With blockbuster budgets, refined special effects, and boundless star power, films from the ’80s are still dazzling to watch even by today’s standards. A sentiment that feels no truer than when you revisit classics like Back to the Future, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even beyond such iconic pop culture touchstones, the ’80s is teeming with films that are bound to set off nostalgia bombs for most Gen X and Y kids. But what about millennials—the bulk of whose childhoods took place decades after E.T. phoned home? In their case, all that nostalgia is replaced with even greater feelings of curiosity and wonder—mostly because their older siblings wouldn’t shut up about how great movies were ‘back then’. For a ’90s kid to finally watch any of those ’80s films is a lot like meeting that friend of a friend of a friend whom you’ve heard so many great things about. A meeting that rarely ever disappoints.
Growing up is really weird, regardless of the decade you’re born in. But if there was one filmmaker who understood what it felt like to be a teenager, it was definitely John Hughes. His films defined an entire generation back then, yet still remain resonant today. The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink all belong in the pantheon of classic teen-dramas. Take any of these films and use them as a guide for growing up. That it shouldn’t be something to be afraid off, but embraced.
As the ’80s called for bigger movies, so too did it call for its actors to grow into bigger stars. In the case of comedy, the stars of that generation helped usher the genre into its golden age. With Saturday Night Live as their breeding ground, alums like Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, and John Belushi transitioned into big screen classics like Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers. Few, however, compared to the star power of Eddie Murphy. Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, and Trading Places were just a few cinematic testaments to Murphy’s unrelenting comic genius (with that in mind, let’s all try to not think about his work in the 2000s).
In a ballet of bullets and mayhem, the first real ’80s action stars were born. Schwarzenegger (Terminator), Stallone (First Blood), and Willis (Die Hard) were all in top form. It was as if their films were scientifically engineered for sheer entertainment. Oscar-winning films these are not, but they sure as hell are guaranteed for a good time.
Apart from some questionable fashion choices, there were also certain film trends that clearly gave away an ’80s film’s age. Take the horror genre for example. There’s one simple way to tell which ones came out in that decade. Just ask: ‘Were there heaps and heaps of gore?’ If the answer was yes then the film mostly likely came out in that decade. This particular period marked that special time when the technology and techniques used in practical effects finally aligned with the demented imaginations of its filmmakers. From the grotesque monstrosities of John Carpenter’s The Thing to the horrors of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the twisted use of effects was iconic of the generation. It’s almost easy to forget that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, another quintessential piece of cinema, was also among the horror films released in this period.
Science-fiction, on the other hand, began its love affair with the dystopian designs of cyberpunk. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the genre-defining epic Blade Runner. With its grimy set designs accented by neon lights, the film perfectly juxtaposed images of a technologically advanced future with the idea of a broken down society. The film’s dark imagery and complex ideas went on to inspire many others throughout the decade such as Tron, Videodrome, and Brazil.
Though the clothes, hairstyles, and slang of the ’80s may reach otherworldly levels of cringe at times, its storylines and memorable characters remain as watchable today as ever. So take your pick of words to describe the ’80s era of film: fun, nostalgic, weird, cheesy, so-bad-it’s-good. From the eyes of a ’90s kid however, there’s only one word that feels right—timeless.
Illustration by Chelli Reyes