Boiling down the 80s movie formulas -

Dom Cruise

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By far my favorite decade for movies is the 1980s, it's actually scary just how on fire that decade was for movies, not only are there legit all time classics, but even the B movies often managed to be very entertaining, even when an 80s movie is bad, very rarely is it not still entertaining.

What's sad is almost as soon as the decade ended how steep the drop in quality was, we had a few years of a grace period in the early 90s with movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park keeping the magic alive but by the mid to late 90s with the rise of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich things started to suck and remained a mixed bag at best for years, with Woke finally seeming to kill off whatever quality was left.

But what exactly were 80s movies doing that made them so good? What exactly was the formula and why did things move away from it and how could we actually get back to it?

I've thought about this a lot and focusing on Hollywood blockbusters and other mainstream films of course (although this can also apply to the B movies) I think I've boiled down about two main formulas that make an 80s movie what it is.

The first is what I like to call "the extraordinary meets the mundane", something incredible happens to everyday people in an everyday place or at least some kind of contrast between mundane reality and the extraordinary, some of the many examples being E.T., what if an alien landed in your backyard? Cocoon, what if sad old people in a retirement home met aliens that gave them a new lease on life? Back To The Future, what if an average teen in an average small American town found a time machine? The Goonies, what if an average group of kids went on an adventure for pirate treasure? Gremlins, what if strange little creatures ran amok in an all American town? Big, what if a kid got to be an adult? Big Trouble in Little China, what if in San Francisco's Chinatown there was Chinese magic and myth? Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, What if cartoons lived in the real world? They Live, what if the world of advertising and mass media was actually a sinister conspiracy? (Hmmm, wait a minute...)

I think you get the idea, another good example is Ghostbusters and the way it contrasts the incredibleness of busting ghosts with it being like a blue collar job as well as it's overall gritty New York atmosphere.

The second formula would be movies that are simply about some interesting real world subject matter and kind of distill the essence of what makes the topic interesting and capturing to some degree what it's like in real life even if it's still very much done in a heightened "movie" way, it's interesting how you can name almost any real world subject matter and chances are good there's an 80s movie about it, there's an 80s movie about karate (The Karate Kid), gambling (Let It Ride), buying a farm (Funny Farm), buying a houses that sucks (The Money Pit), Wall Street (Wall Street), trying to get laid (Porky's), the Japanese auto industry (Gung Ho), Christmas (A Christmas Story), going on vacation (National Lampoon's Vacation), going on vacation in the great outdoors (The Great Outdoors), playing hooky (Ferris Bueller''s Day Off), turning 16 (16 Candles), being in school detention (The Breakfast Club), babysitting (Adventures in Babysitting), homosexuality (Cruising), becoming a pimp (Risky Business, Doctor Detroit), nerds (Revenge of The Nerds), the news industry (Broadcast News), space camp (Space Camp) finding success in your job (The Secret of my Success), what it was like to be the guy that sang the song "La Bamba" (La Bamba), video games (The Wizard), autism (Rain Man) and so on, I think you get the idea.

Of course there would also be some "what if?" angle to the story to make it interesting with the subject matter just being the jumping off point, The Karate Kid isn't just about karate, it's about a bullied kid using karate to stand up to bullies, Funny Farm isn't just about buying a farm ,it's about buying a farm but it sucks and I'd also like to highlight the movie Let It Ride, a very underrated Richard Dreyfus movie that I watched earlier this year that is about a real life subject (the world of horse race betting), really captures what that subculture is like in an interesting way but also has an interesting twist to the story in that Dreyfus' character suddenly finds himself on a hot streak of luck that seemingly can't be broken and may or may not be divine intervention, check it out, it's a great movie.


Some other key factors and key differences with movies today is in the 80s movies were made to tell a complete story within one movie, if a sequel did happen, great, but generally for the movie itself it told a complete story, unlike today's world of increasing serialization.

There's also the factor of special effects, 80s movies would often have plenty of special effects but they were in the service of an interesting story, not just creating a story as an excuse for special effects, Cocoon is a brilliant example of that, the finale of the movie is a real showstopper of an effects sequences, but effects are done sparingly throughout the rest of the movie, there's also so much well done character drama and acting, all centered around old people, it's so radically different than what a summer blockbuster is today.

Cocoon is also such a great example of how potent the images and ideas in 1980s movies were, there's really something about that image at the end of old people rising into the Heavenly white light of a UFO, that right there is the essence of what I'm talking about with 80s movies, that contrast with the mundane and the wonderous, that hopeful, optimistic vibe, that's what really feels missing from movies today.

Those are my observations, what are yours? And do you think it'd be possible to recapture what made those movies special?
 

TrippinKahlua

Behind my smile is my scowl.
True & Honest Fan
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Introducing myself to the movie version of the song “Flashdance - What a Feeling” was the best thing that ever happened to me.
 

Dom Cruise

True & Honest Fan
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Also, there are some genres like horror, comedy and action that had their own tropes and formulas even if there was sometimes overlap, but I decided to focus on what first springs to most people's minds when you say "80s movie" so stuff like Back To The Future or The Karate Kid.
 

Just A Butt

are you some sort of mexican?
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as someone who recently rewatched all 4 karate kid movies (yes, the one with Swank counts) they are all arguably garbage films and i have no idea why they were popular.

Danny Larusso is a massive pussy and does nothing but complain for 3 movies
 

Dom Cruise

True & Honest Fan
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as someone who recently rewatched all 4 karate kid movies (yes, the one with Swank counts) they are all arguably garbage films and i have no idea why they were popular.

Danny Larusso is a massive pussy and does nothing but complain for 3 movies
I've actually never seen any of the sequels and it's been a long time since I saw the first.

You can debate the actual quality of the movie but I cite it because it's a clear example of the second formula I was talking about, it was about a real life subject matter people found interesting at the time (martial arts) and has a clever, interesting premise about that subject matter (what if a kid used karate to stop bullies?)

Thanks to Red Letter Media though I learned that Part 3, despite coming out in 1989, was supposed to be set shortly after the first movie, so it was either a 1984 or 1985 period piece, that reminds me of Back To The Future 2 from the same year having scenes set in 1985, the 1980s was such a strong, stand out culture that before the decade was even over you could do a period piece of just 4 to 5 years prior.
 

Internet Explorer

this guy are sick
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A lot of oft-cited 80s movies (i.e. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Caddyshack etc.) are entertaining, sure. But I wouldn't go as far as to say they are good. Most of what emerged from the 80s was absolute dumb schlock which ended up garnering cult status over time. They were mostly dumb ideas from people with big money to throw around. Don't forget also that cocaine really was a hell of a drug in the 80s. Every fuckwit marketing executive was piling Columbian powder up their nostrils before brainstorming on what the next big Hollywood hit should be. Take Mannequin, for example, a romantic comedy about a fucking store mannequin that comes to life after getting possessed by the spirits of Egyptian gods or some such horse shit. Fucking awful. Funny. But so fucking awful.

In contrast, here's a short list of movies from the 80s which were considerably more impressive than the usual trite of that era: Amadeus; Rain Man; The Last Emperor; Raging Bull; An American Werewolf in London; Who Framed Roger Rabbit; The Killing Fields; Dead Poets Society; The Thing; Stand By Me; Blade Runner.

Also, I love that you referenced The Wizard. I'll forever love that movie. It's so bad.
 
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Dom Cruise

True & Honest Fan
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A lot of oft-cited 80s movies (i.e. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Caddyshack etc.) are entertaining, sure. But I wouldn't go as far as to say they are good. Most of what emerged from the 80s was absolute dumb schlock which ended up garnering cult status over time. They were mostly dumb ideas from people with big money to throw around. Don't forget also that cocaine really was a hell of a drug in the 80s. Every fuckwit marketing executive was piling Columbian powder up their nostrils before brainstorming on what the next big Hollywood hit should be. Take Mannequin, for example, a romantic comedy about a fucking store mannequin that comes to life after getting possessed by the spirits of Egyptian gods or some such horse shit. Fucking awful. Funny. But so fucking awful.

In contrast, here's a short list of movies from the 80s which were considerably more impressive than the usual trite of that era: Amadeus; Rain Man; The Last Emperor; Raging Bull; An American Werewolf in London; Who Framed Roger Rabbit; The Killing Fields; Dead Poets Society; The Thing; Stand By Me; Blade Runner.

Also, I love that you referenced The Wizard. I'll forever love that movie. It's so bad.
Ghostbusters is a legit great movie, Caddyshack though is indeed an example of a movie that's not necessarily great, it's story is too thin and meandering for that, but it's also still highly entertaining, I think it's a legit question why movies are rarely that entertaining anymore even when they're not great.

And congrats on remembering another 80s movie about a random topic, in this case golf, one movie I forgot to mention is Wargames, about computer hacking (among other things) which goes to show how broad the topics 80s movies covered are, at a time when most people had probably not yet even used a computer at all here's a movie about computer hacking.

You mention movies like Amadeus; Rain Man, The Last Emperor, Raging Bull, The Killing Fields and Dead Poets Society which brings up another type of 80s movie I didn't address, the Oscar bait films, sadly I haven't seen many of those, the trouble is they're just so dry compared to the blockbuster stuff, Hollywood later learned to jazz those type of movies up a bit ala Gladiator, however I did see Chariots of Fire (great movie of course) and Rain Man (also great) among the Best Picture winners (but I think that's it) and a few other Oscar caliber films like Empire of The Sun, but I have way more experience with the movies just meant for entertainment from that decade.

Hilariously maybe you're right that cocaine is one reason why, doesn't that make one more prone to risk taking?

And yeah, The Wizard is another good example of a movie that's not great, but very entertaining.
 

Internet Explorer

this guy are sick
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which brings up another type of 80s movie I didn't address, the Oscar bait films, sadly I haven't seen many of those
Yeah, they seldom make it into any "great movies of the 80s" lists, notably for being more high brow than their popular counterparts. I mean, I love both equally, but my preference is always any film that genuinely grabs my attention, as opposed to some mindless tat I'll get a few chuckles out of. Dead Poets Society in particular is fucking astounding. I always regarded Robin Williams as a typecast goofy comic (Club Paradise, Good Morning Vietnam) until I saw that movie.

The Wizard is another good example of a movie that's not great, but very entertaining.
Oh, it's just all kinds of terrible. Lol, the whole reason it even exists was to serve as a huge elaborate marketing ploy for Super Mario 3. So there's that, the bad acting, the terrible music, the ham fisted plot arcs. Yet in spite of how unbelievably shit it is, it's highly fucking entertaining shit. I would love to get a physical copy, though nobody in Britbongland seems to even fucking know of it. Oh well.
 

Dr. Pasquale

Harvard PhD
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All time favorite movie from the 80s
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Uncle Sid

only thing better than a good meal is a free meal
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It helped a lot that

1) There were serious gatekeepers on the industry.

and

2) There was kind of fuck all else to do on a Saturday night.
 

Pokemonquistador2

Electric Boogaloo
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That's because the 80's saw the widespread adoption of the VCR and the birth of the direct to video movies. Movies had to compete with each other on video rental shelves so the most lurid and over the top box art was used to entice viewers.

The 1980s was one of the best eras for sci-fi and fantasy films. Conan the Barbarian, Legend, The Dark Crystal, the Thing, The Terminator, Predator, the Star Trek movies, etc. The fact that they were able to pull this off with mostly practical/optical effects is impressive.
 
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