Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Special Effects (Part 3 of 17)

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part three you can read part one here and part two here.

The 1980s were marked by the emergence of the computer into mainstream American culture. The increasing accessibility and availability of this tool made its impact on the entertainment industry in a very powerful way. In 1984 one of the most famous commercials of the year was Apple Computer’s ‘Big Brother’ a play on Orwell’s 1984. While unlike the 90s where computers would soon come to reside in well over half of America’s households, and the science fiction aspect and the improbability of the device was demolished; they were becoming a much more practical tool.

The key in revolutionizing computerized effect lay with one man. In 1977 George Lucas formed Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects for Star Wars. Working out of Marina County California his company soon started to work on effects for many films. Their first heavy volume of releases was in 1985 with Back to the Future, Cocoon, Explorers, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes which with ‘The Stained Glass Man’ had the first fully computer generated character. The rest was history in 1986 comes Aliens which took the computer generated character to the next level and it’s been an ongoing game of “Can You Top This?” ever since.

The fact that the special effects craze came about in the late 70s and grew exponentially in the 80s is like kismet. This was a decade that was jam-packed with action films but also had an abundance of fantasy films still around. This new technology opened up possibilities for narrative never before seen and they were used, for example, a journey inside a human body in Innerspace. The kind of film that was in demand with the American public was also the kind of film that was well-suited to the new special effects technology.

Before the apathetic generation-x-ridden 90s when films of social dementia disguised as poetry like American Beauty would run amuck, the 80s was a decade riddled with myth and fantasy, here’s a sample: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Neverending Story, Legend, Dark Crystal, Back to the Future, Flight of the Navigator and so on. Escapism being a large part of the cinematic formula coupled with the youthful audience allowed for these advances and this type of storytelling which is only recently beginning to creep back into being.

The shift away from fantastical storytelling that occurred in the mid-90s and lasted until about 1999 in a way has impeded the progress of CGI. While in some films it blends in perfectly and is breathtaking in others it sticks out like a sore thumb. Sure, there are films and studios that will be cheap, but had there been more constant works the floor of marginally acceptable CGI would’ve risen. The man who is always breaking the glass ceiling of CGI excellence is George Lucas, and he says he tries to push other directors with every film he does, hopefully people will follow suit.

The computer generated image is one of the few things from the 80s which was expanded upon in the 90s. The technology has some very practical uses such as digital stunts and extras. With this technology the director’s vision can more easily be realized where as if something doesn’t exist the way he sees it can be created. This is one of the 80s lasting legacies. When we’re looking back upon this decade we, of course, can’t forget some of the films that came out of the decade, but we must also remember that filmmaking was forever changed in this decade because ‘Special Effects’ became a term that we could apply to almost every film. A new cinematic tool was beginning to be fully realized and is still being perfected to this very day.

 Footnote and Work Cited:

1. The Empire Strikes Back won an Academy Award for Special Achievement in Special Effects. The following year it was a category at the awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Drangonslayer were nominated.


2. Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones Dir. George Lucas. Feat. Hayden Christiansen, Ewan Macgregor, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee. 2002, 20th Century Fox. DVD extra features.

5 Franchises That Should’ve Been

Some films that are made seem to be begging for more, in other incarnations of this topic people have tended to focus more on the tie-in and merchandising potential and less on story. In this list you will see five films I think were just begging to be continued, expanded upon and elaborated more greatly. What are some of your favorites?

5. The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy

Mark McKinney and Dave Foley in Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (Paramount)

Why this film received such a cold shoulder and is largely overlooked is beyond me. The Kids in the Hall probably could’ve made a slew of films with a colon and their troupe’s effort following it in the title. They could’ve become the 90s incarnation of Monty Python. This film is hugely overlooked and vastly underrated. The franchise here is not the Brain Candy concept but rather the troupe’s brand of comedy transposed onto the big screen. Perhaps in the economically affluent, blasé, Generation X 90s a droll, snide stab at pharmaceutical companies and anti-depressants was not the way to go but it is hilarious. If you haven’t yet checked out their one and only feature length film to date please do. They still do shows and have appearances in Canada and each member does individual projects but perhaps the harsher times will reawaken the need for KITH as a unit.

4. Explorers

River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Bobby Fite in Explorers (Paramount)

While many do like it and it’s fine by me but not great, Explorers seems like the kind of film that would be better after a second installment when characters are already established and you can go deeper. Kids who design and build their own space craft and use it to travel to outer space; if this concept was developed today it’s an absolute certainty that it would be intended to be a series. Keep in mind that the original starred both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix before they really hit it big with any project so it could definitely been continued as a star-vehicle and could be one anew. It’s just a wonder they haven’t tried again…yet.

3. Flight of the Navigator

Joey Cramer in Flight of the Navigator (Disney)

Again I think era might’ve had something to do with this concept not being followed up. If Disney was making Flight of the Navigator today and made a cent of profit it certainly would become a series. I just think here the film opens up a whole can of worms that could be revisited, not that it necessarily should. In the film David played by Joey Cramer travels through space and thus time and comes back still looking twelve eight years later. There are just so many possibilities other complications this could cause and other planets to visit. This film may soon be off the list as a remake is in development and has been for some time.

2. Stephen King Projects

Colm Feore in Storm of the Century (Walt Disney Television)

OK, allow me to explain this selection. It’s basically a tie because one would be a film and the other could be a film following a mini-series and the mini-series, lost art form as that is, is kind of in a no man’s land in terms of film.

The first King property I’m surprised never turned into a series was Silver Bullet. It is without question one of the most accurate and best interpretations of a King book put on screen. Due in no small part to the fact that King wrote the script himself. It’s like Cycle of the Werewolf was plastered on celluloid. It’s great and considering some of the other werewolf films that were popular in the 80s it’s even more surprising. The possibility of a follow up to that tale is definitely a tantalizing idea to think about but King doesn’t have it on his docket.

The second would be a sequel of some kind to Storm of the Century, King’s first mini-series. Without giving anything away for those who haven’t seen it the ending is not open but rife with possibilities and considering that Linoge is one of his best villains, on par with Randal Flagg, and to see power transition from him to his protégé would be something.

1. The House by the Cemetery

Silvia Collatina in The House by the Cemetery (Anchor Bay)

One of Lucio Fulci’s best works and one that screamed to be continued more so than any of the Zombie films which are terribly overrated. The House by the Cemetery features a great villain a cruel, twisted doctor who is undead, practically immortal and of course can’t really be defeated not that much resistance has been put up against him. The ending of the film is open and you really are left to wonder what happens with Bob next. If an American had made it with better known actors it likely would’ve been a series one that would’ve gotten ridiculously long after a time but might’ve been enjoyable still reminiscent of the original Halloween cycle.