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The decade of the 1980s in Western cinema saw the return of studio-driven pictures, coming from the filmmaker-driven New Hollywood era of the 1970s. The period was when "high concept" films gained popularity, where movies were to be easily marketable and understandable, and, therefore, they had short cinematic plots that could be summarized in one or two sentences. The modern Hollywood blockbuster is the most popular film format from the 1980s. Producer Don Simpson is usually credited with the creation of the high-concept picture of the modern Hollywood blockbuster.
The decade also saw an increased amount of nudity in film and the increasing emphasis in the American industry on film franchises, especially in the science fiction, horror and action genres. Much of the reliance on these effect-driven blockbusters was due in part to the Star Wars films at the advent of this decade and the new cinematic effects it helped to pioneer. The teen comedy subgenre also rose in popularity during this decade.
In the US, the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984 to accommodate films that straddled the line between PG and R, which was mainly due to the controversies surrounding the violent content of the PG films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (both 1984).
The following are the 10 top-grossing films of the decade:
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), $435 million
- Return of the Jedi (1983), $309 million
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980), $290 million
- Batman (1989), $251 million
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), $245 million
- Ghostbusters (1984), $238 million
- Beverly Hills Cop (1984), $234 million
- Back to the Future (1985), $210 million
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), $197 million
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), $179 million
In the list, where revenues are equal numbers, the newer films are listed lower, due to inflation making the dollar-amount lower compared to earlier years.
The films of the 1980s covered many genres, with hybrids crossing between multiple genres. The trend strengthened towards creating ever-larger blockbuster films, which earned more in their opening weeks than any previous film, due in part to staging releases when audiences had little else to choose.
- Blockbusters: The decade started by continuing the blockbuster boom of the mid-1970s. The sequel to 1977's Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, opened in May, 1980 becoming the highest-grossing film of the year. It is considered among the greatest films of all time (being the highest rated 1980s film on IMDb). It was followed by Return of the Jedi (1983) finishing the trio. Superman II was released in Europe and Australia in late 1980 but not distributed in the United States until June 1981. Though now seen as campier over the original 1978 Superman, Superman II was received with a positive reaction. From the success of The Empire Strikes Back, creator George Lucas teamed up with director Steven Spielberg to create one of the most iconic characters in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark starring Harrison Ford, who had also co-starred in The Empire Strikes Back. The story about an archaeologist and adventurer, Indiana Jones (Ford), hired by the U.S. government to go on a quest for the mystical lost Ark of the Covenant, created waves of interest in old 1930s style cliffhanger serials. It became the highest-grossing film of 1981, leading to sequels all in the top-10 films of the decade. In 1982, Spielberg directed his family, fairy-tale science-fiction blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which shattered all records, earning 40% more than any Star-Wars film, and double or triple the revenue of 46 of the top 50 films.
- Science-fiction: Continuing the 1980s' science-fiction boom was Australian post-apocalyptic science fiction Mad Max 2, with a leather-clad outlaw fighting road barbarians in the futuristic desert wasteland. Another futuristic adventure released the same year, Escape from New York, also saw an anti-hero set in a dystopian future. In 1982, yet another film set in a dystopian feature, the Tech-noirish Blade Runner starred Harrison Ford as a detective searching for renegade androids. Science fiction films aimed at younger audiences included the two Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as the Back to the Future trilogy and Steven Spielberg's E.T..
- Thriller: The 1980s saw an immense amount of thriller films, many being of an erotic nature, including Fatal Attraction (1987) and Body Heat (1981). Perhaps two of the most influential examples of 80s thriller films were David Lynch's bizarre cult classic Blue Velvet (1986), which dealt with the underworld of a seemingly idyllic American suburbia, a subject which has spawned many inferior imitations well into the first decade of the 21st century and Stanley Kubrick's horror/thriller The Shining (1980).
- Fantasy: Fantasy film saw a resurgence particularly in sword and sorcery films. In 1981, Dragonslayer, Excalibur and Raiders of the Lost Ark started it off, but it was 1982's Conan the Barbarian which caused the fantasy explosion. The epic starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his acting breakthrough as he began his ascent to stardom. Loosely based on the original tales by Robert E. Howard, the film was written by the unlikely pairing of Oliver Stone and John Milius. Its sequel followed in 1984 with the light-weight Conan the Destroyer. Schwarzenegger returned again to a similar sword-wielding role in 1985's Red Sonja. The same year as Conan the Barbarian, similar films followed such as The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster and the Ator films. Fairy-tale fantasy was also popular with films such as The NeverEnding Story (1984), Legend (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987). Disney's Return to Oz, a big-budget sequel to 1939's classic The Wizard of Oz, was a major flop, yet became a major success on home video. Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986) was not an initial success but has since become a major cult classic.
- Drama: Among the historical, romantic, and dramatic films, several were well received at the box office, including Rain Man (1988), Fatal Attraction (1987), On Golden Pond (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), The Color Purple (1985) and Out of Africa (1985). Also notable in critical success were Gandhi (1982), Sophie's Choice (also 1982) and A Passage to India (1984).
- Westerns: A stylish form of western was evolving, with films such as Pale Rider, Silverado (both 1985) and Young Guns (1988).
- Horror: Creativity from 1970s horror films extended throughout the 1980s, except having more gore, with many successful 1980s horror films having numerous sequels as their murderers were themselves unstoppable. Stanley Kubrick directed his horror film The Shining (1980). The creative and gory The Evil Dead (1981) with its secluded atmosphere is seen by many as one of the best in its genre, leading to its inevitable sequel Evil Dead II in 1987. Halloween director John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) shocked audiences in its effects, as did David Cronenberg's graphic and gory Scanners (1981). Sequels to Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) were the popular face of horror films in the 1980s, unkillable as their antagonists were, a trend reviled by most critics. Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator soon followed. In 1986, the James Cameron film Aliens was released a few weeks before David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. Films such as Ghostbusters, Joe Dante's Gremlins (both 1984) and Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) started a trend for horror comedies. Child's Play (1988) started the popular killer doll franchise starring Brad Dourif as the infamous killer doll Chucky. Outside of film, Michael Jackson was inspired by the genre to create the extremely successful album Thriller in 1983.
- Comedies: The #6, #11 and #13 top films of the 1980s were comedy films: Ghostbusters (1984), Tootsie (1982) and Three Men and a Baby (1987). The disaster films of the previous decade were spoofed in the gag comedy Airplane!, paving the way for more of the same including its 1982 sequel Airplane II: The Sequel, Top Secret! (1984) and the Naked Gun films. Popular comedy stars in the '80s included Leslie Nielsen, John Candy, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Rick Moranis, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. Many had come to prominence on the American TV series Saturday Night Live, including Bill Murray, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. Eddie Murphy made a success of comedy-action films including 48 Hrs. (1982) and the Beverly Hills Cop series (1984–1993). Also in the top-50 films were the romantic comedies "Crocodile" Dundee (1986), Crocodile Dundee II (1988) and Arthur (1981).
- Teen comedies: Influenced largely by 1978's National Lampoon's Animal House, the decade also saw the continued rise of teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky's and Revenge of the Nerds (the later two of these had sequels). Also popular were the films of John Hughes such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). He later created the Home Alone series of the 1990s. "Home Alone" was one movie in a revival in comedies aimed at a family audience, along with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and its 1990s sequels (1992, 1997-video direct). Heathers (1989) provided a tongue-in-cheek approach to the teenage comedy genre, showcasing the murders (disguised as suicides) of several popular students at an American high school. Other notable comedies of the decade include the gender-swap film Tootsie (1982), Broadcast News (1987), and a brief spate of age-reversal films including Big, 18 Again!, Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son.
- Sequels: Also notable were the Police Academy series of broad comedies, produced between 1984 and 1993. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a trend emerged toward the release of sequels based on previously successful productions. Among the sequels were Damien: Omen II, Revenge of the Pink Panther, The Final Conflict (aka Omen III: The Final Conflict), Grease 2, Trail of the Pink Panther, The Great Muppet Caper, Porky's II: The Next Day and Porky's Revenge.
- Rite-of-passage: Beyond just the teenager "coming-of-age" stories, more complex "rite-of-passage" films had older actors changing or transforming through the rituals. So although teenagers were the focus of 1983's Risky Business, 1984's The Karate Kid and its sequels (1986, 1989), and 1985's The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire brat-pack genre, older people with troubled lives were the subjects of Top Gun (1986) or An Officer and a Gentleman in trying to become a fighter pilot, a female welder in Flashdance transforming into a ballet dancer, and Cocoon's (1985) elderly set overcoming old age. Even The Big Chill (1983) reunion was a rite-of-passage which challenged old classmates to redirect their lives after the suicide of a friend.
- Action films: In the 1970s, action films usually focused on maverick police officers. However, the action film did not become a dominant form in Hollywood until the 1980s, when it was popularized by actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris and Bruce Willis. Stallone continued the Rocky series and starred in 1982's First Blood about a returning Vietnam War veteran fighting a small town sheriff and its sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II. Vietnam War films grew in popularity in the 1980s, from being a film subject which was still seen as a taboo in the 1970s. Movies like Platoon and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket made the war a subject. Chuck Norris starred in the Missing in Action trilogy (1984, 1985, 1988) about a Vietnam veteran going back to rescue POWs. Schwarzenegger starred in The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985) and Predator (1987). The 1988 film Die Hard was particularly influential on the development of the genre in the subsequent decade. In the film, Bruce Willis plays a New York City police detective who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a terrorist take-over of a Los Angeles office building. Meanwhile, Hong Kong action cinema was being revolutionized by Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, and John Woo; garnering increased attention all over the world. Tango & Cash, an action-comedy starring Stallone and Kurt Russell, was one of the last two films to be released in the 1980s.
- James Bond: The James Bond film series entered its third decade in 1981 with Roger Moore starring in the more realistic For Your Eyes Only after the outlandish excess of Moonraker in 1979. The decade saw the beginning of a new era for Bond since the previous decade's directors originally directed a 1960s Bond; the new director brought to the series, John Glen, criticized for a less stylistic and more "workman" style of direction, directed all the EON Bond films from 1981 to 1989. Moonraker was the last for regular Bernard Lee who portrayed Bond's boss M. For the 1980s Bonds, a collection of numerous MI6 superiors would brief Bond on his missions. 1983 was a significant year for the series as a non-EON Bond was released, Never Say Never Again, directed by The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner, with Sean Connery returning to the role for the first time since 1971's Diamonds Are Forever; it was competing with the next EON film, Octopussy at the box office with media dubbing the situation "The Battle of the Bonds". Even lesser known in the same year was one-time Bond George Lazenby appearing in the TV reunion film The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Bond-like character "JB". A View to a Kill (1985) was the last for Roger Moore before Timothy Dalton was chosen as the new Bond in 1987's The Living Daylights and lastly in 1989's Licence to Kill.
Lists of films
- Ebert, Roger; Bordwell, David (2008). Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (Paperback ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. p. xvii. ISBN 978-0226182018. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
In his pluralism, [Roger] Ebert proved a more authentic cinephile than many of his contemporaries. They tied their fortunes to the Film Brats and then suffered the inevitable disappointments of the 1980's return to studio-driven pictures.
- Fleming, Charles (1998). High concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood culture of excess. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-48694-1.
- Breznican, Anthony (August 24, 2004). "PG-13 remade Hollywood ratings system". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
- "All-Time Top Box Office Films". filmsite.org. Archived from the original on 21 November 2015. Retrieved 23 July 2012.
- "Tango & Cash - Box Office Data". The Numbers. Retrieved 2011-07-24.