This is the third part of my series exploring the unique cinema of the 1980s, and how it reflected many of the cultural values and conversations that were going on during that remarkable time. Far from being an era known primarily for kitschy nostalgia, there was a lot going on in the ’80s, and its movies reflected it. This is not a “best-of” list or even a “my favorites” list, and I’ve deliberately tried to select films that might not appear on any of those sorts of lists. Part I, examining films from 1980 and 1981, is here; Part II, covering 1982 and 1983, is here. This installment covers the middle of the decade, 1984 and 1985.
Revenge of the Nerds (1984; Jeff Kanew, Director)
You couldn’t make a movie like Revenge of the Nerds today. Its raunchy lowbrow humor could easily be (and has been) duplicated, but in almost 2017 a movie depicting college as a light-hearted laugh riot–where many of the punchlines involve binge drinking, homophobic hazing rituals and date rape–would be pretty disturbing, especially given how colleges have become deeply contested spaces in the last 25 years. But Revenge of the Nerds is perfectly in line with 1980s cultural assumptions: that people, especially young people, are defined primarily by the stereotypical social group they fall into, and that upward mobility in a social sense is a universal aspiration. Almost every 1980s film that depicts young people plays on these basic assumptions.
The film centers around a group of “nerds”–bookish, socially awkward males–who come to the fictional Adams College and immediately come into conflict with another group, the boorish “jocks” (athletes). The conflict and one-upmanship between these groups drives the whole plot. There are some genuinely funny bits, and the “musical showdown” number at the end is a copious binge of ’80s tropes from break-dancing to cheesy techno-pop music. The racial subtexts–the mostly white nerds join a traditionally all-black fraternity, which rebounds to their benefit–are handled pretty well. But I have to say that Robert Carradine in a Darth Vader mask, date-raping a cheerleader through mistaken identity, is difficult to watch. In 1984 it was (supposedly) innocent fun. How times have changed.
Against All Odds (1984, Taylor Hackford, Director)
The list of action thrillers from which one could pick to find a film representative of the ’80s is especially long. To represent this classic genre I chose Against All Odds, a surprisingly intelligent neo-noir thriller that simply couldn’t be more a product of its time. An updated remake of the 1947 film Out of the Past, the story concerns ex-football star Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges), who takes a questionable job from a small-time gangster (James Woods) to go down to Mexico to find the gangster’s girlfriend Jessie (Rachel Ward, an actress I had a huge crush on in the ’80s). Naturally Terry and Jessie fall in love and end up in a dark caper involving gambling and crooked real estate deals, with perennial bad guy Richard Widmark, in one of his later roles, as the heavy. It’s a passable thriller, and director Taylor Hackford was still finding his voice and style, but there are some great performances and the look of the film, especially the scenes taking place in Mexico, is stunning. Here is a perfect example of the “greed and glitter” my blog title refers to.
Against All Odds is emblematic of the ’80s in the way it reaches toward the past while also trying to be modern and edgy. The 1980s was all about recasting traditional ways of life, and well-worn cultural properties, into modern terms. Recycling a 1940s plot and updating it to 1984 Los Angeles is reminiscent of how America tried to recast its political, economic and social constructions of decades past and “remake” them into a new form of modernity. That was Ronald Reagan’s whole appeal. Yet it deals in very 1980s problems: drug trafficking, cheating in sports, political corruption, real estate sprawl. You learn uncommonly more from Against All Odds about the time it was made than you do from other movies. For that reason alone it belongs on this list.
Gremlins (1984, Joe Dante, Director)
Though regarded as a minor classic by its cult following, in reality Gremlins is not a very good film. It’s corny and hackneyed in the same way that 1950s creature-features were, and its satire on modern consumerism, though aimed at a worthy target, comes off as kind of disingenuous. Yet there’s no denying that Gremlins is a fun movie. After an eccentric inventor (Hoyt Axton) buys a new pet–a tiny furry elf-like creature called a Mogwai–as a Christmas gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan), all hell breaks loose in the small town where they live after Billy unwittingly ignores the special rules that come with owning a Mogwai as a pet. The cute and good-hearted creature spawns a horde of ill-tempered reptilian monsters, the “gremlins” of the title, and their comic rampage through the town is the film’s main draw.
Gremlins is classically 1980s in the way it unabashedly pines for the kind of small-town America made idyllic by films like It’s A Wonderful Life, on whose fictional village of Bedford Falls Gremlins’s locale seems to be directly based. Unlike Bedford Falls, however, Gremlins seeks not to celebrate this lifestyle, but to destroy it. It’s rampant consumerism–a carelessly-chosen Christmas gift–that sparks the town’s destruction. Ironically it’s also its salvation: most of the gremlins are (spoiler alert) annihilated while watching a Disney film, and the sole survivor is destroyed after a rampage through the sporting goods section of Montgomery Ward’s. The love-hate relationship with consumerism is typical of 1980s cinema. And the puppetry and creature effects are a fine example of the apotheosis of pre-CGI movie special effects, which was an art form unto itself in the decade just before computers put puppeteers and model makers largely out of work in Hollywood.
Explorers (1985, Joe Dante, Director)
I honestly didn’t realize that I chose two Joe Dante films for the same article until I looked it up! But despite the repetition, anyone who thinks his fantasy adventure film Explorers isn’t iconic of the ’80s would do well to watch how nearly literally many of its tropes were translated, albeit with a much darker vibe, into the popular 2016 Netflix series Stranger Things. Explorers is about three awkward teen boys (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson) who, with their standard-issue 1980s Computer-That-Can-Do-Anything, create an electromagnetic bubble that they decide to ride to another planet. There they find the inhabitants think they know a lot about Earth, but it turns out all they know is from watching TV broadcasts, especially–you can see this coming, right?–classic sitcoms of the 1950s and ’60s.
Explorers was a troubled production, filmed on an unfinished script, and was a box office flop when it came out. Part of the reason why may have been its unusual, for films of this genre, penchant for observing the vapidity of the classic TV and “junk culture” tropes that it simultaneously celebrates. The bits where the aliens clown The Honeymooners and Little Richard songs serve to show how sad and pathetic they are–not how funny they can be, which is probably how any other 1980s director would have done it. It’s interesting that, although the film flopped upon its release, it has since gained a great deal of cultural cachet and is now a significant cult object.
Runaway Train (1985, Andrei Konchalovsky, Director)
If Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train isn’t the finest film of the 80s, it comes surprisingly close–even more so when you realize it’s a production of the infamous Israeli shlock shleppers Golan and Globus, who made a fortune in the ’80s churning out crap like Breakin’ 2 and the tedious and sadistic Death Wish sequels. Ostensibly an adventure story about two tough convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) who break out of an Alaska prison and wind up on an out-of-control freight train hurtling across the frozen steppe, Runaway Train eventually becomes almost a modern Dostoevsky tale, ruminating on death, loss, guilt and revenge. In that sense it’s as Russian as Doctor Zhivago, but it’s also very much an ’80s action movie, and a riveting one that never lets up.
Runaway Train is a hard-hitting, intelligent and surprisingly poignant film. It proves that, even in a cinematic decade crowded with robots, monsters, teenagers and mad-dog killers, 1980s cinema can deliver real intellectual substance while still serving up the heart-stopping, screen-bursting thrills that audiences increasingly wanted. I don’t know if Runaway Train could be made today. The temptation to screw it up by making it just an action picture, or else going too far into “think piece” territory, would probably be irresistible. Yet somehow, in 1985, the stars converged to make a picture like this work.
Thanks for continuing with me on this journey through 1980s cinema. The series will continue!