Let me ask a question: is it possible to be nostalgic for a decade you never personally experienced?
I was born in 1990, which was a pretty great time to be born in terms of movie history. My childhood in the 90s was defined by the Disney Renaissance and the birth of Pixar. The 2000s saw the rise of the first mega-franchises – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy – as well as the birth of the modern superhero movie. While I was in college, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its box office domination that changed cinema as we know it. Plus, there have been iconic masterpieces like Parasite, Knives Out, La La Land, Mad Max Fury Road, Moonlight, The Social Network, Shrek 2, Inception and more released over the past decade.
But even though I’ve lived through some momentous movie eras, there’s something about movies made before I was born that continue to captivate me. Specifically, movies of the 1980s.
Nostalgia tends to create cycles in pop culture. Usually every 20 or 30 years, new media will look back on the past to reflect, celebrate or even correct the childhood years of artist making the art.
Think about the number of movies and shows from the 1970s and 1980s that were set in the 1950s – Grease, Happy Days, American Graffiti. These movies and shows presented the 50s in a golden light, as a simpler time.
More recently, the 2010s similarly went all-in on nostalgia for the 1980s. Stranger Things, the remake of Stephen King’s IT, and Ready Player One relied heavily on 80s nostalgia to pull in audiences. Meanwhile, dozens of 80s classics like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, Ghostbusters and more received reboots and remakes to rekindle that 80s love.
So why do I, someone who wasn’t even born in this decade, have such a love for 80s movies?
Something about 80s movies makes everything feel like an adventure and fill you with a sense of wonder. Movies like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Goonies, Back to the Future and The Empire Strikes Back transported viewers into worlds both familiar and bizarre that still felt real. A lot of that comes down to the state of special effects in the 80s. It’s a little crazy to think about how creative movies had to be before the advancements of CGI and special effects. So many of the creatures and worlds we see in movies today are made in a computer, which couldn’t be done in the 80s. They had to make them for real.
Think about it: if E.T. was made today, E.T. would absolutely be a fully-CG character. Instead, the E.T. puppet/suit existed in the environment of the movie and was able to interact with the kid actors, which surely helped them give such memorable performances.
Likewise, Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the gremlins in Gremlins, the Xenomorphs in Aliens and dozens of other iconic creatures were all practical effects in the 80s that would have 100% been computer animated today. But the practicality of these characters gives them such weight and tangibility that they’re immediately believable and real.
The 80s were also able to lay the groundwork for the rise of blockbusters and mega-franchises that we see today while also making new installments feel (mostly) fresh and new. While there are some that will call out blockbusters and franchises as being the death of cinema, these are the movies that tend to enter the collective zeitgeist and live on in pop culture.
The concept of the modern blockbuster was introduced in the 1970s with Jaws and Star Wars, but the 80s perfected it. Both Star Wars and Jaws became franchises of their own throughout the 1980s: Star Wars grew with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Jaws continued with Jaws 2 in 1978 followed by Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge during the 80s.
Almost all of the most popular and successful movies of the 80s have been adapted into franchises – many of which continue to this day. Indiana Jones, Aliens, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Blade Runner, Tron, The Terminator, Top Gun and more have produced sequels nearly 30 years after the originals. There’s a kinetic energy in these movies that filmmakers have been chasing and trying to recreate ever since.
The other genre perfected during the 1980s was the coming-of-age movie. The godfather of the coming-of-age genre was, of course, John Hughes. His masterful run during this decade created iconic classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.
Hughes’ characters that felt and looked like real teenagers connected with movie-going teens. Other successful coming-of-age movies from the 80s include Stand By Me, Heathers, The Outsiders, St. Elmo’s Fire, Can’t Buy Me Love, Say Anything, The Karate Kid, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Risky Business. In these movies, teens fall in and out of love, navigate high school, learn about the world and find out who they are. And sure, some of them compete in karate competitions or create a woman out of a computer program.
Many of these movies even jumpstarted the careers of some of the most successful actors of the last 40 years, including Tom Cruise, Patrick Dempsey, Rob Lowe, Keanu Reeves, John Cusack, Molly Ringwald, Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder.
There are so many other iconic moments from 1980s film that helped define and shape pop culture for the decades to come. Horror became more popular in the 80s and included classics like The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, The Evil Dead, and the expansion of the Halloween franchise. Legendary comedy classics like The Princess Bride, Big, Beetlejuice, When Harry Met Sally, Airplane, Clue, the Vacation series, Caddyshack, and Beverly Hills Cop were released in the 80s.
And so many of the most quotable moments in movie history came out of the 80s. Empire Strikes Back‘s “No…I am your father.” Back to the Future‘s “You built a time machine…out of a DeLorean?!” E.T.‘s “Phone home.” Bill and Ted‘s “Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes!” Aliens‘s “Get away from her, you bitch!” Top Gun‘s “I feel the need – the need for speed!” The Shining‘s “Here’s Johnny!” Indiana Jones‘s “Snakes…why’d it have to be snakes?” The Terminator‘s “I’ll be back.” Poltergeist‘s “They’re hereeee.” When Harry Met Sally‘s “I’ll have what she’s having.” Airplane‘s “And don’t call me Shirley.” These quotes and more have cemented themselves in pop culture history.
Of course, like any other decade, the 80s were not perfect. The overwhelming majority of movies released starred white actors directed by white men. Black Americans and people of color continued to struggle to get their stories told or recognized by the industry – success stories like Eddie Murphy or Spike Lee tended to be the exception to the rule. Casual (and sometimes blatant) misogyny and racism was prevalent in many films. And sure, you can say that those kinds of actions were “okay” by the standards of the time, but it’s still possible to love these movies while being critical of their outdated moments.
So much of 80s movie culture was part of my childhood growing up in the 90s and early 2000s. The Star Wars movies are some of the first movies I remember watching. Seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in seventh grade was a landmark moment in my life. Watching E.T. at too young an age has scarred my sister to this day. The Great Mouse Detective is an underrated Disney masterpiece and I will die on that hill.
Something about 80s movies always feels so warm and familiar to me, from ones that I rewatch regularly to ones that I’m seeing for the first time. Every decade of movies seems to have its own personality with the stories they tell, full of masterpieces and flops, but for me, movies of the 1980s will always hold a place above the rest.