The 80s: How Movies Were Best Geared Toward the Geek In Us All
Oh the 1980s. No matter how you feel about the fashions and music of the decade (I happened to love both), you have to admit that it was a stellar decade for movies. Science fiction, fantasy, and geek chic were all the rage and many iconic films were catered to those of us who loved a story about underdogs and oddities saving the day.
Setting Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones franchises aside, there were several stand-alone films of the 1980s that appealed to the nerds and geeks in all of us. In fact, the 80s overflowed with a variety of colorful movies that allowed us to “get our geek on” and embrace our individuality. Here is a celebration of some of the best films of the 80s that taught us to embrace our uniqueness and to give a voice to the oddest among us.
The Goonies (1985)
A bunch of misfit boys, about to lose their homes to an impending housing development, find a treasure map and go in search of the booty of One-Eyed Willy which is buried somewhere under the city of Astoria, Oregon. In hot pursuit is the comedic, but dangerous, Fratelli gang who also has their eyes on the prize. With an unforgettable cast including Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, Anne Ramsey, Martha Plimpton, John Brolin, and the scene-stealing Jeff Cohen (as Chunk), The Goonies resonates with our need to rise above our labels and make a difference in this world.
E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
With all of our fascination with outer space in the 1980s, is it any wonder that a story about a misfit little boy befriending an alien and hiding him from the government appealed to us in monumental ways? E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial was full of wonder, magic, Reese’s Pieces, government conspiracy, and a singularly majestic John Williams score. Henry Thomas was a believable outcast as Elliott, the boy who bonds with the titular character, and Drew Barrymore was adorable as his precocious sister Gertie. Steven Spielberg melted out hearts and ignited our imaginations.
“You remind me of the babe”, “What babe?”, “Babe with the power…”. Admit it, you started singing along as soon as you saw the movie title. Labyrinth, an unlikely pairing of the Jim Henson Company and David Bowie, is a somewhat horrific tale about a goblin king (Bowie) who steals a little baby, hides him at the end of a sprawling maze, and awaits the child’s teenage sister (Jennifer Connelly) to try and retrieve the little moppet. Drawing from mythology and fantasy, not to mention boasting a brooding, creepy performance by the spectacular David Bowie, Labyrinth is arguably the darkest place the Henson people have ever explored.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
A children’s fairy tale story becomes disturbingly real for Bastian (Barret Oliver), a misfit kid who is always being bullied for his fertile imagination and his fascination with books. He enters into the land of Fantasia, living vicariously through the young warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) who must save the country’s destruction by the mysterious “Nothing”. Rock Biters, Luck Dragons, Oracles, and myriad other fantastical beasts and characters bring this German-made film to life. The NeverEnding Story also boasted a popular title song performed by Limahl that filled the radio waves in the 1980s.
Real Genius (1985)
Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) is a high school whiz kid who is given early admittance to Pacific Technical University where he will room with Physics genius and eccentric student Chris Knight (Val Kilmer). Mitch is indoctrinated into Chris’s wacky world, but is also frustrated by his lack of seriousness where his education is concerned. The government is interested in Chris developing an important laser, but does not tell him that it is for a weapon they are devising. Mitch, Chris and their other scientifically-inclined co-eds devise a plan to keep the laser out of the clutches of those who would use it for destruction. Real Genius is particularly well-remembered for a glorious scene where the laser explodes a building full of popcorn.
The Karate Kid (1984)
The underdog, karate-loving Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is unwillingly transported from his Jersey home to California by his mother where he must start anew. Trying to get involved in a local dojo, he finds that the members are a bunch of rich bullies, so instead gets training from his building superintendent Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Daniel learns to overcome his anger and frustration and proves to be an apt pupil, winning the big tournament in the end and getting the girl (Elizabeth Shue). For every kid who ever hurt or felt helpless, Danny LaRusso became our champion and our hero.
A quasi-horror-comedy set at Christmas, Gremlins is one of the most iconic films of the 1980s. Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), while on a business trip, happens upona shop tucked away in Chinatown. There he finds a rare animal called the Mogwai, a mysterious creature that he buys for his young adult son Billy (Zach Galligan). The Mogwai (who the name “Gizmo”) comes with very specific instructions about not getting them wet, not exposing them to sunlight, and not feeding them after midnight. Of course, instructions are not followed as they should and the sweet Gizmo reproduces a handful of horrific, slimy green monsters that begin to terrorize the town.
The Explorers (1985)
Let’s just start with the fact that both River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke star in this film, and that should already get your attention for its acting caliber. The Explorers in the story of a boy named Ben (Hawke) who is a fantastical dreamer who conjures a fantasy about space where he and his two friends Wolfgang (Phoenix) and Darren (Jason Pressman) take-off in a spaceship and explore extraterrestrial beings and the outer beyond. The film tanked at the box office, but found a long and happy life on cable television and in video rentals.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Even Disney got in on the science fiction rage of the 1980s with Flight of the Navigator, a thrilling adventure for any kid who ever hoped to pilot their own spacecraft. David Scott Freeman (Joey Cramer) falls into a ravine and wakes up after eight-years have passed, but he hasn’t aged. David has been altered by aliens who have planted spaceship technology in his brain. The government soon realizes that the boy has the power to operate a spaceship they have taken to a research facility. David activates the ship with the help of the robot Max, and takes off on an adventure of his own. When the government tracks him down, David asks Max to take him back eight-years (the ship can move through time) and David wakes up in the ravine and returns home as if the adventure never happened.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked their usual Muppet magic to startling effect in this fantasy film about a young boy named Jen who has been raised by the wise and honorable race known as the Mystics in a land that has been overrun by the evil Skeksis. Jen, who is the last-surviving member of his race, known as Gelflings, ventures out into the world to find a gem known as “The Dark Crystal” that can restore balance. His quest brings him in contact with some peculiar and fascinating creatures who either help or hinder his journey. The Dark Crystal is a bit like The Lord of the Rings, but on a much smaller scale.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
What speaks geek more than a movie about a teenager fascinated with arcade games whose talent for racking up high scores on one particular game leads to his being recruited for an intergalactic mission of war? Lance Guest plays Alex Rogan, the game-obsessed teenager, and the late great Robert Preston plays the alien Centauri who designed the game as a way of training humans to assist in the battle. Who among us wouldn’t have loved to be plucked from an arcade for this kind of adventure? No more need to save our quarters.
The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
Not all movies about misfits were centered in science fiction. In fact, one of the most powerful underdog movies of the 80s was The Legend of Billie Jean starring Helen Slater and Christian Slater. When Billie Jean, a Texas teenager, finds her little brother being taken advantage of by a local miscreant, she intercedes, only to have the man try and rape her. Her little brother shoots the guy, and together they go on the run, claiming justice for all the downtrodden. They become heroes and gain a following. One of the film’s highlights is the Pat Benatar anthem “Invincible”.
The Lost Boys (1987)
Forget about the world of Twilight, the coolest vampires EVER arrived on the screen in the 1980s film The Lost Boys. Santa Carla, California, is apparently overrun with blood suckers and is known as “The murder capital of the world”, but Sam (Corey Haim) and Michael (Jason Patric) are just two innocent teenagers who are transplanted there when their broke mother (Dianne Wiest) brings them to live with their grandfather (Barnard Hughes). When Michael is seduced by a posse of punk vampires, Sam recruits the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman/Jamison Newlander), comic book experts and vampire hunters, to bring down the perceived head vampire David (Kiefer Sutherland). Gerard McMahon’s “Cry Little Sister” made for a spooky, yet evocative, theme for when Michael becomes a creature of the night.
Space Camp (1986)
Every science nerd has dreamed of going to space camp where you get to practice in a flight simulator and learn about what it means to be an astronaut. Of course, in 1986, Hollywood got right on board with giving us that fantasy with Space Camp, about a group of just such kids. Of course, the story takes it a step further and the kids actually get onboard a real shuttle and are accidentally launched into space and then must figure out how to get home. The film was a bit of sleeper, but we all rented it over and over as soon as it hit video.
Short Circuit (1986)
"'Who’s Johnny?' she said, and smiled in that special way” El Debarge sang on Short Circuit’s soundtrack. “Johnny” is of course a reference to Johnny 5, the government robot designed by Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) who takes on a loveable personality of his own when he is struck by lightning. He runs away and ends up at the home of Stephanie (Ally Sheedy) who teaches him to be almost human. The government tries to track him down and reclaim him for use in Cold War-related intelligence and maneuvers, but the robot continues to act of his own free will and of course escapes in the end.
Back to the Future (1985)
Okay, technically this (and The Karate Kid) are both part of franchises, but the original films in their respective trilogies stand-alone beautifully. No list of 80’s geek movies would be complete without Back to the Future. A mad scientist (Christopher Lloyd) creates a time machine out of a car and sends his young protégé Marty (Michael J. Fox), back in time to the 1950s. There, Marty encounters his parents as teenagers and must tread carefully when he accidentally alters his possible future by engaging with them. It’s a brilliant film about time travel and the effects it could have on altering the past