Looking back at Blue Thunder

Feature Ryan Lambie

John Badham’s high-tech helicopter thriller Blue Thunder rode the crest of a decade obsessed with cool cars and aircraft. Ryan takes a look back…

Back in the 1980s, a company called Sega perfected what it referred to as the Full Body Experience. Less kinky than it sounds, this fusion of CRT television, videogame technology and hydraulic pistons aimed to give amusement arcade visitors a taste of what it might be like to drive a Ferrari Testarossa or motorcycle at breakneck speed or fly a fighter jet through a valley full of enemy aircraft.

For a generation of youths, these machines, with their chunky graphics and even chunkier controls, are the stuff of legend, and the mere mention of their names – Hang On, Out Run, After Burner, Space Harrier, Thunder Blade – is enough to evoke involuntary memories of Proustian proportions.

These half-remembered machines sum up the 80s era of mechanical wish fulfilment. More than any other, the decade catered to youthful fantasies of fast cars and deadly aircraft. Perhaps spurred on by the ongoing success of Star Wars, which placed Luke Skywalker at the helm of one of the coolest fighter craft ever committed to celluloid, the 80s saw a rash of mechanical fantasies appear in cinemas, arcades, and on television.

For examples, look no further than Magnum PI, first broadcast in 1980, in which Tom Selleck got to drive around in someone else’s Ferrari 308 GTS, and took the occasional ride in a friend’s helicopter. Knight Rider, first broadcast in 1982, saw David Hasselhoff drive around in an unspeakably cool talking car. In the movies, small boys got to fly through the skies on bikes (E.T.), in stolen spy planes (D.A.R.Y.L.), and sexy alien space craft (Flight Of The Navigator). Even Hollywood elder statesman Clint Eastwood got in on the act, as he controlled a top-secret Russian fighter jet with the power of his mind in Firefox.

Later on in the decade, Top Gun flew into cinemas, whose lovingly lit fighter jet porn inspired such films as Iron Eagle and its sequel. But before Top Gun, there was Blue Thunder, a 1983 movie that appeared to kick off a brief media love affair with helicopters.

Like Firefox, Blue Thunder had the benefit of some quite serious acting heft behind it. Roy Scheider, best known to wider audiences as the chap who blew up a shark real good in Jaws, turned in some quite brilliant performances in Klute, The French Connection (for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and Marathon Man. Scheider starred alongside Malcolm McDowell, whose biggest successes at the time, either financially or critically speaking, were if…, A Clockwork Orange and Voyage Of The Damned.

Quite why either of them signed up for Blue Thunder isn’t initially clear; Scheider would essentially play second fiddle to the true star of the picture – the high-tech experimental helicopter, so important to the story that it gets title billing. But in a 1983 interview with Movies & Video Magazine (as recorded for posterity by Blue Thunder Online), Scheider explained that the film's political overtones interested him in getting involved.

“So you see the underlying theme of the movie is that it’s a total invasion of privacy," Scheider said. "Although this kind of device to control crowd would be very effective it would also be invasion of your personal liberties.  What my character does in the film is to show the community that this kind of device isn’t necessary to be flying over anyone’s life."

As for McDowell, director John Badham noted in a Starlog interview that the actor was terrified of flying – a setback, considering the character he was supposed to play was an army colonel with a love of hurtling about in helicopters.

The plot, if you were a youth at the time, mattered little – there was a helicopter in the movie, and it got to blow stuff up with a big gatling gun, and that was all you needed to know. Viewed today, it’s surprising how long it takes for director John Badham to get to the explosive bits - which, as it turns out, is no bad thing.

Scheider plays Frank Murphy, a Vietnam veteran turned helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Police Department. In spite of his troubled past, Murphy’s selected to fly a new, experimental helicopter called Blue Thunder, a kind of flying Swiss-army knife which would allow the police to spy on citizens from the air undetected, and gun down miscreants with the gigantic gatling cannon sticking out of the front.

It’s the twin topics of public freedom and state control which separate Blue Thunder out from most other vehicle-based films of the decade. Although a thriller first and foremost, Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby’s script poses some pertinent questions about privacy and surveillance; there are many scenes in Blue Thunder where technology is misused to spy on women in a state of undress, or on private conversations in people’s houses.

Interestingly, Dan O'Bannon, who was inspired to write Blue Thunder with his partner Don Jakoby after growing annoyed at the police helicopters buzzing around LA during the late 70s, wasn't at all happy with the filmed treament of the script. "The political impact - and there was quite a bit - was toned down," O'Bannon argued, making the villains of the piece the federal government rather than the LA police department.

Whether Blue Thunder's political elements were toned down or not, there's no doubt that, in an era where the British government’s looking to place missiles on the roofs of London buildings as an anti-terrorist measure during the Olympics, and personal privacy is a more current topic than ever before, the idea of a heavily-armed police helicopter scouting the skies doesn’t sound so far fetched.

Anyway, back to the plot. Murphy learns that a group of shady individuals within the military may be thinking of using the helicopter to exterminate troublesome political dissidents. This group is headed up by – surprise – Murphy’s old Nam-era nemesis, Colonel Cochrane, played by McDowell. As Murphy’s wife Kate (Candy Clark) heads off to a news network headquarters with a videotape which proves the military group’s guilt, Murphy steels himself for a final act confrontation with his new-found  military enemies.

And what a confrontation it is. Having carefully racheted up the post-Nixon era paranoia, John Badham lets fly with a closing stretch that pleased the young viewers less interested in the script’s earlier meditations on state control. For all those kids who sat in one of Sega's Thunder Blade machines in the 80s, I suspect it's Blue Thunder's closing action scene which was playing back in their heads as they prepared to pilot a remarkably familiar looking military helicopter.

At the helm of Blue Thunder, Murphy does battle with ordinary police choppers, a pair of fighter jets, and then Cochrane himself, who’s taken to the skies in an armed helicopter of his own. Without CG and with a mere sprinkling model effects, Badham stages an impressive aerial display above the streets of Los Angeles. To modern eyes, it’s not quite so jaw-dropping, but it’s still well shot, well choreographed and surprisingly intense - and there's a sublimely comic moment involving a shower of roasted chickens.

On the acting front, Roy Scheider’s the consummate tough, unflappable hero, a young Daniel Stern is good value as his sidekick, while Warren Oates puts in a welcome appearance which would sadly prove to be among the last in his long career. Then there’s McDowell, who remains a cheerfully despicable hate figure, in spite of his terror behind the scenes. His character even gets his own obnoxious catchphrase – a stomach-churning “Catch you later”, complete with finger gun.

(On the topic of acting, Mario Machado, who memorably played a news anchor in the RoboCop movies, Scarface and Rocky III, among many others, also turns up in an identical role in Blue Thunder.)

From a technological standpoint, it’s inevitable that a film that dealt with the cutting-edge gadgetry of 80s America would look particularly outdated to 21st century eyes. In spite of this, Blue Thunder remains an intelligent and well-made thriller with some great action moments. Its box-office success triggered a spin-off ABC TV series of the same name in 1984, while rival network CBS brought out its own helicopter-based series, Airwolf, that same year.

Of all the vehicle-based films and TV shows to appear in the 80s, Blue Thunder is almost certainly among the best. Where most, such as Top Gun, brought with them an air-punching sense of jingoism, Blue Thunder is a bitter, cynical film, and that’s probably why it’s aged so well. It’s also a fact that the helicopter itself still looks extremely cool, even if it isn’t quite as high-tech as it was 30 years ago.

With superhero movies currently at the peak of their popularity, Hollywood movie makers are probably wondering what the next big thing might be. If so, might we suggest a return to the mechanical wish-fulfilment movies of the 80s, as exemplified by arcade games such as Thunder Blade, or the film that inspired it, Blue Thunder? If there’s one thing the current clutch of blockbusters are sorely missing, it’s a sexy helicopter.

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