Director John Hughes was something of an institution in the 1980s. Known for his coming of age stories, Hughes directed three films for his first year as a director and at least two of them were some of the work he would come to be best known for in his career. Hughes made his debut as a director with Sixteen Candles, nine months later came The Breakfast Club, and six months after that was Weird Science (all of which featured young actor Anthony Michael Hall who Hughes first worked with on National Lampoon’s Vacation). Weird Science was a science fiction comic from the 1950s published by EC Comics whose film rights were acquired by producer Joel Silver. Silver sent boxes of the comics to Hughes’ office but Hughes would develop the film’s concept just from looking at the title’s name. Hughes would ask Silver what if two kids made the beautiful woman that Hughes and Silver had seen earlier in the day. The director would compose the script within two days which featured two youths who made a beautiful woman named Lisa (played by Kelly Le Brock) using a computer whom coincidentally had the power to alter reality (heralding back to some sort of genie). The film would be another hit for Hughes and would later inspire a TV series by the same name in 1994 that ran for five seasons. A remake of Weird Science has been in development since 2013. A month after Weird Science premiered, a TV series based on an SF magazine from the mind of Steven Spielberg emerged on the air.
Amazing Stories was the first magazine dedicated solely to science fiction and would remain in circulation for almost eighty years beginning in 1926. The publication would be the first avenue of many notable SF writers including Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin. Steven Spielberg would license the name for TV and, in 1985, Amazing Stories emerged as an anthology series featuring SF, horror, and fantasy. Despite lasting two seasons and earning multiple awards including five Emmys, the show never had very high ratings and would be canceled. The show Family Dog would spin out of an episode of Amazing Stories and a concept for an episode of the series was expanded into the 1987 film Batteries Not Included. It was announced in 2015 the show is being brought back for NBC. A few months after Amazing Stories premiered on the air, director Wolfgang Petersen would adapt another story for the big screen in Enemy Mine. Mentioned briefly earlier, the film was adapted from a novella of the same name by Barry B. Longyear in 1979. The film starred Dennis Quaid as Willis E. Davidge and Louis Gossett, Jr. as Jeriba Shigan who are opposing soldiers in an intergalactic war marooned on an uninhabited planet. Forced to cooperate in order to survive, the pair become good friends only for Jeriba to reproduce asexually and die in childbirth. Promising to take the child to join its people, Willis must found a means of escaping the planet and keeping the wishes of his fallen friend. The film would be a significant failure at box office and received mixed reviews from critics. Some more family friendly fair would find its way to the big screen in 1986.
Screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock would meet while attending the University of Southern California where they produced a series of educational films. In one such film, they used stop motion to have a robot illustrate how a library works. An idea struck them about how would humans react to a living robot. This idea blossomed into the story Short Circuit (1986). For the film, a military robot designated Number 5 is struck by lightning and develops sentience. Its newborn curiosity brings it to the doorstep of Stephanie Speck (played by Ally Sheedy), a woman who operates an animal rescue and food truck. As the military consider 5 a mobile weapon that has gone haywire, they seek to destroy it while its designer Newton Crosby (portrayed by Steve Guttenberg) wants to capture and disassemble it to uncover its malfunction. Stephanie and 5 are forced to go on the run in hopes of saving 5’s life. The picture would do well at box office and would be followed by a sequel which also performed well. A third picture was in development but its producers felt the story didn’t work (featuring the robot, now called Johnny 5, going to college). A television series was also considered but abandoned. Johnny 5 would make its final appearance in “Hot Cars, Cold Facts,” an educational film about automobile theft. A reboot of the original film has been in development since 2008. Almost three months after the original film’s release, Disney would premiere a film about a boy and his spaceship on the run from the government.
As a child, screenwriter Mark H. Baker dreamed about having his own spaceship he could use to travel to anywhere he wanted. It was this fantasy that inspired Baker to pen the story that would become the film Flight of the Navigator (1986). Therein, preteen David Freeman is abducted by an alien vessel and taken to another planet called Phaelon where he is examined and then returned home. However, due to time dilation from space travel, he remained relatively unaged while eight years passed on Earth. Quarantined by the government, David is saved by the alien vessel (called Max and voiced by Paul Reubens) which lost its star charts and needed the ones that were coincidentally stored in David’s brain while he was on Phaelon. Baker’s story was bought by an independent production company where it ended up at Paramount and into the hands of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenburg. When both men left and became the heads at Disney in 1984, they brought the script with them but the project remained in limbo. Eventually, Producers Sales Organization would obtain the film rights and would make the picture as Disney would distribute it in the United States. The movie performed well at box office and a remake of the film has been in development since 2009. A month after Navigator came to theaters, a decidedly darker SF film would find its way to the cinema.
1958’s The Fly (based on the short story “The Fly” by George Langelaan) is considered a classic SF-horror film where a scientist invents a matter transporter but is accidentally merged with a fly when he tests the apparatus on himself. Film producer Kip Ohman would approach screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue about remaking the picture and they pitched the idea to 20th Century Fox. The studio approved development of a script but were unimpressed with the result. Stuart Cornfeld, whom Pogue brought in to co-produce the project, negotiated a deal where Fox would distribute the picture while Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms would make the movie. Cornfeld and Brooks approached David Cronenberg to direct but he was tied up with the film Total Recall. Through a series of circumstances, The Fly remake was indefinitely delayed only for Cronenberg to leave Total Recall freeing him up to make the picture under the agreement he could rewrite the script. 1986’s The Fly featured Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a scientist trying to develop a living matter transporter who begins a romance with reporter Veronica Quaife (portrayed by Geena Davis), who promised to keep the project a secret for exclusive rights to publish its story. One drunken night, Brundle attempts to transport himself only to have his DNA merged with a fly which begins a metamorphosis into a human/fly hybrid the scientist dubbed the “Brundlefly.” The film was a huge success, the biggest in Cronenberg’s career. Critically acclaimed and the top film at box office for two weeks, the picture won an Academy award and multiple Saturn awards. The Fly is also considered one of the best films of the 1980s and its tagline “Be afraid. Be very afraid” entered into the pop culture lexicon. The Fly would spawn a sequel in 1989 and opera based on the 1986 film in 2008. Rumor emerged of a remake by Cronenberg himself in 2009 only for the director to admit in 2011 a desire to make a sequel of sorts. The Fall of 1986 would provide a family friendly SF franchise that would persist into the following decade.
Making a name for himself as a puppeteer and ventriloquist for television specials on HBO and Showtime, Paul Fusco conceived of a TV series starring an alien in 1984. Meeting with screenwriter Tom Patchett, the pair developed a sitcom about a character named ALF (an acronym for Alien Life Form). Pitching the concept to NBC, ALF would premiere for the Fall 1986 line-up in prime time. For the series, Gordon Shumway from the planet Melmac follows a ham radio signal to the garage of the Tanner family. Stranded on Earth, Gordon (going by the name ALF) hides from the government’s Alien Task Force and the general public while inserting himself into the Tanner household. The show did well in its first season but was a big hit in its second season as one of the top shows on TV. A great deal of merchandise was developed in ALF’s likeness as an animated series based on the character’s life on Melmac emerged (which was paired in a second season with another animated series called ALF Tales which riffed on fairy tales). Despite the success, tensions ran high behind the scenes with the long, tedious work that went into making a show centered around a puppet. ALF‘s ratings would begin to dip in its third season only to freefall in its fourth. Despite a verbal agreement to continue the show into a fifth season, NBC decided the series ran its course and canceled it. As the show ended on a cliffhanger (as the crew believed the series would return), ABC would pick up a TV movie called Project ALF resolving the series’ storyline which featured ALF’s capture by the government. ALF would return briefly in 2004 for the TV Land series ALF’s Hit Talk Show and a CGI/live action hybrid film has been in development at Sony since 2012. A few months after ALF first premiered, another project with an alien and puppetry would emerge on the big screen.
Known for making low budget independent films, director Roger Corman would make a picture called The Little Shop of Horrors in 1960 (which proved to be something of a breakout role for actor Jack Nicholson who regularly worked with the director). Therein, timid amateur botanist Seymour Krelboyne would create a man-eating plant that terrorized Los Angeles’s skid row. Having little faith in the commercial opportunities of the work, Corman didn’t bother to copyright the picture and it would find its way to home media through various companies and on to television. In 1982, the movie would be adapted for an off-Broadway musical by the same name from composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman. The piece’s setting would be shifted to that of New York’s skid row and its man-eating plant would instead be an alien from outer space trying to conquer the world. The musical would be incredibly successful, running for five years making it the third longest running musical and the highest-grossing production in off-Broadway history (being off-Broadway, it was ineligible for the Tonys). David Geffen, one of the original producers for the musical, wanted to bring the story to the big screen. Frank Oz, who made his career as a puppeteer for the Muppets, Sesame Street, and Yoda in Star Wars, was finishing his directorial duties on The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) when he was approached about tackling the adaptation which he agreed to do provided he could tweak the script to make it work for film. Bringing in such actors as Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and John Candy, the film would sadly underperform at box office. However, it did extremely well in the home video market where it became a cult classic. In 1991, an animated series loosely-based on Little Shop of Horrors was produced. The musical would be revived several times, most recently in 2015 with Jake Gyllenhaal and Taran Killam in New York. The year following Little Shop‘s feature film adaptation in theaters, an alien killer of a different sort emerged on the big screen.
In the wake of Rocky IV (1985), it seemed series star Rocky Balboa had no more mountains to climb. He had toppled a literal killer in the ring and single-handedly ended the Cold War bringing about world peace through boxing and understanding. Hollywood insiders joked that having achieved so much, the only feasibly opponent left the boxer (and seeming ambassador of goodwill) was an alien fighter. Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas were inspired by this joke and developed a script about an alien coming to Earth seeking worthy opponents. Pitched as Hunter to 20th Century Fox, the project was picked up and handed over to producer Joel Silver. Inspired by his big budget hit Commando (1985), Silver wanted to make another blockbuster and approached Commando‘s star Arnold Schwarzenegger to portray the lead character “Dutch” Schaefer and surrounded him with similarly bulked up actors including Rocky‘s Carl Weathers. Renamed Predator, Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast as the film’s antagonist, a ninja-like killer alien whose acrobatic martial arts was intended as a contrast to the musclebound cast opposing him. Donning a full body suit intended for CGI, Van Damme consistently complained about the suit (specifically, how hot it was in turn causing him to pass out) and that it covered his face from the camera for the entire shoot. Van Damme and the production would part ways as a new suit was designed by Stan Winston of Terminator and Aliens fame. Predator featured an alien being who came to Earth at the site of a jungle warzone where it comes into conflict with several special forces groups from the United States as part of its desire to hunt and kill worthy prey. The film was the number one picture at box office and second highest grossing movie of the year 1987. It would also inspire an entire franchise including film sequels, crossover films with the Alien franchise, and various comic book adaptations (including crossovers with Alien, Terminator, Archie, and different superheroes). A new film has been in development since 2014. A week after Predator premiered in theaters, a popular SF Disney film series would begin on television.
Computer programmer and technical editor Seth McEvoy would expand his writing into the world of young adult fiction in the 1980s with the book series Not Quite Human. In the series, widower scientist (and single father) Dr. Jonas Carson was attempting to create a human-like android finally finding success with subject C-13. Calling it Chip, Carson sends the android to school in order to see if it can function in the real world. Less than two years after the first book was published, Disney would adapt the series by the same name for ABC in a made-for-TV movie in 1987. Alan Thicke of Growing Pains fame would take the role of Dr. Carson as child actress Kristy Swanson would play the part of Erin, Chip’s love interest. The film would deviate in that Chip would go to high school (rather than middle school) and would add the character of Gordon Vogel, Dr. Carson’s former employer who wants to make Chip into a weapon for the military. Doing well, the movie would see two sequels that aired on NBC and the Disney Channel. Around the time the book series began publication, a somewhat similar series emerged on TV called Small Wonder. Therein, robotics engineer Ted Lawson creates an android that has the appearance of a ten-year old girl intended to assist handicapped children named V.I.C.I. In order to develop interpersonal skills, the android is brought home and passed off as one of the children. The show would last for four seasons and has been labeled by critics as one of the worst series in television history. Howard Leeds, who produced the show, also produced a similar series in 1964 starring Julie Newmar called My Living Doll. A month after the Not Quite Human film hit the small screen, a much darker vision of robotics emerged in theaters.
Writer Edward Neumeier and a friend came along a poster for the film Blade Runner. Asking his friend what the movie was about, Neumeier was told it had a cop that hunted robots. This concept gave the writer an idea for a cop that was also a robot. Conceiving of a cyberpunk world that was a dystopia controlled by corporations, RoboCop would feature police officer Alex Murphy (played by Peter Weller) ruthlessly and brutally attacked by the crime lord Clarence Boddicker and his gang. Near death, Murphy was transformed into a prototype cyborg called RoboCop for the corrupt company Omni Consumer Products (OCP) which owned the Detroit police department. When an alliance between Boddicker and OCP senior president Dick Jones comes to light, the programming of RoboCop and the soul in the machine in Alex Murphy come into conflict. RoboCop would be a box office hit. Critically acclaimed, it would win an Oscar and was considered one of the best films of 1987. The film would spin into a multimedia franchise including two sequels, two animated series, two live action television series, several comic book adaptations including crossovers with the Terminator, and various commercials in Asia including fried chicken in Korea and noodles in Japan (RoboCop would even appear at the WCW pay-per-view Capital Combat ’90 to save Sting from the Four Horsemen). The original RoboCop film was remade in 2014 to mixed reviews but a sequel is reportedly in development. A few months after the original film hit theaters, another cyberpunk film would arrive in theaters this time based on the work of Stephen King.