It's a question that haunted me as a teen in the late '80s and early '90s, flipping through the latest issues of STARLOG and Cinefantastique looking for something — anything — that looked like the movies of my childhood and early adolescence. When I was a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, the theaters were filled with high-profile SF and fantasy movies; in the summer, it seemed like there was a new one opening every weekend. There were the huge blockbuster hits that everybody saw — Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Ghostbusters, Back to the Future — but from about 1979 to 1986, there were seemingly dozens of other big budget films, not all of them as popular or as well-regarded at the time, but fondly remembered or even lionized today. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Black Hole, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Clash of the Titans, Superman II, Dragonslayer, Escape From New York, Time Bandits, Conan the Barbarian, The Road Warrior, Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, TRON, The Thing, The Dark Crystal, WarGames, Return of the Jedi, Krull, Brainstorm, Gremlins, The Last Starfighter, The Neverending Story, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Terminator, Starman, Dune, 2010, Cocoon, Brazil, Highlander, Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, The Fly... I don't look back on the '80s with a lot of fondness, but if you were, like me, a kid between the ages of eight and fourteen who was into movies and SF, it was a pretty great time to be alive.
And then, it was over. By 1987, the culture had shifted, and while there were still plenty of genre movies (and especially TV shows) being made, the next dozen or so years were almost entirely devoid of the big budget, prestigious genre movies that defined the late '70s and early-to-mid '80s. In this essay, I'm going to try to figure out why that happened, what led to the trend's reversal at the end of the '90s, and how it relates to our own genre-saturated movie environment today. So, with no further ado, here are my theories as to why genre filmmaking faded away in the '80s:
This is the big one, the 800 lb. gorilla. Star Wars wasn't the first big budget studio SF movie. In fact, by the 1970s, there were lots of them, like Logan's Run, the King Kong remake, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Rollerball, all still trying to tap into the popularity of Kubrick's 2001 and Planet of the Apes, which had really gotten the ball running back in 1968. But apart from being hugely popular, it was tremendously innovative from a storytelling perspective. With a handful of exceptions, mostly modestly budgeted films featuring the talents of Ray Harryhausen and George Pal (to which the relatively inexpensive original Star Wars could be seen as a distant relation), very few movies had successfully integrated special effects into stories. The original King Kong had featured groundbreaking stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien, but it had failed to create a wave of similar effects films; by the '50s, O'Brien was reduced to working on Z-movies like Black Scorpion (later featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000) and The Giant Behemoth.
In studio movies, special effects had for the most part tended to serve as spectacles offsetting the human drama, like the earthquake in San Francisco or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, a trend that had reached its apotheosis by the mid-'70s with Irwin Allen's disaster films, like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Forbidden Planet could be seen as Star Wars' closest antecedent in a lot of respects, with its convincing flying saucer and riveting laser battle against the Id Monster, but it's still full of talky, static expositional scenes that place it firmly within the tradition of '50s SF movies. This is even true of 2001, where the space sequences tend to unfold like wordless dreams in contrast to the interior scenes of people talking about recondite matters in low, businesslike voices. But Star Wars, more so than any previous studio genre movie, integrated the effects into the story to the point where they registered as characters in their own right, even if they were just plastic spaceship models or a robot costume. As a result, filmmakers started thinking about SF movies in a different way. They didn't have to be symbolic tone poems or grim dystopias designed to make some point about the nature of human existence. They could be playgrounds, full of worldbuilding and wild characters.
And while SF writers and fans have knocked Star Wars for dumbing down genre movies (and science fiction in general) for decades, watching the original movie again, it's surprising how sophisticated its use of space opera tropes really is. Characters will refer to historical events, or places, or political organizations with little or no exposition. We take it on faith that there is a bigger universe out there, where the Clone Wars and the spice mines of Kessel can be fully comprehended in all their significance, but the effects and the production design help tremendously. This is Star Wars' true legacy for genre movies, one that tends to be overlooked by fans and detractors alike. It provided a new kind of visual and narrative shorthand for depicting other worlds in cinema with little or no connection to our own.
When Lucas shut down Star Wars in 1983, after the release of Return of the Jedi, it was a major blow to genre filmmaking. It didn't hurt the effects industry, and it didn't signal the end of SF or fantasy movies, but it marked the end of the creative engine that had inspired the look and feel of a lot of the genre films that defined the era, from Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner to Lisberger's TRON. Without that inspiration, SF movies would become less visually distinct, and as we'll see, they'd start to fall back on simpler, less ambitious concepts. But before that happened, let's see how Hollywood fell out of love with big budget genre movies.
The release of Jedi in May 1983 didn't singlehandedly kill the SF movie boom; at that time, most of the studios had big, ambitious genre movies in production or development. Two of the biggest and most-awaited were also adaptations of best-selling SF novels: David Lynch's Dune, based on Frank Herbert's 1965 classic, and 2010, a sequel to Kubrick's 2001, from the recent bestseller by Arthur C. Clarke. Thanks to imprints like Ballantine Del Rey, Star Wars' literary home, science fiction publishing was huge in the early '80s, and it was assumed by a lot of people in the movie and publishing industries that the success of Dune and 2010 would lead to even bigger, more ambitious projects. A Foundation Trilogy adaptation, using ILM-grade effects? A movie of The Left Hand of Darkness, with a top-notch cast and director? Hey, it was possible.
Except it wasn't. Dune and 2010, released within weeks of each other in December 1984, were tremendous disappointments, both in terms of box office and reviews. Dune was almost universally panned as incomprehensible and ugly, even by genre enthusiasts. (Roger Ebert, the onetime SF fan and occasional SF writer, gave it a blistering one-star review.) Moviegoers stayed away in droves. 2010 did better with critics, but almost as badly with viewers. Maybe sixteen years was too long a gap for a sequel (as improbable as that may sound today); maybe Baby Boomer audiences had cooled on both the space program and psychedelic visions of interplanetary travel. The lesson that studios would take away from both films, as well as other flops like Enemy Mine (another literary adaptation, from a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Barry Longyear novella) was that audiences were tired of seeing other planets or outer space in movies.
They weren't crazy about fantasy versions of Earth, either. Throughout the '80s, studios figured that fantasy was the next big thing — novels by the likes Piers Anthony and Terry Brooks were rapidly eclipsing sales of science fiction authors on the bestseller lists — and greenlighted a number of films that sought to build off the success of Lucas' space fantasy, minus the "space" part. With the exception of the first Conan, they all flopped hard, regardless of the talent involved. An incomplete roll call: Dragonslayer (1981, made by Lucas' USC pals Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins), Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (1982 and 1986, both from Jim Henson), Krull (1983, directed by Peter Yates, of Bullitt, Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Breaking Away fame), Greystoke (1984, director Hugh Hudson's followup to Chariots of Fire), Ladyhawke (1985, from Richard Donner, starring Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer), Legend (1986, with Tom Cruise, directed by Ridley Scott). Disney tried its hand at the genre, with a massively expensive animated version of Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron (featuring early work by Tim Burton); it nearly killed their animation studio. When even George Lucas' Willow, directed by Ron Howard, tanked in 1988, the writing was on the wall — most viewers preferred reality, or at least a movie version of the real world, to visions of other worlds.
To see where genre movies were headed in the late '80s — and where they'd be for much of the '90s — you'd have to go back in time, to late 1984, about six weeks before the release of Dune and 2010. In doing so, you'd travel by way of the war-scarred year of 2029 — though eventually that date, and that future, would become totally irrelevant.
The movie that changed SF films in the '80s, much as Star Wars did in the '70s, was another modestly budgeted, independently produced film from a young writer-director: James Cameron's The Terminator. Lean, mean, and brutally efficient as its title character, it introduced an aesthetic and attitude to science fiction filmmaking that was shiny, stripped down, and ultimately uncomplicated where Star Wars was fusty, cluttered, and full of eccentric odds and ends. There was a pretty compelling science fiction story in the movie — a cyborg from a tyrannical future hunts down a young woman who will give birth to the leader of the resistance, with a neat causal twist at the end — but it didn't really matter. For the average viewer, by the time you got to the movie's explosive climax, you probably didn't care if the Terminator was from the future, or why he was after poor Sarah Connor. It was pure, cathartic action, with a neon and sparks visual palette straight out of a MTV video — dark blues and blacks, flashes of red, pink, and orange. Though Cameron, a dyed-in-the-wool SF fan since childhood, would likely disagree, the genre component in Terminator, to the extent that it existed, could be ignored by people who thought stories about space travel or robots were kinda fruity.
For much of the '80s and '90s, Terminator ended up providing a new, viable template for inexpensive R- and PG-13-rated movies that were not so much science fiction as science fiction-ish. Predator, RoboCop, Running Man, Alien Nation, Total Recall, Universal Soldier, Freejack, Demolition Man, Timecop, Judge Dredd, Virtuosity... they might take place in a future (or "futuristic") setting, or involve the odd alien or cyborg (usually played by Schwarzenegger or one of the other posthuman action stars of the video era), but really they seemed to be set in the here and now, even if it was on Mars or 2080. Even Cameron's Aliens, which takes place almost entirely in space and on a colony world, feels more like 1986 than its predecessor felt like 1979. The Marines talk more like teenagers in a John Hughes movie than the grizzled veterans of interstellar war that they're supposed to be; Paul Reiser's Burke looks and talks like an actor from a Dockers ad; Ripley tromps around in Reebok hightops and sports a Swatch. When Ridley Scott created the world of 2019 Los Angeles for Blade Runner, he consulted futurists, sociologists, and urban planners to create a comprehensive vision of a 21st Century American city. When Paul Verhoeven made RoboCop just five years later, he just shot most of the movie in Dallas, because the shiny metal and glass office buildings downtown resembled his idea of a science fiction metropolis.
That's not to say that these movies are bad — though some of them really are — or uninventive. I love Predator, Aliens and RoboCop are terrific, and Terminator is a classic. It's just that they lack a certain visionary spark; they don't really inspire anything beyond the desire to see the next big jolt, the next explosive setpiece. (Cameron's T2 is a perfect example.) They don't embody the kinds of imaginative filmmaking that you see in the earlier part of the decade, when even a mediocre genre film like Outland would sport some amazing design work. Visually, once you get past some cool edits or compositions, they're very boring looking, with no sense of background detail or texture. (Just watch Alien back-to-back with Cameron's sequel and you'll see what I mean.) They feel weirdly cramped, low-resolution, made for TV — a reminder that by the end of the '80s, a lot of viewers were staying away from theaters and seeing these kinds of movies on video. Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, or Blade Runner, or even TRON, they lack a richness of detail and the sense of a larger universe beyond the bounds of the movie frame. The action movie places an emphasis on present tense, both in terms of mise-en-scene and the world in general. While promoting Top Gun, the biggest movie of 1986, one of the producers remarked that teenaged boys who'd fantasized about being Luke Skywalker as kids would now dream of being Maverick, not just because Tom Cruise's character was a cool ladies' man, but because jet pilots, unlike Jedi Knights, were real. He might have been onto something.
By the early '90s, the SF genre had effectively cross-pollinated with the action genre, though the same could be said of a lot of other genres that had once been more distinct, like war movies (Rambo) or cop movies (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard). (It was around this time that video chains stopped separating movies by genres and started lumping them together through broad categories, like Action, Comedy, and Drama.) SF didn't just evaporate into action, though — it did it with comedy as well, and often more subtly. Ghostbusters combined Lovecraftian cosmic horror with National Lampoon-style yuks; Back to the Future mixed a pretty complex time travel narrative with '50s nostalgia and teen sex comedies (the joke being that the hero is most definitely trying to get laid). As in Terminator, the genre elements are undeniable and compelling, but they arguably weren't the main draw. By the end of the decade even overtly fantastic movies were trying to avoid any hint of "genre". Ads for Cronenberg's remake of The Fly played up the romance angle. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a landmark movie in urban fantasy tropes and alternate history, but the focus was on the interactions between the live actors and the animated characters. Nobody thought of it as a "fantasy" movie. James Cameron's The Abyss is a first contact story, but the studio pitched it as a Tom Clancy-esque technothriller with no reference to aliens in the advertising (apart from the title of Cameron's previous movie). Silence of the Lambs is essentially a horror movie, but the lack of supernatural elements made it palatable to Academy voters. Even Steven Spielberg, while adapting Jurassic Park, emphasized that it was "science actuality" rather than science fiction (a genre that the novel's author, Michael Crichton, had always vehemently denied he wrote), because all of the technology depicted in the movie existed in reality or within the realms of possibility. (Which is pretty much the textbook definition of "science fiction," but as the young people were wont to say back in those days, nevermind.)
In some respects this is not surprising. SF, even in its escapist forms, is weird, unnerving, and challenging. The Baby Boom directors of the '60s and '70s, including Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese, as well as older countercultural filmmakers like Ashby, Altman, and Pakula, had excelled at making movies that were not afraid to be difficult or different. But by the '80s and much of the '90s, Hollywood movies were for the most part conservative and undemanding, and largely ambivalent about the social and cultural changes of the previous decades. Many of the same Boomer age directors and producers were responsible for that shift. Ribald comedies about sex, booze, and drugs, like Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, were replaced by movies about sensitive teenagers like The Breakfast Club, or thirtysomethings trying to balance work and family, like Baby Boom. Nostalgia dominated, whether in the liberal form of Dirty Dancing or Forrest Gump-style cultural conservatism. In prestige movies as varied as Wall Street, Rain Man, and Fatal Attraction, as well as glossy film/lifestyle magazines like Premiere, Hollywood promoted a boutique adulthood that promoted "realism" as if it were a product you could buy at Bloomingdale's or The Sharper Image.
Genre movies increasingly seemed like a childish notion that serious filmmakers should abandon at all costs, and they did. Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote Raiders, Empire, and Jedi, followed those projects with The Big Chill in 1983. After a decade's worth of genre projects, Spielberg made The Color Purple. Ridley Scott, heartbroken from seeing Legend cut to shreds by Universal, switched to conventional thrillers with Someone To Watch Over Me and Black Rain. Even Cronenberg abandoned SF with Dead Ringers, though he would remain far from the mainstream. (Lucas gave us Howard the Duck, but that's another story.) By the '90s, no producer would take you seriously if you entered a pitch meeting babbling about space arks, like Adam Rifkin in Griffin Mill's office at the beginning of The Player. Unless it was a plot element in a conventional action flick or wacky comedy, SF was seen as tired, childish, and silly.
Not all trends last forever. By the end of the '90s, the action movie model that sustained most of the genre movies from the post-Terminator era had mostly died out, mainly because the movie star paradigm itself was starting to fade. As movies became more globalized, film franchises ceased to center around a single big-name actor. That wasn't readily apparent at first. But when The Matrix came out in 1999, it was pretty clear that it wasn't just a Keanu Reeves vehicle, in the same way that, say, End of Days, released six months later, was a showcase for Schwarzenegger's screen presence. A lot of the movie's success hinged on both the effects and the storyline, which moreso than the average genre flick, justified and rationalized the gravity defying feats seen onscreen. And there was a bigger narrative that the Wachowskis hinted at, which would soon come to be the subjects not just of sequels (to many viewers' lasting regrets), but also short films, video games, and comics, all of them set in a canonical reality. The "expanded universe" concept of non-movie stories, had been around for a while, thanks to the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, but this was the first time it became a central marketing point. The movie as universe, the universe as brand.
Star Wars returned the same year, of course, with an expanded movie universe of its own in the form of the first prequel, The Phantom Menace. If you listen only to the hardcore fans, people hated it as much as they loved the original 1977 movie, but the fact remains that it was the most popular movie of the year, and it's still the most successful Star Wars movie of all time. Bad acting and writing didn't keep audiences away from either of its sequels, or prevent George Lucas from becoming a multibillionaire. In fact, despite the end of the prequel trilogy in 2005, the franchise kept rolling along with a variety of projects, right up until Lucas sold it to Disney in 2012.
But the big movie franchises of the 2000s came from outside Hollywood and the movie industry entirely. Like a certain pair of genre films from 1984, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring were based on popular novels, and released within weeks of each other at the height of the Christmas movie season, in 2001. But unlike 2010 and Dune, they thrived, exploding into the public consciousness and generating spinoffs and sequels that persist to this day, and unlike the genre movies of the '80s, they show no signs of dying out. Neither do the other big franchises, like the Marvel Studios films, or Star Wars, or Optimus help us, the Transformers. That's because the part that used to be the least cool or relevant, the fictional universe beyond the frame, is now the star, and not its flesh-and-blood inhabitants. The worlds that could only be hinted at in the '70s and '80s are now the feature attractions.
It remains to be seen, though, whether this is a truly desirable development. If you look at the great genre flicks of the '70s and '80s, they have one major element in common: They're all original stories. (Two big exceptions: The Thing and Blade Runner, though they differ considerably from their source materials.) Star Wars started out as an original screenplay; it wasn't based on a long-running series of novels or comics, or games or toys, or a TV show. So did Alien, and Raiders, and E.T., and The Terminator. You can debate their originality — there are lawsuits and flame wars to show for it — but mostly they were the work of filmmakers who had a neat idea, found some people to help them develop it, and then found some other people to put up the money for it. Movies based on existing media franchises, like Star Trek or Batman, were the exception, not the rule. Now they're everywhere, and with the exceptions of say, Avatar and Pacific Rim (now nascent franchises unto themselves) they define the development process. That's not how "the next Star Wars" — as opposed to the next Star Wars — will get made, assuming that it does at all.