Top Ten Sci-Fi Movies of the 1980s

While the 1970s did not overflow with lots of fantastic sci-fi movies (other than Star Wars), the 1980s is a whole ‘nother story. This is where the modern sensibilities and progressive ideas that were released in the ‘60s and ‘70s really break through to the entertainment business. For the ‘80s, it would be quite possible do a top ten list for each individual year – and don’t tempt me! ‘Cos I’ll do it! 

Till then, choosing the ten best of the whole decade is something of an undertaking. Every person will of course have their own favorites, and it wasn’t easy for me to pick out my own ten favorites. I enjoy movies like Flash Gordon (1980), Outland (1981), The Thing (1982), Tron (1982), Starman (1984), The Terminator (1984), Flight of the Navigator (1986), Predator (1987), RoboCop (1987) and Spaceballs (1987), whereas I don’t care too much for flicks like Mad Max 2 (1981) and Dune (1984).

If I was doing a top-twenty of ‘80s sci-fi, the movies that would probably land on the last ten places – #11-20 – would be these (in simple chronological order): Altered States (1980), E.T. (1982), WarGames (1983), 2010 (1984), Iceman (1984), The Last Starfighter (1984), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Cocoon (1985), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Akira (1988) and DeepStar Six (1989).

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s jump to my personal list of the ten best science fiction movies of the 1980s – the decade where I was a teen:

#10: The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron delivered the goods with this beautiful underwater sci-fi eco-thriller, complete with highly believable characters, and alien designs by Jean “Moebius” Giraud himself. Featuring stellar acting and penetrating intensity by Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn, this is a movie where the story and the characters truly mesh and complement each other. The eco-message is a bit Spielberg, but with a rougher edge and a significantly more adult feel. Personally, I eat this stuff up. Too bad Cameron couldn’t repeat this level of character portrayal in Avatar – it would have made an epic difference.

#9: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Being a Japanese production, very few people in the West would have seen this when it originally came out, and I didn’t, either. I only discovered it inside the last ten years, and only fully realized its brilliance when I watched the Blu-ray version a few months ago. The movie chronicles the life of a young woman in a toxic future which is slowly recovering from the devastation of nuclear war, and how her interest, both analytical and loving, in her world and environment is essential to finding a constructive way of dealing with the hostile lifeforms dominating the land. It is a work of rare beauty and power, describing and celebrating the exact deep love of science and nature that, by my conviction, ought to be the foundation of all humanity’s worldview. A super-classic. Click on the title to read my full review.

#8: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

The fourth Star Trek movie is a delightful time-travel caper where the Enterprise crew must travel to the past (i.e. to 1986) in a Klingon ship in order to save the future Earth from an alien probe that will only talk to (extinct) whales. So our utopian heroes stumble confusedly around in our barbaric present, resulting in hilarious situations, such as Spock attempting to use profanity and Scotty trying to talk to the ‘80s computers. Probably the best of the Star Trek movies, in my opinion.

#7: Blade Runner (1982)

As with Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi movie, Alien, Blade Runner too is memorable more because of the mise en scène and broad scope than because of the specific story and main character. The real lead is the setting; the props and the society and the big themes about what it is to be human. The filth. The style. The mood. The music. The raving renegade replicants in existential crisis who run amok and burn out according to their genetic programming. It’s a thing of beauty. And I am one of those who prefer the original theatrical version over the Director’s Cut or Final Cut. I don’t like it being so abundantly clear than Deckard is a replicant himself; in fact, I don’t like his being a replicant at all. I like the simpler version of the story. And besides, those damn unicorns were never in the original conception of the film; they were only added after the director had used them in Legend (1985) and had some galloping scenes left-over…

#6: Brazil (1985)

“Aren’t you going to search me? I could be anybody!” – “No, you couldn’t, sir. This is Information Retrieval.” Terry Gilliam’s fascinating vision of a completely bureaucratized world is conceived very much as a satirical sequel to Orwell’s 1984, and it sure looks the part. It is a rigid and inhuman world where a missing 27B-6 form is enough to break a man, and a simple typo can get a man committed to torture and execution. The brilliance lies in how obviously absurd such a world is, and yet how close to some aspects of our own real world it is. Ministries that serve the system but not the people; power that is routinely and casually misused by those who have it – it is the ordinary person’s definitive nightmare. The common man is nothing; a cockroach to be squashed, and thus the human spirit is squashed, too, leaving only an ultimately lifeless totalitarian structure. This unique movie is a very effective cautionary tale of the highest order.

#5: Brave New World (1980)

A great science fiction adaptation of a great science fiction novel, the three-hour television movie Brave New World debates all the salient points of dystopia and utopia that science fiction is the perfect genre for exploring. It paints a bleak yet strangely compelling picture of a completely unfree society in which everybody has been engineered and indoctrinated to be happy. The treatment of the main prevailing ideologies of Huxley’s time – Marxism and rampant capitalist consumerism – is both progressive and satirical and far ahead of its time, the two -isms being mind-bogglingly blended into a harmonic mix containing all the worst elements of both. Few books about social developments can be said to be as thought-provoking as this, and the movie lives brilliantly up to the book. Special mention must go to Ron O’Neal in the role as the world-leader Mustapha Mond. He charismatically exudes power, self-confidence and self-righteousness, and in a just world he would have been propelled to stardom for this role. Don’t miss it. Brave New World is sadly not out on DVD or Blu-ray, but it is available to watch for free on Google Videos. That’s how I had the chance to see it again, after not having seen it since a TV showing in the early ’80s.

#4: Aliens (1986)

Short of a Star Wars movie, you just don’t get a bigger or better sci-fi/action blow-out than this. Aliens is one of my absolute favorite movies ever, in my view being infinitely superior to the first movie (which however was also great) because it is much more sci-fi than horror, and has amazingly strong character portrayals, including all of the space marines. I feel like I know every one of them personally, even freakin’ Wierzbowski! They all have well-fleshed out personalities realized by superb actors, and are oozing attitude out of every pore. The only other movie I can think of with a similar team of well-defined bad-asses is Predator (1987), which, while good, is nowhere near as brilliant as this James Cameron masterpiece. What a script! Can you tell I am in awe of this movie?

#3: Ghost Busters (1984)

Ghost Busters is my pick for the greatest comedy to come out of the American movie industry, ever. I would say it is the (U.S.) movie with the greatest number of funny and quotable one-liners (yes, because even Ghost Busters can’t hold a candle to Life of Brian and The Holy Grail). The punches start early: “Back off – I’m a scientist.” And they don’t let up: “Let’s split up.” – “Good idea. We can do more damage that way.” The dialogue is endlessly brilliant and every word is classic. The acting is great. The story is cool. Ghosts defeated by science, then released by stupidity, and finally New York is saved by our heroes as they Cross The Streams! Fantastic fun.

#2: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Imperial walkers! A spaceship chase in an asteroid field! Jedi training! Cloud City! Boba Fett! Lando Calrissian! What more do you need to know? Where the prequels failed; where the Ewok movies (incl. Episode VI) failed, The Empire Strikes Back is the one Star Wars movie worthy of standing tall and proud next to the original 1977 masterpiece. Many have speculated that this is mainly because George Lucas did not write and direct this movie himself, and that may be true. Because he certainly went in a different and deplorable direction when he made the remaining movies, and the franchise never again reached these superlative heights.

#1: Back to the Future Trilogy (1985-1989)

“No, it can’t be! I just sent you back to the future!!” – “I know; you did send me back to the future. But I’m back – I’m back from the future.” – “Great Scott!!” Yes, here it is again – the unbeatable, indomitable time-travel trilogy starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in their career-defining roles. Incredible fun, incredible action, fabulous soundtrack, great special effects. I love the whole trilogy to bits, and anyone who hasn’t seen these movies have a spectacular experience to look forward to. Watch ‘em with your kids of you have them!

  1. Kevin Matthews says

    Okay, I’ll bite.
    That is a great list and a fantastic selection but, I gotta wonder, Ghost Busters? Is it included because the scientific approach to actually capturing the ghosts enables the whole premise or have I missed some other interpretation.
    I LOVE the film, by the way, and amuse myself by repeating random snippets out of context to bemused stares from others. Example – “where do those stairs go?” . . . “up”.
    And the hilarious, “listen. Do you smell something?”

  2. Tue Sorensen says

    What, you don’t think Ghost Busters should be classified as sci-fi? I would say it is completely sci-fi. In this movie the ghosts and the paranormal activity can all be reduced to measurable quantities that the ghost buster tech can take care of – which means the whole premise works according to scientific laws. It’s not a supernatural movie. It just posits that there is a scientific way for ghosts to exist – this is the novum (new idea) that makes the story science fiction.

    And yes, this movie is infinitely quotable…

    Venkman: “Like the time you tried to drill a hole through your head?”
    Egon: “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.”

    I think I might be able to reconstruct the entire screenplay without much trouble! 🙂

  3. Kevin Matthews says

    Interesting and convincing.
    I’m against pigeonholing movies anyway, especially when it comes to someone’s particular favourite, so I was just asking as I’ve always viewed it simply as a comedy horror. There have been plenty of rumours lately about the much-discussed third film coming one day. Thoughts? I’m kinda loathe to see it happen, I even quite enjoyed the second film and the first is such a classic anyway. I even used to love “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon series and it was a sticker album I came oh so close to actually completing back in my youth. Sorry, I digress as usual, haha.

  4. Tue Sorensen says

    I’ve never seen The Real Ghostbusters (and what a stupid name, as that’s exactly what they weren’t); that sort of thing never reached Denmark.

    Well, I’m hopeful about the third movie (which, last I heard, seems to be happening), but we all know that sequels often disappoint. But apparently they’ve worked a long time to get a script right. So who knows? I definitely owe it to the original to buy a ticket for any half-way decent sequel.

    Ghost Busters 2 is decent entertainment, but of couirse not as good as the first one. It does have its share of fun dialogue, though. “Who you gonna call?” – “He-Man!!!” 🙂

  5. Kevin Matthews says

    It may have been a stupid name, agreed, but it was a fun TV show I loved as a kid (I was never into the action cartoons and was always more of a comedy fan). The cartoon show actually, if I recally correctly, sometimes had a nice Lovecraftian vibe, though I didn’t realise it way back then.

  6. Keith Beard says

    Mixed feelings on this list. Abyss doesn’t do a great deal for me. Blade Runner and Brazil should be higer. Voyege Home is in my top two Star Trek films, it is good you have included the only good Star Wars film of the bunch, but still it is a Star Wars film, so still doesn’t belong here! Back to the Future is a good number one, but where is Cronenberg on this list?. The 80’s was one of his peak periods. The likes of Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers would all have been worthy inclusions.

  7. Tue Sorensen says

    Dead Ringers? I wouldn’t call that sci-fi.

    I’m not a big Cronenberg fan. His sensibility is for horror, not sci-fi. I’m more of a pure sci-fi fan.

    I take it you’re not a big Star Wars fan? Well, I think the two first ones are absolutely seminal and top-of-the-line in this genre.

  8. Keith Beard says

    I would call Dead Ringers a Sci-Fi just more of a humanist one, like horror Sci-Fi is a genre which is hard to pin down. Totally disagree on him being more Horror than Sci-fi, he carefully merges the two and his films are often about the human condetion which is surely a big Sci-Fi stample.

    No I consider Star Wars one of the most overrated film(s) in history.

  9. elena says

    well, im sure all of these movies are pretty cool, but in this list they are definitely missing a 1987 Giorgio Moroder’s remake of Metropolis. by the way, if ur interested u guys can check it out at its awesome!!!!

  10. MatthewPriestly says

    For fans of sci-fi films, I recommend you look up Giorgio Moroder’s limited edition of Metropolis, which will be out in the UK on DVD and viewable on starting July 23rd. You can see the trailer here

Leave A Reply