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Darkness and dystopia: The sci-fi movie summer of 1982

It must have been a kick to be a science fiction fan in the summer of 1982 when Hollywood released six prominent sci-fi flicks within a few months of each other. The Road Warrior, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing, Blade Runner, and Tron were so special that they are still considered classics 40 years later. And yet, audiences expecting the buoyant optimism of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind from a few years earlier might have been shocked to discover that sci-fi cinema that summer had turned dark, scary, and violent.

Movies of the 1980s often have a reputation for being slick, bright, and flashy, but the movies on our list are a rebuke to all that. They channel the terror of nuclear annihilation thrumming underneath ’80s idealism. They also manifest anxiety over the rise of environmental devastation, rapidly changing social values, and exponential advances in computer technology. We examine the collective 40th anniversary of these sci-fi classics and the thread of darkness running between them.

Mel Gibson stars as Mad Max in The Road Warrior
Warner Brothers

Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) – May 22

The original no-budget Mad Max had emerged from Down Under during the peak of the creatively fertile Australian New Wave to become a minor hit with U.S. audiences. With it’s bigger budget and a more developed story world, the hit sequel leaned further into the apocalyptic wasteland and pitted Max (Mel Gibson) against a band of punk anarchists who threaten the last remnants of “decent” society. The concept hit a nerve with audiences who felt nuclear war looming over their heads like a radioactive guillotine.

The Mad Max movies (directed by George Miller) were among films released in the early to mid-80s speculating on what nuclear war and its aftermath might be like, including WarGames, Testament, The Day After, and Threads. Miller’s films were among the most popular of these entries, due in no small part to the charisma of Gibson as a man-with-no-name type who becomes a community savior. The director also showcased an adeptness at choreographing action/chase scenes that rivaled any filmmaker since Buster Keaton. Using updated technology, he would go on to perfect his skills with Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), now considered one of the all-time great action films. The Road Warrior was also acclaimed during its time. A Premiere magazine critics’ poll named it the ninth best film of the 1980s.

Ricardo Montalban stars as Khan in Star Trek II.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – June 4

Star Trek II also exploited fears of nuclear war and its aftermath. The sequel to the staid Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a surprisingly bloody and violent affair for Star Trek, one in which Kirk (William Shatner) and the Enterprise crew try to survive the murderous Khan (Ricardo Montalban), “a product of late-20th-century genetic engineering” on a quest for revenge.

Like other films of the era, the movie teems with narrative and visual allusions to nuclear war and and its aftermath, though they are allegorized in terms of a futuristic space adventure. Khan has survived world wars of the Earth’s past. The Genesis “torpedo” that he steals is capable of destroying planets, and its shape resembles the A-bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan. Many of the wounded on both sides of the conflict are seared by explosions and radiation. When Scotty (James Doohan) brings the body of his young nephew to the Enterprise bridge post-battle, the kid has been burned beyond recognition while Spock (Leonard Nimoy) later suffers serious radiation poisoning as he attempts to save the crew from thermonuclear-style annihilation. Perhaps it was no coincidence that writer/director Nicholas Meyer’s next film was the television movie event The Day After, which was such a brutally realistic depiction of nuclear holocaust that President Ronald Reagan screened it in the White House.

Bikes prepare to fly in E.T.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – June 11

By far the biggest box-office hit on the list, director Steven Spielberg’s E.T. has a reputation for being warm and fuzzy, and it definitely sports more cute and funny moments than the other entries in the vaunted sci-fi summer of ’82. But the movie is consumed by its own brand of darkness —  particularly in the way it dramatizes the damage done by divorce, the struggles of single mothers, and the faceless authorities who do more harm than good while trying to “help” kids with their problems.

Spielberg has spoken often of how his parents’ divorce traumatized him (his upcoming movie, The Fablemans, starring Seth Rogen, will chronicle his experience with it) and E.T. is painfully realistic in depicting how that must have felt. The movie presents a time in the early 1980s when divorce was becoming more common, and when the increase in working mothers led to the phenomenon of “latchkey kids” like 10-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his siblings, Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and Michael (Robert MacNaughton). The kids are left to their own devices so often that they are able to befriend, hide, and later save E.T. — the extend-a-neck alien who gets accidentally left behind during a biology expedition to Earth — mostly without adults ever realizing what they are up to. It all leads to the famously wrenching goodbye between E.T. and his found family that channels all of Spielberg’s feelings of abandonment and loss.

Kurt Russell stars in John Carpenter's The Thing.

The Thing – June 25

In the 1970s and ’80s,  TV, movies, and music were obsessed with the 1950s (Happy Days, Grease, Back to the Future, the music of Billy Joel and Huey Lewis, the list goes on), a time that supposedly represented America’s lost prosperity and innocence. And so it makes sense that the 1980s would also embrace the sci-fi golden age of the 1950s, and that decade’s cinematic allegories for the evolving threat of nuclear war and radioactive mutation.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a prime example, a remake of Howard Hawk’s famous 1951 sci-fi/horror thriller that received much of its initial attention and criticism for its innovative (and disgusting) use of animatronics and prosthetic makeup effects to depict men (and dogs) being torn apart and reassembled by a shape-shifting alien.

The Thing is an end-of-the-world story set at the literal end of the world (Antarctica). It’s a microcosm of a war for civilization in which paranoia reigns supreme and nobody (especially MacReady, played by Kurt Russell) can trust his fellow man. The ambiguity of the fate of the survivors and the dim outlook on the future of humanity are often cited as reasons the movie failed at the box office. But that (literally) chilling ending is a primary reason why The Thing is now considered a stone-cold classic.

Harrison Ford stars in Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner – June 25

Released the same day as The Thing, Blade Runner was also a critical failure and box office bomb that has since become considered a classic –it was even named one of the greatest American films of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008. The movie’s darkness and despair has become celebrated and Ridley Scott’s neon dystopian vision is regarded as among the most influential in of all cinema.

In 1982, however, Harrison Ford fans coming off the roguish tongue-in-cheek swashbuckling of Han Solo and Indiana Jones were dismayed, if not outright confused, by a dour Ford playing “blade runner” Rick Deckard, who shoots two women and forces himself onto a third. OK, the women are “Replicants” his character is supposed to “retire,” not humans, but the effect of the hard-R brutality was the same for audiences of the time.

The depiction of an environmentally blasted Los Angeles that rich people couldn’t wait to get out of was also jarringly at odds with the political rhetoric about “morning in America” and the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” It would be a decade before audiences began to respond to the film’s themes of empathy and its philosophical questions about the nature of human identity.

A VR woman looks at a VR man in 1982's Tron.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

TRON – July 9

Disney’s TRON, about computer programmers who enter the world of a video game to thwart a menacing virtual intelligence, is probably the least successful of the summer of ’82 sci-fi films in terms of artistic merit and cultural longevity (despite spawning the successful but similarly forgettable TRON: Legacy sequel in 2010). However, it still represents a watershed moment in the history of the movies as it was the first film to extensively feature CGI (the “Genesis” video in Star Trek II was another of the earliest CGI iterations). Given its focus on computer technology, it makes sense that TRON became almost as famous for its excellent arcade game as for the content of the movie itself .

Though on its surface, TRON seems shiny and colorful, more intently in the vein of Star Wars than any of the other films on our list, it too has its darkness. The idea that advances in computer technology could lead to evil artificial intelligence, and that people might be “trapped” within virtual worlds, hit a nerve in 1982 when personal computing was entering households en masse and nuclear strikes could be ordered with the push of a button.

In all, the films on our list remain popular, influential and important, great sci-fi adventures whose darkness evokes a time when things were not as flashy and upbeat as pop culture history often makes them seem. They are well worth revisiting for their collective 40th anniversary.

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Michael Green
Michael Green is a writer and teacher who lives in Tempe, Arizona. His work has appeared in numerous publications including…
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