Science fiction has always been a popular genre in film, but the 80s took it to a whole new level. As special effects and production values improved, filmmakers had new ways to bring otherworldly visions to life, and as a result audiences were treated to some of the most remarkable, memorable science fiction movies ever made.
Consider the following films, which we rank among the very best works of sci-fi to come out of the 1980s.
20. Short Circuit
One of the biggest recurring questions of science fiction is the creation of artificial intelligence – and at what point such mechanical creations could be considered to be genuinely alive. This portentous concept is given a more whimsical treatment by director John Badham’s 1986 film Short Circuit, a family-friendly comedy adventure about the sentient robot Number 5.
Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy take the respective lead roles as the scientist who created the robot, and the animal-loving free spirit who takes him in. However, Short Circuit is today more notorious for American actor Fisher Stevens donning brownface to portray Indian character Ben Jabituya.
19. They Live
Director John Carpenter presented one of the most unique and innovative takes on an alien invasion movie with 1988’s They Live. Roddy Piper stars as a homeless construction worker who stumbles on a pair of strange sunglasses, which reveal that the world around him is flooded with subliminal messages controlled by extra-terrestrial oppressors.
An overt satire on the capitalist excess and economic inequality of the 80s, They Live wasn’t a huge hit on release but soon became a major cult classic. It has also long been a firm favourite of conspiracy theorists, most of whom take its premise a bit too literally.
18. The Last Starfighter
How many of us have ever played a space-set video game, and pondered how well we’d fare piloting a spaceship for real? This is the irresistible premise of The Last Starfighter, the 1984 adventure in which Lance Guest’s aimless young trailer park assistant beats the high score on an arcade game, only to discover it’s really a training and recruitment program for fighter pilots in an interstellar war.
While The Last Starfighter boasts no shortage of impressive practical make-up effects, director Nick Castle’s film is most noted today for being among the first major movies to make extensive use of CGI in the space battle sequences.
17. The Abyss
Writer-director James Cameron had already changed the game for 80s sci-fi more than once before he broke new ground once again with 1989’s The Abyss. Set almost entirely underwater, the film is at times a largely grounded submarine thriller, but things are taken in a fantastical direction with the presence of a race of water-based alien life forms.
While it was only a modest commercial success on release, The Abyss is widely recognised today as a major turning point for blockbuster cinema thanks to its groundbreaking use of CGI for the aliens. Beyond this, the film is notorious for its troubled production, with notorious taskmaster Cameron proving to be too much for most of the cast and crew.
16. Enemy Mine
A futuristic tale of an unlikely kinship between two men from opposing sides of a war, Enemy Mine casts Dennis Quaid as a human fighter pilot who crashes on the same uninhabited planet as an alien (a heavily made-up Louis Gossett Jr.) Despite their initial animosity, the two men gradually realise that they need to work together to survive.
Enemy Mine had a troubled production, with Wolfgang Petersen taking over behind the camera after the initial director was fired. Sadly for the filmmakers, it didn’t go down well with critics or audiences on release in 1985, but in the years since it has been re-assessed as one of the most interesting sci-fi films of the period.
15. Flight of the Navigator
A family favourite with a surprisingly emotional edge, Flight of the Navigator casts Joey Kramer as a young boy living out the dream of many a kid: piloting a state-of-the-art spacecraft to the far reaches of the galaxy, with a variety of cute and cool alien creatures and robots for company. However, in doing so he leaves behind a family for whom life has gone on without him.
Flight of the Navigator has attained a degree of notoriety in recent years due to the troubles former child star Joey Kramer has gone through in adulthood, but it remains a compelling and enjoyable space adventure for young and old alike. In addition, it’s another 80s sci-fi classic to be among the first to use CGI.
14. 2010: The Year We Make Contact
Making a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey always seemed foolhardy. All these years later, Kubrick’s legacy still casts so great a shadow that director Peter Hyams’ 1984 follow-up 2010: The Year We Make Contact tends to get overlooked – which is a tremendous shame.
In narrative terms, 2010 is considerably more accessible than its more abstract predecessor, and in terms of visual effects it’s equally awe-inspiring. It also boasts an impressive cast including Roy Schieder, Helen Mirren and John Lithgow.
This may be hard for younger readers to get their heads around, but back in the 80s computers were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are today, and far less people really understood their potential to change our lives. However, one movie that really made us imagine what computers might do was 1982’s Tron.
Starring Jeff Bridges as a software designer mysteriously transported into a digital world he helped create, Tron made pioneering use of primitive CGI to bring an amazing video game world. It really struck a chord with viewers in the Atari age, and still looks cool today.
12. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Who says science fiction needs to be serious? Director Stephen Herek’s 1988 time-travelling teen comedy introduced us to two of the most endearing dimwits in cinematic history. In a scenario that could only happen in sci-fi, the future of the universe hinges on the two would-be rock stars successfully completing desperate mission through time and space to finish their high school history report.
Thanks to the chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter and a genuinely witty script, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure proved a big hit, spawned two sequels, set Reeves on his path to superstardom and encouraged a generation of kids to overuse the word “excellent!”
They Live director John Carpenter tended to make darker, less optimistic sci-fi movies (including his 1982 shocker The Thing, which has sci-fi elements but belongs more in the horror category). The filmmaker went in a very different direction with 1984’s Starman, a far more sensitive and hopeful tale of an extra-terrestrial being coming to Earth in the form of Jeff Bridges, the recently deceased husband of Karen Allen.
Naysayers often complain that sci-fi can be cold and lacking in emotional content, but this is very clearly not the case on Starman. As much as it is a story of a strange visitor from another world, it is first and foremost a very human tale about grief and the difficult path toward healing.
Is it an action movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it science fiction? Director John McTiernan’s 1987 classic Predator combines elements of all of these genres, and as such some might argue it cannot be classed as sci-fi in the purest sense. However, there can be no question that the extra-terrestrial antagonist of the title is one of the most iconic alien creatures ever to grace the big screen, so we had to include it here.
Predator gives Arnold Schwarzenegger one of his best roles as the leader of a military rescue squad who find themselves under attack from an enigmatic, initially invisible threat in the jungle. The film boasts a famously musclebound cast, but the show is clearly stolen by Stan Winston’s beautifully designed monster suit, worn by the suitably hulking Kevin Peter Hall.
9. Flash Gordon
A lavish update of Alex Raymond’s 1930s comic strip hero, 1980’s Flash Gordon wasn’t anything like the smash hit it was expected to be on release, but it didn’t take long for it to become one of the best-loved movies of the era. Sam J Jones takes the title role as the good-natured pro-football player unexpectedly sent to the far reaches of space where he’s captured by alien despot Ming (Max von Sydow).
With its lavish, colourful sets and costumes, brash music from rock legends Queen and larger-than-life performances (notably Brian Blessed’s supporting turn as the Hawkman Vultan), Flash Gordon was initially dismissed as too camp to take seriously. However, that’s just what audiences love the film for today.
8. The Terminator
James Cameron’s directorial debut may have seemed like a fairly low-rent B-movie on release in 1984, but it wound up changing the face of both the action and sci-fi genres. Arnold Schwarzenegger found his definitive role as the formidable cyborg sent back from the future to kill Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, the mother of the revolutionary destined to save humanity in a war with the machines.
On the surface, The Terminator is more of an action thriller than anything else, but it still tackles some big science fiction ideas. Who among us hasn’t developed a migraine tackling the problem of John Connor’s conception, who can only be born as the man himself knowingly sends his own father (Michael Biehn) back in time?
7. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
After 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture proved a bit of a lame duck, it was no sure thing that the adventures of the Starship Enterprise would continue on the big screen. However, 1982 sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gave the franchise a significant shot in the arm, and more than four decades on it remains the best-loved Star Trek movie.
Ricardo Montalban reprises his antagonist role from the original 60s TV series, and as the subtitle suggests, Star Trek II sees titular villain out for revenge against William Shatner’s highly-strung Captain Kirk. Altogether now: “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!”
Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven broke through in Hollywood in a big way with 1987’s RoboCop. A landmark sci-fi action thriller with an unusually intelligent and satirical edge, the film sees Peter Weller’s honest cop Murphy killed in the line of duty, only for his corporate overlords to rebuild him as ‘the future of law enforcement’ in a cyborg exoskeleton.
While the title may sound like a Saturday morning cartoon, RoboCop is anything but kid’s stuff. Its excessive violence is still shocking today, as is the film’s unflinchingly barbed critique of American corporate culture in the late 80s ‘greed is good’ era.
Making a sequel that could hold a candle to Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking 1979 sci-fi horror Alien was always going to be a serious challenge. However, James Cameron proved more than up to the task with 1986’s Aliens, which cleverly avoids retreading the same territory as the original and instead takes the concept into large scale action thriller territory.
Set 57 years after the original, Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley awakens from suspended animation to discover that the planet where she and her crew encountered the dreaded Xenomorph has since been colonised. She then accompanies a platoon of Space Marines to locate survivors and eliminate the alien threat, and thrills galore ensue.
4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
On paper, E.T. sounds like pure kid’s stuff: a young boy befriends a cute little alien, brought to life in puppet form. However, thanks to the expert storytelling of director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, this 1982 sci-fi adventure captured the hearts of millions young and old alike across the globe, and became the biggest hit in box office history at the time.
Henry Thomas stars as Elliot, a lonely child who dubs his new alien friend E.T., and the two develop a bond that goes way beyond friendship. Running the emotional gauntlet, from fear to wonder to joy to despair to excitement and beyond, this is one film that never loses its power no matter how many times you see it.
3. Blade Runner
Speaking of sci-fi movies which flopped on release but later gained a strong reputation, there isn’t a more extreme example of this from the 80s, or indeed any decade, than Blade Runner. Although it was largely ignored when it first hit screens in 1982, it wasn’t long before Ridley Scott’s film was hailed as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made in the science fiction genre.
Set in the then-far-off year of 2019, Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as Deckard, a world-weary cop tasked with tracking down and ‘retiring’ (i.e. destroying) artificial lifeforms known as Replicants. He goes up against Rutger Hauer’s troubled super-soldier Roy Batty, and develops feelings for Sean Young’s unwitting Replicant, Rachael.
2. Back to the Future
There’s no shortage of great movies about aliens or robots, but when it comes to that other great science fiction staple of time travel, there’s really only one movie that comes to mind: Back to the Future. Director Robert Zemeckis’ blend of sci-fi, comedy, adventure and family-based drama proved to be the biggest hit of 1985, and to this day remains one of the best-loved movies ever made.
Michael J. Fox is Marty McFly, the quintessential 80s kid who accidentally goes to 1955 in the time-traveling DeLorean DMC built by his mad scientist friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Once there, Marty inadvertently disrupts the timeline jeopardising his own existence, and must help his parents fall in love in order to save his future.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
If we’re talking about science fiction and the 1980s, inevitably we’re going to end up talking about the mighty Star Wars saga. After starting life with George Lucas’ 1977 original (aka A New Hope), the epic space opera reached new heights with director Irvin Kershner’s 1980 follow-up The Empire Strikes Back, which proved to be one of the best-loved sequels ever made.
Breaking up the core trio of the original, Empire sees Luke head off alone to continue his Jedi training under Yoda, whilst Han and Leia flee from the Empire as their romantic feelings develop. It all builds up to one of the most celebrated climactic revelations and downbeat endings in film history.