From juggernaut franchises such as Star Wars and Back to the Future, to cult classics like Tron and The Thing, the 1980s brimmed with quality sci-fi films, honestly, from start to finish. It was the most popular, lucrative genre of the decade, and now we’re looking at the ten guys that steered it all into into fruition.
10. David Cronenberg
An absolute force in the realm of horror, Cronenberg’s movies all utilize prominent elements of science fiction. Whether it’s powers of telepathy in Scanners or conspiracies regarding mind control in Videodrome, his films are arguably just as known for their emphasis on science as they are for creeping people out.
I mean, the entire plot of The Fly is completely driven by science fiction. When someone as popular as Cronenberg directs an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, you’d think it’d be in the genre of horror. However, The Dead Zone in 1983 is a science fiction thriller from start to finish, no horror involved, and it’s arguably the best King adaptation to date.
9. Steven Lisberger
Aside from a movie that you’ve probably never heard of called Slipstream—released in ’89, received mostly negative reviews, collected hardly any revenue at the box office—Steven Lisberger’s impact on science fiction rivals that of the greats. It’s just, the movie at hand wasn’t quite as great as the films you’ll find at the top of the list.
The first major motion picture to utilize computer generated imagery, Tron in 1982 set the standard for Hollywood director’s to come. John Lasseter—former chief creative officer of both Disney and Pixar—once said, “Without Tron, there would be no Toy Story.”
Let that one sink in.
8. Joe Dante
Upon first glance, Innerspace’s plot feels a trifle like a cheap knockoff of Honey I Shrunk the Kids, until it’s revealed that the former came out first. Also, it’s generally a better movie—fun sci-fi elements, clever back-and-forth dialogue, and great performances from both Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.
Dante also directed Explorers in 1985, and while it bombed at the box office, it garnered decent reviews, and featured the debuts of both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. Plus, it’s now considered a cult classic. Tacking on the most well-received segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, it’s clear that Dante did more than enough to slide in at number eight.
7. Ridley Scott
Let me get this out of the way: Blade Runner is not exactly my cup of tea. While I’m cognizant of its impact on science fiction cinema, I don’t consider whatever status that may be on compelling plot points or witty dialogue or poignant character moments. Its legacy seems to stem, rather, from the movie’s picturesque depiction of a dystopian society.
I mean, the film is downright beautiful, and it delivers an indelible intrigue that feels inherent with its intelligent world design. Blade Runner painted a clear picture that filmmakers have scrutinized ever since its release, and that will likely be the case for years to come.
6. Richard Marquand
A hooded Luke Skywalker approaches Jabba’s Palace, and when he enters, combat will ensue inside one of the most enticing first acts in all of cinema—from Han accidentally knocking Boba into the Sarlacc pit to Princess Leia hoisting Jabba by his own petard, the whole exchange is more captivating than the prequels and the sequels in their entirety.
Any given movie in this franchise is likely to be the biggest event of its respective year, and Return of the Jedi proved no different in 1983. Albeit the two previous entries remain the most beloved of the original trilogy, and they ultimately accrued more revenue at the box office, Marquand’s masterpiece was the highest grossing movie its year, and those numbers aren’t close.
5. Steven Spielberg
Easily the most profitable director of the decade—and, in my opinion, the most well-rounded director in general—Spielberg mastered a golden menagerie of genres throughout the 80s, from fun action-adventures and sci-fi joints to Best Picture-winning period dramas.
But in 1982, a certain family-friendly film shattered any doubt that Steven Spielberg was a figure to be reckoned with in Hollywood. When adjusted for inflation, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial remains his second-highest grossing movie ever right behind Jaws, and those numbers span a whopping fifty-year career.
In fact, it was the highest grossing movie of the entire decade—I think that really says it all.
4. Robert Zemeckis
Time travel is perhaps the most prominent recurring phenomena in all of science fiction, and Zemeckis’s Back to the Future franchise is arguably the most popular example thereof. While the western-inspired third entry came out in the nineties, films one and two in this revered series released in 1985 and 1988, respectively.
They were both wickedly inventive and surprisingly thrilling, and they appealed to audiences of all ages, all across America. This rendered Marty McFly and Doc Brown instant household names, and their cultural impact remains tangible to this day. Maybe one day, those hover-boards from Part II will be just as palpable as their legacy.
3. Ivan Kershner
From comedies and dramas to mysteries and westerns, Kershner’s career stretched throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but frankly, it was never anything to write home about. Then, came 1980.
Perhaps the greatest science fiction film of all time, The Empire Strikes Back was influential to filmmakers everywhere—not just within realms of speculative fiction.
Underlining its importance forty years after its release feels remarkably redundant, as everyone understands its impact, but I’ll toss in two cents nonetheless: okay, given how the film so seamlessly weaved two plot points back and forth to result in arguably the best twist in cinema history while also mixing smart and suspenseful scenes of action into every corner, it’s no wonder why the film’s so widely praised all these years later.
2. John Carpenter
While prominently known for his horror flicks, most of John Carpenter’s filmography teems with elements of science fiction, from parasitic life-forms to manipulative aliens. In 1981 he released Escape From New York, and in the following year, Carpenter directed The Thing, which remains not only one of his best works, but one of the most beloved science fiction movies ever.
He then put out a movie called Starman in 1984, and rounded out the decade with They Live in ’88. Audiences go back-and-forth regarding the gravity of ‘quality over quantity’, but much like Spielberg in the same decade, Carpenter proved that balancing the two is anything but impossible.
1. James Cameron
Though Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed Conan the Barbarian earlier in the decade, his role as the titular Terminator is what put him on the acting map back in 1984.
The film didn’t garner tremendous value at the box office, but it’s a clear mainstay in the Hollywood history books if not for its quotes alone. “Come with me if you want to live,” and, “I’ll be back,” are two of the most iconic lines in cinema, and as a whole, the movie is a science fiction roller coaster. And thus, The Governator was born.
Following that up would be difficult for anyone other than James Cameron, who came in with a one-two punch of Aliens in ’86 and The Abyss in ‘89. The former was one of the highest grossing movies of its year, and both films are still held in high regard. That’s three movies in six years, and they’ll all appear on any given list of the best sci-fi movies ever made.
If 1980s Hollywood was all aboard the proverbial science fiction boat, then I’d say without a doubt that James Cameron was its captain.
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