Thursday, September 20, 2012

1982: The Best Summer Blockbuster Season Ever!

Summer, 1982. One of the greatest blockbuster seasons ever at the cineplex. There were an amazing number of sci-fi and fantasy movies released during that period, all of which have gone on to classic or cult film status. Some of the most important directors of our time released their best work during that magical period. Whether it was the stars aligning just right in the cosmos or just a random confluence of studio schedules, the Summer of 1982 was a great time to be a movie lover!

I saw every one of these films in the theater back in 1982 and it just doesn't seem possible that it's been a whopping thirty years since they were released.

It seems silly to issue a Spoiler Warning for a bunch of three decade old movies, but... consider yourself warned!

Blade Runner
Released June 25, 1982.
It's hard to believe now, but director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was considered a disappointment when first released, pulling in a scant $6 million in its opening weekend. Of course today it's become a cult classic and is considered one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.

Part of its box office failure is no doubt due to the E.T. juggernaut, which ruled the box office and destroyed all competition that summer. A good hunk of the blame though has to lie with Warner Bros. marketing campaign. Blade Runner is a slow paced, thoughtful and intelligent science fiction film, so of course the studio had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I can still remember seeing the trailer for the film; it was a minute and a half of outright deceit, packed full of every flying car shot, explosion and fist fight they could scrape together in a flailing attempt to sell it as an action movie. 

The hyper-detailed future noir look of the film is still a huge influence movies to this day. Countless films over the years have ripped off, er... paid homage to the futuristic cityscapes of Blade Runner.

This was the first time Hollywood ever filmed one of the works of noted sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick (based on his story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?). Dick was reportedly leery of having his work adapted (a legitimate concern), fearing they'd dumb it down or gut it completely. Ridley Scott invited Dick to have a look around the set and he reportedly approved of what he saw. Sadly, he died shortly before the film was released. In the years since, Hollywood has adapted eight or nine more of Dick's stories, with varying degrees of success.

• So how did the movie get to be called Blade Runner instead of the aforementioned Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Eh, it's complicated. The short version: Ridley Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples were discussing the script and decided that a man who hunts down and "kills" androids in 2019 probably wouldn't be called a detective, so they needed a new term. Fancher suggested the term "Blade Runner," which was actually the title of a William Burroughs book called Blade Runner: A Movie. Ridley Scott liked that term so much he suggested they use it as the title as well (since Do Androids yadda yadda is a bit long to be a good movie title). They contacted Burroughs (in what must have been one of his rare lucid moments), and being a big fan of Philip K. Dick, sold them the rights to the name.

Many people insist that a Blade Runner curse exists. When creating the crowded city streets of 2019 Los Angeles, the filmmakers constructed dozens of neon signs using the logos of many then-current companies. Over half of the firms seen in the film have gone out of business since the film's release, including Atari, Cuisinart, Pan-Am and Bell Telephone. Personally I think the curse theory is bunk. C'mon, the movie came out thirty years ago. That's plenty of time for an incompetent CEO to run a company into the ground without involving a curse.

One thing that's always bothered me about the movie: It's set in the unimaginably far off year of 2019. Even in 1982 is was painfully obvious that none of the circumstances or technology shown in the movie could ever possibly come to pass in thirty seven (and now a mere seven!) short years. The movie features flying cars, mile-high megacities, androids indistinguishable from humans (and animals) and worst of all, off-world space colonies! Would it have killed them to have placed it in 2119?

There've been a whopping SEVEN different versions of the film so far in theaters and on home video, each with different music scores, soundtracks and even endings. That seems a bit excessive, even for a classic.

Cat People
Released April 2,1982.
A stylish and violent film about sexy were-panthers and a remake of the 1942 film of the same name (so remakes aren't anything new to Hollywood).

Starring Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski as long-lost siblings who just happen to be able to turn into panthers when they have sex and can't change back again unless they kill. You don't have to be a psych major to figure out that metaphor.

• Good: Lots and lots of naked Nastassja Kinski. Bad: Way too much naked Malcolm McDowell as well. Also Bad: McDowell gets a little too incesty during the film for my tastes. Maybe I shouldn't judge too harshly. When you turn into a panther during sex, your choice of partners is going to be limited.

Features a great soundtrack including the David Bowie song Cat People (Putting Out Fire).

Conan The Barbarian
Released May 14, 1982.
The film that introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to America (and the world) and made him a star.

Director John Millius was interested in filming the movie but dropped out due to some disagreement (money). Other parties became interested and the Conan screenplay was written by Oliver Stone of all people (!). Yeah, that Oliver Stone. Unfortunately his script would have cost an estimated $40 million to film (in 1982 dollars, which would be about $100 million today). No studio wanted to touch such an expensive project, so the script sat dormant for a while until it caught the eye of Milius again. This time he agreed to direct it after modifying the script to make it more cost effective (cheap) to film.

Milius preferred using in-camera effects and optical illusions rather than elaborate post production special effects. 

• Since artist Frank Frazetta's powerful and energetic paintings are undoubtedly responsible for the popularity of Conan, you might wonder why he didn't have anything to do with the film. It wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the filmmakers. They tried to get him to sign on, but unfortunately they couldn't come to a contract agreement (money). They ended up going with Ron Cobb as production designer instead. Cobb had just recently finished design work on ALIEN and had done concept work for Star Wars.

Critics of course completely missed the point of the film and blasted the violence and gore, which is the entire reason to make a Conan movie in the first place. Their whining forced Milius to tone down the violence and cut out several scenes (including shots of the decapitated head of young Conan's mother). 

• Film critics also denounced Arnold's acting and especially his accent, saying it was fortunate he only had a couple of pages of dialog. Arnold supposedly went through extensive speech training for the film, rehearsing each of his lines hundreds of times. I'll leave it to the viewer to decide if that was enough.

Don't feel too bad for Arnold though. The film gave his career an incredible boost and he likely wouldn't be where he is today without it. 

•The film gave us Conan's memorable line: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women!"

• Believe it or not Arnold actually lost weight for the role (!). Director Millius thought Arnold was a little too bulky for the part and wanted Conan to appear more "lean and athletic." 

Incredibly Arnold wasn't the studio's first choice to play Conan. Producers allegedly considered Charles Bronson (!) and Sylvester Stallone for the part. OK, Stallone, maybe. But Charles Bronson? Eh, you gotta remember, this was the 1980s and the cocaine flowed freely throughout Hollywood. Also considered was the lesser known actor William Smith, who ended up playing Conan's father in the film.

The success of Conan The Barbarian led to a virtual tidal wave of sword and sorcery clones at the box office (including The Beastmaster and Ator, The Fighting Eagle, both also released in 1982). Naturally few (if any) of these copycat films had the impact of the original.

In 1982 the producers of Conan sued Mattel, claiming their Masters Of The Universe action figures violated the Conan copyright. Mattel was able to prove that the toy line had been conceived as early as 1980 and won the case.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial
Released June 11, 1982
THE box office champ of the Summer of 1982. Everywhere you turned that year it was E.T. this and Elliot that.

I was a little long in the tooth to be in the film's target demographic when it was released, but I still enjoyed it for the most part.

Unlike most films, E.T. was shot pretty much in chronological order. This was done to help the mostly all-child cast with their performances.

The film was originally titled E.T. And Me, which is interesting as a few months later there was a poorly-made cashgrab clone called Mac And Me.

• Of course you know the story of the candy controversy: Universal Studios wanted to use M&Ms candies in the film, but when Mars executives saw the E.T. puppet they thought it was so horrifyingly ugly that they said no to any product placement deal. This would turn out to be one of the more bone-headed business decisions of the century. The Hershey Company allowed Universal to feature Reese's Pieces in the film, which gave the candy and the company an incredible boost.

By the end of its theatrical run it had grossed $359 million... in 1982 dollars! At one point Director Steven Spielberg was reportedly earning $500,000 a day from his share of the profits (!).

•  There was serious talk of a sequel for a while but ultimately Spielberg nixed the idea, saying it would dilute the power of the original. Good for Steven.

• Harrison Ford made a cameo appearance as Elliot's school principal. Spielberg ended up cutting the scene from the film, fearing that Ford's presence would be "too distracting."

In 1982 Atari hurriedly released a video game based on E.T. which is widely considered to be one of the worst games of all time.

In 2002 Spielberg took a page from his pal George Lucas and rereleased the film with some digital enhancements. Many scenes of the E.T. puppet were now replaced with a CGI version. The most notorious change came near the end of the film, in which Spielberg replaced a group of FBI Agent's guns with walkie-talkies (cuz even the sight of guns is bad, dontcha know). This change was universally reviled and mocked. 

Fortunately Spielberg later came to his senses. He placed both versions on the DVD (unlike George Lucas who smugly states that his "new and improved" versions of the Star Wars films are the only ones that exist) and has said he'll never tamper with any of his finished films again. Again, good for Steven.

Released June 4, 1982.
A genuinely scary PG movie and one that had audiences running for their dictionaries to see what the hell the title meant.

Directed by Tobe Hooper and produced and co-written by Stephen Spielberg, who was having quite a summer that year.

Supposedly a contract clause prevented Spielberg from directing any other movies while he was in preproduction for E.T., therefore he tapped Hooper to direct the film.

Although Hooper was always credited as the defacto director, recent interviews with cast and crew have revealed that Spielberg was present on set for all but three days, created extensive storyboards of scenes and was more or less the film's true director.

I have absolutely no problems believing these reports. This is most definitely a Spielberg movie, as his fingerprints are all over every scene. The idyllic suburban setting, the bustling household, the bright lights shining into the camera, the lens flares, the camera zooming from across the room into the actor's faces, the endless shots of people gazing in open mouthed wonderment at something incredible... if that ain't Spielberg I'll eat my hat.

Notable as one of the few films in history to accurately depict thunder and lightning. In most movies you see a flash of lightning and instantly hear a thunderclap. This is incorrect. Thunder is always heard after lightning, the length of time varying depending on your distance from the storm. Poltergeist gets this exactly right.

• One of most whispery movies in film history. There's an interminable stretch in the middle of the movie where the chief paranormal investigator is telling the family her theory of the afterlife, the universe and everything. The entire sequence lasts a good fifteen to twenty minutes and the entire time the characters are whispering to one another in barely audible tones, forcing the audience to lean forward and strain to pick up snippets of the dialog.

There's also supposedly a Poltergeist curse, as several people involved in the film have met with seemingly early deaths. Some blame this curse on the fact that the production used real skeletons in the film's climax instead of more expensive plastic ones (why would real skeletons be cheaper than... never mind). Again, I have to call bunk. When you're dealing with a group of people as large as a Hollywood film crew it's just a matter of statistics and probability that some of them are going to die (and in one case, be murdered) earlier than others.

By the way, the Freeling family's dog, E. Buzz, is apparently named after Saturday Night Live character E. Buzz Miller, played by Dan Ackroyd. Miller was the sleazy host of a public access TV show who reviewed famous classical paintings, usually in a lascivious manner. For example, he would pronounce the name of the artist Titian as "TIT-ian" rather than "TISH-an." In the movie universe, I wonder who gave the dog that name? Hopefully not one of the kids!

Another bit of trivia: When Steven Freeling first visits with the ghost hunters, he says his wife Diane is thirty two and their daughter Dana is sixteen. Looks like the Freelings started their family early, when Diane was only sixteen!

The Sword And The Sorcerer
Released April 23, 1982
A violent and convoluted low budget Sword & Sorcery epic that in some ways out-Conans Conan The Barbarian.

• The movie earned $39 million at the box office ($167 million adjusted for inflation) making it one of the most profitable independent films of 1982.

• The highlight of the film: When star Lee Horsely, dressed in naught but a loincloth, fights the villain with a sparking sword. The reason the swords erupted in sparks when they touched? Because they were rigged up with a million volts of electricity, that's why. Those weren't special effects, the damned electrified swords really did spark every time they touched. Can you imagine? Who would agree to such a thing? Think about all the things that could have gone wrong in that scene. One little slip and you'd fry. Especially when all you're wearing is a skimpy loincloth.

There was a fatal accident during the movie. Stuntman Jack Tyree, dressed as the demon Xusia, was to leap off the side of a tall cliff and land on airbags below. Something happened during the stunt and he missed the bag, which killed him instantly. Supposedly the shot (well, the beginning of it anyway) is in the actual film. 

• Features lots of good old fashioned Sword & Sorcery nudity, which of course was integral to the plot. You know, that's something you just don't see much at the movies these days. Where has all the nudity gone? Why were we more advanced in 1982 than we are today? What happened to the world?

Be sure and watch the end credits to see this caption: Watch for Talon's Next Adventure  Tales of the Ancient Empire coming soon. Whoops! 

For many years this caption was a source of amusement and mirth in the geek community, as fans would think, "Maybe this is the year." Incredibly, it finally happened. In January of 2012 Tales Of An Ancient Empire, described as a "sequel in spirit," was released directly to DVD, only thirty short years after the original.

The Thing
Released June 25, 1982
A grim, violent and extremely gory remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World

The original movie is often abbreviated to just The Thing. The 1982 movie is called simply The Thing as well. And the 2012 prequel/remake is also called The Thing. That's three movies with the exact same title. That shouldn't be confusing when you're ordering from Amazon. Well done, Hollywood.

I have to confess that I didn't think very highly of the movie when I first saw it in the theater. Maybe it was the dark and demoralizing tone, but it just didn't connect with me. Thankfully when I watched it on home video a few years later I was finally able to appreciate it for the classic that it is.

I wasn't the only one who wasn't initially a fan, as The Thing performed poorly at the box office. I firmly believe reason for this is that the movie was ahead of its time. Audiences just weren't ready for such shocking images and hopeless, nihilistic storytelling in 1982 (This was, after all, the shiny happy summer of E.T.). Fortunately for the film our sick and depraved world has worn us all down to the point where we can now welcome it with open arms.

• Unlike the original film, this one features no females in the cast. Well, with one exception. MacReady's chess computer is voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, who was at the time the wife of director John Carpenter.

• Exterior shots were filmed in British Columbia in sub-freezing weather. The interior scenes were filmed in Los Angeles on super-cooled sets.

• The third collaboration between John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell (the first two being the TV movie Elvis and Escape From New York). Russell appeared in two more Carpenter films after this one, Big Trouble In Little China and Escape From L.A.

Makeup artist Rob Bottin created some truly jaw dropping effects for the film that have never been rivaled to this day. The whole heart attack sequence, in which a victim's head sprouts spidery legs and scuttles across the floor still amazes me after all these years. And it's all the more incredible because it was actually happening live on the set, and not a CGI generated sequence. It's a textbook case for the superiority of practical special effects.

• Incredibly the brilliant and gifted poster artist Drew Struzan painted the iconic poster in just one day! According to Struzan the studio called him and ordered the poster with the understanding that they needed it the next day. The studio didn't even have a design in mind. Struzan agreed to paint the poster, dressed himself in a parka while his wife took reference photos and went to work. He was just finishing up as a courier came to pick up the poster the next morning at 9 am. Amazing!

• Supposedly Carpenter's film editor suggested he film a "happier" ending, just in case. Unlike the original ending in which MacReady's fate is left ambiguous, this "happier" ending would have seen him rescued by chopper and be proven human by blood test. Ultimately Carpenter nixed this alternate ending and it's never appeared as a supplement on any home video release.

Released July 9, 1982
The first major motion picture to feature extensive computer animated sequences, and the grandaddy of modern CGI.

TRON features some amazing artistic talent. French comic artist Moebius was the set and costume designer and artist and industrial designer Syd Mead designed most of the vehicles in the film (He was also a production designer on Blade Runner).

• There are only about fifteen to twenty minutes of actual computer animation in the entire film, usually involving vehicles of some kind (such as the Light Cycle battle).

• The human-like "Program" characters were not CGI, but were created by shooting live actors on black and white film and using back-lit animation to create the glowing lines in their costumes.

TRON's CGI effects are all the more amazing due to the state of the art at the time. Back in the early 1980s there were no GUI or desktop interfaces as we have today. Every one of the parts of each vehicle was designed and animated mathematically. For example, to create a square, the animators had to input X, Y and Z coordinates for each corner into the computer system. They repeated this process until they had a computer model of the object in question. 

To animate these models they then had to tell the computer (again, by typing instructions) to move it from one set of coordinates to another. There was no way to see the results of their work until it was output to film the next day. Very often they'd then see that a Recognizer sailed through a wall or two light cycles passed through one another and would have to go back and adjust the coordinates and try it again. Mind boggling!

• If you look closely you may notice some discrepancies in the color scheme of the movie. The original plan was for "good" characters to have yellow colored lines and "evil" characters to have blue.

Halfway through the filming the creators changed their minds and went with good = blue and evil = red. Unfortunately several sequences had already been filmed with the old color scheme and it would have been too costly and time consuming to change them. This is why during the Light Cycle battle the blue good guys are driving yellow, orange and red colored cycles while the red bad guys ride blue ones. Confusing!

• The film wasn't a hit and performed just so-so at the box office. It's easy to understand why— in 1982 there were no home computers, no internet and the vast majority of the public didn't know a computer from a food processor. The movie certainly looked good, but audiences just didn't understand what the hell was going on. In fact many of the actors in the film have stated they didn't understand the script at the time either.

Of course now TRON is considered a classic and has inspired hundreds of filmmakers to become computer animators. Without TRON there would be no Pixar movies, no Lord Of The Rings films and no Avatar.

I've heard some modern wiseacres describe the old costumes as cheesy. I heartily disagree. 

Take a look at the old costumes next to those from last year's sequel / remake. When I look at the old costumes and see all the little circuit lines I instantly think, "That looks like the human personification of a computer program." When I look at the new costumes I think, "Meh, looks like some guy wearing sexy European motorcycle gear." Mock the classic costumes if you must, but at least they got the point across.

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
Relased June 4, 1982.
The movie that saved Star Trek.

After the lackluster box office performance of the dull and soporific Star Trek The Motion Picture, Paramount was reluctant to bankroll a sequel. They were finally talked into making another film but only if the budget was slashed considerably and the script ramped up the action.

Fortunately for us the movie was a hit. If it had flopped, there wouldn't have been any more sequels and who knows, there may never have been a Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise. Hmm... no Voyager you say? Oh well. You've gotta take the bad along with the good.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry took it upon himself to write a script for the sequel. In his story a group of Klingons use the Guardian of Forever (a time machine in the form of a giant stone donut) to travel back into Earth's past and prevent the assassination of JFK, thereby altering history. 

This turn of events caused the crew of the Enterprise to go back in time to set things right— by making sure JFK dies after all. This effectively turned our Starfleet heroes into presidential assassins (!). Paramount wisely rejected this script (thank the Maker!) and yanked Roddenberry off the project, making him some sort of "executive consultant," a position in which he could do no harm.

• Ultimately the producers delved into Trek's past and came up with a script that once again pitted Captain Kirk against Khan, his evil nemesis from the Original Series. Khan was powerfully played by Ricardo Montalban, and you can read my thoughts on his performance here.

• Leonard Nimoy originally declined to return as Spock, feeling he'd done all he could with the character. He eventually agreed (read: was offered a truckload of money) to reprise the role, but only if Spock was killed off at the end.

After Wrath Of Khan wrapped, Nimoy decided playing Spock wasn't so bad after all and expressed a desire to return in any potential sequels, which probably caused lots of face-palming on the part of the screen writers.

In early drafts of the script Spock died in the first act, but ultimately his death was (quite rightly) moved to the end of the film.

• The character of Lt. Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley) was intended to be half Vulcan, half Romulan. This would help explain some of her emotional outbursts during the film (as Vulcans suppress and never display their feelings). Unfortunately a line of dialog explaining her dual heritage was edited from the film, causing viewers to assume she was a full Vulcan and leaving her uncharacteristic emotionality unexplained.

• At the beginning of the film Lt. Saavik is taking the Kobayashi Maru exam, a very elaborate command aptitude test. In it, the Enterprise is patrolling near the planet Gamma Hydra and receives a distress call from a civilian ship. This ship has suffered engine trouble and has drifted into the Klingon Neutral Zone. Saavik then has to decide whether to abandon the civilians or rescue them by entering the Neutral Zone, which could start at war. 

Saavik decides to enter the Neutral Zone and reduce the ship, triggering a response from a squadron of Klingon ships that attack the Enterprise. As the simulated situation deteriorates before her eyes, Saavik is advised to pray, because "Klingons don't take prisoners."

Several things here. In the Original Series the planet Gamma Hydra was near Romulan space. The Romulans were also the ones who had a Neutral Zone. Prior to this movie there was no Klingon Neutral Zone. Lastly, it was established that the Romulans were the ones who didn't take prisoners. 

It's pretty obvious that in the original script the Kobayashi Maru test featured the Romulans, but at some point before filming they were changed to Klingons without bothering to alter the references in the script. Why they did this, I have no idea. Possibly because the Klingons have traditionally been more popular than the underused Romulans. The most likely reason though is probably budgetary. Paramount already had footage of attacking Klingon ships that they could reuse. If they'd stuck with Romulans they'd have had to build a brand new model ship.

Honorable Mentions from the Summer of 1982 (probably not classics, but worth a look nonetheless):

The Beastmaster
Basket Case
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Friday The 13th: Part III
Rocky III
• And of course the timeless classic, Zapped!


  1. This post is like opening a time capsule. I enjoyed every minute of it :)

  2. Thanks! I can't believe it's been 30 years since these movies premiered.

  3. You missed The Secret of NIMH!!!!!!!. But yes, y TOTALLY agree with you, 1982 is not only the best summer ever, it's the best YEAR ever.

  4. You're right, Juan! Secret of Nimh did come out that summer. Unfortunately I've never seen it (even to this day) and I felt I should go with films I've seen.


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