The 80s was a special time for kids fantasy and science fiction movies. Back then kids in movies went on epic quests, went into space, and met aliens, so many aliens. In fact it was so much fun that all these years later the era has returned in full nostalgic force to screens big and small. There’s really no getting away from the 80s. So why try? Here then is Screen Mayhem’s five favourite 80s sci-fi and fantasy movies for the young, the young at heart and the downright nerdy. Enjoy!
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Barret Oliver plays Bastian, an imaginative though troubled young boy who escapes from a gang of bullies by hiding in a creepy old antique store. There he finds a book called The NeverEnding Story about a warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) who sets out on a quest to save the life of The Childlike Empress, played by the angelic Tami Stronach. As he continues to read he finds himself immersed in the story, literally.
The NeverEnding Story was Wolfgang Petersen’s first film following the classic German, submarine set, Das Boot, and he brings a great deal of artistry to this complex tale. The dark fantasy world has aged gorgeously thanks to the charming practical effects and ambitious production design. The real heart of the movie is in its performances, however, particularly from the wonderful child actors, all of whom give remarkably mature turns that defy the stereotypes of 80s kids. (You can read / listen to our interview with Tami Stronach – The Childlike Empress herself – here).
The film’s message about the importance of imagination and storytelling has never been more pertinent. It’s not afraid to be scary or serious and refuses to talk down to its audience. As a children’s film it stands the test of time and is as entertaining as it ever was.
The Explorers (1985)
Directed by 80s movie titan Joe Dante, this flawed cult classic sends not one, but three intrepid kids into space. Ben (Ethan Hawke) is a sci-fi junkie; Wolfgang (the late River Phoenix) is a science genius; while Darren (Jason Presson) is the rebellious one who’s good with his hands. In other words the only thing they have in common is that they’re complete social misfits. Then they stumble upon a formula for flying safely at incredible speeds and go about building themselves a spaceship – out of trash. Now this may sound rubbish (pun intended), but with its washing machine portholes, metal bin bonnet, and TV screen windshield, the Thunder Road, as it’s christened, couldn’t look much cooler.
The build-up is the stuff of pure childish wish fulfilment. Unfortunately, when the kids eventually take flight the rest of the movie fails to deliver. Nonetheless, The Explorers is half a great movie, with so many quintessentially 80s trappings – BMX bikes, kids chatting at night on walkie-talkies, and unattainable cute girls living nearby – that its influence can be clearly discerned amongst all the 80s nostalgia going around at the moment. Stranger Things anybody?
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Next up, a movie custom designed for anyone who needs extra justification for spending most of their time and hard earned cash playing videogames. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a listless teen stuck working in his Mum’s trailer park, in other words Deadendsville USA. His only pleasure in life, aside from kissing up to his hot girlfriend (okay, so his life isn’t that terrible), is playing a Space Invaders style videogame; little does he know that the game is also a test. Then one day he beats the game’s record and a groovy looking old guy with a flying car that would make Marty McFly green with envy, swings into town and whisks young Alex off into space. Why? To save the universe of course. So, keep playing those videogames kids.
The Last Starfighter is not the most technically accomplished film in this list. The special effects, which must have been a little rough even at the time, have aged especially badly. Nonetheless, it perfectly taps into the dreams of any youngsters who’ve wished that their favourite video-games could exist for real, that their nerdy habits could turn them into flesh and blood heroes – a theme copiously explored in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which is doubtless hoovering up money in a multiplex near you.
In my mind Labyrinth had the makings of a successful movie. It was coming off the heels of Brian Froud’s and Jim Henson’s previous collaboration, 1982’s The Dark Crystal, George Lucas was onboard as Executive Producer, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created all of the puppets. Plus it had the sensational David Bowie! What could go wrong? The movie-going public and the critics of 1986 were not ready for this coming-of-age adventure filled with mazes, goblins, a baby, and David Bowie’s interesting Goblin King wardrobe. In fact, the movie performed so poorly not only did it fail to recoup its budget (it earned about half of it back), but it prevented Jim Henson from wanting to direct a feature film again. Luckily for the world, this little gem gained a cult following on home media and has delighted both children and adults ever since.
There is so much to love about Labyrinth. For one, the puppets are amazing. Hoggle looks like a cranky old creature who’s seen everything and is so tired of Sarah’s shenanigans after the first minute of dealing with her. Even though Ludo is supposed to be a giant monster, his eyes and other expressions show a kindness that is severely lacking in many CGI creations of today’s movies. All the goblins have a unique look too. The care that went into the creature design is something to applaud and I wish modern movies still paid attention to. The music, especially the pop songs, are infectious. Even thinking about the soundtrack gets Underground stuck in my head. There is just something magical about Bowie’s vocals combined with the subject matter. Other highlight’s include“Magic Dance,” a fun number that is great to sing along to. It’s evident that Bowie had a blast, and so will you!
Not only is the film great on a the technical level, but it’s a well-crafted story we can all relate to. Who hasn’t been at that transition from adolescence to young adulthood, where it feels as if the adults in your life have no clue what you’re going through? The wonderful thing about Labyrinth is you get different things out of it as you grow up. When I was a kid I loved all the puppets and the adventure. As a teenager I could easily relate to Sarah wanting to play with toys and live in fantasy worlds instead of facing reality. As an adult, I now can relate to Sarah’s family’s frustrations with their teenage daughter complaining about having to do what her parents say. Overall, it’s a wonderful film and if you’ve yet to experience the magic that is Labyrinth, you need to watch it right away because it’s an absolute delight.
The Flight of the Navigator (1986)
David Freemont Scott (Joey Cramer) is a twelve-year-old boy who falls and knocks himself unconscious while walking in the woods. When he comes to eight years have passed, though David remains miraculously unchanged. The police return the traumatised boy to his now rather wrinkly looking parents, but the reunion is short lived. NASA scientists swoop in and take David away for testing. They prod and poke the poor kid until he can’t take much more and, with the help of a domestic aid (played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker), he escapes in a curvy silver spaceship also being kept under wraps at NASA.
What follows is a perfect kids’ science-fiction adventure. David becomes the navigator of his very own super-intelligent spaceship called Max, voiced by Paul Reuben (best known for playing Pee Wee Herman). And, as if things couldn’t get any better, they become best buddies, flying at incredible speeds, scaring the life out of local yokels, and still finding time to sing Beach Boys’ tunes together. All while the egg-heads at NASA try and fail to catch them. For any kid who’s ever dreamt of escaping their humdrum lives, making fools of all the disapproving adults, while going on the adventure of a lifetime, Flight of the Navigator is the ultimate rush. I mean… what child doesn’t want to be given the keys to an unstoppable super sleek, space-ship?
Joey Cramer has remained largely out of the public eye since his brief stint as a child star, only meriting notice in the press for a series of increasingly serious crimes, culminating in an attempted bank robbery. But don’t let that take the shine off one of the most entertaining sci-fi movies to come out of the 80s.