Keeping it Reel : Why the 1980s is the greatest decade in cinema

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There is an internal debate that I have had for several months and that it “what is the greatest decade for cinema” in terms of quantity of quality films, and after several months of debate, I have come to the conclusion that the best decade for cinema was the 1980s.

I got onto this debate again over the weekend as I went back to my hometown of Lincoln for a few days. It was the first time I’ve had two days in a row off from all jobs since April and as I turn 32 on September 12th, I decided to celebrate by going home, seeing family and friends, and whilst there I got my present from my parents, the ever reliable present that is money. I decided to invest it in some new Blu-Rays as I haven’t brought myself some for a while, infact it’s only one in since April, which is a low number for me.

After browsing HMV’s five Blu-Rays for £30 section, I came away with the following (I bought more than five);

  • Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
  • Weird Science
  • Gremlins
  • Krull
  • Some Like it Hot
  • Jane Got a Gun
  • The Gift

I only realised a few hours later that four of my choices were from the 1980s, and it got that debate starting again, and I still come to the conclusion that is the best decade for film. Whilst that is obviously down to personal taste and opinion, I have decided to justify my decision by writing an article about it.

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So many classics, and original films at that

Arguably no decade has more classics coming out of it than the 1980s. You’ve got genre defining classics in pretty much every single category, which isn’t something that you can say about most decades. Whilst the 1990s had some timeless films, such as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Fight Club”, there weren’t that many films that you can look at and say that you’d still be watching them regularly 26 years after the decade ended.

To put this in some sort of context, here are some examples of genres and some of the classics (in my opinion) in that genre. Please note that if there is an asterix next to it, I haven’t actually seen the film and am going purely off it’s reputation.

Science Fiction : ET*, The Terminator, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Blade Runner*, Predator, The Abyss, Star Trek 2 : The Wrath of Khan and Aliens.

Horror : The Fly, The Thing, The Shining, Gremlins and The Evil Dead.

Comedy : Ghostbusters, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Weird Science, Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off*, The Blues Brothers*, Big, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Police Academy.

Adventure : Raiders of the Lost Ark, Willow, Krull, The Neverending Story and The Goonies.

War : Full Metal Jacket* and Platoon*.

Action : Die Hard and Top Gun.

Drama : Rain Man, Stand by Me, Gandhi and A Passage to India*.

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All of those were just of of the top of my head, I’m sure if I delved into it there would be more, but there just some of the classics that came from the 1980s, and in particular, original ideas. Again, without delving into it, there are only three sequels listed above (Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Wrath of Khan), and whilst there are a few remakes (The Fly and the Thing), the vast majority are original ideas and a lot of those films, for better or for worse, started franchises.

As time has gone on, original ideas have become few and far between in Hollywood, making most films predictable, especially in our current decade, in which it’s very hard to see a film that isn’t based on a book, another film, isn’t a reboot, remake or sequel, and is just an outright original idea.

Whilst the majority of films in earlier decades were obviously original, in my opinion no decade outside of the 1980s has produced as many original hits that people still watch and inspired as much.

Computer generated special effects were rare!

The 1980s was the last decade in which it was uncommon to see computer generated special effects in films. The vast majority of effects in the 1980s were practical, and because of this it often looked far more realistic.

For example, the only bit of CGI that I have been impressed with recently was in “The Jungle Book”, in which the animals looked exceptionally realistic, but that is definitely a rarity these days and to counter that, a few weeks later I watched “Gods of Egypt”, which I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all done on green-screens as everything looked ridiculously fake.

Practical effects work better for me because they just look more realistic. I’ll grant you that this isn’t always the case, such as the scene in “The Terminator” in which the Terminator is removing his faulty eye, but by in large it just looks better. One such direct example that I can use is the 1982 version of “The Thing” in comparison to it’s 2011 prequel.

On the image below you can see an image of the same character (please note for those that haven’t seen it, in the picture on the left the character is dead, or least so they think). On the left hand side is the character in the 1982 film and has been done entirely with practical effects, compared to the same character in the 2011 prequel, which was a 100% CGI character.


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I have nothing against the prequel at all. Whilst it’s nowhere near as good as the first film, it is a reasonable attempt, but the look of this character in particular just takes away any semblance of fear and danger. Whilst you never see the practical effects split-face character alive in the 1982 film, I would be far more terrified if that was coming towards me than the one on the right, and it’s all because the split-face on the right hand side looks fake as hell.

Everything just looked better in the 1980s and more lifeless, and seeing a character that I know is completely CGI personally takes me out of the film a lot, whereas practical effects characters just don’t have the same impact on me whatsoever.

Effects help story telling and if used right, they can be excellent. There are so few films these days that make non-human characters look realistic, whereas the 1980s managed it so well as it was a time when sixty or so years of research had been perfected, and it was only towards the end of the decade that computer generated effects started coming into effect, and what’s more, some of the creatures in the practical effects era were cute as hell, such as Falcor from “The Neverending Story”.

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Characters and story came first!

Following on from the above, one thing that a lot of modern day films often make a mistake on is trying to make their film look great, but completely forget about the characters and story. For example, when I first watched “Avatar” I was stunned by how visually brilliant the whole thing was, and it is stunning in Blu-Ray format, but once you take your eyes off of the look of the film, there just isn’t a lot of substance there. The characters are weak and the storyline is just a “meh” situation.

During the majority of the films in my earlier list, you get to know the characters exceptionally well because the story telling allows them to be. The focus was on great storytelling and not how it looked. For example, I only recently watched “Die Hard” for the first time and it worked on many levels, one of which was that it had a great antagonist (which is another film modern day films struggle with might I add). Even now, more than two weeks after watching it for just the one time, I can remember a lot about the characters, even the minor ones, and that’s what I want.

The central antagonist in “Die Hard”, Hans Gruber (played menacingly brilliantly by Alan Rickman), is a great antagonist because not only does he look like winning, but you learn a great deal about his character.

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The same can’t be said of a lot of modern day films. For example, I recently went to watch “Lights Out”, literally the day after I watched “Die Hard”, and yet I couldn’t tell you the name of a single character, it was that forgettable, and that’s not just a one off either. Horror films these days are so focused on things such as jump scares, they’ve taken their eyes off of what is most important, the characters. If I don’t care enough to remember the characters names, why should I care about the situation that they’re in.

For example, in the list above is my favourite horror film, “The Fly”. For those that haven’t seen it, watch it. Go and watch it now (well, after you’ve finished reading this). “The Fly” for me is everything that makes not only a great horror film, but a great film in general. I have already covered this film in my review for “The Fly”, but to sum it up the reason “The Fly” works so well is that whilst it only has three characters, you get to know them so well that you start caring about them as people, and you see where each is coming from.

Modern day films tend not to care about the characters, and are only concerned with the look. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that this isn’t the case for all films, but if we take arguably the most popular modern franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ll notice that whilst they are fun, they all lack something that is so important to turning a good movie great, a captivating and believable antagonist. If you don’t think I’m being fair with that statement, take Loki and Zemo out of the franchise and name me one antagonist that looked like winning (Zemo won because he achieved his goal of splitting Steve and Tony).

Infact, I’m going to make a very, very bold statement here. In my opinion, there hasn’t been a single antagonist that you could classify as “timelessly brilliant” since Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”. In an already brilliant film, the Joker is arguably the best part, whereas I can’t think of a single film since that is not only brilliant (which is a small list in itself), but also contains an antagonist on a level that’s even close to that.

That’s not to say that you even necessarily need an antagonist in the film, afterall, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” doesn’t really have an antagonist, unless you count Ted’s Dad, but even then that’d be a push. Whilst having a bad guy (or girl) isn’t vital, it definitely helps, and modern day films fail miserably to give great antagonists,

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Great music!

I’m not going to spend too long on this point but how many films these days have theme tunes that you know as soon as you hear them? I’ve just looked through my entire Blu-Ray collection, about 25% of which are from this decade, and yet there isn’t one that I would look at and think “yeah, that has a theme tune I’ll remember in 26 years” (and just for clarification, I mean original songs, not popular songs just used as the main theme) and yet there are numerous films from the 1980s that you could play back now and most people would recognise them.

For an example of this, I’m just going to leave this here….

And finally, films that people still talk about!

Now, I’m not going to look at films from this decade for this one as it’d be harsh given that we’ve still got over three years of the tens left, but there is no decade which people refer to more than the eighties when talking about films.

For example, there are some decades with a lot of great films in them, and some of the biggest films of all time are from the early days of cinema, but no decade comes close to having as many pop-culture references like the 1980s.

 

There are so many quotable films that came from the eighties, and they have sunk deep into society. To end this article, here are a few quotes that are still used to this day, even if slightly twisted, that all came from films in the 1980s and I still hear on a semi regular basis in either real life, or modern films paying tribute to them.

“Here’s Johnny” (The Shining)

“No, I am your father” (The Empire Strikes Back)

“I’m too old for this shit” (Lethal Weapon)

“Phone home” (ET)

“Say hello to my little friend” (Scarface)

“Yippee-ki-yay” (Die Hard)

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick some ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum!” (They Live)

“Don’t cross the streams” (Ghostbusters)

“We came, we saw, we kicked it’s ass” (Ghostbusters)

“I’ll be back” (Terminator)

“If you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams)

And with that, I bid you adieu.

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5 thoughts on “Keeping it Reel : Why the 1980s is the greatest decade in cinema

  1. Hadn’t seen the “Ghostbusters” video before. Thanks for the link. Brought back very fond memories of the movie, which, by the way, I liked very much. Loved all the kitsch in the vid and the cameos!

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  2. Very interesting read, in-depth! I wasn’t alive in the 80s yet but my parents have luckily been able to introduce me to plenty of gems from the decade. Great post. I was wondering if you’d be interested in sharing your work on Moviepilot/Creators? I’d love to hear from you so feel free to shoot me an e-mail. Contact details are on my blog.

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