Why So Many Movie Classics Hail from the 1980s
An amazing number of big media brands emerged in the 80s. Why? Because the decade also marks the beginning of our current digital lifestyle.
In my Medium story Why 1980s Nostalgia Is Everlasting, I compiled numerous eighties movies and media properties that are still relevant today, receiving sequels, spin-offs, and tie-ins. There was an outburst of creativity in the 1980s that has not been replicated since. The reason for this: the decade brought a deep change to the way we live — in the form of new technology available to the consumer. And as a creative culture, we reacted to the development, trying to make sense of it, channeling it into fiction.
Consider this excerpt of technologies that went mainstream in the eighties:
- Apple Mac and its operating system, macOS
- Personal computers and Microsoft Windows
- Microsoft Office, including Word and Excel
- Nintendo Famicom/NES and Game Boy
- Sega Master System and Mega Drive
- Videotapes and players
- Audio CDs and players
- Sony Walkman
- Mobile phones
- Cable TV
- Answering machines
- Fax machines
- Synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines
It is far from an understatement to say that technology introduced in the 1980s has shaped our day-to-day lives in a monumental way.
All these inventions are still around today, in more sophisticated forms. Smartphones have long since combined devices like the mobile phone, Walkman, camcorder, and quite a few more. Software systems such as macOS or Windows seeped deeply into our everyday lives, having become indispensable. These programs are the forebearers of the operating systems running our smartphones today. Microsoft’s spreadsheet software Excel, which debuted in 1985, is at the heart of many of today’s jobs. In short: the foundation of our modern digital lives is fossilized there, in the 80s.
It is only logical that culture, the artistic way humans process their lives, has adapted accordingly throughout the 1980s and afterwards. The introduction of so many new devices in our homes and at work inspired creatives in Hollywood and beyond in their storytelling. As such, many of the new works of popular culture can be connected via the theme of technology and how they deal with it.
Many 80s movie masterpieces share a theme: technology.
Consumer technology introduced in the 1980s has not changed but rather evolved, thus the movies accompanying their inception are also still around, in an equally evolved form. There is a parallel line running between the changes in society, brought about by new consumer technology, and the flourishing of new entertainment brands.
Sci-Fi in the 1980s: To Fear and Master Technology
Numerous science-fiction franchises emerged throughout the eighties. Owing to their genre nature, these movies deal most directly with technology.
Quite a few of them channel the insecurity with the new types of technology that has so deeply changed people’s lives since the 1980s. In The Terminator (1984), for example, machines have become self-aware and now want to completely wipe out the human race. In Predator (1987), an alien hunter with sophisticated technology battles it out with mankind’s best fighters in a South American jungle. In Blade Runner (1982), human excess in using technology has destroyed Earth, man-made people help to colonize other planets instead. But these “replicants” seem to be more human than actual people, enjoying each other’s company much more than the disillusioned, isolated human characters in the movie. The soldiers in Aliens (1986) go into battle with the monsters from outer space overconfidently, thinking their high-tech weaponry will wipe out the enemy easily. The opposite happens. In Mad Max 2 (1981), the world has been destroyed completely by that most dangerous of human developed technology: nuclear weapons.
There are also lighter sci-fi stories from the time, like Back to the Future (1985). Here, cool 80s teen Marty McFly and his scientist friend Doc Brown travel back to a simpler time, the 1950s. What they need for that though is very sophisticated technology: a time machine. The equally heady heroes from Ghostbusters (1984) develop and master advanced technology as well, to capture the ghosts roaming New York City.
Superhero movies, which overlap with sci-fi quite occasionally, slowly rose to prominence in the 80s, laying the groundwork for the hype that was to come in the 2000s and onward. The success of Batman’s dark big screen revival in 1989 can also be attributed to the character’s experience with technology: Batman knows his way around tricky gadgets and thus much better reflects the zeitgeist than his most famous colleague at DC Comics, Superman. Batman’s lasting popularity can, in part, be attributed to this difference with Superman, who has struggled for relevance in the last few decades. Indeed, at the end of Superman III (1983), the Man of Steel literally destroys a huge computer system built by an evil corporation, a computer that can turn people into nightmarish androids.
80s Action: Celebrating the Analogue Life
Another genre that has enjoyed great popularity since the 1980s is over-the-top action with tough heroes in the lead, personified by actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. (1) Movies like Rambo or Die Hard are a rejection of the new technological lifestyle. Their heroes do not use computers or fancy gadgetry, instead relying on physical strength, their wits and field experience, and good old-fashioned weaponry — celebrating “the analogue life.”
At the end of Rambo II (1985), the blueprint for many of these movies, Rambo destroys a huge army computer system, similarly to what Superman does in Superman III. To Rambo, this computer, ostensibly aimed to guide him in combat, represents faceless bureaucracy, the absence of the human element during wartime. Rambo’s commander Murdock even calls the government apparatus, his employer, “the machine”. Rambo, of course, completes his dangerous mission in the second movie without any technological gadgets and then symbolically destroys the army computer upon his return from the field. (2)
Staying with Stallone for a bit, we can find a prime example for the relation between 80s action movies and emerging technology in his other famous franchise: Rocky. The beginning of Rocky IV (1985, amazingly, the same year as Rambo II) shows Rocky on the height of his fame and glory as a boxer. But he has also become jaded, living in a lush house filled with luxurious objects — most notably, a robot. Then Soviet super boxer Ivan Drago appears on the scene, killing Rocky’s friend and mentor Apollo Creed in a show match. To gain the strength needed to fight an enemy like Drago, Rocky sheds his lull and returns to nature, training for the confrontation in a snowy Wyoming mountain landscape. Tellingly, Drago himself uses high-tech sports equipment for his own training, luminous devices which register and evaluate all of his movements. The two fighters’ practice before battling each other is intercut in a very 80s montage. (3)
Bruce Willis’s character John McClane from the Die Hard films is often seen as the antithesis to larger-than-life super heroes of the Stallone type. While it is true that McClane is not as buffed as these guys, the story set-up of the first Die Hard (1988) does feature quite a few of the tropes we identified. McClane is an old-school policeman who relies mostly on his wits when fighting an army of well-equipped terrorists in a high-tech skyscraper. The terrorists’ leader Hans Gruber quotes Fortune magazine and has a huge, computer aided machine assembled, to open up a safe. In the end, of course, the down-to-earth McClane prevails. (4) (5)
Teen Comedies: Nerds Drop Clichés
On the very far end of the genre spectrum stand the teenage comedies and dramas of the 1980s. They deal with the changing times in another way: by using tech-savvy teenagers as their protagonists. As pointed out in a YouTube video by channel The Take, nerds and geeks were usually secondary characters in such movies prior to the 1980s.
Director and writer John Hughes is one of the most prominent figures in 80s coming-of-age films. He created classics like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), or Weird Science (also 1985). All three of these feature a nerdy guy as a hero, always portrayed by actor Anthony Michael Hall. Hughes shows nerds and geeks not as clichéd outsiders, but as strong and determined young people.
The mainstream success of Hughes’ movies shows how culture was slowly warming to the fact that people interested in computers and technology would become more sought-after as the importance of technology grew. Today, tech entrepreneurs are celebrated as stars, on the same level as musicians or athletes. Indeed, Hughes regular Anthony Michael Hall would go on to play Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates himself in the 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Summary: A Huge Cultural Shift
The 1980s are the foundation of our modern, digital lifestyle with PCs, smartphones, and Artificial Intelligence. The shift in the way we live our lives has brought with it a plethora of popular media brands that deal with technology as a theme. Science-fiction stories of the time show anxieties and hopes all around technology, big action movies pose a kind of reactionary response to the shift, while human dramas focus more closely on those individuals who help first handedly to bring the change of mindsets into reality.
That is why so many famous cultural brands from the 1980s are still relevant today. The developments that began back then are still going strong. And it does not seem like anything will change anytime soon.
(1) I listed Arnold Schwarzenegger here because on a surface level, he certainly belongs to the group of 80s action heroes. Looking closer, however, we can see that he differs somewhat from his peers, mostly because of his versatility. Schwarzenegger dabbled both in sci-fi (The Terminator, Predator, Running Man) and in over-the-top action (Commando, Conan). But he also found success in comedies, such as Twins. Schwarzenegger is arguably the 80s (and 90s) hero with the most mass appeal, even becoming Governor of California in the 2000s, the decade which most directly echoed the 80s in its (pop) culture. The original action hero of the 1980s might thus be Stallone: his first Rambo movie, First Blood (1982), is often seen as kickstarting the genre. A view held, for example, by 80s action expert and YouTuber Oliver Harper. Listen in at around the 100 minute mark on the Fan Club Podcast episode with Harper.
(2) It is remarkable and somewhat ironic that Japanese video game companies picked up many tropes of these somewhat reactionary movies for their works. Developer Konami, for example, used Stallone’s Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s character from Predator, Dutch Schaefer, as the basis for the heroes in the run and gun classic Contra (1987). Hideo Kojima’s spy game Metal Gear (also 1987) seems to have been inspired by Rambo’s stealth skills as well — and many other 80s action classics, of course, with the cover famously lifted directly from a still photo of the first Terminator movie.
(3) In a stroke of genius, Family Guy mixed the Drago scenes with the Jedi training from The Empire Strikes Back.
(4) A YouTube video by CosmoDoesMovies neatly explains the technology shown in Die Hard, including the touch screen at the reception of Nakatomi Plaza (“cute toy”).
(5) Conan (1982) and Indiana Jones (1981) also fit into the action hero genre. These movies take the viewer into times when technology was not as pervasive, thereby creating nostalgia for classic heroes. In the first and third Indy movies, however, the times of technological reign are foreshadowed, as they take place during World War II — a conflict that used war machinery to an never before seen extent.
Bonus Excursion: Significant 80s Developments in Gaming and Music
The 1980s are the origin of mainstream video gaming, therefore many industry icons took shape in the time, most of them hailing from Japan. Examples include coin-op classics Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, Nintendo mainstays such as Super Mario, Zelda, or Metroid, JRPG heavyweights Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, legendary Konami franchises Castlevania and Metal Gear, and even Capcom’s Street Fighter, which saw its very first (and admittedly not very great) installment in 1987. All these IPs are still around, the latest entry in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, has been named game of the 2010s decade by several outlets. To be fair, many gaming brands, especially from the US, emerged after the 1980s. But the influence of these Japanese classics on gaming is undeniable.
In addition to games, Japan influenced the world with another important technological development in the 1980s: music hardware. Synthesizers, samplers, drum computers, and also the Walkman, mostly coming from Japan, made it possible for artists all around the globe to easily produce their own music. Hip-hop is one of many genres that emerged due to those changed circumstances. Starting in the 1980s from New York, it is now one of the biggest genres globally.
80s pop, which also incorporates a lot of these new electronic instruments, still dominates many radio stations today. Check out this insightful video by YouTube essayist Nerdwriter1, in which he further explains the importance of 80s synthesizers and their lasting influence on rap and pop music.