Five Sci-Fi Classics, One Summer: How 1982 Shaped Our Present

Five Sci-Fi Classics, One Summer: How 1982 Shaped Our Present

“Blade Runner,” “E.T.,” “Tron,” “The Wrath of Khan” and “The Thing” all arrived that one season 40 years ago to become indelible and influential.

The future is now: The photographer Sinna Nasseri captured images of present-day New York City as it might have been predicted by science fiction films of the 1980s. Above, a replica of the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” was on display in Times Square.

By Adam Nayman

Photo Essay by Sinna Nasseri

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At the end of Christian Nyby’s 1951 sci-fi chiller “The Thing from Another World” — about an Arctic expedition whose members are stealthily decimated by an accidentally defrosted alien monster — a traumatized journalist takes to the airwaves to deliver an urgent warning. “Watch the skies,” he insists breathlessly, hinting at the possibility of a full-on invasion in the final lines. “Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”

This plea for eagle-eyed vigilance suited the postwar era of Pax Americana, in which economic prosperity was leveraged against a creeping paranoia — of threats coming from above or within. The final lines of movie were prescient about the rise of the American science-fiction film, out of the B-movie trenches in the 1950s and into the firmament of the industry’s A-list several decades later.

The peak of this trajectory came in the summer of 1982, in which five authentic genre classics premiered within a one-month span. After its June 4, 1982, opening, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” set an unexpected record by grossing about $14 million on its first weekend. Seven days later, Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” debuted to $11 million but proved to have stubby, little box office legs, eventually grossing more than half a billion dollars worldwide. June 25 brought the competing releases of Ridley Scott’s ambitious tech-noir thriller “Blade Runner” and John Carpenter’s R-rated remake of “The Thing,” visions several shades darker than “E.T.”; both flopped as a prelude to their future cult devotion. On July 9, Disney’s technologically groundbreaking “Tron,” set in a virtual universe of video-game software, completed the quintet.

Not all of these movies were created equal artistically, but taken together, they made a compelling case for the increasing thematic flexibility of their genre. The range of tones and styles on display was remarkable, from family-friendly fantasy to gory horror. Whether giving a dated prime-time space opera new panache or recasting 1940s noirin postmodernist monochrome, the filmmakers (and special-effects technicians) of the summer of ’82 created a sublime season of sci-fi that looks, 40 years later, like the primal scene for many Hollywood blockbusters being made — or remade and remodeled — today. How could five such indelible movies arrive at the same time?

Whether the summer of ’82 represented the gentrification of cinematic sci-fi or its artistic apex, the genre’s synthesis of spectacle and sociology had been underway for some time. Following the pulp fictions of the ’50s, if there was one movie that represented a great leap forward for cinematic science fiction, it was Stanley Kubrick’s epically scaled, narratively opaque 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which not only featured a massive, mysterious monolith but also came to resemble one in the eyes of critics and audiences alike.

The film’s grandeur was undeniable, and so was its gravitas: It was an epic punctuated with a question mark. Almost a decade later, “Star Wars” used a similar array of special effects to cultivate more weightless sensations. In lieu of Kubrick’s anxious allegory about humans outsmarted and destroyed by their own technology, George Lucas put escapism on the table — “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” — and staged a reassuringly Manichaean battle between good and evil, with very fine aliens on both sides.

The same year as “Star Wars,” Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” rekindled the paranoid alien-invasion vibes of the ’50s with an optimistic twist. The film had originally been titled “Watch the Skies” in homage to Nyby’s classic, but it was an invitation to a more benevolent form of stargazing: Its climactic light show was as patriotic as Fourth of July fireworks, with a distinctly countercultural message worthy of Woodstock: Make love, not war (of the worlds).

What united “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters,” beyond their makers’ shared sense of genre history (and mechanics), were their direct appeals to both children and the inner children of grown-ups everywhere. In The New Yorker, the influential and acerbic critic Pauline Kael carped that George Lucas was “in the toy business.” Like the scientist at the end of “The Thing From Another World,” she was raising the alarm about what she saw as a powerful, pernicious influence: the infantilization of the mass audience by special-effects spectacle.

Yet even Kael submitted to the shamelessly populist charms of “E.T.,” which she described as being “bathed in warmth.” She wrote that the film, about the intimate friendship between a 10-year-old boy and a benign, petlike thing from another world, “reminds you of the goofiest dreams you had as a kid.”

With its opening images of flashlights cutting through darkened woods and the signature, fairy-tale tableaux of a 10-speed bicycle flying over the moon, “E.T.” is indeed dreamlike; released two years before Ronald Reagan’s campaign sold the promise of “Morning in America,” Spielberg conjured up the cinematic equivalent of a breaking dawn.

More than any of the film’s other achievements — its precise, poetic evocation of a peaceably tree-lined suburbia; its seamless integration of a mechanical character into a live-action ensemble; the soaring euphoria of John Williams’s score — what made Spielberg’s alien B.F.F. parable so persuasive was its patina of brand-name realism, with a wealth of sharply etched material details that account for its tidal emotional potency. Young Elliott (Henry Thomas) sleeps surrounded by plastic action figures and ephemera from Lucas’s lucrative cinematic universe. The boy’s “Star Wars” collectibles are complemented by the Reese’s Pieces he uses to lure E.T. into his home. The goodies were licensed from Hershey, whose global sales increased exponentially as a result.

It’s a thin line between charming, candy-flavored verisimilitude and craven commercialism, and if Spielberg ultimately stayed on the right side of it, “E.T.” nevertheless helped open a Pandora’s box of product placement. The charming, comic sequence in which Elliott’s mother overlooks E.T. among a closetful of stuffed animals both kidded and celebrated the character’s potential take-home commodification; Spielberg was now also in the toy business.

In the 1984 “Gremlins,” which counted Spielberg among its executive producers, the director Joe Dante slyly included a throwaway gag of an E.T. doll being dislodged from a department store shelf. At the other end of the spectrum — as far from satire or self-awareness as possible — the family-friendly 1988 farce “Mac and Me” recycled Spielberg’s premise of a little boy befriending a cute creature as a pretense to relentlessly hawk McDonald’s. It was a grim metaphor for movies as junk food.

If the true legacy of “Star Wars” was the mutation of cinema into other potentially consumable products, the old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood heroics of “The Wrath of Khan,” which reunited a troupe of middle-aged TV actors, may have offered an appealing counterpoint. In a moment when the mainstream was either trying to court teenage viewers (the glory days of John Hughes movies) or dumbing down, “Khan” proudly wore its 19th-century references on its Starfleet-issue sleeves.

After grousing that “gallivanting around the cosmos is a game for the young,” Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) is given a copy of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” for his birthday. His rival, the genetically engineered, cryogenically frozen superman Khan (played by Ricardo Montalbán), fancies himself a newfangled Capt. Ahab, with the callow, complacent Kirk as his great white whale. “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee,” Khan hisses during a late confrontation.

The film’s predecessor, the mega-budgeted “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), had been ponderous and overdetermined, a riff on “2001” minus the genius. In a glorious paradox, the “Khan” director Nicholas Meyer’s affectionate irreverence toward both “Star Trek” and its rabid fan base ended up raising the series and its characters to the level of authentic pop-cultural myth; a few years after “Saturday Night Live” had mercilessly skewered “Star Trek” as passé, Meyer invited devotees to have a last laugh.

Bringing back Montalbán, arguably the original show’s greatest special-guest villain, unlocked a potent, melancholy nostalgia for the faded novelty of the creator Gene Roddenberry’s prime-time space opera. The plot’s tensions even captured something of the spirit of the ’60s, with Khan and his followers styled distinctly as aging hippies with an ax to grind against the Starfleet establishment that had stranded them to rot in deep space. In the end, Leonard Nimoy’s stoic Mr. Spock goes down with the ship, croaking out one last “live long and prosper” with his irradiated fingers feebly crumpled into a claw. This final-act martyrdom not only worked like gangbusters dramatically but also forced the Boomers in the audience to uncomfortably confront their own values and mortality.

Of course, Spock didn’t stay dead for long: Even in a pre-internet era, fans had learned of the plans to kill off their hero and deluged the producers with requests to reconsider. This led to an uplifting, Nimoy-narrated coda that was added behind Meyers’s back and would set up a resurrection in a third sequel, subtitled “The Search for Spock.” (In 1987, Mel Brooks would spoof this profitable cynicism in “Spaceballs” by joking that his characters would all meet again one day in “the search for more money.”)

In “Khan,” the presence of a high-tech invention called the Genesis Device, which brings life to barren worlds (and potentially resurrects dead Vulcans), was a shameless deus ex machina that doubled as an unheralded breakthrough. The brief interlude in which we see the device deployed was the first completely computer-generated sequence in a feature film — an example of special effects technicians (specifically, the magicians at Lucas’s visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic) boldly going where no crew had gone before.

Following hot on Khan’s heels, “Tron” explored C.G.I.’s potential more fulsomely. Originally conceived by the director Steven Lisberger as an animated feature after playing a game of Pong, the film essentially reconfigured Lewis Carroll for the digital age, with a programmer in place of Alice and a mainframe in place of a looking glass. Suspecting that his work has been plagiarized, a game developer confronts his nefarious boss only to be uploaded into his own arcade-style creation as punishment. This narrative worked effectively — if accidentally — as an allegory for the increasingly technocratic nature of studio filmmaking in the aftermath of the New Hollywood. What could be more symbolic of a paradigm shift than having Jeff Bridges, who had starred in Michael Cimino’s disastrous, industry-changing 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate,” beamed against his will into 3-D gladiatorial combat by a sentient artificial intelligence with echoes of the malevolent HAL 9000 from “2001?”

In The New York Times, Janet Maslin opined that by following the example of “Star Wars,” the new film succeeded in being “loud, bright and empty.” The subtext to “Tron’s” cool reception was that if Lisberger’s vision represented the state of the art, the art itself was in trouble.

Where “Tron” imagined the plight of a human suddenly reduced to a ghost in the machine, “Blade Runner” featured robots who yearned more than anything to be flesh and blood. Freely adapted from a short story by the sci-fi great Philip K. Dick, whose neurotic narratives examined the dangerous intersection of technology and psychology, “Blade Runner” recruited Harrison Ford, the charismatic M.V.P. from “Star Wars,” for box office muscle. The new film’s greatest creation, though, was Rutger Hauer’s atavistic replicant Roy Batty, a dissident being hunted by Ford’s titular character, Rick Deckard. In a film about androids raging against their puppet master, this grungy, muscular Pinocchio steals the show. The fight in which Roy brutally subdues Deckard on a rooftop shocked audiences not used to seeing Han Solo (or Indiana Jones) bested in hand-to-hand combat. The scene’s unexpected payoff comes via a soulful soliloquy by Roy — reportedly rewritten on set by Hauer, who scoffed at the script’s “high-tech talk” — that stops the movie in its tracks and momentarily imbues it with some of the same pulpy poetry as “The Wrath of Khan.”

Brilliantly designed and meticulously detailed by Ridley Scott — then coming off the bleak, brutal triumph of “Alien” and considered Kubrick’s heir ahead of the more optimistic Spielberg — “Blade Runner” was a visual triumph. When Roy insists, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” he could be describing his own movie. It was also as narratively convoluted as the ’40s noirs it plundered for its smoky, smoldering look. Viewers were frustrated by Scott’s furtive, elliptical storytelling, including an ending that left not only the fate of the heroes in doubt but also the question of their humanity, an enigma revisited (if not definitively answered) in a 1992 director’s cut.

The grudging tone of the initial reception to “Blade Runner” was nothing compared with the contempt for “The Thing,” which also chronicled the desire of an ornery life form to become human: imitation by way of contagion. In remounting “The Thing From Another World” — which had been briefly featured on a television screen in the background of his slasher breakthrough “Halloween” — Carpenter kept the snowy backdrop and then-there-were-none plotting. The film follows the same basic beats as the original, with a group of explorers discovering a downed flying saucer in a remote location and being killed off one by one by its elusive passenger.

The director took a very different approach with the titular alien, however. Instead of a lumbering, humanoid carrot, Carpenter’s version was an inveterate shape-shifter who hid stealthily inside a series of human hosts, turning them against one another before turning them inside out via jaw-dropping makeup effects by Rob Bottin. The influence of “Alien” was unmistakable, although Carpenter’s all-male cast lacked the diversity and distinctive personalities of Scott’s co-ed crew; these skilled character actors were little more than grist for the proverbial mill.

The key line in “The Thing,” uttered in the aftermath of a particularly gruesome metamorphosis, was a profane version of “you’ve got to be kidding me,” an acknowledgment joining shock and awe with picaresque slapstick. The problem was that audiences forgot to laugh — maybe because they were sick to their stomachs. Carpenter’s brilliantly executed exercise in nervous tension was widely dismissed as sadistic grotesquerie; the idea that it might have been satirizing Reaganite fears of ideological conformity (or new waves of insidious, scarily transmissible diseases) was barely considered. As penance, Carpenter’s next movie was the good-natured “Starman,” which was basically “E.T.” for grown-ups, starring a serene Jeff Bridges as the dude who fell to Earth.

It’s telling that the reputations of “Blade Runner” and “The Thing” have been rehabilitated to the point of classic status, in addition to enduring as valuable, renovatable intellectual property. The same bristling ambivalence that kept the films from winning over their original audiences ensured decades of obsessive cult veneration. In 2011, the Swedish director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. tried to “prequelize” Carpenter’s movie, but even though his “Thing” was set in the days before the 1982 version, it was more or less a straight remake — or, in the spirit of the material, an inhabitation, fetishistically mimicking the textures of its source material in an attempt to replicate it.

More successful — and evocative — was Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully executed “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), a long-gestating follow-up that luxuriated in the metaphysical mysteries of its predecessor while giving Ford a more vigorous victory lap with a signature role than either the later “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” sequels. In 1982, the “Blade Runner” dystopian vision of a fallen, polluted world felt like a cautionary tale; by 2017, the images of a ruined, fallen, overheated world had the shivery immediacy of documentary.

Both “Blade Runner 2049” and “The Thing” remake (2011) feature scenes in which 21st century C.G.I. is used to painstakingly recreate the analog wonders of 1982. So does “Tron: Legacy” (2010), which not only brought back Bridges but also stranded him on the other side of the uncanny valley via a not-quite-convincing digital doppelgänger modeled on his younger self. One way to look at the imagery in these films is as the artistic equivalent of Khan’s Genesis Device, sentimentally resurrecting the cinematic past for viewers. But there’s also something necrophiliac about the nostalgia. In the most shocking moment of “Blade Runner 2049,” the voluptuous replicant played in the original by Sean Young appears, looking much more convincing than Bridges in “Tron: Legacy,” only to be unceremoniously shot in the head.

The only standout of 1982’s Summer of Sci-Fi that hasn’t been remade, reimagined or sequelized is “E.T.,” and it probably never will be; if it’s possible for a film to be both a time capsule and timeless, it fits the bill. But it has been meddled with: For the 2002 special edition of the film, Spielberg airbrushed the guns carried by government agents and replaced them with walkie-talkies. It was a well-intentioned sanitizing gesture the director later admitted was a mistake: In the future, “there’s going to be no more digital enhancements or digital additions to anything based on any film I direct,” the director told Ain’t It Cool News in 2011.

This vow of chastity didn’t keep Spielberg from strategically re-creating — and defacing — his late friend Kubrick’s “The Shining” in “Ready Player One” (2018), a spiritual update of “Tron” set in a world where the most ubiquitous online role-playing games offer total immersion in 1980s multiplex nostalgia.

“Ready Player One” was coolly received, but its combination of exploitation and critique of retro aesthetics (and reactionary fandom) was nevertheless on target. In a moment when “Stranger Things” has recalibrated our pop-cultural compass back to the days of “Morning in America” — featuring not only Kate Bush and Journey but also kids bicycling furiously through back streets — it’s worth contemplating why they don’t (or can’t) make them like they used to. This month, “E.T.” will receive a rerelease in Imax theaters. It’s a throwback that feels right on time, a reminder of when blockbusters felt like events rather than obligations, and nothing could be more exhilarating than watching the skies.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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