Screenwriter Rod Serling made a name for himself in the 1950s in Hollywood composing successful teleplays but found himself dissatisfied with behind-the-scenes politics and the disinterest of viewers on controversial topics. It occurred to Serling to approach the field of science fiction in order to delve into controversial issues that would be both entertaining and enlightening at the same time. This concept developed into the anthology television series The Twilight Zone which went on to be considered one of the best TV series of all time. Lasting for five seasons, the series would run in syndication and can generally be found somewhere on TV any given week even today. Warner Bros would eventually obtain the film rights to the show and hired Steven Spielberg to produce a motion picture based on the series. Spielberg surrounded himself with some of the best creators in the industry including John Landis, George Miller, and Joe Dante to make the film which would be composed of several segments including three based on episodes from the original series. However, the film would be marred by an accident on the set of the “Time Out” segment from Landis when a helicopter crashed and killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors illegally hired to work on the set. In addition to the ensuing court battle, the incident would end the strong friendship between Spielberg and Landis. The film would open to mixed reviews and modest earnings, enough to prompt a new The Twilight Zone TV series that lasted three seasons.
Many of the science fiction films and series of the 1980s carried a notably serious tone in their execution. 1984 would see several more lighthearted fair begin to emerge, notably in the film The Ice Pirates. Starring Robert Urich as the space pirate Jason, water becomes so scarce its considered currency (dispensed in ice cubes) with the Templars of Mithra holding a monopoly on the commodity. When rumor emerges of a planet covered in water, Jason’s crew and the Templars cross swords to see who can claim it first. The film would have modest success but is generally panned by critics. A few months after Ice Pirates arrived, the film company Troma Entertainment would have its first hit in The Toxic Avenger. Founded in the mid-70s by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, Troma specialized in Z-movies (bottom budget films below B-movies) that generally employed shock value with gore and sexual content. Such was true for Toxic Avenger which featured nerdy janitor Melvin Ferd transformed into a grotesque monster who becomes something of an accidental superhero that rids Tromaville of its criminals. The film made back its budget and then some becoming a cult classic for Troma that spawned three sequels (a fourth in development since 2010), an animated series called Toxic Crusaders, and a stage musical. The franchise would become Troma’s most popular and its main character (nicknamed “Toxie”) would become its mascot. A remake for the original film has been in development since 2010. Troma would follow Toxic Avenger with Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) which became another hit spawning two sequels with a remake of the original said to be in development since 2010. A few months after Toxic Avenger premiered in New York, another unique take on the SF field emerged in theaters.
Screenwriter W. D. Richter through his wife came upon the novel Dirty Pictures from the Prom by Earl Mac Rauch in 1974. Richter loved the book and contacted Mac Rauch (both alumni of Dartmouth College) and offered him an invitation to visit him in Los Angeles. Mac Rauch would take Richter up on his offer years later where over time he discussed a character he developed called Buckaroo Bandy that he wanted to produce a screenplay around. This concept would grow into the character Buckaroo Banzai and the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! Buckaroo (portrayed by Peter Weller) was something of a Renaissance man being an equally accomplished scientist, artist, philosopher, doctor, fighter, and musician. The film’s plot revolves around a device Buckaroo created that would allow him to pass through solid matter only for the test to see him pass through the 8th dimension. As it turns out, Earth was the staging ground of an exiled alien race called the Red Lectroids plotting its revenge for its banishment by the Black Lectroids requiring such a device as Buckaroo created to return home. Buckaroo and his team the Hong Kong Cavaliers must stop the Red Lectroids from following through with their plan or the Black Lectroids will destroy Earth in retaliation. The film would be a flop, considered too challenging for the movie going audience to digest on the rich mythology found in the work. However, the film would accrue a cult following and become a comic book series published by Moonstone Books beginning in 2006. Two months after Buckaroo Banzai came to theaters, a blockbuster SF franchise would get its start that continues to thrive today.
In 1977, truck driver James Cameron saw the movie Star Wars and realized he wanted to work in the film industry. Working various jobs in the field including special effects on Escape from New York, Cameron would get his big break in 1981 when he replaced the director on Piranha II: The Spawning. The advent would be short-lived when he too would be replaced, but he continued to work on the film as part of the crew and, during the movie’s release, he would have a dream about a metal torso dragging itself from an explosion. Idolizing John Carpenter who made it big with his low-budget slasher film Halloween, Cameron combined elements of his dream with a slasher component and various other SF works he admired to produce the script for The Terminator. After rounding out the script with help from his friend Bill Wisher, Cameron would sell the rights to the project for one dollar to Gale Anne Hurd for the promise he would direct it. Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator (who was at work on Conan the Barbarian) and the relative unknown actor Michael Biehn as protagonist Kyle Reese, the plot revolved around a future where Earth is taken over by Skynet (a self-aware artificial intelligence defense network) and a robot assassin is dispatched to the past to kill the mother of human rebel leader John Connor before he is born. Learning of the plot, John sends soldier Kyle Reese to the past to protect his mother Sarah (played by Linda Hamilton). The Terminator proves unrelenting and the pair are forced to do battle with the robot for the sake of mankind. Orion Pictures, who had little faith in the film, had a limited release only for the picture to be number one at box office. Receiving critical acclaim and considered one of the year’s best films, Terminator became a major franchise spawning four movie sequels (the most recent in 2015), a television series in 2008, and was spread across various other mediums including comics and video games. Two months after the first Terminator came to theaters, an SF film that seemed would never became a reality finally arrived at the cinema.
As noted, Frank Herbert’s Dune spent years in developmental limbo. Ridley Scott would abandon the project to make Blade Runner and David Lynch would be hired to replace him. After making the cult classic Eraserhead (1977) and mainstream hit The Elephant Man (1980), Lynch was brought in to take over Dune after producer Dino De Laurentiis nearly lost the rights to the work. In the film, the families House Atreides and the Harkonnens had been bitter enemies for generations. When Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, ruler of the known universe, feared the growing power of Duke Leto Atreides (patriarch of his clan), he turned over control of the planet Arrakis (source of the Spice, the most valuable commodity in the universe that could fold space) to Atreides from the vile Harkonnens. This was a trap staged by the Emperor where, with his support, the Harkonnens could wipe out their foes and his involvement would be unknown. However, the Duke’s pregnant wife Jessica and son Paul escape and align with the planet’s native desert people called the Fremen forming a rebellion against the Harkonnens and Emperor. It comes to light over the course of this journey that Paul is the universe’s fabled superbeing known as the Kwisatz Haderach wielding immense power. The release of the film was heavily buzzed and advertised due in part to the popularity of its base material only to end up a box office dud. Critics cited the film as being incomprehensible and visually unappealing that, despite the great expense spent on the film, featured terrible special effects. At least two sequels were planned adopting later books in the series which were subsequently canceled. Cable network SCI FI (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel) would later produce a series of mini-series based on the books beginning in 2000 which were highly-rated for the channel and won Emmy awards. In 2013, a documentary was released that explored Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune called Jodorowsky’s Dune. The same day David Lynch’s Dune premiered, so would another work of science fiction by John Carpenter.
Michael Douglas, son of Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, was on the road to becoming a star himself following his role in the popular TV series The Streets of San Francisco in 1972. However, the actor would also take an active role behind the camera as well working as a producer. In such a capacity, he convinced Columbia Pictures to buy a script for a film called Starman around 1979. Unfortunately, the script would fall into limbo when the film studio shortly afterward hired Steven Spielberg to produce the project Night Skies which they felt shared a number of similarities with Starman. When Spielberg abandoned Night Skies to make E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, they also felt this work too closely resembled the story of Starman. The script would pass from scriptwriter to scriptwriter and director to director before director John Carpenter was hired and dictated he wanted to focus on the cross-country journey aspect of the work. With this in mind, a final draft was completed and the film finally went into production after four to five years on the shelf. The plot follows NASA’s attempt to invite alien cultures to Earth where one such civilization received the message and sent a scout ship that the US government subsequently shot down. Needing to make contact, the alien entity emerged from its downed vessel to the home of recently widowed Jenny Hayden becoming a clone of her dead husband Scott (played by Jeff Bridges). Imploring Jenny for her help to get to a rendezvous location for pick-up before he expires in three days, the pair travel across the country where they fall in love along the way. The film was positively received and made a modest gross income inspiring a 1986 TV series by the same name. A month after Starman emerged in theaters, a novel would arrive in bookstores that would be a resounding triumph for its author.
Orson Scott Card shifted from poet to scriptwriter during his time matriculating at Brigham Young University before becoming an associate editor for Ensign, an official magazine for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (of which Card is a devout member and missionary). Card would write a short story entitled “Ender’s Game” which would find publication in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 1977. Eventually, Card would find enough work producing novels that he could become a full-time freelance writer to support his family, eventually expanding “Ender’s Game” into a full novel going into 1985. In this expanded story, Earth is menaced by an insectoid alien race referred as the “buggers.” In preparation for a coming third conflict, the Battle School is founded taking some of the planet’s most brilliant children and have them participate in games intended to develop strategies against the buggers’ massive numbers. One student rises above the rest in Andrew “Ender” Wiggin who unknowingly wins the war in what he believed was his final exam by all but exterminating the bugger race. The book would be a hit as it won several awards and became recommended reading for the U.S. Marine Corps. It would become the basis of a series with fourteen subsequent entries (the latest in 2014) with at least four more planned and would be adapted into a feature film in 2013 by the same name. In the summer of 1985, a famous child actor would direct a notable work of science fiction for the big screen.
Ron Howard became a staple of American pop culture for his roles in classic shows such as The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days but the actor would start another career behind the camera in the late ’70s. Directing low budget and TV movies, Howard would get his big break in 1982 with Night Shift (where he worked with former co-star Henry Winkler) which was followed by another major hit in Splash starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah in 1984. The director’s next project would be the 1985 science fiction picture Cocoon. Based on an unpublished novel by David Saperstein turned into a screenplay by Tom Benedek, Cocoon became a victim of studio politics as it floated around 20th Century Fox studios for four years due to a constantly changing administration. The picture would finally gain traction when the project was awarded to director Robert Zemeckis, an unproven talent at the time. However, when Zemeckis’ 1984 film Romancing the Stone tested poorly with a focus group, the young director was stripped of Cocoon (subsequently, Romancing the Stone was a blockbuster at the box office). Largely handed a film that had many of its pieces already prepared to begin, Howard saw some of the plot of the film changed focusing more on the characters than the picture’s SF elements (feeling that the market was to a degree saturated with aliens). The result was a huge hit for the young director and the studio. Cocoon featured a trio of retirees stumbling upon a mission by alien beings to retrieve members of their race abandoned on Earth 10,000 years ago. The process by which prepares those left behind (entombed in cocoons) for the trip home infuses health and vitality into the elderly men. Cocoon would feature several notable older actors including Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, and Gwen Verdon as well as Steve Guttenberg who was the star of the Police Academy film series at the time. Cocoon would spawn a sequel in 1988. Where Cocoon focused on the older generation of Hollywood, an SF film would appear in theaters a few weeks later with some of the industry’s newest young talent.
Joe Dante was a director in Hollywood that seemingly came out of nowhere with the surprise hit The Howling (1981) about werewolves at a mountain resort (which started an ongoing collaboration with actor Robert Picardo). Seen as something of a young gun, Dante would be picked by Steven Spielberg to direct one of the segments of the Twilight Zone movie before Dante tackled what became another blockbuster in 1984’s Gremlins. Following this success, Dante was hired to direct another science fiction piece in Explorers (1985). Considering the success of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), studios were looking to tap into that same massive audience and with the script to Explorers, Paramount sought Wolfgang Petersen to bring it to life after the acclaim he garnered with The NeverEnding Story (1984). When the studio decided to film the picture in the United States rather than Petersen’s native Germany, the director left to go to work instead on the film Enemy Mine. When Dante was given the script, he felt the plot was too light but was promised he could add to the story while filming. Explorers would be the first work of two major figures in Hollywood in the years to come in Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix who were the film’s stars (along with Jason Presson). Therein, Hawke’s character Ben dreams about a circuit which he sketches only for his friend Wolfgang (Phoenix) to build the circuit which became the catalyst of building a spacecraft they dubbed the Thunder Road. Along with Presson’s character, the three boys employ the craft only for it to be hijacked and venture into a much larger space vessel. They discover the dreams were transmissions sent by a pair of adolescent aliens (the male of which portrayed by Robert Picardo, who had three roles in the picture) who were hoping some humans would build the circuit and come visit to play. Explorers‘ production was plagued with problems, most of which derived from a change in the studio’s administration which significantly rushed the film’s development to be in theaters sooner to take advantage of the summer market. So, the movie was barely cobbled together and an ending was filmed such that the picture at least had one only to premiere in theaters the same weekend as the historic Live Aid concert. Suffice to say, these elements converged to produce a flop. Since then, the movie would develop a cult following through the home media and cable market. While Explorers would prove to be a box office dud, another film in theaters at the same time would be an SF juggernaut.
Noted earlier, director Robert Zemeckis was considered an unproven talent in Hollywood until the success of the film Romancing the Stone (1984) which became a huge box office draw. It was the prestige he gained with Romancing the Stone that allowed him to make his next film, Back to the Future. Conceived by writer Bob Gale and Zemeckis in 1980, the pair shopped the script around Hollywood finding its middle-ground nature (slightly controversial but not overtly so) made it so no one thought it could work. After the heat Zemeckis generated in ticket sales however, the duo were able to approach their friend Steven Spielberg to produce (Spielberg had previously produced two of Zemeckis’ films only for them to flop). With such names attached, the movie was fast-tracked as young star Michael J. Fox of Family Ties fame was approached to star only for his television commitments to make him unavailable. Instead, Eric Stoltz, who garnered acclaim for his role in Mask (1985), was cast but four weeks into shooting, Zemeckis and Spielberg realized they needed Fox and made a deal with Family Ties producer Gary David Goldberg in order to get him. Over budget and off schedule, Back to the Future was shot and featured Fox as Marty McFly, a teenage would-be musician who befriended a brilliant (if not eccentric) scientist named “Doc” Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) that invented a time machine out of a DeLorean sports car. When Brown is seemingly killed and McFly’s life is endangered, the youth hops into the DeLorean and becomes stranded thirty years in the past of his hometown. When McFly accidentally interferes in the fateful meeting of his own parents, he must find a way to bring them together lest he wipes himself out of existence while the Doc Brown of the past must try to find a way to send Marty back to the future. The movie was a smash hit at the cinema becoming the highest grossing film of the year (at one point, its closest competition at the box office was Teen Wolf which also starred Fox), won several awards including a Hugo, Saturn, and an Oscar, and is considered one of the best science fiction pictures of all time. Back to the Future would spawn two sequels and an animated series and made Fox a major player on the motion picture scene. A month after Back to the Future hit theaters, another SF film with young stars made its way to the big screen.