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31 Years Ago Today: When Sci-Fi Ruled the Earth

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

One of the fun parlor games of moviegoers is to name a season when several major studios release movies that are basically the same story—all at once. This is sometimes the obvious and transparent result of major real-world events, technological advances or, in some cases, new discoveries or theories, and the fact that this provides sudden commercial opportunities for otherwise uninspired Hollywood writers. Such was the case in 1998 when we saw not one, but two movies hit the big screens (Deep Impact; Armageddon) scripted with the sole purpose of exploiting our newest fear: that of a giant asteroid hurtling toward the Earth at lethal velocity. Then there was 1985’s gaggle of movies about preteens and teens either sucked into experiments or creating their own mind-bending science projects in garages or basements, Back to the Future, Weird Science and Explorers being a few of the best known (and a summer that made box office stars of Michael J. Fox., Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix).

The year 1982 was a remarkable one for films, and for a variety of reasons. Among other things, it was the year that Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Gandhi in the film of the same name raised the bar for biographical drama and drew not only international awards but also large audiences. It was in that same year that Sean Penn arrived in our collective memory with his hilarious portrayal of Jeff Spicolli, the king of the ne’er-do-well loafers, surfers and potheads among a whole school of similarly mall-cruising teenage misfits in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And it was the season of John Rambo, a downtrodden, listless Vietnam vet drifting uneventfully from town to town—until he collides with a stubborn local police chief with whom he declares war. The result of that film’s success was a doubling of star-power for Stallone and the start of another multi-million dollar franchise (Rambo, Parts 1 through 23) nearly as enduring as the Rocky series, and this despite the aging Stallone’s obvious wear and tear.

And there were movies of great critical impact that year, including Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog’s infamous project which almost didn’t get completed), The Year of Living Dangerously (which landed Linda Hunt a well-deserved Oscar and proved Mel Gibson could act), and An Officer and a Gentleman, which established the acting bona fides for both Richard Gere and Debra Winger.

But then, that spring and summer, there were those science fiction tales.

Such incredible stories, with such a strange diversity of morality and philosophy at play in each of the various movies—a world of good aliens and bad aliens, robots and cyborgs, and computer programmers who get sucked—quite literally—into their own software designs.

Not the least among these movies was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, one of Steven Spielberg’s most remarkable achievements—cinematically and commercially—as well as one of the most astounding sci-fi adventures ever created. Set in a quiet northern California town, E.T. tells the story of a curious but gentle alien, stranded accidentally on Earth, who befriends a young boy and his siblings while seeking shelter in their home until he can contact his space-travelling companions. E.T. was widely viewed as Spielberg’s logical follow-up to Close Encounters, a movie which, despite its astonishing and dazzling special effects, only briefly introduced us to the alien archetypes, and then, only at the very end. E.T. dispensed with that gauziness and mystery, removing the shroud and letting us have a close-up, hands-on encounter with a creature from another world. The fact that this lovable alien has adopted as his Earth mentor an insecure nine year old boy adds both pedestrian charm and comic reality: one would have to explain a lot of things in one’s home to an alien—pizza, beer, eggs, large dogs, toy Star Wars figures, a piggy bank shaped like a peanut and an empty Coke can filled with coins.

E.T. taught a whole generation of young people that aliens were essentially good: advanced intelligence and a dazzling mastery of physical law necessarily elevates the superior species toward nobility and kindness, a sort of childlike variant on the theme exemplified by Robert Renne in his portrayal of a politically thoughtful, high-minded alien in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. This dictum of we mean you no harm was in keeping with Spielberg’s default template of interplanetary goodwill established in Close Encounters in 1978.

The lovable E.T., once ensconced in the suburban household among the kids, becomes a teacher, collaborator and healer, able to repair wounds with the same ease with which he brings houseplants back to life. But like any small person lost in a strange culture, his experiences are fraught with peril—and, as is necessary in this kind of morality tale, there are powerful and persistent forces who seek his capture. No entity of pure-hearted good can go unpunished for long. Still, in the end, his savvy collaborations with his pre-teen friends win the day; he escapes his pursuers and finds his way back to space, and presumably, home.

E.T. was everything we had come to expect from the best of the Hollywood resurgence of the late 70s and early 1980s, and this was the independent-minded Spielberg at his best, directing mainstream audience films (Jaws; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) with unmatched skill. Indeed, it was the Good Alien message at its most comprehensive, heartwarming and entertaining.

But only two weeks after E.T.’s release in 1982, we also learned the power of fear. At the polar opposite end of the cultural spectrum, where tolerance existed at one end and survivalist pragmatism marked the other, was John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake of the classic Howard Hawks sci-fi movie from 1951, The Thing From Another World. In Carpenter’s nightmarish vision, (based on John Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?) aliens are neither friendly nor are they in the least bit inquisitive of pizza, children’s television or Reese’s Pieces. The plot is cunningly simple: researchers and contractors at a remote weather station in Antarctica encounter an alien—recently thawed by technicians at a neighboring Norwegian facility—whose ability to change form and shape is limitless. The alien can, after direct physical contact, assimilate itself into the affected human within moments, maintaining the illusion indefinitely—that is until it is threatened, at which time all manner of gruesome violence and bloody mayhem erupts. The creature’s ability to hide in plain sight turns the trapped, isolated humans against one another, and the narrative becomes one of visceral fear, paranoia and self-survival.

Panned by some critics for its over-the-top gross-out scenes and general sliminess, the film nevertheless benefits greatly from a strong ensemble cast (including Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, David Clennon and Richard Masur) and its minimalist, tension-sustaining score by Ennio Morricone. Further, in our current age of digital composition and animation effects, the movie—31 years old this summer—has surprisingly durable special effects despite the limitations faced by Carpenter and his effects crew. That the shocking and eye-popping images in this film were created manually is a testament to the Old School skills deployed in the days before computer generated imagery.

A few movie critics saw The Thing as largely allegorical and apocalyptic—a political movie disguised as sci-fi in the early age of Reagan and the later years of Cold War tension, complete with self-serving Me Generation pathologies, abject fear, infectious distrust, and an Alpha Male arms race amongst those trapped in a spiral of uncertainty and icy desolation. Carpenter himself seemed to extend this reasoning into a later movie, They Live, which took a more direct but clumsy approach toward his moral reading of the 1980’s, suggesting that aliens were already among us in our mainstream lives, cloaked in consumerism and material obsessions while “real” humans struggle with homelessness and despair.

The Thing retains a large cult following, in part for those who enjoy its cleverly designed, grisly special effects, and among those early aficionados of what is now a well-worn horror formula: an ensemble of humans trapped in isolation while a cunning, lethal alien creature picks them apart one-by-one (early variations on this were numerous, and include the successful Predator and Alien franchises). The Thing also benefits from its Antarctic setting: the film’s scientific theories regarding objects trapped in ice for thousands of years carry a strangely prophetic resonance in our environmentally conscious age of melting ice caps, withering glaciers and exposed carbon caches, and this apocalyptic vision translates well even after 30 years.

Carpenter himself admits, however, that in the face-off between the two big alien summer releases that year, The Thing fared poorly due to the overwhelming success of E.T.

The summer of ‘82 also gave us Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s stylistic look into a simmering, claustrophobic future of melding urban ethnicities, incessant toxic rain, corruption, high tech weapons and human-like robots so well designed that in some cases they don’t know they are robots. These replicants, as they are called, have been officially outlawed, but they occasionally turn up among the human population anyway, triggering manhunts by a squad of specially trained agents, from which John Deckard (Harrison Ford) has recently retired. After several brutal murders involving escaped robots, Deckard is prodded out of retirement to track down a group of replicants apparently bent on finding their original designer. Predictably perhaps, he has an affair with a beautiful female robot who has only recently realized her true identity.

Blade Runner, a moody mix of sci-fi and film noir, explores one of the great themes of science: where does the line between machine and human stop? At what point, if any, do machines have feelings, desires, needs, insecurities? Widely explored since the early days of film, movie robot neuroses have ranged from comic deadpan logic (Robbie in Forbidden Planet), to charming daffiness (C3PO in Star Wars) to brooding, murderous paranoia (HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Again, there is relevance: Japanese citizens recently wrestled with a proposal to place the elderly in the care of specially designed sitter-robots whose job is to monitor bodily data and manage medications and meals.  Just within the last year in the U.S., breathtaking medical and neurological technologies have enabled amputees to enjoy robotic legs and arms, and have enabled deaf people to hear for the first time thanks to computerized devices.

In Ridley Scott’s gauzy, steamy world, these questions are thrown into an atmospheric mix of detective story and noir angst. Deckard is lonely, cynical, morally fractured, and an alcoholic to boot, but somewhere under his hard shell he feels compassion, even for the tortured robots. Blade Runner, like The Thing, retains much of its freshness, and still has a large following among those who love sci-fi.

Then, there was Tron, the Disney release which elevated Jeff Bridges’ career and brought computer programmers into the mainstream of pop culture. Tron, directed by Steve Lisberger, tells the story of Kevin Flynn (Bridges), a good-natured hacker and part-time video game-room operator who, for reasons too baroque to explain here, is captured electronically by a powerful computer mainframe and reanimated inside the computer, where he is forcibly trained to engage in elaborate gladiatorial games and single combat. Later, abetted by a couple of comrades, he makes an escape within the walls of the computer, going rogue and seeking to topple the harsh feudal order imposed by the Master Control Program (played by David Warner). The characters inside the computer, of course, mirror the real world people in Flynn’s life.

Though thin on plot and even downright anorexic on motivations, the film was nevertheless a huge success, due in large part to its brilliantly conceived and executed visuals. Like other the sci-fi of its time, much of Tron’s most impressive imagery was created using virtually no computer generated material—live action was captured using blue screen or live-to-film studio techniques, and then colorized and illuminated using “painted-on” methods. Many of these captured images were then masterfully mixed and layered onto computer animations—cutting edge for their time—to create complex and dazzling interior landscapes. Tron was one of the very earliest films to employ large-scale use of computer generated imagery (CGI) fully integrated into live action. The result, as many contemporary critics pointed out, was a film with the same transformative power as Fritz Lang’s sumptuous Metropolis, or the grand, cathedral-like designs employed in Star Wars (1977).

The tension within the story—after Flynn is synthesized into the computer’s circuitry—focuses on the “conflict” between those who write programs and those who build hardware. And though this narrative at times seems forced, the theme is resonant 30 years later in an age in which we as computer “users” must contend with arcane and often obtuse design elements within our personal computing workspaces at home and at work. In July of 1982, at the time of Tron’s release, the term user-friendly had barely registered in the mainstream vocabulary. Furthermore, the notion of data and information as having an inherent desire to be “free” would have been obscure in the early 80s, when few Americans had daily contact with computers, and when the internet was still largely the intranet, a network confined mostly to government agencies and university campuses.  Thirty years after the release of Tron, the social and political debates surrounding information, its inherent nature to be "free" versus its value as intellectual property or as a cache of secrecy, makes the film's core conflict seem downright prescient.

Tron was a genuine commercial success, and some historians have gone as far as to suggest that the film helped to drive mass market interest in computers at a time when the personal computer was predominantly a novelty for the elite few. The movie remains so popular 30 years after its release that it transcends even the notion of cult status, and the recent sequel is a testament to the staying power of the original.

And there were other sci-fi adventures that year, among them the much-anticipated Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a big screen sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Wrath of Khan was itself a direct spin-off of the famous 1967 TV episode, Space Seed, in which a mega maniacal Khan Noonien Singh (played by Ricardo Montalban) is sentenced to banishment on a remote planet. In the film sequel, Kahn and his crew are discovered on another nearby but inhospitable planet—apparently exiled there by accident—where he and his criminal comrades have eked out a difficult life of hard survival. Kahn seizes control of a small Federation vessel, and then sets out to exact his revenge upon his old antagonist, Captain James T. Kirk (now an admiral), played by William Shatner. Along the way Kahn stumbles onto knowledge of a super-secret experimental device known as “Genesis,” which he plans to steal for his own destructive purposes.

The plot is simple, straightforward, and entirely entertaining—and as close to the TV series in its compact narrative as any of the movie sequels or spin-offs. Montalban is wickedly perfect in his role as a self-aggrandizing would-be dictator, and a man fatally obsessed with vengeance in a portrayal which some critics have said was his the best performance of his career. As always, Shatner fills the bill perfectly his own familiar, scene-chewing style (a central tenet of Star Trek even in the 60s was that fans should overlook the heavy portions of stage ham, and stick instead to the stories and their moral lessons). The Wrath of Khan—which reunited almost all of the TV series cast, including Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and others—was also a huge box office success, ending on a note designed to spawn additional sequels.

In addition to setting in motion a series of strong sequels, Wrath of Khan helped to erase some of the lingering criticism of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was generally regarded as overlong, grandiose and lumbering despite its dazzling special effects. Indeed, Wrath of Kahn, like the other great sci-fi films of 1982, helped to solidify the resurgence of science fiction started—ironically—with an obscure Paramount TV show deemed so cerebral that it was cancelled by NBC after only two seasons. The summer of 1982 showed us that science fiction could still take us to those unknown destinations.