“Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” -Susan Sontag
The Big Bang Theory (BBT) is one of the most successful sitcoms of the 21st century. The Flapdoodle Files researchers estimate that roughly 40% of the scripts for this program are based on either the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Star Trek movie franchises.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (ROTA) was released 34 years ago.
Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Star Trek are among the most successful film franchises of all time and each feature characters who have become iconic in the realm of the Fantastique. And within their respective franchises, certain entries have become recognized through the years, by critics and lay persons, as true classics of cinema.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (ROTA), besides being the first Indiana Jones film, is the best of the Indiana Joneses as well, and despite being an obvious homage to old movie serials inexplicably retains its freshness and timelessness even into our far-flung futuristic era. ROTA is the Summer Movie every other Summer Movie wishes it could be, and like it or not, it is Steven Spielberg's greatest legacy.
The Empire Strikes Back (TESB) is widely recognized by critics and most fans as being the best of the Star Wars films. For the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK) is the undisputed pinnacle.
These three films, representing the high points of three of the most successful Fantastique film franchises, were released in 1980, 1981, and 1982...the crucial early years of the vaunted Reagan Revolution. And if we widen our focus, we find a large number of what would eventually become classics of the genre were also released during these three years:
The Empire Strikes Back
Somewhere in Time
Friday the 13th
Escape from New York
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Evil Dead
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Clash of the Titans
An American Werewolf in London
ET the Extra-Terrestrial
Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan
Conan the Barbarian
All of these films owe a debt to Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), Halloween (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979), which had demonstrated the potential profitability of the Fantastique. And after 1982, Hollywood would continue to produce a number of memorable Fantastique films. But none would be quite as durable, lucrative, acclaimed, or iconic as the Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or Star Trek series (although some, like The Terminator films, beginning in 1984, have come close).
For the sake of context, let's take a look at the 1950-58, which is the undisputed Golden Age of Scifi Films. Here is a list of the bona-fide Fantastique classics from that period:
- Destination Moon
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
- It Came from Outer Space
- House of Wax
- The Creature From the Black Lagoon
- The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
- War of the Worlds
- When Worlds Collide
- Gojira (AKA Godzilla in USA)
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- The Day the Earth Stood Still
- The Thing From Another World
- Forbidden Planet
- The Incredible Shrinking Man
- The Fly
- The Mysterians
But in the three-year period of 1980-82, Hollywood released 22 Fantastique Films destined to achieve classic status. Considering the previous precedent, and the fact that studios and cinephiles often ghettoize the Fantastique, this is a singular phenomenon, to which the staff of Flapdoodle Files has given no small amount of consideration.
Mass phenomena occur within a historical context. The Fantastique explosion occurred shorty after John Dykstra and the crew of Industrial Light and Magic initiated a revolution in special effects, by utilizing computers and other new advances, first displayed for the public with the release of Star Wars in 1977. Suddenly FX were more dynamic, more realistic, and more cost-effective than ever before. The jazzy new FX brought in larger audiences and made it possible to tell stories that had previously been considered unfilmable.
|Tron was a box-office disappointment in 1982, but it's unique vision and prescience eventually made it a Cult Classic.|
|1980's Altered States|
|Kurt Russell was one of John Carpenter's muses during this period.|
1970's had been notable for a number of high-quality socially relevant and politically daring films, such as Easy Rider, MASH, Little Big Man, Network, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men, and The China Syndrome.
No doubt these films reflected the mood of the American people. The physical and psychic wounds from the Viet Nam war had produced a Crisis of Masculinity. Meanwhile, working Americans spent much of the 1970's digesting disturbing revelations of government wrongdoing as multiple political and national security scandals unfolded, and trying to survive as industries began massive off-shoring, inflation skyrocketed, and the infrastructure was left to rot. This period of cynicism, economic anxiety, and anti-militarism was especially noteworthy because it had been preceded by 25 years of foreign policy machismo, middle-class prosperity and overall rising expectations.
|Actual 1971 magazine cover accurately predicts cultural themes of the early 1980's.|
The Big Three Vietnam Films were each commercially and critically successful, leading to thoughtful reviews in newspapers and magazines, and no doubt provoking interesting discussions among some viewers. Four years after the USA quietly slunk away from a war which killed 58,000 US soldiers at the expense of over 1,000,000 million Vietnamese deaths, Vietnam was suddenly a hot topic again. It is interesting to speculate how US history might have unfolded if the discussion had been allowed to continue.
But of course that was not to be. In November, 1979, in retaliation for the American government unseating a democratically-elected head of state (1953) and providing weapons and support for a torturing, cleptocratic dictator (Shah Mohammad Pahlavi), Iranian activists overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 66 American hostages, who would eventually be held for 444 days.
Most Americans were not familiar with the backstory for what came to be known as The Iranian Hostage Crisis, which is too bad, because if they had known, certain events might have played out differently. But they didn't know, just as they didn't know that both the American State Department and the citizens of Iran considered the Shah to be a US Puppet.
Nor did the American people understand that US militarists were less concerned about the welfare of the American hostages than they were upset over the fact that oil-rich Iran was no longer a Client State, and could no longer be counted upon to follow US orders. Instead, Americans unquestionably accepted the simplistic explanation that Iranians were wild-eyed religious fanatics, under the thrall of the malevolent mullah Ayatolla Khomeini. The possibility that Muslims might have legitimate political grievances was never to be considered.
Also, because Iran was a major oil producer, oil prices began to surge, and would, within a year, rise 150%. Besides aggravating economic difficulties for working people, rising gasoline prices reduced the attractiveness of V-8-powered Detroit Land Yachts. Mercury Mastodons and Buick Brontosauruses had long been considered as
(The subject of bloated automobiles leads us to Lee A. Iacocca. Iacocca had been fired from Ford motors early in 1979, and in September he was made head of the ailing Chrysler Corporation. Among his cost-slashing measures, he dismissed over 15,000 workers in 1980. Shortly thereafter, in a deft move combining nationalism with chutzpah, he adopted the motto 'The Pride is Back!' alongside the image of an American flag.)
|A corporate daddy-figure.|
In comparison, the nation of Cambodia had lost about 3 million people between 1976 and 1979, due to the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent invasion by the Vietnamese army, and had suffered many other unspeakable atrocities during these years. The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese invasion were collateral effects of the American Folly in Vietnam (previously addressed in this article).
Compared to every other nation on Earth, America was still sitting pretty. But in the minds of Americans, who were just beginning to address the Crisis of Masculinity, the two events seemed akin to a revisitation of Pearl Harbor with the sinking of the Maine and Lusitania thrown in for good measure.
American news media, for the most part, helped amplify and exaggerate both the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The media had re-discovered in March 1979, during the 3-Mile Island nuclear accident, that fear and panic could be good for ratings. ABC News quickly created an entire nightly news program devoted to the hostage crisis under the hyperbolic title The Iran Crisis–America Held Hostage (which eventually morphed into the long-running Nightline), with other networks employing similar melodramatic devices.
No one knew it at the time, but the talking heads of network news, filling endless hours reporting the same damn story, day after day, wringing their hands and wallowing in the self-pity of American impotence, would become the stylistic forerunner of 24-hr. cable news, the continued presence of which curses us to this very day.
American militarists and their media accomplices had, since the end of WW2, instilled a set of bizarre and paradoxical ideas in the mind of the public. American's believed that they were the mightiest nation on earth, and their military might was the result of a moral and spiritual superiority. At the same time, they believed that they were extremely vulnerable to conquest by rival nations and moral seduction by subversive ideologies.
|A military daddy-figure.|
Overall, America reacted to November and December 1979 with all the fortitude, resolve and stoicism of a heroin addict in full withdrawal, caught in a leg-hold bear trap. The center-right political party, inexplicably named the Democrats, were in control of the white-house. Outwardly preaching dignity and caution, they secretly plotted an overly-complicated and ultimately-doomed helicopter rescue scheme for the Iranian hostages and funded anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan.
Across the Pond, neo-fascist forces, euphemistically named the Conservative party, had captured the office of Prime Minister in May 1979. Meanwhile, back in the USA, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded the presidency with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans their plans against the Democrats.
|The Cheney Family in 1978.|
Such a shift was indicator that profound energies were at work. The Viet Nam debacle and the tribulations of the 1970's had inspired in Americans a kind of mass cynicism regarding the government, and, to some extent, the nation itself.
But under the perception that the United States had been somehow attacked, the pendulum suddenly swung dramatically.
On February 11, 1980, Tom Flynn, the owner of a cemetery in Hermitage Pennsylvania decided to post one American flag for every day of the Iranian hostages' captivity. This was on the 100th day, and soon the multitude of flimsy-looking aluminum poles and flags became a national story.
The long-haired, dope-smoking country-singer Charlie Daniels, (who had a small hit in 1973 with the counter-culture anthem 'Uneasy Rider') joined the jingoistic circle-jerk when he filled his bank accounts by performing the uber-nationalist anthem 'In America.'
Not only was a deep analysis of the Vietnam fiasco pre-empted, but militarists also began rewriting history. The popular myth that the war had been lost not because of failures of leadership and planning, nor because it had been unjust and unwinnable from the start, but that instead the war had been lost due Peace Protesters Weakening the Resolve of the American People, started to take hold.
The American people did not all become Reaganites overnight...there were still liberals and even some genuine left-wing pinkos left. But this fact actually added to the collective sense of crisis, since 1980 was a presidential election year. Besides worrying about Foreign Threats, Republicans feared another Democratic Presidency (which would have surely led to a foreign invasion, or worse) and Democrats feared a Republican presidency (which would surely lead to World War III).
Nineteen-eighty was a year of excessive anxieties, of crises and perceived crisis, and of fierce rhetorical conflict for the presidency, fought by suit-wearing white guys above the age of 50 competing in super-size game of ¿Quién es más macho ('Who is more macho?').
As we know now, about 51% of the American public seemed to prefer the remedy of Hollywood-macho nationalism. It proved a perfect time for the fascist-militarist alliance to push a former movie hero into the role of national savior. At the precise moment when movie fantasies suddenly became realistic, the fantasy of a movie hero president became the reality.
We should not of course, conflate correlation with causality. American national elections are not, as they purport to be, exercises in the democratic process, but rather, a kind of large-scale political theater.
A potentially huge field of competing visions is winnowed down to two alternatives, distinct from each other to same degree that Coke and Pepsi are dissimilar. And the nominal head of state, once coronated, is invariably controlled from behind the scenes by plutocrats and militarists, regardless of his party affiliation. Any Chief Executive who were to ignore the wishes of his true masters would find himself either neutralized by scandal or the objective of a mafia hit squat. Elections in America are, as Noam Chomsky so eloquently put it, a means of manufacturing consent.
The Presidential Hero Fantasy gained traction thanks to the fact that Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980. Suddenly at war with its own neighbor, the Iranians desperately needed weapons. The Reagan and Carter camps both offered Iran covert arms deals in exchange for the release of the American hostages, with the Iranians preferring Reagan's offer.
|ET, from 1982. If it weren't for this film, you would not even remember Reese's Pieces.|
In accordance with the wishes of the Reagan cabinet, the American hostages were not released until the moment after the Gipper delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 1981. The American Public was kept in the dark that their new tough-guy president was swapping arms for hostages, instead believing that the Iranians feared the New Sheriff in Town.
The election of a cowboy daddy figure did not sooth all the waters. January 1981 saw the start of War In El Salvador, which would soon be escalated when Reagan began sending covert aid and training to the infamous Death Squads. In March 1981, John Hinkley attempted to assassinate Mr. Reagan in a bid for the affections of movie actor Jodie Foster. By November, the recovered POTUS would sign orders for covert assistance of the rebel Contra forces in Nicaragua, sowing the seeds for the Iran-Contra scandal, which would erupt later in the decade.
And then there was the Recession of 1981-82. The Federal Reserve's website tells us this: "Prior to the 2007-09 recession, the 1981-82 recession was the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Indeed, the nearly 11 percent unemployment rate reached late in 1982 remains the apex of the post-World War II era..."
|The Money Shot from 1981's 'Scanners'|
The Crisis of Masculinity would get worse before it got better. Compounding the nation's economic and social troubles, 1981 saw the signing of the Omnibus Budget-Reconciliation Act, which began the long and as yet unabated move to austerity. Bucking the Keynesian tradition of government spending increases to combat economic slumps, the Reagan cabinet embraced the principle that workers and poor people should be punished during recessions.
Reagan and his posse slashed federal student financial aid programs, which helped drive poor and working class students into the arms of the US Military. The scarcity of financial aid combined with record-high unemployment to establish The Poverty Draft as a permanent fact in American life.
Reagan's Dept. of Labor concocted another innovative solution for the problem of mass unemployment. They began counting only the people receiving unemployment compensation as unemployed, excluding persons whose benefits had run out, or who did not qualify for benefits, or who had given up looking for work. However, they did add the military personnel into the "employed" figures. These two measures had the effect of cutting the "unemployment rate" in half overnight.
This gave the Gipper the opportunity to declare the recession "over", and the excuse to announce that the country no longer needed any type of assistance for the "unemployed", since their numbers were cut in half.
|'Poltergeist': Misery for the Middle-Class in a Macabre Milieu|
In fact, Reaganomics has been shown to self-sustaining, in that so long as the policy of punishing the poor is followed, economic conditions for workers and poor people worsen. And as long as there is economic misery, politicians can demand more Reaganomics as the tonic. Like binge-drinking as tonic for unhappiness, it's self-reinforcing even though it never works.
Moreover, the so-called Reagan Revolution was simultaneously economic and military in nature. Previous political pendulum shifts tended to be either one or the other. The Roosevelt-era reforms, following the 1932 election, for instance, were economic. And in the 1950's, the Eisenhower administration managed to withdraw US forces for Korea and to avoid engaging the US in additional 'hot' wars, effectively slowing the advance of the burgeoning National Security State, which had been stealthily initiated under President Truman in 1947.
|By 1988, Democrats had fully embraced the bellicose imagery of the military.|
The Reaganites can rightly be credited with simultaneously effecting both a radical economic and military shift, something unusual in American history. Moreover, by 1993, the American center-right party, mockingly calling themselves the Democrats, had adopted the governing strategies of the Reaganites, except using different semantics.
President Bill Clinton punished workers and the poor by means of the Orwellian 'Welfare Reform', 'Reinventing Government,' and NAFTA, and proceeded to bombard Rwanda, Bosnia, and Iraq. By the 21st century, it would be possible for a so-called Democratic president to expand existing wars, initiate new wars, order summary executions of terror suspects, to drone-kill 16-year old American citizens, and to cut Social Security benefits all the while retaining the appellation Liberal.
|The Dark Side is difficult to resist.|
Susan Sontag famously described scifi movies as symptomatic of mass anxiety, as evidenced in the slew of classic films from 1950-56, the period of intense nuclear and political Red Scares, and during which the USA lost the Korean War. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Destination Moon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, etc., are a sampling from this cohort.
“We live,” said Sontag, “under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” The job of the Fantastique was to simultaneously “lift us out of the unbearably humdrum … by an escape into dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings” and to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” (From The Imagination of Disaster, 1965)
The Thing From Another World (1951) is among the most highly-regarded and well-known scifi classics, remade as simply The Thing, and fittingly released in 1982 so as to included in this study. The 1982 version revisits the original's theme of alien invasion, adding to it the shape-changer aspect from Invasion of the Body Snatchers so as to also incorporate the theme of subversion as well. Besides ably expressing American Anxieties, the film is drenched in gore and features Kurt Russell as a somewhat reluctant but nonetheless capable American Hero, complete with cowboy hat and sunglasses. The film is highly regarded now, but was a box-office flop in 1982. Perhaps the notion that unthinkable malevolence can masquerade in literally any form was too close to home?
|The Kurt/Carpenter Collaboration|
Yet Superman II (like its predecessor, Superman The Movie) was plotted out in the mid-1970's by renowned scribe Mario Puzo. Pre-production for many of the other films in this survey also occurred prior to 1979. It is unlikely that their respective auteurs had specific foreknowledge of the extraordinary events which were yet to occur.
Artists, like political operatives, often have an intuitive sense of the zeitgeist. Artists aim to meet the psychic needs of the audience, while political operatives seek to exploit it.
Less prominent than the romanticized heroes, but still noteworthy, is the theme of dystopianism, as in Escape From New York, Mad Max 2, Tron and Blade Runner. These films owe some of their impact to their ability to express the audience's despair regarding urban decay and distrust of the State.
It would over-reaching to interpret all of the classic Fantastique films of this period in these political terms. Altered States, Somewhere In Time, and An American Werewolf in London do not lend themselves to obvious political pidgeonholing, reflecting subtler and often darker themes. Yet it is not over-reaching to say that the atmosphere of turmoil and anxiety contributed to the desire of the film-makers to explore personalistic crises within the idiom of the Fantastique.
So it was that 1980-82 yielded the most bountiful and diverse crop of Classique Fantastique cinema on record. Classic Fantastique films would continue to be produced throughout remainder of the decade (such as The Fly, Back to the Future and Robocop), but after 1982, the number, quality and impact of these films diminished. The trend had peaked.
In 1983, for instance, the embarrassing Superman III and the disappointing Never Say Never Again were released, and joined George Lucas' insipid Ewoks in the otherwise satisfactory Return of the Jedi as regrettable memories of the year. As it would turn out, the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek and Superman franchises would never again reach the artistic heights of this period.
After 1982, socio-political tensions remained, but the intensity of perceived crises gradually diminished. Liberals for the most part adapted, with a few apparently clinging to the delusion that their day would come again. The population was getting acclimated to the New Order.
By 1982, Hollywood was beginning to overtly abet the militarist propaganda themes with First Blood, which initiated the Rambo series and the 'paramilitary' craze (see also: The A-Team, Commando, the Missing in Action trilogy, Red Dawn, Invasion USA, Predator, etc.). Top Gun, a forerunner to today's War Porn, was released in 1986, and the Navy stationed recruiters to work the crowds as they emerged from theaters, trolling for adolescent bodies intoxicated by the spells of cinematic war gods and vulnerable to the Poverty Draft.
By way of Art Inspiring Life, on March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced the beginning of his notorious SDI program, a mythical anti nuclear missile defense system that his administration quickly dubbed 'Star Wars.' Despite the billions funneled into the system since that date, there is no working model as yet.
The Fantastique blockbusters of 1980-82, accessible to all ages, still fresh and novel to the public, featuring state-of-the-art FX, were highly popular at the new video rental shops and on the new cable TV networks. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Star Wars series and the Star Trek films were among the formative home viewing experiences for millions of Americans. Multiple viewings solidified popular opinion regarding them, and helped advance them rapidly toward the status of Classic, and new theatrical releases suddenly had to face competition from home video and cable.
Still, the ability of these films to withstand the test of time should not be discounted. Each in its own way resonates across multiple generations.
Maybe this is because the socio-political subtext still resonates. The national security hysteria of 1980 has been poked, re-inflamed and manipulated by media and politicians many times since, most famously after the terrorist incidents of 9-11-2001. In a bizarre twist, the hysteria of 2001 led the US to follow the failed path of the USSR in 1979, by invading Afghanistan.
The image of the Ayatolla Khomeni, America's first Muslim Boogie Man, was burned into America's collective consciousness. Over time, the Muslim Boogie Man has been made over to resemble Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Muslim Boogie Man supplanted the Red Communist as the USA's preferred villain: US leaders and citizens still believe that Muslims can have no legitimate political grievances, only religious fanatacism. You can't boogie without a boogie man.
Besides the creation of the Muslim Boogie Man archetype, the political realignment of 1980 led America away from the post-Viet Nam attitude of skepticism regarding the military and reluctance toward war.
In 1983, buoyed by a tightly-choreographed news media, the US invaded the tiny nation of
In 1982, punk-music's Honor Guard, The Clash released Combat Rock, with GI-Joe lettering on the cover and containing the hit single 'Rock the Casbah', a tale of middle-eastern jet-fighters ordered to bomb their own citizens for the crime of pop music:
'The king called up his jet fighters
He said you better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the Casbah way...'
The punk troubadors' prophecy would be fulfilled, in a somewhat twisted fashion, in 1986. Purportedly for the crime of bombing a discothèque in Germany, Ronald Reagan ordered US F-111's jets to drop their bombs between the minarets in Libya, killing at least 60 people, including an infant girl.
|Members of the armed services commemorated the destruction with this handsome patch.|
Iraq War I was itself something of a scifi action movie, with TV newscasts showing constant video and digital animations of Smart Bombs, Stealth Bombers, and Patriot Missiles. Embedded reporters chummed it up with the photogenic
Liberals had feared all along that Reagan would start World War III, against either the Soviets, China, North Korea, or some other Communist state. But in hindsight, it appears that WW3 is in fact the War Against Muslims, and that it started in 1986 (with the excursions into the Caribbean and Latin America being dress-rehearsals for Iraq War I), continued throughout the 1990's, and then went Full-Tilt Boogie in the wake of the 9/11 incidents. Conservative figures estimate that at least 4 million Muslims have been killed by the US since 1990, with the number climbing every day.
|'Just killed another Muslim...nothing to see here, folks.' Indiana Jones appears to share Spielberg's Zionist sympathies.|
The commerical success and lasting impact of this group of films is due in no small part to the high quality of special effects available to their producers, which had previously been either technically unfeasible or financially impossible. Did the rapid advance of the technology of illusion help advance the most deadly illusion of all...politics?
Back in 1983, the single '99 Luftballoons' (AKA '99 Red Balloons') by the German pop band Nena was probably the last anti-war song to make the American Top 40. Here is an excerpt from the English version of the lyrics:
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we've waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by
This is what we've waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by
Ninety-nine knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone's a super hero
Everyone's a Captain Kirk...
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone's a super hero
Everyone's a Captain Kirk...