Since time immemorial, kids have been getting into all sorts of mischief and adventures. Three kids were whisked off to Neverland in Peter Pan, and got into a breezy confrontation with Captain Hook. Alice enjoyed a dreamlike – and occasionally sinister – odyssey through Wonderland. The kids of Swallows And Amazons enjoyed lots of outdoor adventures, including boating and light acts of piracy.
In all of these adventures, which have appeared as movies at least once over the years, the heroes were essentially normal kids. They may have gone on adventures in far-off places. They may have forced adults to walk the plank on occasions. But they were still essentially regular, ginger beer-drinking, sandwich-eating youngsters.
Then, in the 1980s, the kid of the decade’s movies began to display an extraordinary spike in cunning and talent. They started to fly planes. Trigger wars. Save democracy from communist invaders. It was all a far cry from the genteel days of Swallows And Amazons and the Famous Five. But as the 80s ended, this curious phenomena died off almost as abruptly as it appeared. By and large, kids stopped starting wars and meeting aliens in the movies, and films like Spy Kids and Super 8 became the exception rather than the rule.
So what happened? How do we account for this spike in adventurousness and inventive genius, and why did it vanish again just as suddenly? Could it be that these extraordinary adventures eventually left us feeling embittered, envious and disenfranchised, as though our own mundane childhoods couldn’t live up to those on the big screen?
Possibly. Or maybe the invention of the Game Boy killed our interest in the outdoors, aliens, and the theft of military aircraft. But join us as we look at 10 instances of kids’ remarkable abilities in 80s cinema, and why they left us feeling just a little bit left out…
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
What was remarkable: kids outsmart the US government and help an alien return home
This first example, from near the beginning of the decade, is closer to the more traditional adventures of Swallows And Amazons or the Famous Five – assuming those kids had met an extra-terrestrial botanist instead of spending all their time messing around with boats. But while the danger the kids in E.T. face is relatively low-key compared to some of the stuff that happened later on in 80s movies, it’s still pretty intense at times.
Having met and befriended the title alien, 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), his brother Michael and sister Gertie spend much of the film hiding the creature from adults – not least Peter Coyote’s imposing government agent. In the process, Elliott almost dies because of his mental link to the ailing E.T., and when he and his friends are confronted by a group of heavily-armed special agents, they evade capture by taking to the skies using the alien’s telekinetic powers.
At one point, Elliott and Michael steal a van, which isn’t something you’d have read in an Enid Blyton novel. And just to prove how much things have changed again since the perilous 1980s, Steven Spielberg even went back and digitally replaced all the government agents’ guns with walkie-talkies for E.T.’s 20th anniversary reissue.
The mundane reality: we spent many years visiting the shed at the bottom of the garden each night, hoping to find a cuddly brown alien of our own. We thought we found one once, but it turned out to be a mangy and very angry fox. We still have nightmares about the encounter.
What was remarkable: teen computer whiz starts and then stops World War III
Now things start getting a bit out of hand. Proving just how much chaos a teenager with a computer and a phone connection can create, Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman hacks into an artificially intelligent computer mainframe and inadvertently sparks off what could have been a nuclear war of Dr Strangelove proportions.
David’s abilities don’t just extend to starting nuclear wars, either. He manages to hack into his school and changes his grades and those of his girlfriend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy). He hacks into an airline computer and orders free plane tickets to Paris. And when he’s captured by government operatives, he even manages to escape from a locked room using a voice recorder and some other items he finds sitting in a drawer.
The mundane reality: unless you were supremely rich in the 1980s, the internet simply didn’t exist. Most of us had to make do with playing Dizzy on the ZX Spectrum instead.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
What was remarkable: teenage arcade ace defeats an alien empire
If WarGames was a wish fulfilment story about a computer geek who gets up to potentially continent-sinking mischief, The Last Starfighter goes one step further, and posits the idea that being really, really good at an arcade machine could result in being whisked off for adventures on the other side of the universe.
Actually, the arcade machine in question isn’t just any old arcade machine – it’s a recruitment tool for the Rylan Star League, an alien defence outfit frantically looking for new pilots. Lance Guest’s trailer park teen Alex is the newest recruit, and hones his abilities to save the people of Rylos from the evil Ko-Dan Empire.
The mundane reality: most trips to the arcade ended not with an officer turning up to recruit our services for an alien race, but with earache and pockets entirely emptied of coins.
Red Dawn (1984)
What was remarkable: teens fight communist invaders
Proving that there wasn’t anything the youths of the 1980s couldn’t do, John Milius’ Red Dawn saw a group of youngsters form a resistance group and fight invading forces from Cuba and the Soviet Union. With their father interred in a prisoner camp, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt (Charlie Sheen) arm themselves and form the Wolverines, a platoon of guerrilla soldiers dedicated to creating as much mayhem for the commie occupants as possible.
A surprisingly violent film for its time, even for its newly-minted PG-13 rating, Red Dawn was full of explosions and gunplay, and featured a body count that ran into three figures. Peter Pan this was not.
The mundane reality: fortunately, the communists never invaded, which was just as well for kids growing up in the UK in the 80s, who probably would have had to defend the country with tennis rackets or something.
What was remarkable: a small boy steals a stealth fighter plane
Admittedly, the title star of D.A.R.Y.L. isn’t meant to be just any ordinary small boy. He’s actually a military experiment, a cyborg who’s intended to be the first in a new line of super soldiers – Daryl standing for Data-Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform. Escaping from his military masters and briefly enjoying a brief stay in a normal family home, Daryl displays superior physical and mental abilities, as well as a supernatural talent for playing the Atari racing game Pole Position.
The film’s final act displays quite a lot of the harshness that flares up from time to time in 80s family movies. A scientist is shot in the chest, while Daryl, who takes to the skies in a stolen SR-71 Blackbird, is later shot down and lying face down in a lake.
The mundane reality: the closest we came to flying a SR-71 Blackbird was building an Airfix model kit version, which we then accidentally destroyed in a Tizer-fuelled battle with a toy AT-AT.
What was remarkable: kids build a rocket and travel into outer space
It would take a special kind of child genius to build a rocket that could travel into outer space, but that’s what young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix manage to do in Joe Dante’s underrated Explorers. The ship itself is little more than a Waltzer car from one of those old fairground rides, but thanks to the power of computers and the magic of 80s Hollywood special effects, it’s transformed into a conveyance which can hurtle off to another galaxy.
The mundane reality: we tried building our own space ship in the back garden out of a dustbin and some old Christmas lights, but it rained, shorted out the lights and set fire to the wallpaper we’d glued inside the bin for decoration.
The Goonies (1985)
What was remarkable: a gang of kids outsmarts gangsters and discovers pirate treasure
Perhaps the ultimate 80s children’s adventure, The Goonies was like the Famous Five or the Secret Seven except with guns, Cyndi Lauper and swearing instead of lashings of ginger beer. A fun-filled yarn though it was – full of pirate ships, hidden treasure, underground caverns and traps – the Fratelli gang were properly menacing, and thought nothing of threatening the young cast with knives and guns. Fortunately, executive producer Steven Spielberg never thought to go back and replace the knives and guns with root vegetables or anything like that.
The mundane reality: despite our best efforts, we never did find any hidden treasure as kids, no matter where we looked. Mind you, we did once meet a pirate – he was a panel beater named Wayne, and he made extra money on the side selling dodgy copies of Jaws 3 on VHS.
What was remarkable: a group of kids manage to land their shuttle after they’re accidentally blasted into space
If you were wondering where Alfonso Cuaron got the idea for his wondrous autumn spectacle Gravity, it might just be from this 80s relic. About a group of youngsters – among them Joaquin Phoenix, in his debut role – who are accidentally launched into space thanks to a robot named Jinx, SpaceCamp details their struggles to wrestle their shuttle back to Earth.
The mundane reality: Hoping to get our own invite to SpaceCamp, we posted a picture of our pre-launch dustbin space shuttle to NASA. We’re still awaiting a reply.
The Monster Squad (1987)
What was remarkable: a group of kids kill lots of classic Universal monsters
In this fun and occasionally quite violent comedy horror co-written by Shane Black, a group of young monster movie fanatics come face to face with the Universal ghouls they idolise – including Count Dracula, Frankenstein (played brilliantly by Tom Noonan), the Wolf Man, the Gill-man and the Mummy.
Rudy (Ryan Lambert) was arguably the handiest member of the Monster Squad, and in spite of his diminutive stature (probably from all that cigarette smoking) manages to make short work of two of those Universal creatures – he violently dispatches The Wolf-Man with a stick of dynamite, for example, and then offs the Gill-man with a shotgun. This is proof positive that, even if you’re a hulking seven-foot monster from the movies, it never pays to mess with an 80s kid.
The mundane reality: we spent most of the 80s watching films like The Lost Boys from behind a cushion, so if monsters like Count Dracula really had attacked, we probably would have hidden ourselves in a kitchen cupboard or something.
The Wizard (1989)
What was remarkable: videogame-obsessed kids manage to hitchhike to California for a Nintendo tournament
Compared to the films that came before it, the adventure the kids go on in this film is quite low-key – a sign, perhaps, that the decade’s burst of bravery and resourcefulness was already on the wane. Fred Savage stars as Corey, whose withdrawn brother Jimmy (Luke Edwards) displays a freakish brilliance at playing videogames. To this end, the pair decide to sneak off on a trip to California, where a tournament called Video Armageddon awaits – not to mention a juicy $50,000 cash prize for first place.
Despite the huge distance between the bit of America where Jimmy and Corey live and the west coast, they manage to safely hitchhike across the country, and make money from unsuspecting members of the public by using Jimmy’s spooky ability to rack up highscores on seemingly every videogame ever created.
The mundane reality: we once went on a road trip to a videogame tournament. Well, we say road trip, it was a bus to the amusement arcade in the next town. And we call it a tournament, but really, a much older, taller teenager bet us 50p that he could get a higher score than us on Out Run. We lost.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.