Director John Carpenter had his first major film released in 1974 with Dark Star, a science fiction movie he co-created with Dan O’Bannon (who, as noted, went on to co-create Alien). However, Carpenter’s first big blockbuster would be Halloween in 1978 which, as mentioned in a previous part of “The ’80s – Geek Edition,” gave rise to the slasher genre of the ’80s. Carpenter followed the success of that film with another blockbuster horror movie in The Fog in 1980. This was followed directly by Escape from New York in 1981 (though, the director had wanted to make this film for almost ten years by this point). In the near future, crime would become a massive epidemic and grew faster than the authorities could cope with containment. In a desperate maneuver, the island of Manhattan was evacuated and turned into a prison for the United States’ worst criminals to serve a life sentence. Nine years later, a terrorist attack on Air Force One forces the President of the USA to land in Manhattan while on his way to a peace conference to avert a world war (or, more accurately, the assured mutual destruction of humanity from nuclear warfare). With the fate of the world on the line and the president taken prisoner by the most powerful gang leader in New York, the government authorizes a mercenary named “Snake” Plissken to infiltrate the island and return the president and the audiotape he carried intended for the summit. The part of Snake was given to Kurt Russell who had previously worked with Carpenter on the TV film Elvis and was eager to shake his good guy image from years of acting in Disney films and projects (Russell and Carpenter would go on to become frequent collaborators). Escape would become another hit for Carpenter, spawning a sequel and is in the process of being rebooted at the box office. The film would become an inspiration for William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series. Roughly a month after Escape from New York premiered in theaters, an animated film emerged that helped test the boundaries of what could be done with the genre.
In the 1970s, animated films began emerging that questioned the idea that cartoons were simply for children. Specifically, in 1972, director Ralph Bakshi made his debut with Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated animated feature film in US history and featured drugs, sex, and violence. He followed this up with more groundbreaking works like Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), American Pop (1981), and Fire and Ice (1983). As this revolution in animation transpired, American comics were likewise being tested in new ways. One such way was National Lampoon‘s desire to get into the comic field resulting largely in being the American distributor for France’s Métal Hurlant magazine for its publication Heavy Metal in 1977. The following year, National Lampoon would get into the movie business with its hit Animal House before shifting gears and producing an R-rated Heavy Metal animated film in 1981. An anthology work adapting many stories from the magazine based around the Loc-Nar, a green orb that is the sum of all evils, the storyline prominently featured violence, sex, and drug use. Further, the film was very much entrenched in music featuring the work of Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Journey, Stevie Nicks, and Devo (a fact that kept it off the home video market for some years) and comedy employing the Canadian Second City improv troupe with John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, and Joe Flaherty (performers who would often times work with Ivan Reitman who co-produced Heavy Metal). The movie did well at box office and would get a sequel in Heavy Metal 2000. A few months after the release of Heavy Metal, Britain would produce another SF film that defied convention.
Terry Gilliam was an animator who gained fame as a member of the famous British comedy troupe Monty Python and would co-direct their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Gilliam took to screenwriting and directing making a fantasy film in 1977 called Jabberwocky which didn’t perform well only to then create the film Time Bandits in 1981. Co-writing with Monty Python alum Michael Palin (as John Cleese appeared in the film as Robin Hood), the story follows a little boy named Kevin who’s dragged throughout history in a scheme by six dwarves to rob the riches of antiquity using a map of time portals they stole from the Supreme Being. They’re tracked, however, by a powerful wizard named Evil who wishes to take the map and alter the universe to his own design. Gilliam found it virtually impossible to obtain funding for the film or a company to distribute it only to have former Beatle George Harrison step in to foot the expenses and a desperate distributor to finally release the picture to the public. The movie would be a blockbuster, becoming Gilliam’s most successful film in America to date and made possible the director’s next project, a dystopian SF film named Brazil in 1985 (the director would attribute some of the success of Time Bandits to the casting of Sean Connery as Agamemnon and a fireman). Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) would go on to form the informal trilogy known as the “Trilogy of Imagination” which dealt with the power of imagination throughout life through the eyes of a boy, man, and elder. During the Summer of 1982, two of the most prominent works of science fiction in the 1980s would find their way to American theaters only two weeks apart.
Following the success of Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), it seemed director Steven Spielberg had the Midas Touch and more-or-less invented the so-called “summer blockbuster.” Spielberg was approached to make a sequel to Close Encounters, of which he had no desire to do but he didn’t want a sequel to proceed without him as had happened with Jaws. Instead, he decided to make an SF horror film about a family terrorized by small aliens. However, at the time, he was contractually obligated to direct his next picture for Universal and so he would have to instead take a producer credit on this film that would be titled Night Skies. Hiring screenwriters to work on its story, Spielberg worked on Raiders and, as time passed, the concept of the film begin to sour on him as he was in the midst of the organized chaos of timed explosions and face-melting Nazis. Reading the finished script to Harrison Ford’s then-girlfriend (later wife) Melissa Mathison, she was touched by the subplot involving a friendship formed by one of the aliens and the autistic son of the family. Spielberg decided to split the components of Night Skies into two separate, distinct films in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist (which created a multitude of legal issues largely resolved by the influence Spielberg had developed due to his success). Mathison would produce a first draft of E.T. which was influenced by the finale of Night Skies where the friendly alien was left abandoned on Earth. The final product featured a boy named Elliot who befriends a small alien he calls E.T. who was left on Earth and helps him to get home while hiding him from his mother and the government (the film would be the big break for actress Drew Barrymore who played Elliot’s younger sister). E.T. would not only be a big hit at box office, it surpassed Star Wars as the highest grossing film of all time (until the emergence of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993) and was the highest grossing film of the 1980s (today, it is considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made). While in theaters, Spielberg and Mathison produced a script for a sequel called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears that would have featured evil aliens but it never materialized. Two weeks after the premiere of E.T., arguably the most famous example of a cyberpunk film would find its way to theaters.
Following the release of Alien to movie theaters, director Ridley Scott would be hired to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 SF novel Dune for the big screen. However, the project seemed doomed to ever transition to live action as an attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky exhausted its budget and Scott couldn’t gain enough traction to bring his version to reality. Scott would depart the project and sought a more fast-paced film to make, agreeing to adapt Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This new venture, however, seemed to have its own unique difficulties between several script revisions (several of which were viewed unfavorably by Dick) and the film having its funds withdrawn ten days before the shooting of principal photography. However, funding was secured from several new studios including the Ladd Company and Shaw Brothers and the film, named Blade Runner, began shooting. The project would continue to be troubled as Scott had never filmed with an American crew previously which created tension from both sides, Harrison Ford (who was hired to star based on his performance in Raiders of the Lost Ark) was opinionated about the role creating friction with the director and studio, and the process ran significantly over budget leading to executives consistently coming down to threaten to shut down production. The movie’s plot centered around Deckard, an expert Blade Runner (special police operatives hired to hunt replicants, bio-engineered humanoids used for menial labor), forced out of retirement to eliminate a quartet of replicants hiding on Earth in dystopian Los Angeles. Blade Runner would come to theaters two weeks after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial premiered and would be a flop, running against such other notable films as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, E.T., Firefox, and The Thing. However, over time the film would become a cult classic, today considered one of the best SF films ever produced. This was especially true overseas, becoming a huge influence on Japanese animation, notably Bubblegum Crisis (1987) and the work of Masamune Shirow (Black Magic, Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell). As noted, Blade Runner would run on the same day against another prominent SF work of the ’80s in The Thing.
Following the success of Escape from New York, John Carpenter decided to adapt John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? (which was previously used to produce the 1951 film The Thing from Another World). Again teaming with Kurt Russell who starred in the picture, The Thing centered around a research team in Antarctica infiltrated by an alien entity discovered by Norwegian researchers that had crashed on Earth over 100,000 years ago. Able to assimilate and mimic animals it comes into contact with, the alien begins taking over the base’s residents. Playing on the primal fears of isolation and paranoia, The Thing combines some of the finer elements of both SF and horror. Unfortunately, as with Blade Runner, it flopped in the face of other pictures, notably E.T. (being Carpenter’s first major hiccup at the box office). Following the commercial failure of The Thing, Carpenter’s next picture in Firestarter (based on the novel by Stephen King) was handed to another director (though, coincidentally, Carpenter’s next film would be King’s Christine). As with Blade Runner, The Thing would develop a cult following in later years and Carpenter considered the piece the first in an informal film trilogy he labeled the “Apocalypse Trilogy” with Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995) which all featured bleak endings whose subject matter could mean the end of the world. A prequel of The Thing would be produced in 2010 also named The Thing that centered around the Norwegian research team. A week after Blade Runner and The Thing made it to theaters, an animated film from former Walt Disney animators would arrive to cinema.
Working throughout the 1970s as an animator for The Walt Disney Company, Don Bluth set out to start his own studio in 1979 taking several Disney animators with him to form Don Bluth Productions. The new company’s first film was The Secret of NIMH based on Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Therein, mouse widower Mrs. Brisby must find a means to save her family from the plow of Farmer Fitzgibbons. In this, she seeks the aid of the Great Owl who directs her to neighboring rats led by Nicodemus, learning the rats and her deceased husband were the subject of experiments in a research facility named NIMH. There the rodents were imparted with an advanced intellect and extended lifespans. However, this gift came at a cost where they must rely on the use of human technology in order to survive. Due to the connection between Brisby and the rats, they agree to move her home as NIMH prepares to exterminate the escaped rodents. Despite receiving critical acclaim, NIMH proved a commercial failure in the face of such previously noted competition at the box office. The hit meant Don Bluth Productions declaring bankruptcy but would find a saving grace in the arcade game Dragon’s Lair leading to future films like An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). NIMH would eventually more than recoup its losses on the home video and cable market and a sequel would be released in 1998. While 1982 would have an extremely strong theater presence, a new series in the science fiction arena would become a hit on television that year.
Following his work on Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Glen A. Larson went to work on various other TV shows such as Magnum, P.I. and The Fall Guy. Wanting to return to SF, Larson conceived of a modern day Lone Ranger but whose Tonto would be a car. Thus was born Knight Rider featuring Michael Knight (played by David Hasselhoff), a former undercover police officer, saved by the organization FLAG (Foundation for Law and Government) in order to become their chief operative and operator of KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a heavily modified high performance vehicle implanted with an advanced artificial intellect. The show would be a huge hit and merchandising smash as its star David Hasselhoff became a sex symbol and KITT would be translated into various toys and collectibles. The original series would be on the air for four seasons, spawn three TV movies, a spin-off series, and two subsequent TV series the most recent of which was in 2008. Larson would continue work in television for the science fiction field with series such as Automan, Manimal, and The Highwayman (which starred Flash Gordon‘s Sam J. Jones). The year after Knight Rider came to television, another notable SF series would arrive on TV screens as an allegory for fascism.
Director Kenneth Johnson approached NBC to adapt for television Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here about a US senator who is elected President and uses that authority to take over the country as a modern-day king. The network, however, thought Johnson’s treatment was too cerebral for its audience and so the director took the prominence of SF in pop culture at the time to rework his story’s fascists into aliens. The result, V, became a 1983 TV mini-series that cost $13 million to produce that featured the alien Visitors who come to Earth to exchange its advanced technology for chemicals and minerals found on Earth necessary for their planet. However, journalist Michael Donovan (portrayed by Marc Singer) uncovers the Visitors to not be the saviors they pretend to be as he learns they plan to steal Earth’s water and capture its people for food. As the Visitors take over control of Earth’s communications, Donovan is forced to go underground as an outlaw and a rebellion is formed to combat the alien threat. The two-part series would prove to be popular, its finale the second most popular program to air on television for the week. A sequel was ordered in V: The Final Battle intended to finish the story but its popularity led to an ongoing TV series. For Final Battle, actor Michael Ironside was added to the cast as former mercenary Ham Tyler who added a new dimension for action that helped militarize the rebellion and developed a unique relationship with star Michael Donovan (who knew and reviled Tyler from before the war with the Visitors). Johnson would leave the project with Final Battle and the show’s quality dropped which led to a drop in interest and led to cancellation. ABC would reboot the series for television in 2009 which lasted two seasons. A month after the original V mini-series emerged on television, a prominent science fiction film premiered in theaters that asked the question “Shall we play a game?”
Writers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker developed a script called The Genius in 1979 about a brilliant scientist coming toward the end of his life and his sole friend in a rebellious teenager. During this process, the writers learned of a growing culture in the country of young hackers which changed their story toward such a hacker breaking into a military computer. This new story would be the basis of the 1983 film WarGames. Therein, young hacker David Lightman (portrayed by Matthew Broderick in his first breakout role) stumbles upon the NORAD supercomputer WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), which has the code name “Joshua,” a learning computer that controls the US military and runs simulations to determine strategies with high probabilities for success. Believing the computer to simply have a library of games, Lightman initiates a global thermonuclear war scenario which Joshua can’t discern from being a game or reality. Learning what he did, Lightman must track down Joshua’s creator and try to stop the computer from beginning World War III. WarGames would become critically acclaimed and a box office hit. A sequel would emerge in 2008 called WarGames: The Dead Code and a reboot was announced to be in development in 2011. Three weeks after WarGames arrived in theaters, a popular television series would return but would do so on the big screen from Steven Spielberg and John Landis.