Film critics of a certain age, i.e. the age that I am aged, tend to overly-romanticize the 1980s. This often manifests in gushy, hyperbole-laden love letters masquerading as objective discourse. To be fair, that is probably because the 80s rule and the human race has never created anything better and never will, oh my God. The firing of spastic, rose-colored synapses aside, for those of us cursed with this affinity, the coming of the 90s carried a certain apocalyptic vibe. Or at least, that’s how it seems when tempered by the great equalizer that is hindsight. In other words, revisiting films on the fringe of that most glorious decade becomes a rather somber affair.
Oddly enough, there are some films that seem to be cognizant of this great changeover. When viewing certain titles from 1990, there appears a bizarre nod to the dramatic end of an era. This is more than mere temporal proximity, it’s as if the overall decline, with a few exceptions, of genre film in the 90s was foretold to these films — not the filmmakers necessarily but the films as sentient entities. Here are the movies from 1990 that represent the last gasp of 80s filmmaking.
Tremors missed the 80s by less than three weeks, being released in January of 1990. But again, this is not a matter of stringent calendar-gazing, nor am I saying the retrofitted subtext of these films is a product of prophetic design. However, there is another angle to this that warrants investigation. In Tremors, giant worm monsters try and devour the citizens of a small Nevada town. Basic creature feature, right? Wrong. Thematically, there is something else lurking under the surface here.
That looming, subterranean beast? That’s the 90s. And who is the beast hellbent on swallowing? Remo Williams, Kevin “Footloose” Bacon, and the dad from frakking Family Ties! Hell, even Reba McEntire, who experienced her big breakout in the 80s, becomes a target for the monster. The graboids are out to consume these icons of the decade, pulling them down into the dark abyss, and in the process literally bring ruin to Perfection. On top of all of this, survival in the movie depends upon keeping the graboids, one of horrordom’s greatest practical creatures, underground. The ideal scenario is to shun practical effects? Sounds like Tremors knew more about the coming 90s then we thought.
Predator is a landmark film for the 80s in many ways, and its garnering a sequel was not at all surprising. One of the strongest assets of the first film was its dynamite ensemble cast. Predator 2 is similarly blessed. In fact, the preponderance of decade mainstays actually crowds the sequel and makes it feel like a strange cinematic waiting room. Bill Paxton, Danny Glover, Maria Conchita Alonso, Gary Busey, Robert Davi, etc. all milling about nervously in this career purgatory to find out if they would experience similar success in the 90s or entirely lose visibility, just like the predator himself. Some would be granted this mercy, others would be told that their services were no longer required.
Then there’s the fact that you can clearly see a xenomorph skull in the trophy room aboard the predator’s ship at the end. Were they simply teasing an Alien vs. Predator crossover movie long before it came to fruition? Hardly. Looking back, that macabre keepsake is in fact a sad grave marker for the Alien franchise. The last worthwhile sequel for both franchises was in fact their first, and the heart of neither series survived the end of the decade.
Here’s something: why was the movie set in 1997? There is no mention made of anything significant occurring in the interim between the first and second films’ storylines, so why push the date out seven years in Predator 2? Is it just coincidental that ’97 is also the year in which John Carpenter’s Escape from New York takes place? Escape from New York, apart from being a tentpole 80s film, is also a watershed post-apocalyptic tale. Perhaps likening the end of the 80s to an Earth-shattering cataclysm is the epitome of giving the decade too much gravitas, but the parallel in this context is eerie.
Back to the Future Part III
One of the few 80s properties that Hollywood has managed not to remake, reboot, or reduce to ruin is Back to the Future. In 1990, the trilogy came to a close, going further back in time in the process than it ever had before. By the end of Back to the Future Part III, Marty’s life has finally been set right. And then, seemingly out of nowhere comes the climactic moment of destruction. When Marty returns from 1885, he does so by coasting the DeLorean along the railroad tracks. This of course leads to the car being hit by a passing train. That time-traveling lemon is one of the most identifiable symbols of the 1980s. Take a look at any novelty tee-shirt website and see if you can’t find one that features Doc Brown’s greatest creation. And yet with little more than a bellowing horn, that totem of cinema’s purported greatest era is obliterated. In that moment, the 80s suffers a spectacular death, a moment of painful finality. The message was as clear to Marty as it would become for all of us: we can’t go back.
But Doc Brown made that train…
Brain, if you insist on speaking out of turn, I’m going to stab you with a whiskey dagger.
Another undeniable signpost of the 1980s is the half-man-half-machine law enforcer known as Robocop. With what could have easily been a drive-in exploitation farce, Paul Verhoeven instead established himself not only as a box office draw, but also as a master satirist, defining the decade even as he cleverly reproached it. Of course, there is something to be said for the theory that after Total Recall Verhoeven is actually the one who went to Mars and an alien doppelganger directed all his movies until Hollywood went to space in 1997 and found him for Starship Troopers. Not a lot to be said, mind you, but crazy things for sure.
The fascinating thing about Total Recall is how its central conceit speaks to the context of rosy mental recasting of 80s cinema. Its “last gasp” elements, apart from those that involve Schwarzenegger on the surface of Mars with a head that bulges slightly more than usual, foretell how the decade itself will be recalled. The corporation Recall is devoted to implanting fantastical memories into the minds of bored citizens. These memories are not real, they were never actually experienced, but those who patronize the company are fully convinced of their authenticity. The harrowing question facing we nostalgic cinefiles now is whether the movies of the 80s were indeed so exemplary, or is our devotion the product of seeing them in our younger and more impressionable years? Are we more comfortable wholesale remembering the 80s as the greatest era in film than actually going back and experiencing them with the glasses off?
Few artists were able to better capture the spirit of the 1980s than John Hughes. His films, both those he scripted and those he directed, gave a voice and a definition to especially the teen culture of the decade. This may be the reason that Chris Columbus’s Home Alone, for which he wrote the screenplay, marked the threshold of a major decline in the quality of his work. His identity as as storyteller was so inextricable from the 1980s that he could never really find footing again.
Within Home Alone’s narrative is what appears to be an aching metaphor about Hughes as an artist. Imagine that the McCallister house isn’t located in Chicago but within Hughes’s mind. There are two burglars trying to get into the house and steal everything valuable. The Wet Bandits represent the 90s, trying to sneak in and take everything from Hughes, namely to steal his identity. Hughes, as Kevin, fights to keep them at bay. “This is my house, I have to defend it.” But ultimately, though he fends them off, in the process Kevin is forced to grow up long before he is ready. He’s not the same person anymore. Home Alone is Hughes fighting valiantly against the changing of the times, but inevitably losing part of himself in the aftermath.
All that, plus cheese pizza and groin trauma.