The ’80s was a great decade for nerdy movies. It was also a terrible decade for nerdy movies. To be honest, it was a confusing time. The ’70s had changed the filmmaking landscape, and with hits like The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), the modern “blockbuster” era was born. By the beginning of the ’80s, movie studios had fully embraced the idea of making huge films, usually to be released during the summer, and expecting even bigger returns on their investment. Also during that time period, special effects were making huge advancements, allowing filmmakers to bring even the most outlandish ideas to life. Based on today’s standards, these movies might look a little silly, but at the time, they were wowing audiences.
Culturally, nerds were starting to gain prominence. Science fiction movies were huge, and studios were happy to cash in. Also, a lot of so-called “nerdy” films appealed to both grown ups and kids, meaning that studios could sell tickets to a much broader audience. This led to some truly brilliant “nerdy” movies that are great, even by today’s standards. Of course, there were also some awful cash-ins that may have performed well at the time, but haven’t withstood the test of time. For fans of nerdy films, it literally was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Ok, that’s a little dramatic, but it was still a weird decade for movies.
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20. AGED WELL: BATMAN
In 1989, Tim Burton unleashed his vision of Batman upon the world. At the time, comic book movies were basically nonexistent at the box office. That didn’t stop this movie from becoming a huge hit and breaking several box office records. Looking back, it’s amazing that this film has aged as well as it has.
Everything about this movie seems like it should have failed. Prince led the soundtrack, Michael Keaton was primarily a comedic actor at the time, and Batman straight up perished a bunch of people (which goes against a core conceit of the comic). Many of those “weird” elements ended up working in the film’s favor, and it’s still mostly beloved by comic book fans to this day.
19. FORGET: SUPERMAN 2
While the ’80s was a great decade for Batman, his best super-friend didn’t fare so well. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman made audiences believe that a man could fly. During production for the first movie, Donner concurrently filmed scenes for Superman II, which ended up being released in 1980. Before finishing production, however, Donner was fired (or left, depending on the story), and was replaced with Richard Lester.
Most of Donner’s footage was re-filmed, and the final product just isn’t as good as the original film. The tone is much more campy, and the finale involves Superman giving Lois amnesia through a kiss. After this, things would only get worse for the Man of Steel, and this franchise didn’t survive the decade.
18. AGED WELL: GHOSTBUSTERS
Since the dawn of time, one question has plagued mankind: who you gonna call? In 1984, Hollywood answered: the Ghostbusters. The film centered on a group of three scientists who develop technology capable of capturing ghosts. They start their own business, and quickly find themselves caught up in the arrival of an ancient demigod known as Gozer. At the same time, they have to fend off government agencies looking to regulate the new technology.
If that sounds like a strange concept, it really is. This is a movie that features a giant marshmallow man crushing buildings in New York City. The four main actors deliver hilarious performances, and the ghost effects have held up surprisingly well.
17. FORGET: THE TERMINATOR
A lot of people have fond memories of The Terminator, James Cameron’s 1984 action/thriller about a robot sent from the future. The film helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, and sequels to it are still being produced to this day. Looking back, however, it seems likely this film is only fondly remembered for leading the way to Terminator 2 (1991), the superior sequel.
The original, however, doesn’t look so good by today’s standards. There are some truly awful effects shots, causing the Terminator to just look goofy. Linda Hamilton was great in the sequel, but she’s just a generic damsel in distress in the first. Skip the original and just watch the sequel (also, skip all of the sequels past T2).
16. AGED WELL: ALIENS
James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) never should have worked. Cameron turned the slow paced haunted-house-in-space thriller into an action film based off the Vietnam war. Cameron was a relatively young director at the time, and with the long break between films, Aliens (1986) seemed destined for failure. Instead, it went on to become one of the best sci-fi films of all time.
Sigourney Weaver returned, this time confronting the alien beast with a squad of trained marines. Unfortunately, while she only faced one creature in the first film, this time there was an entire hive full of the monsters. The film had such a huge impact on the genre that movies and video games are still inspired by it today.
15. FORGET: HALLOWEEN 2
Halloween (1978) has one of the most unsettling endings of all time. After shooting him, Dr. Loomis goes to check on masked madman Michael Myers’ body only to discover that it’s gone. The film then shows various shots of the empty house, with his creepy breathing playing in the background. Halloween 2 (1981) picks up immediately where the first one ended, revealing that Michael went to the neighbor’s house to get a new knife.
Unlike the original, which is a slow paced masterpiece of horror, the sequel is over the top and, at times, kind of cartoony. Based on the direction the series took after this film, Halloween might have been better served as a standalone movie.
14. AGED WELL: WRATH OF KHAN
To this day, the Star Trek franchise has yet to top Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). That’s not to say there hasn’t been a lot of great “Trek” since then, it’s just that this movie is so good. A sequel to the original series episode “Time Seed,” the film follows a semi-retired Kirk returning to space when the villainous Khan escapes the planet he was marooned on.
The action is especially tense, as the filmmakers decided to approach it more like a submarine movie as opposed to the standard science fiction/action movie tropes of the time. Most impressively, this film’s most memorable line is just Kirk yelling Khan’s name into space.
13. FORGET: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK
There’s a joke that, when it comes to Star Trek, only the even numbered films are any good. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984) is a perfect example of this. Spock sacrifices his life during the finale of The Wrath of Khan (1982), and his body is left on the Genesis planet (an artificial world created with experimental technology). It’s only after they return home that Kirk realizes that Vulcans can be brought back to life, and that Spock left his essence in Dr McCoy.
12. AGED WELL: BACK TO THE FUTURE
Plenty has been written about how strange Back to the Future (1985) is. The plot revolves around Marty McFly, who is oddly friends with an elderly inventor. After accidentally traveling to the past, Marty makes the teenage version of his mom fall in love with him, instead of his dad. Now, Marty must fend off his mom’s advances, get her to fall in love with his father, and then go back to the future.
A big reason why this film works is Michael J Fox’s performance. There’s also something great, even today, about watching a movie where someone from the ’80s travels to the ’50s and deals with the culture shock.
11. FORGET: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Controversial choice! While most people consider A Nightmare on Elm St (1984) a classic, that’s mostly just because of what a cultural icon Freddy Krueger became. By the end of the decade, the dream haunter would be one of the most popular characters across pop culture. What about his first movie? Well, looking back, it’s actually kind of bad.
The film starts off as tense and mysterious, but the plot is a bit of a mess. The acting is pretty terrible, and the ending doesn’t make any sense. Later sequels would have a lot more fun with the dream concept, making the original an awkward entry that should just be skipped over.
10. AGED WELL: THE GOONIES
The ’80s were a simpler time. For example, families facing foreclosure could save their homes simply by finding some old pirate’s treasure. That’s the basic plot behind The Goonies (1985), which centers on the titular group of kids who go on an adventure to save their homes after discovering a hidden map.
Along the way, they end up getting lost under their home city and chased by a local crime family (which is something that every small town apparently has). Amazingly, Goonies has survived without a sequel, reboot or remake. It’s one of those rare movies that has stood on its own.
9. FORGET: GHOSTBUSTERS 2
After the success of the original film, Ghostbusters became a hit cartoon series and mega popular toy line that rivaled the Ninja Turtles for toy aisle dominance. So, it was inevitable that a sequel would go into production. While it’s not a terrible film, Ghostbusters 2 (1989) not only fails to live up to the original, it also has trouble standing on its own.
The film tries to blend the sarcastic humor of the original with the slapstick comedy from the cartoon, and the result is an awkward mess. None of the ghosts are all that memorable, and it’s missing the “working man” charm from the original. Also, the walking Statue of Liberty just isn’t as cool as the original’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
8. AGED WELL: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Inspired by his love for classic adventure serials from the ’30s and ’40s, George Lucas teamed up with Steven Spielberg to create Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Featuring the first appearance of Indiana Jones, the film has everything a timeless classic needs, including one of the best themes of the entire decade.
When the bad guys discover evidence of the location of the fabled ark of the covenant, Indiana Jones is dispatched to beat them to it. Along the way, he teams up with an old flame, and the two of them travel the globe in search of the artifact. Of course, once it’s found, Indie’s enemies steal it and open it, leading to one of the most famous face-melting scenes in movie history.
7. FORGET: TEMPLE OF DOOM
There are a lot of sequels on this list, but Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is technically a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Taking place a year before Indy found the Lost Ark, this movie sees him travelling to India after escaping a crime boss in Shanghai. After discovering a village where all the children have been kidnapped, Indy travels to the titular temple and discovers an ancient and dangerous cult.
The film’s worst mistake was teaming Indy up with two of the most annoying characters possible. Also, he’s supposed to be professor of archeology, yet this movie features him doing none of that. It’s weird, but not in a good ’80s way, just in a generally unfun way.
6. AGED WELL: E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL
Steven Spielberg’s story of a boy and his alien best friend is a timeless classic. When a group of extraterrestrials visiting Earth are forced to leave in a hurry, the titular alien gets left behind. The alien makes its way to a nearby town in California, where it eventually befriends a young boy named Elliot. They try to build a machine to contact E.T.’s companions and find the alien a way back home.
Eventually, the government learns of the alien and tries to take it into custody. They escape the government and make their way back to the woods just in time to meet up with E.T.’s ride home, who leaves Elliot with a heartwarming message before returning to the stars.
5. FORGET: WEIRD SCIENCE
Back in the ’80s, Hollywood thought that nerds could do anything, except get some. When it came to science, however, they could do anything. Literally anything. For example, Weird Science (1985) is about two nerds who use “science” to create an artificial woman who is both beautiful and has magic powers.
This “perfect” woman then uses her powers to turn these zeros into heroes. While the movie is well made, it just comes across as kind of sleazy by today’s standards. The nerds treat women like prizes to be earned. When it comes down to it, the science in this movie is less “weird” and more “uncomfortable.”
4. AGED WELL: GREMLINS
Part of what made the ’80s so great is that it was the only decade that could produce a horror comedy that would go on to become a Christmas classic. Gremlins (1984) introduced the world to Gizmo, an adorable creature known as a mogwai. When a hopeless inventor buys the rare creature as a gift for his son, he unknowingly puts his entire town in danger.
If a Mogwai gets wet, then it spawns. If one is fed after midnight, they turn into bloodthirsty monsters. Of course, both of these things happen almost instantly and an army of monsters is unleashed. Luckily, the gremlins are vulnerable to sunlight, so all it takes to beat them is opening the right window at the right time.
3. BEST LEFT FORGOTTEN: REVENGE OF THE NERDS
Once again, the ’80s had a real strange view of nerds. “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984) tells the story of a group of nerdy college students that form their own fraternity. The movie is supposed to be a feel-good story about a group of outcasts coming together and fighting back against bullying.
Unfortunately, the film is full of offensive stereotypes (one of the supposed nerds is an effeminate gay man) and some truly creepy moments. The nerds are supposed to be the heroes, but they set up secret cameras in a sorority house to watch the girls change. That isn’t even the creepiest (or most illegal) thing they do, making this a truly uncomfortable viewing experience.
2. AGED WELL: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
The Star Wars trilogy launched one of the most successful multimedia franchises ever. While the quality of the newer films may be debated by fans, one thing is for certain: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the series’ crowning achievement. Following the destruction of the Death Star, the rebels find themselves on the run from an enraged empire, led by Darth Vader and the mysterious Emperor Palpatine.
What’s so remarkable about this movie is that the bad guys essentially win. By the end of the movie, Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and Luke is left both physically and emotionally devastated. Also, this movie also contains one of the most memorable (and misquoted) lines in movie history, when Vader coldly states “I am your father.”
1. FORGET: POLTERGEIST
This movie is considered a horror classic by many to this day, so why is it best left forgotten? Poltergeist (1982) is a haunted house movie that delivered one of the creepiest child-watching-a-static-filled-TV-screen scenes of all time. The plot is pretty simple: a family moves into a new development to find that their house is haunted. They then discover that the houses were all built on top of an Indian burial ground, explaining the ghosts.
This movie has plenty of memorable scenes, but the plot is so clunky and the pacing is incredibly awkward. The tone is inconsistent, and the ghostly activity is so immediately over the top that it doesn’t make any sense for the family to stay in the house at all.
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