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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In 1982, Solid Ideas Collided with Reagan Values and Star Wars for a Great Sci-Fi Run

Posted By on Tue, May 29, 2012 at 8:30 AM

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I recently discovered, through an unscientific process driven by my own dorkdom, that 1982 remains the high point of creative, unusual, and commercially successful science fiction and fantasy film-making. For in that year, a huge run of genre films was released, and most of them remain classics to this day.

Why 1982? I think there were several contributing factors, but the biggest one was Star Wars. After two films, the franchise was well-established as an essential entertainment staple. There had been numerous space-opera knockoffs, most of them flops (Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Black Hole). But the success of Star Wars had made studios suddenly receptive to new ideas in fantasy storytelling. Filmmakers who grew up on comic books and pulp fiction were allowed to indulge their influences in the arena of their own medium. And in 1982 all of this came to fruition.

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In chronological order, here are the major science fiction and fantasy releases of 1982:

The Sword and the Sorcerer (April 23)

Conan the Barbarian (May 14)

Poltergeist (June 4)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (June 4)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (June 11)

Blade Runner (June 25)

The Thing (June 25)

The Secret of NIMH (July 2)

Tron (July 9)

Creepshow (November 12)

The Last Unicorn (November 19)

The Dark Crystal (December 17)

Despite the seeming glut of sci-fi that year, most of these movies did well by the standards of the time, with a few notable exceptions.

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Leading the pack were two financially successful sword-and-sorcery films in late spring. The summer kicked off with strong showings by Poltergeist and Star Trek. Then E.T. blew everything else out of the water. That made it hard for Blade Runner and The Thing to get traction a couple of weeks later; each failed to find an audience, making much less than Conan and Sword, believe it or not.

A few weeks later, The Secret of NIMH did poorly (as did The Last Unicorn later in the year). Tron did okay, but not by the Star Wars standard Disney had been aiming for. The film's massive marketing push could not rival the ongoing supremacy of E.T. (Spielberg's film stayed in theaters through early 1983.) It's also worth noting that Disney opened something else in 1982, not at all unrelated to movies:

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In November, Creepshow was a hit, especially in light of its relatively small $8 million budget. In December, The Dark Crystal did not do well as holiday fare, but after the New Year it turned into a sizable hit.

The cinematic sci-fi legacy of 1982 beats every other year so far. So, getting past the influence of Star Wars, what exactly was going on?

By 1982, the Reagan era was in full swing. A former Hollywood star was our president. His charisma and rugged outdoorsy style promised us a way out of economic hardship (the energy crisis), international embarrassments (the Iran hostage crisis), and continually creeping nuclear tensions at home and abroad (Three Mile Island, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

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At the same time, Hollywood had entered the blockbuster era. After the enormous success of Jaws in 1975, the movie business was never the same. It was followed by the surprise of Star Wars in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind the same year, Superman in 1978, and Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Big-budget, special-effects films had taken hold in a definitive way by 1980, and their influence would continue to grow toward the bombastically overblown monstrosities that dominate theaters today.

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But in 1982, the genre hadn't become overpopulated by pre-programmed, studio-driven franchises. Most of the films on the list above began as independent productions or original stories. The genre was moving toward its present form, but experimentation was still possible and even encouraged. There's no chance Tron or The Dark Crystal would get the green light in the present environment, since comic book and franchise films are now funded in such a way as to prevent original science fiction or fantasy stories from succeeding at the box office. No studio would risk originality in the face of the marketing juggernaut of The Avengers. Out of all of 2012's big special-effects films, only two appear to have been based on original ideas: Chronicle (already on Blu-ray) and Rian Johnson's Looper (September). The norm, on the other hand, can be found in Frankenweenie (October), Tim Burton's remake of his own film.

Fortunately, 1982 is well-preserved on Blu-ray (with the exception of E.T., due out later this year), so we can travel back to it any time we please and enjoy this freewheeling period of imaginative and enduring fantasy films.

Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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Casey Burchby

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