Sunday, July 28, 2019

80s Sci Fi Cult Classics

Most people are aware of the big hits of any given era of film. But much like the contrast between big hit songs on a given album, versus the "deep cuts", the remaining tracks that did not become radio hits, there are far more films that come and go in a given year, let alone a given decade, that sadly for often a combination of reasons (not all said reasons being sensible or fair) do not become big hit films. Some of these do, however, find life later on, and a fanbase, as they eventually come to be appreciated and even loved. These kinds of films are often referred to as "Cult Classics", as to their fans they attain a manner of "Cult" status.

 I wrote an article last year, describing in detail why I feel that one could make a VERY strong argument in favor of the notion that the 1980s were, overall, the single most prolific and successful decade for modern movies. Many other decades produced tons of incredible, even classic films, including the following 1990s. But "pound for pound", the 80s produced more great films, including major hits, in just about any genre you could mention, than any other decade. And along with that, the 80s also produced more than its fair share of "Cult Classics".

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ET.jpg
One of the greatest films ever made.

One of the most popular and prolific genres of the 1980s, was far and away science fiction. You had Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Short Circuit, arguably Ghostbusters, and many more. Not the least of which, of course, was Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which is the first movie I ever saw in theater as a small child.

Those are the movies most people know. Those are the big hits and the ones that made the big bucks, the movies that many consider "defined the decade". Which is a very fair assessment. But there are also the films that are lesser known, that didn't get the big success, yet in many ways are no less classic, and embody their era just as much. It is some of these movies, these "Cult Classics", that we are going to take a look at today.

This movie was my childhood.

Film: The Last Starfighter
Year: 1984
Director: Nick Castle

The Last Starfighter is one of the signature movies from my childhood, meaning that I grew up seeing it on TV, and later recorded on VHS. It appealed to me on many levels, from being a Star Wars esque "space opera" of sorts, to having a lot of quirky, comedic elements. But most importantly, to a kid who gradually fell in love with video games throughout the 1980s, it was a game about a kid who played a video game, and wound up being a real-life hero who saves the galaxy! I seriously doubt there were many 80s kids for whom a story like that would not hold at least SOME appeal.

This seminal 80s flick (as far as I'm concerned), was directed by Nick Castle, a cohort of John Carpenter, who in fact had been the principle actor to portray "The Shape" (Michael Myers) in the original horror hit Halloween. He would go on to have a major hit in the early 90s, with Dennis the Menace, but this was his first directorial taste of success, though it was a modest one at the time. While notable for its plot that centers around a video game, The Last Starfighter was also notable at the time for being one of the early movies, along with Disney's Tron, to make extensive use of computer graphics. In my opinion, the effects would be a lot better looking, and would have aged a lot better, if they had used traditional models effects work, ala Star Wars. But considering the time, the CGI was top quality. 

Teacher and Student.

The story centers around small-town boy, Alex Rogan (played by Lance Guest), a teenager who dreams of going to college in the city, and leaving his dusty trailer park home behind. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend, Maggie (played by Catherine Mary Stewart), seems afraid of change, and isn't ready to leave their home and her grandmother behind. Frustrated with his boring young life, Alex's one real outlet, is the mysterious arcade game that resides at the park's shop, called "Starfighter". An incredibly (see: unrealistically) advanced game for the mid-80s, it's a first person space shooter, which Alex excels at, one night even beating the game and getting the high score.

What Alex didn't know, is that the game is actually a test, planted there by alien Centauri (played brilliantly by veteran actor Robert Preston. Finding himself approached, and essentially shanghaied, by Centauri, Alex is thrust far across the galaxy, to the headquarters of the Star League, the heroic outfit that he had played as in the arcade game! Centauri invented "Starfighter" to find new recruits for the Star League, making a tidy profit along the way, and Alex just so happens to be his newest find. The only issue is, confronted with the reality of being a REAL Starfighter, and fighting a REAL space war, he balks, and just wants to go back home.

Reach for the stars...

Centauri begrudgingly agrees to take him home, where an android "Beta" has taken his place so no one will know he's gone, but they don't realize that as soon as they left, the evil Kodan Armada launched an attack on the Star League, decimating it. And finding that one of the "Starfighters" has survived, they send an assassin agent to Earth to finish the job. As a kid, the scenes where the drooling monster Zando-Zan try to kill Alex (and his Beta), were truly frightening to me. But suficed to say, Alex realizes how much is at stake, and with his alien trainer Grig (played by Dan O'Herlihy) and one prototype Starfighter ship intact, he now resolves to train and attempt the impossible: taking on the Kodan Armada, as a lone Starfighter, just he and Grig alone. Just like in the arcade game.

It was a modest hit for its time, but as far as I'm concerned, The Last Starfighter is one of the best movies of the entire decade, and one of the best science fiction stories ever put to film.

One of the darkest moviea starring a kid, ever?

Film: Space Raiders
Year: 1983
Director: Howard R. Cohen

This movie is pure Roger Corman, in many key ways. Corman, as a director or producer, had a history of making use of the limited budgets and resources studios would throw his way. He also had a habit of making unplanned films out of extra filming time, old sets, free actors etc., from other movies he'd been working on. A fine example is this, 1983's Space Raiders. Written and directed by Howard R. Cohen, who also made the cult horror spoof Saturday the 14th, this film reused special effects and re-arranged scores from Corman's previous New World Films effort, 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars. If you've seen both movies, you can tell right away that a lot of the "space battle" and starship effects are shared between the two. Taken on that level, yes, this movie was fairly cheaply made. But that is not reason to dismiss it, however, as I'll explain.

Battle Beyond the Stars was a space-opera re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Seven Samurai, which itself had been remade by Hollywood previously in the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven. Space Raiders, on the other hand, as the title implies, is a story about a group of space pirates, who wind up accidentally taking on an unwanted child stowaway during one of their raids. Whereas Battle played it fairly straight, you could look at Raiders as something a bit more akin to a dark comedy. Though they share much of the same effects and many music cues, and are both technically "space operas", that is about where the similarities end. And for my money, while Battle is certainly a solid film, Space Raiders is a rare case where the movie made with footage from another, winds up being the better end product.

Just hangin' with the Boys.

The story centers around a group of pirates led by the Space Service colonel turned rogue, Captain C.F. "Hawk" Hawkens. His group make a raid on a storage depot, to steal a space freighter owned by a massive interstellar corporation referred to only as "The Company" (similar to 1979's Alien). When the firefight breaks out, no one notices a 10 year old boy named Peter, who had been playing in the depot, as he tries to escape danger by hiding in the very freighter the pirates are trying to steal. After the stolen freighter rendezvous with the pirate's own ship, the boy is discovered after he emerges from hiding, asking if they would please take him home.

At first, Hawk and company consider ransoming the child, as he's the son of one of The Company's corporate office types. But Hawk later has a change of heart, and promises that he will indeed make sure the kid gets back home safely. The rest of the story plays out both as a dark comedy, and progressively, more and more as a tragedy as well. While none of the crew initially seems to like the kid, and they certainly don't want him around, honoring Hawk's wishes, they go out of their way to protect him regardless, and it ultimately starts costing them their lives.

As far as I'm concerned, if you were unaware that Space Raiders reused effects and music from another movie, you really wouldn't be able to tell. And even so, it doesn't affect the film's story, which I feel is its strength. The core of the movie, is a tale of greedy, ruthless pirates, who wind up caving in to their "human side", trying to protect a child they didn't mean to kidnap. It is both a  heartwarming, as well as in the end, rather sad story. But I love this movie in spite of its warts, and I'd highly recommend it if you want a fun, relatively unknown 80s space movie.

Joe Dante's unheralded gem.

Film: Explorers
Year: 1985
Director: Joe Dante

Fresh off of his surprise 1984 mega-hit, Gremlins, Joe Dante was on top of the world. Or so one would think. Typically, in modern Hollywood, when a director has a massive hit like that, and Gremlins was more than just a hit, much like Ghostbusters it was something of a cultural phenomenon in the 80s, they are given a fair bit of leeway in their next project(s). Because as far as most money-minded Hollywood execs are concerned, if a director has a huge hit, that means they could potentially make MORE huge hits, which equals more money.

In this man's opinion, Explorers could have easily been that next smash hit, but unfortunately, even with his major Gremlins success under his belt, Paramount Pictures still rushed this film into production, and then didn't even allow Dante to completely finish it the way he wanted. Even the final editing was rushed, and then the studio didn't do enough to promote it, putting it out at the worst time, going head to head against the blockbuster Back to the Future. All of that taken into consideration, however, Explorers is still a really great film, and one of many that I somehow missed out on as a kid, but wished I had seen it, because I would have adored it.

The three young Explorers.

The film stars Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and Jason Presson as a trio of pre-teen boys, attempting the impossible. Ben (Hawke), is the dreamer, an avid reader and watcher of anything science fiction, who daydreams of visiting the stars and having great adventures. As the story starts out, he is having a bizarre dream, centered around him flying over what looks like an enormous technological city, but what actually turns out to be a diagram for a highly advanced microchip. Upon waking, Ben tries his best to make a sketch of the diagram, and briefly wakes his friend Wolfgang (Phoenix), telling him about it. He later gives the diagram to Wolfgang, the son of scientists, who manages to make a real microchip, based on the diagram, which he connects to his father's computer. Along with their new friend, Darren (Presson), they start experimenting with their new discovery, which turns out to be a generator for a very powerful force field, which could conceivably carry them anywhere with zero gravity or inertia, even into space!

With the help of Darren, who happens to be very handy with tolls and building, they use an old abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl car, to craft their own make-shift spaceship. Running their first test drive with the force field, they fly around town, causing more commotion and havoc than they intended to, which brings unwanted government and police attention to their sleepy town, looking for UFOs. They are determined to try again, wiser for the wear, this time taking it to their ultimate destination: space. One of many "kids having crazy adventures on their own" films from the 80s, Explorers is an incredibly entertaining and heartfelt movie, serving as both a perfect slice of the 80s decade, but also as an obvious love letter by Dante himself, to classic science fiction.To me, much like Gremlins, the film has a ton of heart, and this intangible warmth and life to it that the best Joe Dante movies possess. And I would personally rank it as one of his Top 3 films, along with Gremlins and The 'Burbs.

Probably one of the most underrated films of all time.

Film: Enemy Mine
Year: 1985
Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Another movie I remember seeing as a kid. And to a child, not only did I miss out on many of the nuances of the plot, but I also found it to be rather scary, even though I liked it. Enemy Mine is a strange beast, in that it started production with a different director, Richard Loncraine, but he was removed early on, and replaced with German director Wolfgang Petersen, who was fresh off the success of the classic 80s fantasy film, The Neverending Story.

This film would go on to be a box office failure in the United States, but but not only was it one of the movies that proved that films could have a successful second life on the burgeoning home video market, it was also apparently THE first western science fiction film to be shown in Soviet Union theaters. It would up being a big hit over there, as a consequence, which in a way is ironic, considering that you could easily take the plot to be a parallel, in many ways, to the "Cold War" between the US and USSR.

From bitter enemies, to best friends?

While the special effects, sets and soundtrack are all really well done, and the acting is superb, it is the plot that makes Enemy Mine truly stand out in the slew of major sci fi films that came in the wake of Star Wars. As stated, there is a (Hot and) "Cold War" going on in the late 21st century, when humans have managed to make it out into deep space, and are colonizing other worlds. Unfortunately, another, more reptilian alien race, the Dracs, also has claim to some of those worlds, as the human "Bilateral Terran Alliance" (BTA for short) keeps pushing into their territories. And as these things tend to happen, instead of peaceful talks, war breaks out instead.

One particular BTA fighter pilot, Willis "Will" Davidge, winds up in a skirmish with some Drac ships, and crazed for vengeance after they shoot down some of his own, Will and his co-pilot Joey, chase a hit Drac ship down into the atmosphere of an unknown world. Their ship becomes damaged by the flying wreckage of the Drac ship, and both ships wind up crash landing on the surface. Joey sadly dies from injuries, and Davidge is left alone on a strange planet, with one hostile co-habitant. Finding the Drac ship remains, he learns that the Drac is still alive, and he initially tries to kill it, before later trying to steal some of its food, as he has none of his own. He gets caught, easily, and becomes the Dracs' prisoner, though they are quickly forced by a meteor shower and other circumstances brought on by this inhospitable planet, to work together for mutual survival.

Jerry and Davige's "son".

And that of course is where the story really shines. Forced to live together, alone, on this mostly barren rock, Davidge and Jeriba Shigan, who come to call each other "Da-Witch" and "Jerry" respectively, their relationship evolves over time. They go from being bitter enemies turned reluctant allies, to later coming to learn each other's language, and in Davidge's case, he even starts learning to read the Drac holy book. Jerry eventually becomes pregnant, as Dracs are asexual beings, and he eventually winds up dying in childbirth, leaving Jerry alone to raise a baby Drac, whom he names Zammis according to Jerry's wishes, all on his own.

I already feel like I gave away too much of the plot, if you've never seen it, but it really is a great, bittersweet story. The message that even bitter enemies can become friends, and that our "enemies" are not always as evil as we imagine them to be, and that there is always another way, are really heartfelt, and come across organically (not forced) in the course of the story. Plus they still ring true to this day. If you've never seen Enemy Mine, do yourself a favor and see it, as I think it's one of the most well done, and unique, sci fi films ever made.

Probably my favorite 80s sci fi film.

Film: Flight of the Navigator
Year: 1986
Director: Randal Kleiser

Outside of E.T. and Return of the Jedi, and of course The Last Starfighter, this was probably my top favorite sci fi film as a kid. And it's not hard to see why. Co-produced by Disney and Producers Sales Organization (snappy name, eh?), this is another film that is both VERY 80s, but also very unique. I don't think I've ever seen another movie or story quite like it, which to me is a good thing! It was directed by Randal Kleiser, who had previous success with Grease and The Blue Lagoon, and would go on to have future hits like White Fang and Honey I Blew Up the Kid.

The movie centers around a 12 year old boy, David Freeman, and his inexplicable disappearance, and reappearance. Traveling through the woods on a 4th of July night, in 1978, he and his dog are supposed to meet his bratty little brother, Jeff, to bring him home. Jeff jumps out from behind a tree, scaring David, and runs off, but before David can give chase, his dog runs off too, having found something. There seems to be something at the bottom of a creepy ravine, and trying to get a better look, David winds up falling in, becoming knocked out. He later wakes up, not knowing how long he's been out, and climbs back out, making his way home. But upon reaching his family's house, he finds that it is occupied instead by an elderly couple he doesn't recognize.

David and Max.

As he soon discovers from the police, it is now 1986, and he's been missing (and even believed dead), for 8 years. The police track down where his family now lives, and he is forced to come to grips with the fact that his parents are older, and his bratty little brother is now a mature 16 year old. The whole world has grown up around him, while he remains 12, and has missed out on 8 years of big changes. He agrees to be observed by NASA for what is supposed to only be 48 hours, and during their tests, they discover that for some reason, his brain waves carry unknown star charts, and various other information. He learns that they want to keep him longer, to learn more about this enigma, but just in the nick of time, he is also contacted by a telepathic voice in his head, who sends a robotic NASA courier to smuggle him to a remote hanger.

In the hanger, of course, is a strange UFO, with smooth, seamless features, that open up a door for David to enter. Inside, he meets "Max", a nickname he gives the sentient "Trimaxian Drone Ship", who it turns out, is the cause of his current predicament. As it turns out, Max had taken David as a specimen on his travels from the planet Phaelon. While studying David, they discovered that humans (allegedly) only use so much of their own brain capacity, so as an experiment, they filled his mind with information, including star charts, to see what would happen. Max brought David back home, but because of "Time Dilation", the round trip took 8 Earth years. And after dropping David back off, while looking at some flowers (yes, really), Max crashed into a power lines, and was captured by NASA.

"Max" from the outside, sleek as hell.

Because Max's memory was damaged in the crash, to be able to return his other specimens and get home, he needs the star charts that reside in David's mind. But first, they need to escape NASA together, and for that, Max needs David's help. They wind up going on wild adventures together, with much hilarity ensuing, but ultimately, David realizes that he is in the wrong time, and doesn't belong here. Plus he knows NASA will probably never leave him alone. So instead, though it is dangerous, he asks Max to take him back to 1978, when he was first picked up.

As a kid, I adored this film, and still do. It's a lot of fun, in no small part because of Paul Reubens voice acting as Max. Fresh off of his formal introduction to the world as Pee Wee Herman, in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Reubens brings some of that same manic energy (and even a bit of the same voice), due to Max's circuits being scrambled. Young child actor Joey Cramer also does a great job as David, and has a great chemistry with Max, who keep in mind is mainly represented by a robotic eye-stalk. But it also didn't help that ship is filled with several small alien creatures, which being a "Monster Kid", appealed to me greatly.

As I've said with pretty much all of these, if you've never seen Flight of the Navigator, do yourself a favor and watch it. It's a hell of a fun ride, it's funny, and it's an entertaining sci fi story to boot.


Before I go, here are some honorable mentions for lesser known 80s sci fi flicks:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai
Flash Gordon
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone
The Ice Pirates
Invaders From Mars (remake)
They Live

Well that's it for now, though I may return in the future to do some other 80s genre "Cult Classics". Make sure to watch these movies if you haven't, and I'll see you next time!