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80s Sci-Fi Cult Classic Movies

Transitioning from limited special effects technology to big screen CGI resulted in a slew of 80s sci-fi cult classic movies.

Contemporary sci-fi often gets so overladen with pristine special effects that it almost seems too sterile. There is a sense of newfound political correctness in today's sci-fi, which sometimes even seems a bit preachy. It can make one yearn for 80s sci-fi cult classic movies. It was a time of transition for movie making and a decade of experimentation in the film industry. The top 90s sci-fi cult classic movies would encompass a decade of institutionalizing film production. 80s sci-fi films will remain an anomaly in the history of film for a number of reasons, but primarily because they remind us of a time when there were no boundaries to the imagination, and films did not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver a limited storyline and cookie cutter actors and actresses. These cult classic movies will remain a must-see for the sci-fi fans of all ages.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Forget Tom Hardy; Mel Gibson was the original Mad Max. The sequel 80s sci-fi cult classic movie by George Miller follows Max in the “not too distant future” where the world has been ravaged by war and famine, and oil is the currency. Max is an officer with the Main Force Patrol who loses everything and takes to the road after he avenges the death of his son and wife and ends up in a fighting arena dubbed the Thunderdome. Australian social commentator and film producer Phillip Adams said the original film had “all the emotional uplift of Mein Kampf” and would be “a special favorite of rapists, sadists, child murderers and incipient [Charles] Mansons.” However, this sequel earned $11.3 million in rentals and $23.6 million in grosses. Vincent Canby wrote in his review for The New York Times, "Never has a film's vision of the post-nuclear-holocaust world seemed quite as desolate and as brutal, or as action-packed and sometimes as funny as in George Miller's apocalyptic The Road Warrior, an extravagant film fantasy that looks like a sadomasochistic comic book come to life."

Flash Gordon

You might know Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) from his cameo in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, but the guy has a film of his own. Based on the comic strip of the same name, Flash Gordon is a space opera directed by Mike Hodges. The film revolves around a football star who is chosen to go to a distant planet and take down Ming the Merciless, who is attacking Earth. Pauline Kael from The New Yorker described the film as having "some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds... The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing.” Since then, Flash Gordon has become a favorite among fans such as director Edgar Wright and comic book artist Alex Ross. The film is ranked at 88 on the Rotten Tomatoes' "Journey Through Sci-Fi List of the 100 Best Reviewed Sci-Fi Movies."

The Thing

In 1982, The Thing kept people awake at night with one of the most nightmarish monsters in science fiction. The 80s sci-fi cult classic movie, directed by John Carpenter, is about a group of researchers in Antarctica who are hunted by a creature that can take the shape of anyone. It stars Kurt Russell, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, and many others. Film critic Roger Ebert called the film "disappointing," though he said he found it scary and that it was "a great barf-bag movie." Since its release, the movie has garnered better reviews. The review on Rotten Tomatoes reads: "Grimmer and more terrifying than the 1950s take, John Carpenter's The Thing is a tense sci-fi thriller rife with compelling tension and some remarkable make-up effects." The Thing received nominations from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films for Best Horror Film and Best Special Effects.

Tron

Playing a video game is fun but getting trapped in one isn’t. Tron is a 1982 film directed by Steven Lisberger and stars Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxeitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, and Barnard Hughes. It is about a computer engineer who is transported into the very game he created and has to face off against his enemy’s computerized version of himself. The engineer teams up with two gaming characters, Tron and Yori, to fight for the oppressed programs of the grid. The film received nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Sound at the 55th Academy Awards and received the Academy Award for Technical Achievement 14 years later. It also spawned a 2010 sequel titled Tron: Legacy and had celebrated electronic duo Daft Punk score the film. The Boston Globe ranked the film 13th in a 2010 list of the top 20 cult films of all time.

The Fly

This successful 80s sci-fi cult classic movie is about a scientist who creates a teleportation device. He uses the device but a fly slips in with him and the teleportation process merges their genes together. Slowly, the scientist begins to turn into a fly as the fly’s genes take over his body. The all-star cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz. The film won an Academy Award for Best Makeup. There were two sequels titled The Fly II and The Fly: Outbreak, which were not as successful as the first. The original film was critically acclaimed with most praise going to Goldblum's performance and the special effects. Veronica's warning to Tawny in the film—"Be afraid. Be very afraid."—was used as the film's tagline and became so ingrained in popular culture that many people who are familiar with the phrase have no idea that it originated from this film.

Re-Animator

A medical student brings his headless professor back from the dead with a special serum. Enough said. The 80s sci-fi cult classic movie made $2,023,414 in North America against the estimated $900,000 budget, and has also been deemed one of the best genetic modification movies. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "I walked out somewhat surprised and reinvigorated (if not re-animated) by a movie that had the audience emitting taxi whistles and wild goat cries.” Re-Animator took First Prize at the Paris Festival of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, a Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and even spawned a short-lived series of comic books. Entertainment Weekly ranked the film #32 on their list of "The Top 50 Cult Films” and also ranked it #14 on their "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list.

The Running Man

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film centers around a television show that airs in the 2019 dystopian world. Called The Running Man, it is a game show in which prisoners must run to freedom to avoid brutal death at the hands of skilled killers, but the audience cheers for the killers rather than the prisoners. Schwarzenegger plays a man framed by the government who must survive the game. The actor has spoken out against his involvement in the film, saying it was a "terrible decision" as director Paul Michael Glaser "shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes." However, fans of the film were able to pick on the deeper themes Schwarzenegger believed to have been lost.

Blade Runner

A Philip K. Dick book to film adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this film follows Harrison Ford as a Replicant Hunter in the year 2019 who has to find and kill androids who have come to earth and are posing as humans. Blade Runner did not find too much success in the box office, mainly because E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial came out that same summer as well, but it did win BAFTA Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design/Art Direction. Since then it has since become a cult classic, provoking deep questions about humanity. The film also had viewers questioning whether or not Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, was a replicant the whole time.

Brazil

Have you ever had a dream you just can’t forget? Brazil is an 80s sci-fi cult classic movie about a man named Sam Lowry who lives in a consumer-driven dystopian world and tries to find a woman who appeared in his dreams. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the film stars Jonathan Pryce and features Robert De Niro, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, and Ian Holm. Film critic Jack Mathews initially described the film as "satirizing the bureaucratic, largely dysfunctional industrial world that had been driving Gilliam crazy all his life.” The film has a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it received two out of four stars from Roger Ebert, who said the film was "hard to follow." Besides influencing films such as Tim Burton’s Batman and 2011’s Sucker Punch, the film has also recognized as an inspiration for writers and artists of the steampunk sub-culture.

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead stars Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, and Betsy Baker. It follows a group of friends who go hiking in the woods and stay in a cabin overnight. They find a book in the cabin, and accidently awaken the dead when someone reads it aloud. Ash (Campbell) watches his friends get possessed and must fight his way back to civilization, or face the evil dead himself. The Evil Dead and its two sequels have become one of the largest cult film trilogies in history. The film was rebooted in 2013 and the premise for a Starz series titled Ash vs Evil Dead, a continuation of Ash’s story. In his novel The Essential Cult TV Reader, David Lavery stated that Bruce Campbell’s "career is a practical guide to becoming a cult idol" because of the original film.

Videodrome

David Cronenberg's prophetic Videodrome is an 80s classic that follows a public access TV station worker as he stumbles into a global conspiracy of mind control videos, political intrigue, and a movement trying to take over the world using TV and videos that contain hidden signals. While trying to find new content for the channel he finds Videodrome, a video feed from Asia that is full of graphic violence and sex. He assumes that the video feed is staged like any other TV show but it’s real and it’s the tip of the conspiracy iceberg. The film is a fantastic tribute to the 80s idea of a dystopian future where society was brought down by television that would turn people into automatons that did whatever they were told. It stars James Woods, Sonja Smits, and Blondie singer Deborah Harry. 

The Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm is a British 80s sci-fi cult classic movie that captures the essence of the 80s B-movie beautifully. It’s based on a Bram Stoker novel that was based on an old English folk tale. In the story, a Scottish archeology student stumbles across a huge snake-like skull while excavating the site of an old convent. He discovers that the site is linked to the family who owns the house he’s staying in. Through his investigations, he finds out that the skull belongs to a giant serpent-like creature that still lives deep in the earth below the site. A local woman is actually an immortal priestess who serves the creature. The creature turns out to be an ancient snake god. Starring Peter Capaldi, Amanda Donohoe, and Hugh Grant the film is a must watch for 80s sci-fi and horror fans.

The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone is based on a Stephen King novel. The 80s sci-fi cult classic movie is about Johnny Smith, a teacher who has an accident that puts him into a coma. When he wakes up from his coma he has psychic powers and can tell what will happen to someone as well as their darkest and most well-hidden secrets by touching them. At first he doesn’t want to use his gift, but eventually he realizes that he can change the future and stop innocent people from dying if he uses his power. He eventually tries to kill a popular politician because he sees a vision after shaking the politician’s hand showing that the politician would end the world in a nuclear war if he is elected. The film stars Christopher Walken, Tom Skerritt, Colleen Dewhurst, and Martin Sheen. It’s a cult classic because it perfectly captures the 80s obsession with the end of the world and the possibility of nuclear war. 

Legend

Legend is a fantasy science fiction movie that was instantly a cult classic. Starring a very young Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and Tim Curry as the monster it was directed by Ridley Scott. The story is a dark fairy tale about a poor peasant, Jack, who is in love with a princess, Lily. When Jack takes Lily to see the last two remaining unicorns in the forest, one of the unicorns is attacked and his horn taken by a goblin who steals it for the Lord of Darkness, played by Tim Curry. The world falls into a deep sleep once the unicorn’s horn is stolen and Jack must descend into the world of fairies, goblins and monsters in order to save Lily and awaken the world. The dark campiness of the film makes it an 80s cult classic. 

Scanners

Scanners is a Canadian film that highlights the 80s obsession with psychic powers and big corporate conspiracies. In the Scanners world, there are people who live hidden in society that have psychic powers and telekinetic powers, named scanners. A private security company called ConSec wants to find these people so it can use them in research groups and for experiments. ConSec wants to harness the psychic powers that these people have to create the perfect super soldier. There is a group of rogue scanners, or people with the psychic ability, working to bring ConSec down and end the experiments while also allowing people with abilities to live openly in public. 

The Blob

The Blob follows an outer-space monster as it wreaks havoc on a small town. Steve McQueen plays a rebel teen trying to warn the town's residents about the soulless, backbone-less invader. The Blob's special effects were ingenious for its time, helping it transcend the schlock sci-fi and youth delinquency genres from which it originates.

Enemy Mine

Enemy Mine, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by Edward Khmara, is an 80s sci-fi cult classic movie based on Barry B. Longyear's story of the same name. Starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., the film tells a tale of a human and alien soldier who become stranded together on an inhospitable planet. Their mistrust of one another is a barrier to survival that must be overcome. While it was originally budgeted at $17 million, the movie ended up costing more than $40 million after marketing costs were factored in, and was a box office bomb during the 1985 holiday season, earning only a little over $12 million.

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