The Thing is just a B-class horror movie filled with cheap suspense (and proudly so), Blade Runner looks like a cloned version of film noir in smoked sets surrounded by matte paintings, and in Tron, more attention is paid to computers than human characters. But they all have the essential element of great science fiction: a view into the future. They did it in terms of not only vision but also technology. Few films manage to achieve the latter, yet it happened three times in the same year. Explosion.
The Thing raised the bar of special makeup effects and showed an extremely grim future: annihilation of the human race. (Future-thinking does not mean forward-thinking.) Blade Runner brought Syd Mead’s cyburban planning into life and projected a slightly better, but depressing nonetheless, world: a landscape drenched in acid rain and covered by über-commercialism, towered by skyscrapers owned by mega-corporations (turned out it was right—just visit Hong Kong or Taipei today). Tron gave birth to CG blockbusters and envisioned a more technologically advanced society: gravity-defying virtual reality.
…And that used to be the end of discussion about sci-fi films, because if we continued from there we eventually had to start comparison with…traditional films, where acting and storytelling rule, none of which films of this genre have. (Sherry, my editor, voiced her disagreement for Blade Runner. I admit. Rutgar Hauer is charismatic in it.) We, sci-fi movie aficionados, would yet again be forced to realize the ugly truth: our B-class citizen status in the movie kingdom. Dream on, but always remember that there are barriers that cannot be crossed. We were always in a hurry to make a quick conclusion in a discussion, so we could end on a high note.
Let’s go back to the beginning: what is a film? A genre of art. Then what gives a piece of art worth? How it impacts the audience, how it enriches our lives, how it makes us think about what it is to be human. Then think about the aforementioned movies. They pushed the boundary of what’s technically possible and opened a new world for us. If a piece of art’s worth is measured by the influence it gives back to the society, then the 80s science fiction movies’ achievement is no less, or might be even larger, than Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, or The Godfather.
Want an example? Here is one, coming from John Lasseter, head of the animation studio Pixar, stating if there were no Tron, there would be no Toy Story (which kicked off Pixar). Because Pixar is the company that made computer animation as we now know it, we owe Tron credit for the birth of an entertainment genre. How many “classical” movies can claim that powerful influence on our society? Here is another example, a personal one: I moved to Taipei partially because I wanted to live in the world of Blade Runner: smog and acid rain and rotten gutters and hightech. I have watched more than a thousand films so far but no other film has influenced my life decision so profoundly.
P.S. Yes, I haven’t discussed anything about E.T., the titan that ruled the year 1982. It contained great storytelling and top-notch special effects from I.L.M. (+ made a load of money), but it was looking backward. Its theme is returning home (alien) and growing up (boy): nostalgia for our lost youth, evidenced by the recent Super 8, a direct homage to E.T and the innocent 80s. Despite being a science fiction film, E.T. was already of the past when it came out. It’s a good film, but not sci-fi good, in my eyes.