Billy Oduory on the most underrated sci-fi movies of the 1980s…
The 1980s saw timeless sci-fi masterpieces like Blade Runner and The Terminator come to life, many of which continue to influence the genre today. However, the success of these blockbusters cast a shadow on other good films from the decade, which struggled to hit the spotlight at the time. While some of the iconic classics later received their well-deserved acclaim, others quietly carved a niche for themselves away from the limelight, gaining appreciation from silent fans whose opinions aren’t reflected in the public ratings.
Despite having moderate to low ratings, these ’80s sci-fi films still enjoy positive reviews from fans for their innovative storylines and excellent performances. There is something uniquely enjoyable about each of these great films, whether it be the poignant relationships of Enemy Mine or the dystopian themes of Solarbabies. From interstellar wars to time travel, these 10 underrated ’80s films feature thought-provoking storylines that classic fans will enjoy…
Enemy Mine (1985)
Enemy Mine is set in a future where humans are at war with an alien race of reptilian humanoids called Dracs. During one battle, a human spaceship fighter pilot, Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid), and his Drac counterpart, Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.), crash onto a strange planet whose surface is a hostile wasteland. The two are forced to set aside their differences and find a way to coexist because they need each other to survive the inhospitable planet while waiting for help.
The film wasn’t a box-office success but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best sci-fi films created in 1985. The final version was directed by Wolfgang Petersen who explored practical effects, costumes, and makeup to make the aliens interestingly relatable. Quaid and Gossett Jr. also give impressive performances that bring the alien world to life despite following a relatively conventional sci-fi narrative.
Jenny Hayden is a recently widowed woman whose life changes drastically when an alien uses a lock of her dead husband’s hair to clone a body that looks exactly like him. The alien is on the run from the US military which shot down his spacecraft despite having invited the aliens to visit Earth. Jenny has to help the alien reach Barringer Crater, Arizona, to rendezvous with a rescue spacecraft, and their journey is adventurous but extremely fulfilling to watch.
Jeff Bridges’ charismatic display portrays Starman as a warm character which combines well with the film’s intricate plot. Despite Bridges receiving an Academy Award nomination for his performance, and Starman receiving positive reviews, it wasn’t a success in the theatres. The movie portrays John Carpenter’s directorial prowess however, diversifying itself from a typical sci-fi horror into a heartwarming adventure.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Shortened as Buckaroo Banzai, the movie follows the eccentric Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), a neurosurgeon, rock musician, and adventurer whose experiments to perfect a device called the Overthruster open the doors to a previously unknown eighth dimension. In the new dimension, Banzai and his team discover that there are two alien races of humanoids at war, and he has to get involved to prevent an escalation that would, otherwise, spill over to Earth and cause a nuclear war.
Despite its intense-sounding storyline, Buckaroo Banzai takes a comedic approach, resulting in a heartwarming cinematic experience. The film had less-than-impressive performance in the theatres but has earned a cultic following over the years as fans admire its witty approach to sci-fi. Although it is a hybrid of comedy, adventure, and sSci-fi, which can be confusing, the film’s sharp dialogues and multidimensional characters make it an interesting watch. It has since expanded into a whole universe with video games, books, and comics that explore different adventures with the alien humanoids in the eighth dimension.
In a future world dominated by robots as daily-use electronics, Seargent Jack R. Ramsay (Tom Selleck) and his partner Karen Thompson (Cyntia Rhodes) are part of the despised robot task force that takes care of malfunctioning (runaway) robots. The job is uninteresting because it largely involves turning a switch, but things change when the team comes across a case of a hacked robot that murdered the family that owned it with a kitchen knife. Ramsay discovers an elaborate scheme by a deranged inventor to weaponize rogue robots, but the mission to stop him proves tougher than he imagined.
Directed by the veteran Michael Crichton, Runaway has a tense plot with endless twists that keep fans engaged throughout the film. Despite Tom Selleck and Cynthia Rhodes delivering a vibrant performance, the film received less than impressive reviews, which is why it went under the radar. Fortunately, its storyline is never out of date, and the plot is packed with enough action to entertain any generation of fans.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up in his house in Auckland, New Zealand, and realizes that he is the only survivor of a cataclysmic event. He realizes that the event was caused by a top-secret intergovernmental project called “Project Flashlight,” aimed at creating a wireless global power grid on which he was also employed. He struggles with loneliness and guilt. He blames himself for not exposing the project earlier and suffers a mental breakdown, but just before he commits suicide, he meets other survivors and realizes that he has a bigger mission to save what is left of the Earth.
While not a mainstream hit, The Quiet Earth has a captivating storyline that goes beyond a typical sci-fi plot. The film takes a minimalistic approach to both its narrative and visual effects which stand out because they appear to be way ahead of its time. The movie also tells the human story rather than just focusing on the events of the apocalypse, and Bruno Lawrence’s charming performance goes a long way in bringing life to the movie’s dystopian atmosphere.
In a dystopian future where most of the Earth’s water has been placed under the control of a paramilitary organization (the Eco Protectorate), a group of six orphaned teenagers find hope in an alien orb called Bodhi. After curing Daniel, a deaf member of the group, Bodhi proves that it can cause rain to fall indoors, which prompts the authoritarian government to seek the orb to destroy it. The orphans, with the help of a group of rebels, do their best to save the orb from the paramilitary group and restore free water to the Earth.
Solarbabies was the last film directed by Alan Johnson, and while it was a box office bomb, the low ratings don’t reflect the quality of the plot and the performances. The plot was way ahead of its time and makes a lot more sense now that water wars are a contemporary subject. The movie relies heavily on a teenage cast, which has its limits, but most of the performances are lively. The plot is tense, complementing the dystopian setting, but engaging, with enough twists that any Sci-fi fan would enjoy.
Cherry 2000 (1987)
This is another post-apocalyptic 80s film set in a 2017 where the US is a wasteland, with only a few zoned patches of civilization left. Human sexual relationships have become strictly contractual and expensive, leaving gynoids as the best choice for a marriage partner. Sam Treadwell’s (David Andrews) gynoid, Cherry 2000, which is a rare model that is no longer in production, shortcircuits during intercourse and is destroyed beyond repair. Armed with Cherry’s memory chip, Treadwell hires the services of a tracker called Edith Johnson (Melanie Griffith) to help him reach a defunct factory in the lawless Zone 7 to find another body for his gynoid.
Despite being dismissed as a B-movie, Cherry 2000is an underrated creative masterpiece with a blend of romance, action, and comedy. Its heartwarming storyline is a huge contrast to its dystopian setting, which is why it has garnered a cultic following over the years. The lead cast in David Andrews and Melanie Griffith also have a charming chemistry that makes the scenes lively.
Strange Invaders (1983)
As the name suggests, Strange Invaders is an 80s film about aliens, directed by Michael Laughlin as a tribute to 1950s sci-fi. The movie follows Charles Bigelow, a Columbia University professor, who goes to Centreville, Illinois, to look for his wife who went missing after going to the town to bury her dead mother. On arrival, Bigelow discovers that his wife is one of the victims of a body-snatching race of aliens who take over human bodies and turn their victims into glowing orbs. The professor now sets on a mission to save the victims and also retrieve his now-hybrid human-alien daughter from being stolen by the aliens.
Strange Invaders was intended as the second movie of the eagerly-awaited Strange trilogy after 1981’s Strange Behavior, but it received many negative reviews from critics leading to the cancellation of the third project. The film still features one of Michael Laughlin’s best cinematic visuals in a sci-fi, although the packed plot wasn’t accompanied by great performances. Its nostalgic nod to ’50s sci-fi, accompanied by an irresistible blend of humor and suspense, still makes it entertaining to watch.
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)
Spacehunter follows a bounty hunter named Wolff (Peter Strauss), who takes on a dangerous mission to rescue three women stranded on a hostile planet called Terra X, accompanied by his female engineer, Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci). On the planet, they are caught up in a war between two groups who are also interested in their bounty. Wolff is forced to form an alliance with a down-and-out girl called Niki (Molly Ringwald) and challenge the impossible odds to rescue the three women and get the bounty on which his life absolutely depends.
Produced by Ivan Reitman, Spacehunter was one of the pioneering films of 3D technology. Despite the good work that went into the writing and acting, the technology used was way ahead of its time. The movie wasn’t suitable for the design of theatre screens in the 1980s and therefore earned low ratings. However, its explosive action scenes with a touch of satire keep the plot engaging. It is also more convenient to watch on the small screen.
10. Millennium: 1989
NTSB investigator Bill Smith (Kris Kristofferson) discovers a disturbing pattern in plane crashes that he later connects with a time-travel conspiracy with the help of the theoretical physicist, Dr. Arnold Mayer (Daniel Travanti). He links the accidents to time travellers who kidnap people and take them to the future, replacing their bodies with charred bodies of organically grown clones. Unknown to Smith, the beautiful Louise Baltimore (Cheryl Ladd), with whom he starts a whirlwind relationship, is at the heart of the conspiracy.
Time travel Sci-fi is always interesting, but Millennium takes it to a whole new level by combining its thought-provoking narrative with suspense and romance. Although it wasn’t a box office hit, Kristofferson and Ladd have an eye-grabbing chemistry on set and deliver vibrant performances that any classics fan would enjoy.
What 80s sci-fi movies deserve a spot on this list? Let us know on our socials @FlickeringMyth…