2012 marks the 30th anniversary of 1982, a year widely considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, years ever for science fiction and fantasy movies.
Going by original US release dates, there are indeed few years in cinema history that can boast the release of so many classic, cult, influential, popular and, in some cases, all of the above, Science Fiction and Fantasy movies.
1982 is certainly a year that the SF/fantasy genre really came into its own, both in terms of its own cinematic aesthetic and as a viable source of commercial success. In the wake of hit SF/fantasy films like Star Wars and Alien, the genre was finally breaking free of its previous status as predominantly schlocky low budget B-movies and kiddie fare.
It was also an era where visual effects were coming into their own, particularly in the fields of matte technology, stop-motion animation, prosthetic make-up, animatronics and perhaps most importantly, the still nascent craft of CGI.
Another factor new to the movie business in 1982 was the emergence of home video. Many of the SF/fantasy movies that year ended up finding a bigger audience on video than they ever did in their original theatrical release (remarkably bigger, in some cases).
Here, then, listed by American release date, are some of the more significant SF/fantasy movies from 1982.
Cat PeopleUS Release date: April 2, 1982Director : Paul Schrader
Cat People is probably best remembered today for the David Bowie song of the same name. And if you prefer your horror fantasy stories about human feline transformation to be steeped in generous amounts of erotica and nudity, this is definitely the movie for you.
Cat People is a remake of French-American director Jacques Tournier’s uniquely offbeat 1942 cult movie of the same name. Similar to its source material, Cat People is closer in nature to fantasy than horror. The moody and atmospheric portrayal of a people who transform into a lethal panthers by night is creepy, but not really all that scary. How could it be when lead actor Natasha Kinski, spends an estimated 80% of the movie completely naked?
Conan The BarbarianUS release date: May 14, 1982Director: John Milius
Robert E. Howard’s best known and most successful creation finally made it to the big screen in ’82.
About half a century after his first appearance in print, Conan burst into movie theaters via a successful line of Marvel Comics adaptations and the brisk sales of the Conan paperbacks, boosted by the babes and beefcake cover art of legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. That first Conan movie remains so definitive that, for a generation of fans, Arnold Schwarzenegger simply is Conan The Barbarian.
The initial and subsequent home video releases more than tripled Conan The Barbarian‘s theatrical revenues. It was one of the very first movies ever to make more money on video than in movie theatres. Just that alone makes Conan The Barbarian seminal to not just the genre, but to the movie industry in general.
Mad Max 2: The Road WarriorUS release date: May 21, 1982Director: George Miller
Mad Max 2, as it was known pretty much everywhere but North America, had already been released in its home of country of Australia on December 24, 1981 (a true Christmas classic if ever there was one). The movie was, of course, a sequel to Mad Max, the 1977 Australian post apocalyptic action movie. Mad Max, however, bombed during its initial North American theatrical run.
Re-titled The Road Warrior for its US release, the movie was not just that rare case of a sequel that was bigger and more successful than the original movie. It was that even rarer case of 90% of its North American audience not even knowing the movie was a sequel to begin with. The first movie was just part of the three minute prologue as far the average North American 1982 movie-goer was concerned.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (as it is known today) took in twice as much at the box office in North America as it did in Australia…and it did take in quite a bit Down Under. Australian director George Miller’s genre-defining post apocalyptic western also, for better or worse, helped make Mel Gibson a Hollywood star.
The movie is still regarded today as a benchmark achievement in the action movie genre. Everything in the film, from the stunts to the cinematography to the editing to the music, all work in concert to achieve one goal and one goal only: keep those car chases and crashes moving, moving, moving and then moving some more.
PoltergeistUS release date: June 4, 1982Director: Tobe Hooper
Tobe Hooper’s (director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Poltergeist straddles the line between horror and fantasy. There are plenty of scares in the movie for sure, but there are also fantastical elements, big special effects and extensive action sequences. With Steven Spielberg producing (or perhaps even directing, if you believe some), Poltergeist also blazes a path not often blazed before then, that of the family friendly scary movie.
A standout scene in Poltergeist takes place when one of the kids is attacked by a clown doll under his bed while it is possessed by evil spirits. While the possible exception of the Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, it’s rare that anything has so chillingly captured that odd childhood fear of clowns.
Horror elements involving and aimed at kids are not common in these kinds of movies. Usually scary movies are aimed at frightening one specific audience to the exclusion of all others. what kids find scary is not what teenagers find scary nor is what teenagers find scary what frightens adults. Poltergeist is an attempt to frighten, excite and entrain everybody at once. It’s evidence of the increasingly savvy marketing transformation that Hollywood went through in the 80s.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanReleased June 4, 1982Director: Nicholas Meyer
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still considered by most fans to be the best of the Star Trek feature films. The movie is a very entertaining retro action adventure film with the original TV cast consistently playing above their game. Then there’s veteran 1940s movie star, character actor and island-based fantasy co-ordinator Ricardo Montalban who also turns in a brilliant performance. He plays the titular character of Khan, the Melville-quoting, genetically engineered super human villain resurrected from the original 60s TV series. And, yes, for those of you wondering, that was Ricardo’s real chest in the movie.
Star Trek II also made a big mark on the home video front in a different way. During its initial home video release, Star Trek II was one of the first VHS tapes to be sold at the then unheard of low ‘priced to own’retail price of $19.95 USD. Copies of the movie were swept off video stores shelves in unprecedented numbers. The cheaper movies on VHS thing stuck all the way until the takeover of home video by the DVD format in the late 90s.
ET: The Extra-TerrestrialUS release date: June 11, 1982Director: Steven Spielberg
ET: The Extra-Terrestrial was the highest grossing movie of 1982. It still remains Steven Spielberg’s highest grossing movie ever and (adjusted for inflation) is also still one of the top 10 highest grossing movies of all time. Ironically, though, ET does not have the same cult status longevity amongst fans that some of the other initially less successful movies on this list have.
ET is one of Spielberg’s best crafted films. It also contains Spielberg’s most unapologetic embrace of child-like optimism to date. While perhaps not enjoying cult status, ET still undeniably remains a beloved childhood film for an entire generation.
Perhaps more than any other film since Star Wars, ET cemented SF/fantasy has a majorly lucrative box office genre. To his credit, Spielberg recently said that he regretted digitally futzing with ET some 25 years or so after its initial theatrical release. Well, George Lucas, he ain’t.
Blade RunnerReleased June 25, 1982Director: Ridley Scott
Along with Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner is generally considered one of the best and most influential SF films of all time.
However, when it first opened in the US in 1982, things did not bode so well for Blade Runner. The film opened to disappointing box office and almost universally bad reviews. Even star Harrison Ford was quoted at the time as saying “it’s a film about whether you can have a meaningful relationship with your toaster.” Part of the problem was that the film was not what audiences were expecting. Blade Runner came right after two massive Harrison Ford hit movies released two summers in a row: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).
The first trailers made Blade Runner look like an SF film noir action adventure movie featuring a main character that was a hybrid of Ford’s two most iconic roles: Han Solo and Indiana Jones.
The movie, of course, originally had a studio imposed voice-over track that clunkily attempted to pigeonhole the story and ultimately the film itself into something it was not. It over-simplified or over-explained or even misinterpreted many of Blade Runner‘s more subtle narrative and thematic elements. And let’s not even get into the tacked-on studio-imposed ‘happy ending’.
Blade Runner’s eventual renaissance came not on home video, but on the big screen, with midnight revival showings at art house cinemas. Ridley Scott’s 1992 Director’s Cut, which omitted the awful voice over and the upbeat ‘fly away into the sunset’ ending, marked a big improvement. It gave Blade Runner a much more suitable introduction to a new generation of fans.
The ThingUS release date: June 25, 1982Director: John Carpenter
The Thing is a movie that earned its legendary classic cult status almost entirely on home video.
Halloween and Escape From New York director John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World bombed in its original theatrical release. After its home video release, the SF thriller finally found its audience, and was able to scare the hell out of them right in their own living rooms.
Carpenter’s remake ditches the 1951 version’s guy-in-a-suit monster, that was prevalent in a lot 50s SF and horror movies. Instead, Carpenter decided to return to the plot of SF writer John W. Campbell Jr’s original 1938 short story, Who Goes There? In Campbell’s story, The Thing is a shape shifting alien being capable of taking on the identity of just about any living being.
The Thing has a number of scenes featuring the eponymous creature making a fleeting appearance as it attempts to take the form of another one of the men (oddly the 50s version had women in the cast yet the 80s version did not). Some of these scenes of tension in The Thing are very well directed. Others are incredibly well directed.
TronUS release date: July 9, 1982Director: Steve Lisberger
Tron is the shock trooper of today’s CGI special effects movie world. It also dates back to a time of a pre-The Dude Jeff Bridges.
Tron does for early 80s computers what Fantastic Voyage in the 60s did for the human body: have little people exploring its inner workings in the most highly imaginative and inaccurate ways possible.
Wendy Carlos’ electronic score, in the scenes where the anthropomorphized programs ‘interface’ with the god-like ‘users’, employs a haunting choral arrangement that seems to suggest some kind of divinity on the part of the ‘users’. For a Disney movie, that’s practically a subversive statement about religion.
The inner world of the computer that Bridges’ finds himself trapped in was designed by the late great cutting edge comic book artist Moebius, who also lent his talents to seminal SF/fantasy films like Alien and The Fifth Element.
Tron is a movie that built a so much of a new audience on video that it took 30 years to accumulate the critical mass of fans necessary to make a sequel.
The Dark CrystalUS release date: December 17, 1982Director: Jim Henson and Frank Oz
Along with Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Dark Crystal is one of a very few films that features a fantasy world so thoroughly and masterfully created.
The screenplay for The Dark Crystal could have been written by American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell, with a final draft polished by pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. The story and very nature of the fantasy world are founded on the struggle between good and evil. The film tells the story of the quest to restore the natural balance between the two.
Such ‘high concepts’ may account for The Dark Crystal’s disappointing box office numbers back in ’82. More than likely the ideas and themes of The Dark Crystal were just a tad too sophisticated and dark for a movie primarily marketed to a very young audience. The film did, after all, feature puppets made by the same guys that gave us Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
And then there’s…
You could also add films like Liquid Sky, The Secret of NIHM, Q: The Winged Serpent and Swamp Thing to this list. Whatever the case, 1982 was one damned impressive year for the SF/fantasy genre.
Now if only ’82 could have also seen the release of Star Wars, 2001, Alien, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Forbidden Planet, Westworld, Robocop, The Matrix, Jurassic Park and all three Lord of the Rings films, then it might just have been perfect…