Wednesday, April 27, 2011

10 of Our Favorite (Lesser Known) Sci-Fi Movies From the '80s

by Megan S. and Sara N.

There are a number of sci-fi movies from the 1980s that are a thriving part of current pop culture.  People still wear t-shirts with Back to the Future references, newscasters still make Terminator jokes, and the way of the Jedi from Star Wars has been made into an actual religion.  But Bladerunner, E.T., and others that are still easily remembered from that decade weren't the only enjoyable films to come out of the genre.

We've compiled a list of ten of our favorite sci-fi movies you may have forgotten about; ones that should immediately be add to your Netflix queue.  Be sure to expand our list by sharing your favorite lesser-known sci-fi movies from the '80s in the comments section!


What Netflix has to say about it: After escaping from a maximum-security research facility, D.A.R.Y.L. (Barret Oliver) -- Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform -- is rescued and adopted by the Richardson family (Michael McKean and Mary Beth Hurt). Domestic bliss ensues until D.A.R.Y.L.'s actual "parents," two scientists, come to claim him. The Richardsons are shocked to realize that their adopted son isn't just flesh and blood, but wires and microchips as well.

What Megan has to say about it: D.A.R.Y.L. was one of those movies that, when I was growing up, seemed to be the Saturday afternoon movie at least once a month and I watched it every single time.  It was probably my first exposure to artificial intelligence, which may explain why the idea of the singularity doesn't bother me at all.  When the computer gains sentience, the AI will probably just want to play baseball with his best friend Turtle.

Anna to the Infinite Power

What Netflix has to say about it: Anna (Martha Byrne), a brilliant but troubled young girl attending a school for the gifted, is disturbed by a series of terrifying nightmares. Her dreams are only the beginning of a dangerous journey in this sci-fi thriller based on a novel by Mildred Ames. Anna's secretive mother won't let Anna seek help, but her brother Rowan is determined to aid her. Together, they discover Anna is the subject of a shocking experiment in genetic engineering.

What Sara has to say about it: I probably last saw this movie 25 years ago, and I'd love to watch it again to see if it holds up. This was my first introduction to hard sci-fi -- a kiddie-light version of hard sci-fi, sure. But it laid the groundwork for a future love of stories about the consequences of meddling with science. As a bonus, the X-Files episode "Eve" definitely draws its inspiration from this movie.

Weird Science

What Netflix has to say about it: When teen geeks Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) use a computer to create Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), a gorgeous woman with a genius IQ, they enlist her help to boost their seemingly pathetic social status. But she thinks the boys just need a lesson in courage. John Hughes writes and directs this classic 1980s teen comedy that co-stars Bill Paxton, Robert Rusler and Robert Downey Jr

What Megan has to say about it: It's a John Hughes movie, people.  You know, like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  It's a CLASSIC. 

Flight of the Navigator

What Netflix has to say about it: It's 1978, and 12-year-old David Freeman (Joey Cramer) leads a good but slightly annoying (thanks to his kid brother) life in Florida. But after losing consciousness in the woods, David wakes to discover that eight years have passed -- even though he's still 12. What exactly happened? With the help of his now-16-year-old younger brother and a robot named Max, he'll find out ... and hopefully set things straight.

What Sara has to say about it: I watched Flight of the Navigator over and over and over when I was a kid, and I loved the time shifting aspects of it. And oh, how I wanted my own talking spaceship! (I didn't know until today when I checked IMDb that Paul Reubens was the spaceship's voice. The Secret Word of the day is "surprising trivia"!) It also starred a young Sarah Jessica Parker, whose fashion sense here is as dubious as it would be as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City years later. More importantly, it featured Veronica Cartwright, the leading lady of supporting roles in sci-fi/fantasy projects over the years: Alien, The Witches of Eastwick, The X-Files, Invasion, and even The Birds.


What Netflix has to say: Comic genius Mel Brooks strikes back in this spoof of the Star Wars trilogy. When the nefarious Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) hatches a plan to snatch Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and steal her planet's air, space-bum-for-hire Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his clueless sidekick (John Candy) fly to the rescue. Along the way, they meet Yogurt (Brooks), who puts Lone Starr wise to the power of "The Schwartz." Can he master it in time to save the day?

What Megan has to saySpaceballs was such a goofy movie chock full of light-hearted Mel Brooks humor that still makes me giggle.  Even if all the jokes haven't withstood the test of time, it's waaaaay better than all of the Star Wars prequels put together.


What Netflix has to say about it: Part social commentary, part outrageous fantasy, Terry Gilliam's black comedy set in an Orwellian future stars Jonathan Pryce as a daydreaming civil servant who, through one bureaucratic error after another, is mistaken for an enemy of the state. By turns grimly disturbing and darkly hilarious, the wildly inventive, visually arresting Oscar-nominated satire co-stars Katherine Helmond and Robert De Niro as a renegade repairman.

What Sara has to say about it: This cool, sad, hilarious and thought-provoking movie is a darkly comic take on bureaucracy run amok.  It's by far the best film on my list and should be required viewing for everyone.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

What Netflix has to say about it: Whoa, dudes! San Dimas, Calif., high school underachievers Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) face flunking out if they don't ace a year-end history presentation. Using a time machine, they transport themselves back a few millennia. In the past, they enlist the help of Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid and Socrates (among others). They even manage to bag a couple of medieval babes. Talk about a funky show-and-tell!

What Megan has to say about it: I'm kinda cheating with this one.  The Bill & Ted franchise is about to resurface in our collective pop culture awareness now that the script for the third film has officially been written, but who cares?  The movie was most excellent!


What Netflix has to say about it: In this sci-fi love story from John Carpenter, Jeff Bridges -- who received an Oscar nod for his work -- plays Starman, an alien who crashes on Earth and takes the form of a recently deceased man in order to evade authorities. On seeing the image of her dead husband before her, widow Jenny (Karen Allen) is frightened. But eventually, Starman wins her trust -- and her affection -- and she agrees to help him return to his home planet.

What Sara has to say about it:  I'd recommend this John Carpenter film based solely on how Jeff Bridges says "milk" in the film. It's the only way my husband and I will pronounce it now. (You have to hit the "k" hard. Milll-KK!)  It's also the most romantic film on this list -- but in the very best way!


What Netflix has to say about it: A group of shut-ins at a rest home get a new lease on life when they're offered the gift of eternal youth by visiting aliens led by Brian Dennehy. Steve Guttenberg plays a charter boat captain who helps Dennehy and Don Ameche (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) marshal their fellow seniors (Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley, Jack Gilford, Jessica Tandy and Maureen Stapleton) into making the choice between perennial youth or old age.

What Megan has to say about itCocoon was sweet story, and I loved that it featured a cast of great older actors, something you rarely ever see in sci-fi movies.

The Thing

What Netflix has to say about it: Scientists working in Antarctica are forced to abandon their research after a helicopter crashes near their camp, bringing a lone dog into their midst. But the plot thickens when the otherworldly canine changes form in the middle of the night. As it turns out, the dog is a shape-shifting alien that can attack animals -- and unsuspecting humans. Kurt Russell stars in this creepy John Carpenter-directed remake of the 1950s classic.

What Sara has to say about it: This is my second John Carpenter movie on the list. The man is a genius, and The Thing is absolutely perfect. Its claustrophobic atmosphere is terrifying, and don't get me started on all the fraught monstrous-feminine symbolism in it. Also, you have to love the synthesizer soundtrack, one of Carpenter's specialties. This is another classic film that you see echoes of in an X-Files episode, "Ice." There's a remake (or prequel, depending on whom you ask) of The Thing coming out in October. It's absolutely unnecessary, of course, when the first one is still so frightening -- and so full of Kurt Russell-ey goodness.

So, what were your favorites that should be added to the must see list?
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  1. I immediately went over and put Flight of the Navigator in my queue. I watched that movie more times than I care to remember. My sisters and I were obsessed.

    I have a soft spot in my heart for The Abyss. That counts, right?

  2. I need to submit, "The Black Hole." Albeit it's circa 1979 I think.

  3. Nikol, I have a confession: I've never seen The Abyss. But it's James Cameron before he was king of the world, so it definitely should count!

    And Kanth, that would top the list of '70s sci-fi, for sure. The spinning bladed hands of the robot gave me nightmares as a child.

  4. Say what?!

    "The Last Starfighter."

    From Wiki:

    The Last Starfighter is a 1984 science fiction adventure film directed by Nick Castle. The film tells the story of Alex Rogan (played by Lance Guest), an average teenage boy recruited by an alien defense force to fight in an interstellar war. It also featured Dan O'Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Preston, Norman Snow and Kay E. Kuter.

    The Last Starfighter, in addition to Disney's Tron, has the distinction of being one of cinema's earliest films to use extensive Computer-generated imagery (CGI) to depict its many starships, environments and battle scenes. This CGI technique, for the time, was a great leap into the future compared to contemporary films such as the previous year's Return of the Jedi, which still used static physical models shot by moving film cameras.

    The Last Starfighter was Preston's final film role. His character, a "lovable con-man", was a nod to his most famous role as Harold Hill in The Music Man. There was a subsequent novelization of the film by Alan Dean Foster, as well as a video game based on the production. In 2004, it was also adapted as an off-Broadway musical.


    Check it out.


  5. The Black Hole scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.