Everybody wants to recapture the glory days of 80s movies these days. Everywhere you look, they're remaking 80s classics or paying homage to the motifs of the Reagan era. But there's still something about the 80s that remains unique and special. Here are 10 things movies were good at in the 80s that they struggle at today.
All images from Ghostbusters.
This one is sort of obvious, but worth mentioning. The 80s had fantastic creature effects, from the body horror of Cronenberg to the slimy creatures of countless action movies. And sometimes CG creatures are great — but they often lack the tactile weirdness of creatures made out of silicone and KY jelly and spit and wire. We miss practical effects, especially creature effects.
This is a double-edged sword — movies in the 80s had a much slower pace, and now when you watch an old-school classic you can't help noticing how deliberate the build-up is. You probably couldn't get away with that nowadays, given how much faster things move on television and games, and how much shorter everybody's attention spans are thanks to text messages and whatnot. But something amazing happens when you spend a bit more time laying track before the train roars away from the station: you actually bond with the characters and care what happens to them.
And beyond just taking time to build up the characters, there's the sense of real friendship and companionship that you get from a lot of 80s films. The best 80s adventure movies, from Goonies to the Star Trek films, leave you with a feeling that you're watching a group of friends doing stuff together without having to hate each other or have fake conflict.
In the same vein as showing real cameraderie, 80s movies showed children, and childhood friendships, in a believable and relatable way. There are some fantastic child actors working today — but you don't see as many movies really capturing the darkness and insecurity that mark a lot of our childhoods. These days, little kids feel like baggage or hostages — but kids in 80s movies were less perfect and more real. Another thing that 80s movies did really well with kids was to show their families being involved in their lives — even if the movie isn't about the family, it spends a lot of time dealing with how the protagonist relates to his or her parents and siblings, just as much as their friends or love interests.
80s movies had a gritty realness that didn't just come from having people talk tough in a gravelly voice — but also came from an awareness of social class. This is one thing that makes Blade Runner stand out today — but also lots of teen movies feature someone from the "wrong side of the tracks," and that affects everything they do. And movies like E.T. weren't afraid to show dirty kitchens and messy bedrooms and kids calling each other "penis breath." In general, there was a sense of realness in the best 80s movies, even beyond acknowledging social class:Poltergeist showed a couple hanging out and smoking weed instead of having torrid perfect movie sex. Now when you see someone's home in a movie, it looks pristine, and people have perfect sexy sex.
Shorter is better. No need for three-hour epics! In spite of the thing we mentioned earlier about taking time to establish characters, it's also great that many 80s movies manage to tell a great story in 90 minutes, including credits, and then release you to go to the restroom. And not every movie needs to have a massive scope, either. You don't need to see entire cities destroyed on screen to get across the point that bad shit is happening. And all the disaster porn footage in the world won't make up for a crappy story or crappy characters.
Kenny Loggins is still out there and ready to go back to work. But seriously, the 80s just had awesome theme songs, with actual lyrics and a rockin guitar sound. The Ghostbusters theme is still stuck in our heads. Somewhere between the first Men in Black in 1997 and the most recent one a couple years ago, people just stopped having movie theme songs, especially ones where the title of the movie is sung or rapped. The James Bond films still carry the torch, but it's time for other movies to pick it up too.
Outside of horror movies, you just don't see enough intense scares nowadays — and when you do see scary monsters and spine-tingling suspense, it's always tempered by irony and winking. Enough. Let's get back to intense crazy monster action and big scares of the old days. Also, in the 80s they knew that movies for kids could be scary and intense, like ET, or even Goonies.
Outside of a handful of comedians, you're just not seeing much satire nowadays — especially over-the-top political satire in non-comedy films. Movies from Robocop to Aliens featured pretty harsh satire on corporate culture in the 80s, and we've drifted away from that in our desire to be taken seriously. Plus the 80s were just bursting with absurd slapsticky satirical comedies, from Spaceballs to Top Secret, says David Sirota, author of Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. Also, Sirota misses the hyphenated-comedy films of the 80s, from "adventure-comedy" films like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, to "mystery-comedy" films like Clue.
Barring the occasional great baddie like Heath Ledger's Joker, we're still in our ongoing villain recession. Especially at the movies. Villains are either purely out for revenge on the hero, or have ultra-vague goals — but either way, they get a few moments of ranting and then the mass destruction begins. Where are the great baddies like Thulsa Doom or Rene Belloq? Villains with charisma, with plans and goals of their own, and possibly a cool mountain lair. Seriously.
Additional reporting by Meredith Woerner, Esther Inglis-Arkell, Robert T. Gonzalez, George Dvorsky, Annalee Newitz, Katharine Trendacosta and Rob Bricken. Thanks to David Sirota, Cheryl Eddy and Ben Richardson for the help.