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What’s the Most 1980s Film of All Time?

  How do you sum up a decade with one movie? A whole ten years have to be taken into account, and a lot can happen in that passage of time, but there are certain cultural artefacts which encapsulate the spirit of the era like no other, and films are as good a place to take a look at one decade than any other. When it comes to the nineteen-eighties, there are plenty to choose from, and many social concerns, not to mention flash in the pan fads, to be mulled over before you have a work that you could show to a space alien (or, you know, someone born after 1990) and say, there you go, that’s what the eighties were like.

Obviously, it was Hollywood which would be a major influence as the blockbusters churned out of Tinseltown were so widely seen across the planet, influencing the cinema of not only North America but many other countries as well, all of which placed their own spin on the conventions minted from the United States’ movie industry. If there was one genre which truly took off, presumably thanks to the increasing availability of cheap explosives, it was the action flick: men like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris bestrode the world like colossuses (colossi?), baring their upper torsos and firing off a billion machine gun rounds.

But did that make Rambo: First Blood Part II or Commando the most recognisable examples of what made the eighties what they were? Certainly any storyline which set one man up against either a tidal wave of rampant criminality or the might of the Communist armies proliferating across the globe (or so they would tell us) would speak to the drive towards independent-minded “Me Generation” taking matters into your own hands and not relying on anyone else. Anything which would make Ronald Reagan proud would slot into this form, indeed the President at the time voiced his admiration of Rambo “accidentally” letting slip while a microphone was on as he waited for an interview.

The manly delights of Top Gun, Rocky IV or Invasion USA were not lost on those abroad, with Asian cinema now unafraid to mingle a lot of gunplay into their traditional martial arts movies: Jackie Chan aiming his firearm in Police Story was as much a part of the appeal as it was to see the mass destruction of him at the wheel of a bus smashing up a whole village as destruction was the kind of spectacle audiences wanted to see, and the eighties delivered that in abundance. You could observe that was down to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, which also informed the entertainment: WarGames warned us what would happen if things got out of hand, but many more movies concentrated on what happened next.

Thus the post-apocalypse genre boomed, mainly thanks to Australia’s Mad Max sequels making it look tremendously exciting to fight for survival, not to mention fuel, with the Italians in particular picking up that ball and running with it and the Japanese offering us Akira, an anime which underlined a sense of futility in the face of Armageddon. Was this feeling of impending doom what truly celebrated the decade’s mindset? Because there were a lot of innovations happening in those years too: as WarGames showed, computers were the new magic wand to create sparkly plots for your movie, given enough technology you could manufacture anything you wanted, from a space battle (The Last Starfighter) to an actual lady (Weird Science) – was there nothing they couldn’t do?

Make no mistake, now special effects were advancing in leaps and bounds, it was perhaps their proliferation in a movie that marked out the most eighties of successes, whether it was the Ark of the Covenant being opened at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the cartoons springing to life in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But it wasn’t only the sci-fi of the completion of the Star Wars trilogy which benefited, as there were makeup effects to be taken into consideration too: horror movies reaped the benefits, making the rubbery, gooey delights of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Re-Animator or Return of the Living Dead among the most indelible of the period. The slasher movie truly lived and died at this time, the more revealing flipside to the action movie loner who killed all too many before the end credits rolled.

Although if there was one style of film which could be an answer to all that violence, it would be the comedy as it drew in both the action thriller as well as the horror movie into its production line as the jokes grew more extreme and often sex-related. How about Porky’s as the most eighties effort? It was a sex comedy which made its budget back many times, and spawned a whole slew of imitators: just humiliate a bunch of young actors for shits and giggles then whip off some clothes and you had yourself a guaranteed hit. That said, some filmmakers were more creative: there are those who would say John Hughes’ teen movies were none more eighties, while others would point to the spectacle of Ghostbusters or the sheer quotability of This is Spinal Tap to the quintessential fashion of the era.

It wasn’t only America muscling in on the act, as the United Kingdom in the decade of Thatcherism took on a more socially realistic approach with the likes of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Letter to Brezhnev and My Beautiful Laundrette saying more about Fatcher’s Britain than any number of earnest documentaries. But perhaps we had to look to the most sparkly of the entertainment for a time when the superficial was celebrated, and as bright and gaudy as possible, if you had something to flaunt, then let the world know, so it was the most over the top of the culture which would stick in the memory. Christmas being taken down in Gremlins, Batman defining the marketing blitz of the modern blockbuster, Steven Spielberg making his indelible mark with E.T. The Extraterrestrial making mincemeat out of audience’s emotions and Back to the Future commenting on the proclaimed return to nineteen-fifties values in the most extravagant manner possible.

And yet, it could be you had to look to the pretenders, the more aspirational works in a very aspirational decade to really get a sense of what they were like. Which is why I suggest you could view the true cult movies of the 1980s as where it was at. Look at the chic of French cinema in Diva, Subway or Betty Blue to see how stylish everyone wanted to be; or on the other hand, the sheer unconscious absurdity of horrors from the fun Tenebrae to the dreadful Slugs and action from Charles Bronson still plugging away in Death Wish 3 to the ludicrous Story of Ricky; the efforts which sought to cash in on the pop culture, especially music, like Australia’s Starstruck, the U.K.’s Breaking Glass and Absolute Beginners, Cannon’s see it to believe it The Apple, Prince’s magnum opus (film division) Purple Rain, the quirkiest of the lot Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and many more.

Hello, maybe we’re onto something with that last category. It could be for a decade so tied up with the power of music, the most eighties movie ever should feature that as a defining element. So should we be working out in Perfect (or Murder-Rock?!), rollerskating in Xanadu, rappin’ in er, Rappin’ or prancing to the ghetto blaster in Flashdance or Footloose? I put it to you, then, that you could not find a more ideal summation of the eighties, the eighties-est of the eighties, than Breakin’. It has it all, the throwback to the fifties in its plotting, the fashion statement clothes, the songs littered with synths, the dancing – especially breakdancing, and the fact it had a sequel subtitled Electric Boogaloo. Plus it was a Cannon production, you can’t get more eighties than that.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006