Published on April 1st, 2022 | by Robert Barry Francos0
In Search of Tomorrow: A Journey Through 80s Sci-fi Cinema
In Search of Tomorrow: A Journey Through 80s Sci-fi Cinema is a five-hour documentary that explores the rich history of science fiction and its heyday.
Science Fiction can run from the sublime, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Silent Running (1972), or it can fall into the B-level category of the likes of The Green Slime (1968) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958; this was the basis for 1979’s Alien, as 1951’s The Thing from Another World was remade as John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982). Despite some well-done classics such as the first two mentioned above, by the mid-1970s, Sci-Fi was a second-rate citizen as a genre, producing mostly cheese with bad effects.
This all changed in 1977, with the release of a little film called Star Wars, which reignited the genre aflame, giving rise to both big budget bonanzas and cheapie imitations, but the spark was set. In a perfect storm, this upswing came right on the advent of the VHS market, further spreading the fever. Please note that I am writing this intro before actually watching the film, so I am not sure it will reflect my sentiments. And so, it’s time to start the show. Cue Bugs and Daffy.
The focus of this all-star documentary is that period in the 1980s when everything exploded like all those ships in the film version of Battlestar Gallactica (1978).
After the initial introduction, which briefly goes as far back as Georges Méliès’ 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, and various other highlights, with Wil Wheaton explaining how before Star Wars, most sci-fi was nihilistic and was a warning of things to come, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (remember, sci-fi is not about the future or the past, but about the present of when the film was made).
This is followed by a host of hosts: interviews with actors, directors (such as Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, and John Carpenter), writers (both screenplays and critics), production crew, composers, and vloggers, etc. What is really nice is that the documentary does not only talk about the top-tier releases, but also the relatively smaller ones that did not raise as much of a blip as the multimillion-dollar mega-effects bonanzas. Year by year, they focus on film by film, so while there are the obvious ones like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Blade Runner, I was pleased they went into detail about the likes of Saturn 3, Yor, Galaxina (RIP, Dorothy Stratton), and Spaceballs.
The top effects in many films of that period are now in-reach and equal to numerous low budget Sci-Fi/horror film genres of the present day. In the less sophisticated CGI of the 1980s, it was a wow factor, but now one sees it compared to what the major studios are putting out, say the superhero releases, this was pretty basic by today’s standards. Sometimes modern films will try to purposefully look like the ‘80s as a “flashback,” but technology for indie and low-budget films have actually caught up to the ‘80s majors in their technology, especially with green screens. This is especially true with animated films discussed here, such as Heavy Metal, Tron, and the amazing anime Akira.
Among the looks back at particular films, between each year there are also segments of about 15 minutes each that give some grounding to the genre of the period, such as “Cold War Kids,” which talks about how people of that generation – especially kids – were immersed in the threat of the possibility of a nuclear bomb going off at any moment. As a child, I still remember the drills in elementary school where we would practice getting under our desks to practice in case of a regular bombing attack, and lining up in the hallways and crouching down in case of an atom bomb. Of course, in reality, neither of those would really do anything, but we heard about it all the time, including in the cinemas encased in the messages from the films we watched.
While not inclusive, some of the between-years other segments include how films were marketed in a pre-Internet world, visual effects, creature effects (among two of my favorite topics), and music scores. The last one is about the technological implications of the vision in the movies, very briefly focusing on the whole “the future in the story represents the now.” There should have been more about technological determinism, and perhaps throw in a bit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death when describing the likes of Cherry 2000.
Another interesting point the documentary more hints at than is explicit, is that Sci-Fi is almost always blended with something else, such as a Western (Outland; Star Wars), horror (Alien), war stories (Aliens, Enemy Mine, Predator), or social commentary (Final Countdown; Alien Nation), for example. I find it especially the latter, and the nuclear aspect or the rise of computers, robots and technological determinism (e.g., The Terminator) as expounded by the likes of Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Ellul. This “layering” is part of what makes Sci-Fi not only effective, but makes the future relatable. As I said, whenever it takes place, it’s about the present.
The only sort of repetition in the film, which is unavoidable and yet still enjoyable, is the number releases of a franchise, each of which are covered individually if they came out in the ‘80s. This includes Superman, Star Trek, and of course, Star Wars. Lot’s of “Return of…”, “Part II,” and “The Wrath…” to deal with, but these films are classic and pleasing to rehash, so it still goes relatively flying by.
Each release covered gets about five to ten minutes, and includes lots of clips of the film itself, backstage footage and bits from the trailer, and interviews, none very long (hey, there are a lot of films here). They switch back and forth between the present-day discussions (no historical interviews, happily) with the likes of Alex Winter, Barry Bostwick, Dee Wallace, Billy Dee Williams, Nancy Allen and multiple dozens of others, that it is easy to keep the viewers’ attention and interest, even over the extended time frame. I know I had to break up watching it over two days, which was no problem as it’s individual segments, rather than a narrative where plot points can easily be forgotten. Many of the anecdotal stories told by the casts and crews are especially compelling and often humorous, such as someone discussing the pomposity of Shatner.
The film is not afraid to shy away from pointing out the flaws of some of the subjects, such as Howard the Duck and Dune, and glorifying those that deserve it, like The Fly and Back to the Future. And while the film is joyfully comprehensive, it is not inclusive. There are many films not selected for discussion, and yet clips are shown, such as Heartbeeps and Night of the Comet. But, considering the information presented and the immensity of the time, I find no fault in that regard.
The whole film is a big, “Oh, yeah,” if you were a fan of the genre back in that timeframe. And seeing the people involved and what they look like now is a lot of fun, as well. And if you are wondering, yes, I did sit through all five hours of the documentary, and smiled through most of it.