A common argument – sorry discussion – among film enthusiasts is: what was the best-ever movie decade? Some might plump for the golden years of the 1940s; others the raw, movie-brat-dominated verve of the ’70s; or maybe the slick, sardonic ’90s when indie cool infiltrated the mainstream. But if you take a good look at the cinematic landscape today, with the plot-connected mega-franchise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, state-of-the-art digital effects allowing for limitless world building, and film-makers like Christopher Nolan crafting original thrill-rides on a massive scale, you would be remiss not to consider the 1980s: the decade when the blockbuster came of age.
Much of this has to do with the dominance of Steven Spielberg, both as a director and producer, during those 10 years. Together with George Lucas he topped and tailed the decade with Indiana Jones movies, capturing old-school pulp adventure through a modern, FX-driven lens, while giving us one of cinema’s best-loved heroes.
These days, Spielberg’s production company Amblin, which is behind numerous ’80s favorites (Gremlins, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit…) is treated almost as a genre — just ask the Duffer Brothers, creators of Netflix hit Stranger Things, which is Amblin through and through. That ‘Amblin feeling’ isn’t merely a result of impressive visual effects and action-adventure antics. It also gives a sense of warmth and welcome (and, for many Gen Xers, childhood nostalgia), elicited by loveable characters and themes of friendship, family and underdog triumph. Look no further than Spielberg’s tear-wrenching masterpiece ET – The Extra-Terrestrial if you want all three of those themes to wrap you up like a comfort blanket.
You can get all highfalutin about the ’80s being the era of glossy high-concept productions (i.e. movies which can be encapsulated in a single ‘elevator pitch’ sentence), or giving the teenager a new voice through the films of John Hughes, or making (for better or worse) franchise-filmmaking the mainstream default; this was, after all, the decade that began with The Empire Strikes Back, ended with Tim Burton’s Batman, and along the way delivered the greatest-ever sequel (don’t argue) in James Cameron’s Aliens. But ultimately what it all boils down to is the ’80s were fun.
Sure, the movies got bigger and flashier, but they also got weirder and funnier. Just consider how strange it was that the biggest film of 1984 was a horror-action-comedy starring some of the guys from Saturday Night Live and featuring a giant made of marshmallow. Or that the big hit of the following year was a time-travel adventure about a kid who endangers his own existence when he goes 30 years into the past and draws the amorous attention of his own mother.
And let’s not allow the advent of digital effects and the blooming of production budgets to distract us from the fact that ’80s scripts were often pure gold. They are still endlessly quotable even today: “I feel the need, the need for speed!” (Top Gun). “It ain’t the years honey, it’s the mileage.” (Raiders of the Lost Ark). “Game over, man. Game over!” (Aliens). We could go on…
If cinema is all about unleashing the imagination, escaping to wondrous new places, going on epic adventures without leaving your seat and making new, lifelong friends (even if they don’t really exist), then the 1980s are surely the ultimate cinematic decade.
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