By James Hancock August 20th, 2015
With the onslaught of today’s superhero/science fiction/fantasy productions hitting movie theaters seemingly on a monthly basis I spend a lot of time talking about how the future I hoped for as a child, one that I never dreamed possible, has come true. I grew up with my nose buried in comic books and science-fiction/fantasy novels and one of the great joys of my adulthood has been seeing the movie industry decide to tackle this kind of material on a regular basis and even better, occasionally getting it right giving us something extraordinary like Mad Max: Fury Road. I frequently remind my little brothers ages 10, 12 & 13 that they have no idea how good they have it, that back in the stone age of my childhood we often had to wait years for some quality escapist entertainment. But when I look back at 1982, I realize that I might not be remembering my history quite accurately. Granted I turned six that summer and I was not exactly taking notes on industry trends but for fans at that time of escapist entertainment dealing with otherworldly beings, supernatural phenomena, and larger-than-life heroes, the year 1982 year must have seemed like a cultural renaissance. Now I am only the latest in a long line of people online to call attention to that particularly good year of geeky entertainment, but it has been a while since I threw down my essays on 1971 and 1939, two of my favorite years of filmmaking and I am long overdue in creating another list of a similar nature. So with full appreciation for the essays that have already been written on this topic, I figured it was time for me to chime in and tackle this gold mine of entertainment and discuss what these movies mean to me.
Conan the Barbarian
Being a fan of the fantasy genre has always been a bit of a curse for movie fans in that so few movies can compare to the great novels and short stories written in that genre. The curse is even more pronounced for those who enjoy dark, adult fantasy. As much as I loved Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) when that trilogy was first released, that series was very stately and family-friendly compared to the darkness one finds in the short stories and novels of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Cimmerian. The world envisioned by Robert E. Howard was one of black magic and sinister cults with nightmarish creatures and occasionally very beautiful women lurking around every corner. While not a perfect adaptation of Howard’s universe, the movie adaptation from director John Milius starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably the closest we are ever likely to get at least on the big screen. The music alone by Basil Poledouris makes the viewer feel like they are stepping into another world. With a script by Oliver Stone, every scene and line of dialogue exudes the power and strength of Robert E. Howard’s prose. Arnold was still getting used to his new profession as an actor, but even with his lack of experience I have to say he was born to play this role. It makes me sad when I hear how Oliver Stone originally planned on the franchise taking cues from the James Bond series, where Arnold could return to the role every few years. They very well might have succeeded in fleshing out Robert E. Howard fictionalized universe. That said, the movie stands strong all on its own. With the movie’s abundance of gore and nudity, let’s just say that my five-year-old brain was overwhelmed when I was taken to see Conan the Barbarian in the Spring of 1982, just shy of my sixth brithday. More than thirty years later, the movie has lost none of its visceral power from that first awe-inspiring viewing experience I had as a child.
I did not discover Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner until long after its release. The summer of 1993 I was studying in Spain and went to see the newly released director’s cut of Blade Runner at a fantastic theater in Madrid. Luckily the film was subtitled, not dubbed, and I was left slack jawed by the power of the story. Based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner updated the classic hardboiled detective scenario into a 21st century film noir set in a dystopian Los Angeles that was unlike anything that had been accomplished in science fiction up until that point. While most science fiction films are content merely to be thinly veiled fantasy films, Blade Runner is one of a handful of science fiction movies to test the boundaries of the genre and take it places where it has never been before. Thematically complex, the film was even so bold as to tackle the meaning of life itself as seen through the struggles of several replicants coming face to face with their creators only to learn the sad truth that the light that burns twice as bright only burns half as long. The theatrical cut of 1982 was not true to Ridley Scott’s vision and failed to find an audience but thankfully the film has withstood the ravages of time and now stands as arguably the finest science fiction ever made.
I didn’t get the chance to catch John Carpenter’s The Thing in the theater, however, I was lucky enough to have an uncle who ran a video store at the time and he not only had a great pull down screen in his home but also a LaserDisc player. At the time, he seemed awfully high tech to my young eyes. One of his favorite double features to program for the family was Walter Hill’s The Warriors followed by John Carpenter’s The Thing. This double feature combined with pizza became something of a regular ritual. While The Thing was not my first horror film, it was certainly one of my earliest movie experiences where I remember being absolutely terrified to the core of my soul. It is one of the most paranoid, claustrophobic sci-fi/horror films ever made in addition to showcasing astonishing practical effects that sadly now seem to come from a bygone, pre-CGI era. The origins of this movie go back to the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. and the subsequent 1951 film adaptation The Thing from Another World by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks. While today many Carpenter fans point to this movie as his masterpiece, the film was Carpenter’s first commercial disappointment. In addition to all the other great flicks released that year, Steven Spielberg’s powerhouse, crowd-pleaser E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released two weeks prior to The Thing and perhaps audiences were more in the mood to be moved emotionally rather than frightened to death. Luckily the legacy of the film continues to grow. Some folks online have pointed out that Quentin Tarantino’s new movie The H8ful Eight feels almost like a western remake of the scenario Kurt Russell fought through in The Thing. I can think of no higher praise.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Being a Trekkie can be a test of patience and endurance. Even the most devoted of Star Trek fans will have trouble defending some of the shows, books, comics and movies that take place in this fictionalized universe, and within the Star Trek community there is plenty of open warfare about which stories remain true to the spirit of Star Trek as fans understand it. But there is one movie where most of these fans tend to share total, 100% agreement as being the high water mark of the entire franchise and that is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the interest of full disclosure, on a scale of 0 to 100 as a Trekkie I would probably rank myself about an 80. I’ve seen most of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) and Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as every Star Trek movie, in some cases many times over. I also thoroughly enjoyed J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot but not the sequel to the same degree. I’ve never seen Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at all and from what I understand many hardcore fans feel that show was the franchise’s finest hour. With all that in mind, the reason I think Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the greatest story that Star Trek has to offer is due to emotion. I defy anyone, even those who think science fiction is silly, to watch this movie in its entirety and not cry like a baby at the finale. I am getting goose bumps on my forearms just thinking about Kirk and Spock’s farewell through a pane of glass. You can talk about the music, the look of the film, and how the storytelling style established the template for the franchise moving forward but in the end, movies are defined by their power to move an audience and for that reason alone I think this film in particular transcends the rest of the Star Trek franchise. But just in case you are a hard-hearted individual, this movie also has the best William Shatner scream of all time, Ricardo Montalban with his manly chest on display, and a scene with bugs going into ears that will give you issues for the rest of your life. Enjoy.
* * *
So while this list is hardly finished, I think I’m going to wrap this one up. As it stands, I’ve boiled this list down to my personal essentials from that year. Some of you might slap me for not continuing this list with Tron, Poltergeist, The Last Unicorn, Creepshow, Cat People, The Beastmaster, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Dark Crystal and The Secret of Nimh. All of these films could easily be included on this list and have all separately had a major impact on my imagination over the years but they are not quite in my personal pantheon. Their absence, however, only underlines what an extraordinary year 1982 proved to be. Moving out of the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and animation, 1982 also gave us many fine films such as The King of Comedy, Fanny and Alexander, Fitzcarraldo, First Blood, Rocky III, 48 Hrs., Pink Floyd – The Wall, & Diner. But as I stated in the opening, this post is about the forms of escapist entertainment that have kept me entranced for most of my life. As much I am floored by the some of the brilliant movies of the last few years, my sentimental side remains in awe at just how lucky I was to be a kid in the early 1980s and to have the chance to see these movies at the most impressionable stage of my life. So give me a shout on Twitter if you want to discuss this further or if you have any suggestions about other extraordinary years of filmmaking I should cover in the future. Long term, I think this list is only the 3rd in what will hopefully be many more to come.
I am one of the Co-Hosts of Wrong Reel and you can find our content here: