As a child of the 90s, previous decades seem almost mythical to me. I have only experienced the aftermath and the reputation that they have been granted. Because of this I like to think that I have much less nostalgia towards anything before the 80s. Therefore I can approach my argument in this article without as much bias as someone who experienced them.
As I was watching Ghostbusters the other day it made me realise something. The 80s was one of, if not the, best decades for Hollywood film ever. Many of you may not agree with this, but I believe that it is fundamentally true and shall now state why…
Stories Were More Creative Than Ever
Films nowadays are often described as being uncreative and uninspiring. In a large pool of remakes, sequels and safe bets, it’s hard to argue against this. So I won’t. Instead try to forget about previous decades and films which have been proven to be a success. Then try to imagine if today a film about three teachers and a random guy trying to start a company to exercise ghosts with backpacks, was released. It’s difficult to imagine a concept like this even being greenlit today with a significant budget.
The effects and the budget of films like Ghostbusters would likely be too much of a risk in today’s industry. But in the 80s? The risk Columbia Pictures took on Ghostbusters would be destined to become the 2nd highest grossing film of that year. The same can be said of many of the biggest films of the period; E.T., the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future saga’s and more. They may still have been risks back then but the fact that they overcame this highlights the fact that audiences may have been more receptive. That’s not to say that high concept films have been completely disregarded. You only have to look at Avatar to see that’s not the case. But in a counter argument I point you to John Carter which I hear is not doing too well. Only 12 of the top 50 grossing films of 2000s did not belong to a franchise and four of these were Pixar films, which are almost a franchise in their own right.
Part of what makes a film great is its re-watchability factor. A film may be great, but if you have no real desire to watch it again, it can end up feeling a bit flat. This was my problem with many films of recent years. Indeed some of the most popular films of recent years feel as if they may not last outside of this decade. Think of the films that will likely be culturally relevant in ten years. The Harry Potters, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Anchorman, and the 28 Days films. Outside of these it’s difficult to imagine passing them onto future generations the way that films/franchises were passed to us:
Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Terminator, Alien, Back to the Future and others. These have all shaped subsequent films. They have all influenced their respective genres, to the extent of gaining an -esque title. (e.g.: Speed being “Die Hard-esque”, The Mummy being ‘Indiana Jones-esque”). There has been a succinct lack of culturally relevant films unique to the current/last decade.
Then again I may be overcomplicating things. It is hard to predict these type of things and the lastability may choose to surprise me. It is essentially down to what the next generation chooses to deem significant enough to be passed on. But will they really accept the likes of Inception, Inglourious Basterds and various others? Or are these too relevant to today’s industry to be taken in the same way in ten years? I hope I am wrong because I love a lot of these films, I just can not see them being massively culturally relevant. There is one genre that is the exception to this, which I will get to soon.
One reason why these films are still able to be watched today is the effects. Special Effects can often be sidelined as a feature that is used to detract from other more important aspects. But how many children (Not actually limited to children though) purely put down a film because it looks old and boring? Before you anger yourself at that child and give them a lecture on how old films can be some of the greatest, just think about it in a non-filmic person terms.
Most people are just looking for some quick entertainment. A strong aspect of film is its length. It is easy to consume in a (generally) short amount of time and these people are purely looking for entertainment. This is why decades prior to the 80s suffer. I know many people, who’s earliest film they have seen is Jaws, because it is just about passable as a modern film. Granted a lot of the effects in that are now very dated. But they are still believable. The 1980s have just good enough effects and overall quality to suit a modern viewers tastes. Thus they can be consumed just as easily as modern films.
It was the decade where practical effects took over and in some cases result in better effects than today’s. Despite featuring a grotesque monster that takes over peoples bodies, some of the best effects ever were seen in the Thing in 1982. Indeed you can tell that they are not exactly real, but they are plausible and so much more believable than shiny alien robots fighting on a freeway. The 90s introduced CGI and generally used it quite well. Such as in Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. The 2000s however sometimes got a bit silly. I don’t dislike CGI at all but it is so much better when used to sell something, and not purely as a look at our money effect. This is why the effects in Inception were so believable, because they were generally a mix of practical effects, with CGI used to clean it up. Indeed the worst looking effects in the film were the completely CGI ones, such as the city folding in on itself. It looked damn good, but didn’t feel real like the corridor scene, because it wasn’t.
Rise of the Blockbusters
The Blockbuster is generally seen as being birthed by Jaws in 1975. Whilst films of previous decades may have been hits, they were not as big as Jaws. Following Jaws the attempt to make films as big and popular as it had been, filmmakers and studios became more daring with their ventures. This eventually led to Star Wars in 1977. This was the point where the blockbuster really hit home, spawning one of the most successful franchises of all time, whilst simultaneously being critically lauded. Which is why it is hard to imagine at the time, no-one thought it would be a hit (the exception being Sir Alec Guinness). Despite this, they went ahead and spawned a phenomena, the like of which are still being felt today.
This subsequent daringness led to some of the biggest films of the 80s. It is almost certain that Indiana Jones would not have happened without Star Wars. The Blockbuster was unarguably the main movement of the 80s. Whilst we still have blockbusters, the meaning has altered slightly. Instead of being high concept films, with real originality and appeal but most of all a desire to make big ass buckets of money. The term is used to describe the biggest films with the most explosions. Indeed the term is almost derogatory now. In fact the ulterior motives of the 80s seems a bit more sinister, but you can’t deny that they helped create some of the best films and icons, which is my whole point in this article. Instead we now get the Transformers franchise and an endless amount of other “safe bets”. The desire for new and originality has now moved on from the blockbuster into another genre. Animation.
What makes Transformers and other recent blockbusters different to those from the 80s is there appeal to adults. These films are now purely made for teens and big kids looking for mindless entertainment. I’m not putting these down but they have less soul and heart. But thankfully this heart and soul has not disappeared. Like matter it has simply transitioned into another form. Whilst there has been great animation for decades, such as Bambi and countless other Disney films they were mainly for children. When Toy Story hit in 1995 this changed. The appeal stretched all the way to adults and they can truly be appreciated by all ages. This is very reminiscent of 1980s films, such as Back to the Future. There is one real reason for this. Animation is not afraid to take the risks that modern Blockbusters aren’t. I’m well aware that the cause of all this is money, but in the end the facts remain the same. Indeed I would say that the defining genre of the 2000s was animation, and it is this genre that will be passed onto generations, because they are the genre that holds appeal for kids and adults alike.
Revenge of The Franchise
With Blockbusters also came the introduction of the film ‘Franchise’. There had been sequels and the like prior to this, but until Star Wars they were not as successful. Whilst we definitely do not have a lack of Franchises nowadays (some would call it an overabundance) the motives whilst linked were again slightly different. The motive is of course money. It’s a pain to film as without it they can’t exist, but it damages the quality when abused. Whilst most franchises almost always dip in quality as they go on (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Predator, Die Hard, Aliens, Terminators… [insert whatever]), generally it is still possible to get entertainment out of at least a few of the films. Each of these were either introduced, or had their best instalments in the 80s.
In recent years this has changed, a lot of the time the first instalment is the only truly good one. See: Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Shrek, Matrix and the reverse is true of the Star Wars prequels, getting slightly better as they went, culminating in an almost decent film . Arguably you could include the current two Craig Bond films (although hopes are high for Skyfall) and we will give that a fair shot. Some of the best franchises were spawned in the 1980s and as a general rule it wasn’t until beyond this decade that a new film came along and ruined it. Take my above example and I would argue that this is true of each one. Although credit where credit is due, the Terminator franchise was introduced in the 80s, hit its stride in the 90s but was ruined twice in the decade after that.
In truth it is only really down to a few aspects that make the 80s the best decade for film. The decade allowed a substantial amount of creative freedom, due to how much audiences accepted and could tolerate. It was not as limited by budget and social conventions like previous decades. In turn the kind of stories that were able to be told were much more free than the following years. This led to modern classics and some of the most entertaining films that are still regularly watched today. I have high hopes for the coming year, as the lineup is one of the strongest of recent years in terms of blockbuster potential and high concepts. We finally have a superhero film that looks to have a conclusion, the biggest team-up in film history, a master director returning to the franchise he gave life to, a reboot that may actually be worth the very short wait, a prequel that looked as if it might not happen for a few years and potentially a new Harry Potter-esque franchise. (Quick game of identify the films) These films may all be part of franchises but the directions they seem to be taking are very exciting. It seems as if the industry may have realised that originality, even if not in characters or franchise but in story and tone, is one of the strongest aspects to use. Why it took them this long I am stumped, as they seemed to have already realised it in the best decade for film. The 80s.
This article was first posted on March 19, 2012