1. The Amblin Effect
There’d been a renaissance in moviemaking seven years earlier when – let’s be honest – George Lucas was more interested in aliens and spaceships than dialogue and acting.
Movies became fun again, the good guy/bad guy mythos of the 50s matinee serials, and it was built on new interest in old crafts (models, puppets, stunts, etc) to bring aliens, monsters and swashbuckling archaeologists to life.
Overturning the moral ambiguity of 70s cinema were three of 1984’s top four films – Ghostbusters (#1), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (#3) and Gremlins (#4).
2. Movie Ratings
Blockbusters faced a problem after Jaws and Star Wars – a gremlin in a blender and that poor bastard in the lava pit (minus his heart) were a little extreme for PG, but the R rating (the American equivalent of MA) was too harsh for family adventure films.
Spielberg, who later regretted the ‘grisly’ lava pit suggested another rating that would cater for audiences too old for talking animals and too young for boobs. Because, you know, when you’re Spielberg you can even get ratings invented.
3. Genre Legends
Arnold Schwarzenegger became the quintessential 80s action star after The Terminator, and that guy from Piranha II who directed it is now the biggest filmmaker around, getting billion dollar hauls out of 100-year-old cruise ships and motion captured alien species.
After their 1980 smash Flying High, Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker’s Top Secret cemented the gags of the spoof comedy – even if it’s overdue for mercy killing now it’s in the hands of the Wayans brothers.
Then there’s Chicago advertising copywriter John Hughes, who’d go on to become the de-facto voice of generation X after giving us Sixteen Candles.
4. Cult Appeal
In the early 80s, if your project didn’t have enough commercial appeal to play in cinemas, you’d do better putting your money into Enron or One.Tel – besides TV, there was nowhere else to go.
Home video was the real Long Tail years before the internet. Suddenly niche genre everywhere could indulge their love of cult, giving directors like Alex Cox (Repo Man), Win Wenders (Paris, Texas) and Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves) followings in 1984.
It was the only chance lovers of esoterica had to sneer at the masses seeing Footloose and The Karate Kid and even the big studios took a bite, with MGM bankrolling batshit crazy The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension.
5. The MTV Age
Compared to directors of the 1970s, the new generation (Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, Justin Lin) all have ADHD, bipolar disorder and a testosterone overdose all at once.
Tentpoles are still about music, fast cuts, hardware-porn and a bros before hos approach to women, and it’s all thanks to the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer doctrine that arrived with Beverly Hills Cop, the year’s second biggest film.
The star-making producers (who also shepherded Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise to the A-list) coaxed hot young comic Eddie Murphy away from a Ghostbusters offer and went on to reap box office billions for the next decade.
6. The New New Horror
Taste in horror is notoriously cyclical – you can’t swing a severed head without hitting a slasher reboot or moody haunting story today, but after the video nasty choked on its own blood the early 80s offered nothing but cheap, endless slasher sequels.
In 1984 Wes Craven gave fright-hungry audiences authentic scares with just the right amount of claret in A Nightmare on Elm Street, introducing a villain for the ages in the bargain. It was horror’s New Wave, introduced us to one Mr Depp, and revitalised the genre (before Craven lampooned it all in Scream).
7. Studio Games
Years before Harvey Weinstein and his purpose-built boutique labels, New Line Cinema had an eye on both genre pics and highbrow awards-botherers, and A Nightmare on Elm Street was its first major success.
New Line did both very well until 2008 when megaflop The Golden Compass and a legal spat with Peter Jackson over Lord of the Rings money saw them shuttered, becoming a mere imprint of parent company Warner Brothers.
Disney also jostled for a new audience, launching the Touchstone banner to sell movies that didn’t feature princesses or anthropomorphic cartoon animals.
8. CGI’s true birth
The first CGI was the robotic view of the android gunslinger (Yul Brynner) in Westworld, and even though computer animation had been used in clips here and there, director Nick Castle wanted it to be a cornerstone of the story in 1984’s The Last Starfighter.
He approached computer graphics outfit Digital Productions to create scenes of photorealistic spaceships in battle, and while the cast filmed in a trailer park north of LA, a Cray supercomputer processed scenes and spat them out one agonisingly slow frame at a time.
Any $19.99 XBox game has better visuals nowadays, but that’s not the point. CGI suddenly wasn’t a fancy add-on, and Hollywood types from Lucas to Lasseter took notice and turned it into the monster it is today.
9. The Action Videocracy
If you liked action or ‘those blood and guts movies’ like your mum used to tut, the pickings were slim. Chuck Norris was never a major star, but his 1984 military actioner Missing In Action kicked off a roaring new trade – B list macho men playing an endless string of soldiers, sheriffs and lovers complete with porn ‘taches.
Hack producers churned them out fast and cheap, each premise as simple and indistinguishable as the last, and they punched, strafed and gouged all the way to the bank. When video was where you went to die if you were a real actor, it became a thriving business model with names like Mark Dacascos and Lorenzo Lamas all finding a strange kind of stardom.
10. The Franchise Rises
It took a movie that was as silly as it is beloved to convince studios originality was no selling point. 1984’s Police Academy was the progenitor and model of an 80s comedy, effortlessly transposable to a sequel (then another, then another).
The notion that a new film continued a story was suddenly old hat, each installment a loose remake of what had come before. Franchise fever spread to every income bracket of the business, from the sci-fi of Star Trek to the increasingly cheap Texas Chainsaw and Halloween brand names. From Saw to Twilight and Harry Potter to Marvel, today a movie idea lives or dies on its franchise potential.
The genres, styles, moviemakers, actors, technology and even corporate strategies sending ripples across the metaphysical pond of the industry to this day all happened in 1984.
If anything, this list could have been much longer. Who doesn’t know what ‘wax on, wax off’ means? Who didn’t listen to Limahl’s The Never Ending Story on their Sony Walkman? Directors who’ve given us our most treasured movies truly arrived in the mainstream in 1984, from Ron Howard (Splash) and Bob Zemeckis (Romancing The Stone) to Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap).
Let’s face it, what didn’t movies in 1984 change about cinema?