The Summer of ’85

There’s nothing like the energy of a packed theatre of eager moviegoers to make a film even as ubiquitous as Back to the Future feel like a brand new experience. And while the audience fell squarely within the 30 – 50 age group (meaning that most people present either grew up watching the film on VHS or saw it in theaters 30 years ago), there were also a strong number of families present, with kids both grade schoolers and high schoolers, and the reactions from all age groups was enthusiastic across the board; the 10 year old next to me was having just as much fun as the 50 year old behind me.

And that got me thinking. (Always a dangerous thing.) For many in my generation, the grumpy older faction at the very beginning of the entirely too broad Gen Y/Millennial age group (am I really a Millennial if I grew up with vinyl, mix tapes, and the Berlin Wall?), the summer of 85 is a banner year for ‘80s nostalgia. It was the year of “We Are the World,” Punky Brewster (yay!) New Coke (boo!), the first of many Duran Duran splits (double boo), The Oregon Trail (double yay), bad perms, great music, Huffy bikes and any number of Choose Your Own Adventure books. In short? It was the perfect year to be a kid. Instead of wasting away the long days of summer on gaming consoles or smartphones and computers where pre-manufactured fare of little caloric value is available for consumption 24/7, we … played outside. With fellow human beings, often on interesting little contraptions called bicycles, most of the time inventing games as we went along. 1985 was one of the last years of the analog world where the idea of being “connected” meant, you know, making a phone call.

It was also a year when franchises had yet to dominate the film industry and, as a result, a number of studio offerings for mainstream audiences (meaning, you know, both kids as well as adults—the two weren’t yet so deeply segregated) were still fresh, fun, and wonderfully imaginative. Sure, there were sequels that summer: Mad Max: Thunderdrome, The Jewel of the Nile, and what ’80s summer would be complete without a James Bond entry (A View to a Kill), but this was the overwhelming minority. Hollywood, by and large, was still capable of taking risks–and those risks are manifest in the films gracing multiplexes that long hot summer.

The Atlantic recently published an opinion piece tackling this very topic, summing up the gaping hole we have in today’s movie industry :

While elaborate, big-budget movies like the Hunger Games series and Marvel films might be creative and loaded with special effects, they don’t compare to the youth movies produced during the 1980s: a decade that saw an extraordinary crop of pictures whose like hasn’t been seen since.  … It was a short-lived crest in artistic innovation and creativity: After 1985, the number of youth-oriented films dwindled each year, leaving the genre almost dead by the end of the decade.

The reason these films worked is because they took into consideration the intelligence of the audience—the imagination of the audience was the special effect more than anything else. Perhaps our current society of nonexistent attention spans and an all-consuming quest for constant relevance has conditioned the movie industry to capitulate; giving audiences what they think it wants instead of what audiences actually need. And apparently the only movies that can satisfy both adults and young adults are overblown effects epics that leave little, if anything, to the imagination.

Do not mistake this for blind nostalgia: 1985 was guilty to some true stinkers. Police Academy 2, anyone? Porky’s Revenge? Jesus. The point, however, is that there were enough financially successful films during this particular year that took considerable creative risks to point to a lucrative future.  As The Atlantic writes:

When Hollywood does take financial and creative risks it can pay off, but … until a cadre of imaginative and nostalgia-fueled filmmakers can convince Hollywood to fund non-reboot and non-franchise projects, the specters of Chunk, Bender, and Marty McFly will remain relics of a truly exceptional decade.

And looking at the summer movie lineup for 2015? What it needs a good jolt of 1985.

Here are 5 (non-franchise) films that made the sunny days of 1985 so eternally fascinating.

BACK TO THE FUTURE (July 3rd)

THE GOONIES (June 6th)

PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (July 26th)

TEEN WOLF (August 23rd)

THE RETURN TO OZ (June 21st)

As a not-so-humble post script: 1985’s awesomeness wasn’t exclusive to the summer flix. It was also the year of Clue, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Breakfast Club, Witness, Cocoon, Rocky IV, Weird Science (OK, that was summer), Fright Night (OK, that was summer too), National Lampoon’s European Vacation (and this), The Color Purple, Ran, Prizzi’s Honor, Out of Africa, Brazil, Desperately Seeking Susan, Mask, Fletch and … Ladyhawke. Yeah.

Now that’s what I call a hell of a mix tape.

1 Comment

  1. I’d say you are definitely Generation Y–the Millennials didn’t star until 1993 in my book. 🙂 Anyway, besides Back to the Future (THE film of 1985, as far as I’m concerned), I’d throw in Better Off Dead, Fright Night, and The Return of the Living Dead as the films of the summer of 1984 (at least from a Gen X perspective). 🙂

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