Top 10 1980s Science-Fiction Films For Children

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)

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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)

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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)

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“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)

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“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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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?

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

Over to you: what are your top 1980s science-fiction movies for children?

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Alyson Reply

    Those top three could be a chapter in my childhood. I still can’t ride my bike on a fall night without imagining E.T. pulling us up over the trees towards the moon. Great list.

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    Joel Burman Reply

    I love innerspace they should do a 3D remake of it!!!

  3. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    The top 3 definitely are staples of my childhood. I’m sad to say I haven’t seen any of the next 7 lol…

  4. Avatar
    moviesandsongs365 Reply

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. 1, 2 and 3 would make my top 10

    No. 7 Innerspace is good, but outside my 10 best. Didn’t like The Explorers or Time bandits.I want to see Star trek 2 again since you say it’s the best of the series ( :

    I would also throw into the conversation: Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home, The Abyss(for kids?), Flash Gordon, Flight of the Navigator, Short Circuit, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids. Some of them I am unsure if they are fantasy or sci-fi.

    I have a list of nostalgic movies on my blog, if you’re interested

  5. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Three words: The Last Starfighter.

    Awesome list (again) Dan, this certainly does bring up memories of my childhood, and once again the crushing disappointment of living out in the country with no cinema, so only having access to the occasional screening of said films on TV. Ahh, thank God for growing up, getting a job, and living in a big city, where I could afford to buy movies on DVD and BluRay!!!

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    Richard Reply

    Great list! It’s got to be Back to the Future at 1, and Bill and Ted was Keanu Reeves only convincing performance. I would have included Ghostbusters and Gremlins in there somewhere. I always thought Weird Science was a bit overrated.

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    Rodney Reply

    Crikey, I can’t believe Gremlins didn’t make it in! That film ROCKS!!! Gizmo was my favourite thing back then, and I used to watch the bit where the old lady gets thrown out the window over and over and over!! I used to laugh my butt off!!!
    That was, of course, before I developed a sense of moral and ethical maturity and discovered that people being killed is not something to laugh at.


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    Ross McG Reply

    great shout on innerspace, cracking movie

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    Marc Reply

    I always thought Time Bandits was considered more of Fantasy Fiction (to which I would offer The Neverending Story even there’s really no science there:P). Nice list Dan. Happy to see Bill & Ted make it here. But I think you made everyone happy with BTTF in the top spot. Well done:)

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    Will Reply

    Once again you tap into my mind and nine out of ten on your list were on constant repeat during my childhood. Great list, I love them all in their own way. I haven’t seen Innerspace since those days but it was always so amazing to me. I’m worried it won’t hold up. And I still watch Bill & Ted’s every couple of years.

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    Róisín Reply

    Bill & Ted, Back to the Future and E.T. bring back so many memories! Gremlins and Honey I Shrunk The Kids were two more which I noticed in one of the above comments and which definitely featured in my childhood film viewing..repeatedly! So too did The Neverending Story. I also have memories of watching Tank Girl…although I’m too sure how many other 10 year olds were watching it at the time.

    Great, great,….great list! It’s made me want to go and think some more!

    There’s one in the back of my Australian one..but I can’t quite remember…

    I’ll beee bach.

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    Denise Reply

    ahhh sooo many memories from when i was a child… <3 back to the future, bill n ted, innerspace, E.T. and also starwars… just <3 these films…

    however; i was not a fan of time bandits and startrek 2…

    i'm suprised no-one mentioned, critters, cocoon or V…

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    Heather Reply

    All awesome choices. I remember being totally blown away by Innerspace. I only saw it once and couldn’t remember the name and kept searching for it in video stores.

    Back To The Future, Bill and Ted, Star Wars, and Star Trek were all staples of my childhood.

    I never really enjoyed ET and to this day don’t connect with it very well.

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    QuangTam Reply

    These are the great films I have ever seen…

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    Alex Reply

    Oh, a list after my own heart! I love 80’s sci-fi and these are all great films to watch while growing up. I still have to see INNERSPACE though, it looks pretty fun.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    This could quite possibly be my favorite list by you, Dan!

    What a fantastic choice of films so glad to see Explorers and Weird Science up here!!
    Oh and also Time Bandits, actually the list is flawless. I can’t think of a film I would or change.

  17. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Actually I did think of one I would add, but only one – The Last Starfighter ……one of my favorite sci-fi 80s flicks!

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