The 1980s were a wonderful period for kids to enjoy science-fiction and fantasy. Never has the genre produced such an array of memorable films in a single decade before or after.
Those kids of the TV generation, bred on the old sci-fi serials that inspired Lucas to write Star Wars, really came to the fore in the 1980s thanks to the successes seen by Lucas and Spielberg in the late 1970s. The two Godfather’s of the blockbuster continued to be at the forefront of family-orientated science-fiction with “Empire Strikes Back” and “E.T.”, while those inspired by their method like Zemeckis, Dante, and Robbins took us on more adventurous journeys into the fantastical.
The 1980s might have been the year when spectacle took over from character, but with special-effects improving at an alarming rate, it was a special decade for those filmmakers wanting to explore the make-believe. Now time-travel, space exploration, and journeys to the bottom of the ocean could be brought to life like never before.
For the fantasy and science-fiction genres, there are few periods in film history better than the 1980s. Children, with their love of adventure and fairytale, had never had it so good. Here’s 10 of the best in science-fiction for families and children from the 1980s. Don’t forget to check out our Top 10 Family films of all time also!
10. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Herek, 1989)
Arriving at the end of the decade and boasting a pretty good sequel, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was an attempt to cash-in on “Back to the Future” and the time-travel craze. In terms of quality, it did just that. The film features two energetic leads in Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, and nicely runs through iconic dates in history to deliver an assortment of famous faces including Nilly the Kid, Socrates, Beethoven, Freud, Joan of Arc, and Abraham Lincoln. The film is a light and fluffy history lesson for younger children that will also taken them on an adventure too.
9. Time Bandits (Gilliam, UK, 1981)
Terry Gilliam’s 1981 film is one of his most accessible films. Although younger kids won’t understand some of the humour or the wry satire, it’s a wonderfully made film with exceptional production design that will prove winning in children’s eyes.
8. Tron (Lisberger, 1982)
“Star Wars” inspired many space adventures in the 1980s and 1990s. In “Innerspace” we saw the concept relocated to the human body through miniaturisation, in “Tron” we see the concept transported inside a video game through digitisation. Ace videogame developer and player Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is digitised and sent inside the game he created where he has to battle an assortment of foe including the master computer hell bent on his destruction. Most people remember the Light Cycle battle and consequent escape which is the film’s high point, but it’s another highly stylised visual treat that will have kids glued to their seats until the very end.
7. Innerspace (Dante, 1987)
“Innerspace” essentially takes the space adventure film and relocates it inside the human body. Through miniaturisation our hero played by Dennis Quaid ends up, unwittingly, inside the body of Martin Short. It’s a funny and fast-paced adventure that also features some wonderful special-effects.
6. Explorers (Dante, 1985)
One of my favourite films as a child. Joe Dante was a master of the fantasy film yet his work still remains largely underrated. “Explorers” sees three school friends make a spaceship out of a Tilt-a-Whirl amusement car ride. The film is full of wonder and a sense of adventure but director Dante also peppers the story with pop culture references and a witty sense of humour.
5. Weird Science (Hughes, 1985)
John Hughes turned to science-fiction to do the one thing his Breakfast Club couldn’t – make a friend out of a Barbie doll. Perhaps this one is for the older kids – I remember seeing it quite young and not really fully understanding what was so great about having a girl-friend! Watch it as an adult and you begin to think – if only I had three wishes, I’ve got a really good one right now.
4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek didn’t have to borrow from Star Wars – it existed in its television form long before Luke Skywalker. But, it did benefit from the success of the Star Wars saga, and that’s best seen in the best film of the franchise – “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. It’s an exciting, darkly-plotted addition to the long-running series.
3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
Towards the end of the 1970s adult audiences had been scared out of their wits by aliens promising impending doom and ultimate annihilation – case in point Ridley Scott’s terrifying “Alien”. But Steven Spielberg had an altogether different view of little green men. He pondered on the idea that aliens were as curious about us as we were of them. In “E.T.” he transports us back to childhood, as pre-teen Elliot befriends an alien creature left behind on earth after his ship escaped capture by unscrupulous government agents. It’s a heartwarming tale of childhood innocence and friendship told with a sense of wonder and adventure. The shot of the BMX kids flying across the moon, their silhouettes cast against the blue glow of the moonlight is one of the most glorious ever committed to film.
2. Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (Lucas, 1980) + Return of the Jedi (1983)
You run out of things to say about George Lucas’ space opus. They say imitation is the best form of flattery and in Star Wars’ case Lucas can’t help but blush at the amount he has received. You’ll see films that copy the Star Wars mould on this list but there are loads of others that appeared in the 1980s with studios trying to cash-in on audience’s wish to fly off into space.
1. Back To The Future (Zemeckis, 1985) + Back To The Future II & III (1989/1990)
One of the great things about fantasy films is their ability to capture children’s imaginations while reminding parents about their own youth and the innocence we all had growing up. Like Lucas’s “Star Wars”, “Back To The Future” is one such film that will thrill children and simultaneously return parents to that age when the monster in the closet did exist. Director Robert Zemeckis’ film is a gleefully nostalgic adventure based on one simple premise: what would it be like to go back in time and meet your own Mum and Dad?