Why the 80s had the most excellent movies

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. 

What Star Wars means to me

I don’t even remember my life before Star Wars. In a lot of ways, it was my gateway between Disney cartoons and the rest of the cinematic world. As best I can remember, I first saw the original trilogy when I was around 7 years old. It was the 20th anniversary of A New Hope’s release and two years away from the prequels. I still have the VHS box set of the original trilogy that introduced me to this galaxy far, far away. Star Wars has been a part of my life for more than 25 years, and with Episode IX coming out this month, I wanted to attempt to put into words what this story has meant to me.

It’s difficult to even try to describe how much I love Star Wars, but Yoda said “there is no try,” so I’ll do it anyway. It’s been such a fixture in my life that I often take it for granted and don’t really think about what it really means. But I have so many vivid memories throughout my life that center around Star Wars.

  • I remember watching the original trilogy on a portable TV (you know, the ones with the built-in VCR) we would take on long road trips when we were kids – before the days of iPads or even portable DVD players.
  • I remember dressing up as C-3PO and Jar Jar Binks (I know, ew) for consecutive Halloweens when I was probably 9 or 10 years old.
  • I remember when Revenge of the Sith came out and my friends had a week-long marathon of the entire series at my house. My dad created a homemade screen out of bedsheets that we projected the movies onto.
  • I remember having to leave my second or third viewing of Revenge of the Sith early because I had to go get my wisdom teeth taken out. While I was drugged up I remember dreaming that I was actually in Star Wars.
  • I remember the countless hours and days I spent putting together Star Wars Lego sets – all of which I still have today.
  • I remember getting the voice-controlled R2-D2 toy for Christmas when I was around 10 or 11. I had him exploring our lake house when he accidentally fell down a couple of stairs. It screamed just like in the movie whenever R2 gets hurt and I laughed about it for the rest of the day.
  • I remember having a mini-marathon before The Last Jedi came out with a new group of friends, watching Rogue One through The Force Awakens all in one day.

I feel like every new Star Wars movie I see is my favorite Star Wars movie immediately after watching it. Sure, they’re not all perfect (the prequels have some serious issues), but now I can appreciate each entry in this saga for expanding the galaxy and introducing us to characters we’ve grown to love. Each movie has incredible moments – some better than others – that remind us of the joy and wonder of stories.

Star Wars has been around for every major era of my life. The original trilogy came to me when I was 7 and had the perfect amount of wonder and imagination to appreciate this life-changing story. The prequels were released during the most formative time of my life – between the ages of 9 and 15. (Also released during this same time frame were all three Lord of the Rings movies and the first three Harry Potter movies. It was a great time to be alive). The sequel trilogy (plus Rogue One and Solo) followed me through the second half of my 20s, just as I was leaving school and entering adult world, reminding me that you don’t have to completely grow up.   

So what is it about these stories that keeps bringing me back? Well, in short, everything. Star Wars, like so many other stories, is ultimately about the battle between good and evil. But there’s something about the way Star Wars portrays the Light and Dark that makes it so much more engaging than other variations. Our heroes are always the underdog – a young Jedi apprentice trying to find his place in the universe, a rag-tag group of Rebels facing against a dominating Empire, or an even smaller team of Resistance fighters against an even stronger First Order.

But the dichotomy of good and evil isn’t always enough on its own. We have to care about and cheer for the characters that fight for the forces of good. And Star Wars has great characters all around – Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, Palpatine, Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, Kylo – that play important roles in creating the necessary balance in the universe.

It’s incredible that we’re introduced to this galaxy through R2-D2 and C-3PO’s point of view. Sure, we meet Leia and Vader in the opening scene, but these two weird little droids are the only main characters we meet for a solid 20 minutes of screen time. And between the character design, Anthony Daniels’ performance as 3PO and Ben Burt’s sound design for R2, we can’t help but fall in love with them.

When I was younger, I loved the lightsaber duels, the battles and the humor of Star Wars. Getting older, I now can see the deeper meanings and morals of the saga. As flawed as they are, I love the prequels for their tragic tale of a boy who wanted to be a pilot and the forces of light and dark that corrupted and manipulated him to become a villain. I love the original trilogy for the showstopping heroics, the draw of being a part of something greater than yourself, and the belief that everyone has good in them. And I love the sequel trilogy (pre-Episode IX) for showing us that everyone can be a hero – no matter your background – and for reminding us that we all have the ability to grow, change and learn from our failures.

I love that Episode IV is called A New Hope. Because ultimately, that’s what Star Wars has always been about. Hope. Hope that the light will win, even against insurmountable odds. Hope that you can find balance and light within yourself. Hope that you can find your place in this vast universe. Hope that you can learn from your past and become a better person tomorrow. Hope that there is good in everyone.

So that’s why I love Star Wars. It’s always been weird, fun, surprising and wise. We can all be a Force for good and stop living in fear of the unknown and the darkness. As Yoda said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Star Wars reminds us not to let our fears drive us, but that even if we lose or fail, there is always hope.