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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 18
The Second Golden Age
Fans and critics cite the 50s as the Golden Age of cinematic science fiction, but I wonder. Granted, the period saw so many groundbreaking movies that most cinema historians accept the period's classic status as a given -- mention of some of the decade's classic movies must include Forbidden Planet (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), This Island Earth (1955), Them! (1954), The Thing (From Another World) (1951), among others -- but after attending a panel on science fiction movies released during the Reagan Era at Armadillocon 33, I began wondering whether we should consider the 80s a second Golden Age, rather than, as some might term it, a Silver Age.

This Island Earth Kiss Me Deadly Millennium Battle Beyond the Stars

The 80s saw so many fascinating genre entries -- many with their own brand of genuine visual lunacy -- that, in a way, it rivals the previous period. Similarities exist. A resurgent conservatism marked Ronald Reagan's inauguration, and paranoia eerily similar to that of the Eisenhower years gripped the United States. The threat of nuclear annihilation -- not just destroying the Earth in a ball of fire, but freezing it into radioactive sludge -- seemed not only inevitable but imminent, especially with the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by Soviet interceptors in the fall of 1983. Given the zeitgeist and realpolitik, who wouldn't have gravitated to the modern day equivalents of The Fly (1958), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Gojira (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)?

Well, lots of people, when you think about it.

No matter how often its detractors dismiss science fiction as either kids' stuff or, worse, trash, an honest assessment of many of the titles released between 1980 and 1989 demonstrates just the plain wrongness of both. True, some movies were aimed at children no matter what their age (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Explorers (1985), *batteries not included (1987)). Studios did glut local multiplexes with a lot of trash (Millennium (1989), The Running Man (1987), My Science Project (1985), Outland (1981), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)). But dismissing the era because of its worst common denominators also means refusing to acknowledge the standouts, to say nothing of the classics.

Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan And what classics! The most obvious in my own list of favorites include Blade Runner (1982) (of which I've already written much), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), Aliens (1985), James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's 70s shocker, and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) which takes the Howard Hawks original back to its Campbellian roots. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) turned out to be not only one of the biggest movies of its year but also one of the greatest movies ever made, to say nothing of being one of the few sequels that actually surpassed the original. Ditto Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which my friend Rick Klaw posits is one of the greatest true quill geek movies ever made. (Don't believe it? Try doing anything else when it shows up on Spike TV one afternoon. Just try pulling yourself away before the first space battle. Or before Spock's death.) I cite them as classics not only because they are fine movies regardless of genre (my wife told me, during a screening of Scott's final cut of Blade Runner at the Paramount Liquid Sky Theater, that she found nothing more isolating than the sound of rainwater dripping into the decrepit Bradbury Building) but also because they have aged remarkably well. The corporations featured in Blade Runner, for example, may be long gone, and we're only eight years away from November 2019, but its scenery, its setting, and its incredible performances still resonate…which could also be said of all of the movies cited.

But really, even those only tell part of the story. Good as they are, they don't quite convey the batshit crazy shimmer of some of the lesser known (by modern standards, anyway) celluloid gems.

One finds fear of environmental degradation and Big Brother capitalism in Blade Runner, but things like The Road Warrior (1982), its sequel Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), RoboCop (1987) and They Live (1988) dig under your skin in a way that's more immediate. The Thing may sublimely spark our paranoia of the alien within, but The Terminator (1984), with the governor of California in the role he was born (or created) to play, amps that factor way past 11. Aliens shields its Vietnam allegory (one of many released during the period) by switching the action to an alien planet, but John McTiernan brings it much closer to home in Predator (1987), though its setting is South America (which, at the time also became a burgeoning realpolitik nodal point). And while few filmmakers can match Terry Gilliam's surrealist vision of Joseph K. and/or Winston Smith as Walter Mitty, it didn't stop filmmakers like Alex Cox (Repo Man (1985)) or Slava Tsukeman (Liquid Sky (1982)) from trying. These movies are still a gas, but they begin to show their age; it's hard to watch Repo Man and not laugh at the punk styles, or snicker at Roddy Piper's mullet in They Live, but once you get past their genuinely period concerns, resisting their raw energy and entertainment factor becomes difficult.

Brazil They Live Testament Back to the Future

And a number of films dealt sometimes nobly, sometimes gratingly, with the threat of annihilation. The Day After (1983) scared the bejeezus out of me in 1983, with its manic view of a society dealing with impending nuclear disaster and its aftermath, but the older I get, the more I find the quieter breakdowns of Testament (1983) far more compelling. I remember wanting to love War Games (1983), but after reading William Gibson's "Burning Chrome" in Omni (at about the same time I caught repeat showings The Quiet Earth of the very stilted, very dated Tron (1982)), and having done some limited programming on my stepfather's Apple IIe, I just couldn't buy into Matthew Broderick's self-absorbed hacker inadvertently starting World War III through his modem. The Quiet Earth (1986) posed a different kind of apocalypse, with only three people left on the planet after an energy grid malfunctions, killing everybody else, one that I thought of as I read J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (1971) as a middling college student. Flawed though the efforts might have been, they at least reflected the unease with which we lived side by side with Armageddon.

And, as always, there were more. David Cronenberg addressed our obsession with media in Videodrome (1982) while turning scientist Seth Brundle's experiments into an AIDS allegory in The Fly (1986). John Carpenter showed the nation a New York City so overrun by crime that its civic leaders just decided to build walls around Manhattan Island in Escape from New York (1981). But it was Robert Zemeckis who exploited America's need to return to a simpler period by zapping Michael J. Fox to, of course, the 50s in Back to the Future (1985).

Not all of these movies were great. Enjoying some meant adjusting one's standards of excellence. But they remain unique, a microcosm of a period long since past, and one that cannot be recaptured. Though I've heard tell of a studio attempting to remake Escape from New York (and that Ridley Scott is making, of all things, a sequel to Blade Runner), they simply aren't of the same period. To remake them misses the point of why they were made. They'd be bled of context.

Still, as with any genre, science fiction is not about the future but the present, and the genre's Second Golden Age remains a remarkable record of the period's fears, frustrations... and, in the case of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, its hopes. To view them is to view the 80s through a funhouse mirror, or a distorted lens.

Take it from somebody who was there: sometimes, it was the only way things made sense.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, will be published by Rebel Ink Press this December. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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