stuff hits the butter zone of ’80s cinema. It can provoke introspection and challenge deep thoughts, but it’s also a rollicking good time and quite uplifting. How this film lost the Best Picture Oscar to the turgid and forgettable Terms of Endearment, which was little more than a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie inflated to a cinema screen, I’ll never know.
Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg, Director)
Videodrome is a bizarre movie. A “techno-surrealist” horror film that shocked audiences upon its release, it involves a small-time TV station programmer (James Woods) who stumbles onto a strange video feed of a station that shows nothing but torture and sadism. When he picks up the programming for his own channel, he is projected into a conspiratorial mystery where shadowy powers-that-be appear to be trying to supplant people’s real experiences with television broadcasts.
So many 1980s fears surface in Videodrome: fear of runaway technology, fear of the decline of institutions (like the media), fear of powerful cabals controlling our fates, and fear of a loss of control or accurate understanding of the world around us. We still have many of these fears today, and some have gotten worse, but they were especially raw in the 1980s. Cronenberg uses these fears to repulse and brutalize the audience, but yet we’re drawn in by it, curious to see more. The public willingly swallowed so much candy-coated poison during the 1980s, from irresponsible politicians to moral panics that victimized innocent people, that the act of asking for something that we know (or suspect) will hurt us became a familiar routine. Videodrome knows that. It’s the source of its power.
Thanks for joining me on this journey through 1980s cinema. The series will continue!