08 August 2019 3999 Views

#TBT How to Spot an 80s movie

by James Murphy

Every Decade has its Hallmarks on Film. But the 1980s is one we simply cannot escape in our collective cultural nostalgia. 

For #THROWBACKTHURSDAY, this week, you know it’s a 1980s classic when…



An adventurer/cop/childlike innocent/supernatural being has to navigate the Big City or a differing class /style /idiom. It’s a take on the Rags to Riches /Prince and the Pauper motif. Managing to simultaneously flatter and satirise the values and aesthetics on display. Examples inc: Beverly Hills Cop. Crocodile Dundee. Big. Twins. Splash. Red Heat. Highlander.  My Stepmother is an Alien. Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home. Witness. Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Coming To America. Trading Places.


There was a novelty to any kind of computer in the 80s. Same way the Internet takes on some sort of godly status around the 90s. These things are not merely tools of plot: they ARE the plot! Explaining everything and achieving the impossible, all somehow, within the bounds of a quasi-reality with a sci-fi splash rather than some solely fantastical futurism. Reference: War-Games. Superman 3. Weird Science. Short Circuit. ET:The Extra Terrestrial. The Terminator. A View to a Kill. Innerspace. FireFox. Never Say Never Again. RoboCop.




You can blame Marvel (and yes, some DC) based comic book films of recent years for the ‘big beam of light stuff in the sky: shut on and off by magic button’ motif. But consider this: the writers and directors /designers of these new movies started off by watching the hits of the 80s! At the very least, lightening = some sort of portend / useful sound effect! And mystical swirls of wind / oriental styled bell ringing. CF: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters 1 and 2. Masters of the Universe. Biggles: Adventures in Time. Big Trouble in Little China. Gremlins. Never-ending Story. High Spirits. Supergirl.


Genius was managing to get your grades on your terms, whatever you needed to do. Taking down bullies. Taking risks. And yet somehow making it back for tea and avoiding a grounding from mom/dad. You could be the cleverest AND the coolest; harnessing geek power in service of a consequence free, ethical hedonism. See: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Real Genius. Risky Business. Back to the Future. Teen Wolf. The Goonies. Red Dawn. Just Ask for Diamond. Explorers.  


This was a decade of excess, including in success. Mirrored on television, by the rise of Dallas/Dynasty.

Big Office Blocks as novelty. Fur coats, Champagne, Limo rides. You know the sort of thing. It was never enough to just win. You had to win big and at any cost. The bigger the goal /odds/threat, the better. Preferably up against a clock that ticks toward the close of business or a deadline on a deal or the end of the world itself. Sure, you might get a telling off en route from a Sean Connery, a Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Bryan Brown, Tom Skerritt or Martin Sheen or whoever..maybe over a Bottle o’ Bud, near a neon lit jukebox. But you’d take stock post setback and WIN.


Look at: Cocktail. The Secret of my Success. Wall Street. St Elmo’s Fire. Working Girl. No Way Out.


One could even make a case for 1989’s BATMAN here: as Bruce Wayne’s eccentricities are quite clearly flagged up as somehow dependent on / related to his extreme wealth and Michael Keaton sells that, brilliantly: at once awkward and diffident yet determined and deadly in his own world of power.



Cocaine was a ‘thing’ in the 80s: at once status symbol and a portend of demonic death, devastation and destruction. This was the start of a ‘war on drugs’ from the Raegan era White House. ‘Just Say No!’ etc.  Some movies played both sides and hinted at the glamorous allure whilst also delivering some grounded and sobering consequences. Colombian Drug Barons always a solid go to baddie as the Russians were phased out for a while: notice the coke is ALWAYS presented in immaculate packages that look in no way like supermarket semolina. They probably threw in a complimentary kilo with every purchase?

See: Less Than Zero. Bright Lights, Big City. Lethal Weapon 1 and 2. Crocodile Dundee 2. Licence to Kill. Clean and Sober. Commando. Romancing the Stone. Scarface.


Relations had improved since WW2: America and Japan were friends again, nominally. And yet? The land of the Rising Sun somehow personifies competition and evolution in a corporate ethos for the 80s movie. It is the Fortinbras /Norway at the gates to each Hollywood hero’s journey. Rarely seen explicitly or used as the main antagonist but a force, nonetheless. A fear that you will not beat the Japanese or that their tech / work ethic / ambitions will somehow swallow you whole and live. References of Relevance inc: Die Hard. Blind Date. Black Rain. Gung Ho. Even Police Academy (3) flags up the skills of its Japanese recruit.




How to show major character development /skill acquisition in rapid succession? How to make the supreme effort look somehow effortless? How to shamelessly fill out a movie’s duration where a deficit of plot might perchance be an issue? MONTAGE! Set to lots of rock /synth beats (alternative being a bespoke theme song or daring use of classical pieces by Mozart /Beethoven?). Tight bods, leotards, work-outs, oil, a hint of the erotic/homo-erotic. Dance! See: Rocky 3. Rocky 4. Flash-Dance. Staying Alive. Top Gun. Karate Kid. Chariots of Fire. Perfect.


By the 1990s, Hollywood had found a way to fuse their threats for film: the dissident Russian gang who steal nukes. But in the 80s, those 3 factors co-existed as pervasive threats. Not necessarily the actual antagonists, but a constant reference and go to threat. That was despite the supposedly simultaneous thawing of the Cold War and Reagan /Thatcher era circulation of new money to presumably take people away from crime or terror in both the USA and UK? Not so!

If anything, fears of corporate fraud, gangster-ism, Russian/A N Other nation’s invasion and nuclear annihilation..reached peak power in the 1980s, just before they abated.

A common theme is the old vs new school of money and the destructive threats that accompany said, whatever the genre, from super-hero to gangster!

At disparate glance: Superman 4, Rambo 2 and 3, Mona Lisa, Long Good Friday, Raw Deal, Stormy Monday, Defence of the Realm, Octopussy, The Package, The Fourth Protocol.


Ok: we have evolved a LOT in the last 30 – 40 years. No question. But it’s unfair to think of the 80s as some sort of stone age. We were beginning to integrate values of inclusion and break down barriers and boundaries. It’s just that as with any revolution, there also had to be evolution as the messages on film changed. And within that awkward transition, inevitably, come some mixed messages.

Sexism, homophobia, bullying: it’s all ‘there’ on the screen and harnessed as weapons, frequently by the heroes as much as villains. But you can both enjoy, somehow, kind of participating in that, vicariously AND embrace the reforms that are being endorsed and which we thankfully enjoy today. This is more a pervasive and core cultural observation than it is a specific cinematic trope. But it is ‘there’ and especially in sexuality.

Nine and a Half Weeks remains a very sexy film (THAT strip-tease!). But its message is that the Mickey Rourke character is an abusive boyfriend, from whom Kim Basinger must rescue herself in true emancipation. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in ALIENS is patronised, initially, by her male corporate overlords: only to outlive most of them and wage a one woman war as both maternal power and protector, albeit still in concert with a strong rather than redundant male (Michael Biehn as Hicks).

The male box office hitters of the decade, frequently play naughty characters who engage in hedonistic / adolescent antics. Comedy sidekicks are invariably there to make the lead look better and it is notable that the role of a thankless foil is frequently played by similar types of actor during the decade. It’s as though they exist to be bullied by their Alpha male, big hitting box office hero counterparts? And that seems just fine by them (they probably made a fair deal of cash for their trouble).

And there are payoffs in tone and motif to compensate. None of these 80s stars really gets a completely free pass as a bully or lothario. Sure they have fun, but it often serves the story and its moral.


Bill Murray gets away with a LOT in the likes of SCROOGED and STRIPES; but en route to a kid of philosophical reformation, or at least, implied reflection within those movies’ arcs and among their casts of characters.


Burt Reynolds and Chevy Chase push our tolerance limits on their characters’ naughtiness in the likes of FLETCH/VACATION and CANNONBALL RUN, respectively but those are cancelled out to some extent by the generally upbeat, fun tones of those films. One could not possibly take genuine offence, because the banter is fairly innocuous in the scheme of things and there is no real malice at work. It’s school dorm frat boy/awkward yet ultimately normal, adolescent stuff; just in an older movie star’s body/charisma.

Jack Nicholson’s adulterous husband in Heartburn is ultimately humiliated by Meryl Streep’s initially trusting wife just as his demonic Daryl Van Horn is beaten by the 3 Witches of Eastwick (Pfeiffer, Sarandon, Cher). Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction gets the full wrath of a very scary Glenn Close: reminding viewers to neither cheat on wives nor abandon lovers. So, whilst many scenes in 80s films are indeed awkward or illicit by today’s standards..they were in their own way, the beginnings OF our newer morality.


Nowadays, every second film series sings the praises of ‘FAMILY’. And it’s fair to say that we do indeed find ourselves a more reflective society on the role of and make-up within family units than we did perhaps in the past, when people just ‘got on with’ it? There is nevertheless, a core emphasis on family as the basis of civilisation, reconciliation and status, throughout the Cinema of the 80s.

You might find the motif within…Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Frantic, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade..basically, most of the movies starring Harrison Ford, who kinda owned the decade at the peak of his star power /looks/ charisma and ability to choose consistently brilliant scripts. Hence many a child of the 80s feeling they grew up with Ford as a cinematic surrogate Dad.


Big blonde = big bad. Simple! See: Rutger Hauer (RIP) in Blade Runner. Brigitte Nielsen in Beverly Hills Cop 2. Lauren Hutton in Once Bitten. Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. David Bowie in Labyrinth.  Andreas Wisniewski in The Living Daylights. 

So: there it is! The 1980s: a decade that defined itself and wrote its own history, as it progressed, through the distinctive language and magic of movies.

Next week: the 1990s?! Maybe. If you are very nice, kind, sensitive and a proper 80s person.

Needless to say, this is a non exhaustive list and you may have noted omissions or equally you may disagree with certain inclusions? And that’s fine: because this is a democracy..the kind they fought for and won, for our freedom..across the battlefields..of 1980s Cinema. 😉


James Murphy is an 80s kid. Sorta. 






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