Back in 2011, author Ernest Cline hit the literary world hard with the debut of his premiere novel Ready Player One. Telling the story of teenager Wade Watts and his hunt for a legendary treasure in a virtual reality world known as the Oasis, the book grabbed attention not only with its fascinating vision of a VR world that impacts everyday life, but also with the deluge of pop culture references that permeate its pages. In particular, pop culture from the 1980s is a major subject within this sci-fi adventure. In honor of the upcoming release of the film adaptation, which is being done by famed director Steven Spielberg, I have decided to assemble my personal selection of movies from the 1980s. These are an assortment of films I feel could serve as a solid introduction to ’80s pop culture for someone new to the time period. Some are movies I feel capture some aspect of the time, others are a spotlight on filmmakers who impacted the era or began their careers here, and some are simply movies that are generally regarded as classics and worth checking out. Now, these thirteen films are not ranked in any particular order, and they are my personal opinion. With that said, let’s delve into the era, shall we?
1. Back to the Future
Though I have tried not to do any particular ranking to this list, I confess that I chose to start it with a movie from the ’80s that is also my personal favorite film: Back to the Future. Centered around teenager Marty McFly as he goes back in time to the ’50s, the film follows Marty as he inadvertently interferes with his parents’ first meeting and must bring them together before he fades from existence. It is no wonder how the film has become a classic since its release, thanks to memorable characters, a sharp story, and one of fiction’s most remembered time machines in the form of the DeLorean.
2. The Breakfast Club
Teen films were ever present throughout the ’80s, from standard fare like Fast Times at Ridgemont High to more subversive and different works like Heathers. Chief among the filmmakers for such films was John Hughes, regarded as having an ear for writing natural dialogue for his teenage characters. No work better captures that like The Breakfast Club, which brings five high school stereotypes together for detention and break down the social barriers between them.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
After cementing the modern blockbuster with the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars back in the ’70s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would come to be two defining figures in ’80s cinema. The pair would separately direct and produce plenty of ’80s films, but one project where the two worked together was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Serving as a fun and thrilling throwback to the two-fisted tales of the 1930s, the film followed archaeologist Indiana Jones as he battled Nazis and sought to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant.
Among the many hit movies of the ’80s, few quite struck a nerve as did the comedy Ghostbusters. Following a group of scientists who start a business hunting ghosts, the movie’s sharp wit, memorable characters, and even creepy supernatural threats helped to ensure that the film became one of 1984’s highest-grossing releases. It also doesn’t hurt having one of the most memorable theme songs in movie history, one that was even nominated for an Academy Award.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street
The horror trend in the ’80s was all about the Slasher movie, a subgenre that concerns teens and young adults being hunted down by some powerful killer. Though plenty of slasher movies like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine were made in those years, I feel a strong example of the subgenre comes with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Following a group of teens haunted by a supernatural killer that can slaughter them in their sleep, the movie offers a good story paired with memorable scares and a brilliant bogeyman in the form of Freddy Krueger.
The ’80s gave the world MTV, and with that came the true birth of the music video. In this new avenue of music and visuals working together, one film to capitalize on this moment was Flashdance. Centered around a steel mill worker who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the movie’s intimate story of pursuing one’s dreams is paired up with several dance sequences that would fit well among the music videos the newfound channel would broadcast.
7. Big Trouble in Little China
John Carpenter is a director who certainly made his mark in the ’80s, with such films as the sci-fi horror classic The Thing and the subversive action movie They Live. However, a work from that time I feel is worth checking out is Big Trouble in Little China. Centered around trucker Jack Burton and his pal Wang Chi, the two face off against monsters and martial artists to rescue a girl captured by an ancient Chinese ghost sorcerer. Filled with plenty of action and some good fun, it’s capped by the film’s cleverest touch: that Jack Burton thinks he’s the movie’s hero, when he’s really the comic relief in over his head in a world of Chinese combat and mythology.
8. The Terminator
James Cameron is a filmmaker who has made two of the highest grossing films of all time, but it’s almost hard to believe how quickly he hit the ground running with his first feature, known as The Terminator. This sci-fi thriller follows soldier Kyle Reese as he goes back in time to save Sarah Connor from a Terminator, an unstoppable android sent to kill her. Its vision of a future ravaged by a robotic uprising and cybernetic killing machines left an indelible mark in the realm of science fiction, along with launching the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and turning him into one of the decade’s biggest action stars.
9. Die Hard
For ’80s action movies, most of them tended to be centered around muscular men who proved to be unstoppable killing machines, such as in films like Commando or The Delta Force. The genre received a solid shakeup from this archetype with the release of Die Hard, centered around officer John McClane as he gets caught in a hostage situation orchestrated by Hans Gruber. John McClane stood out among the action heroes of the time thanks to relying more on cunning and sheer determination to battle these criminals instead of brute strength, along with a charming performance delivered by then newcomer Bruce Willis.
Japan was on the pop culture mind back in the 1980s, and anime was beginning to creep into the West with series like Voltron and Robotech. However, the gates would really open with the release of the cyberpunk anime film Akira. Telling the tale of two friends torn apart when one gains incredible psychic power, its brutal action and surreal visuals caught the imagination of many and carved anime’s first solid foothold into the West, paving the way for its boom in the ’90s.
11. First Blood
Though John Rambo is a movie character whose films would become associated with the excessive action fare most associated in the ’80s, his first film is actually a more serious affair. First Blood is a psychological thriller, one that unfolds when police brutality dealt to Vietnam veteran John Rambo triggers wartime flashbacks and leads to a small-scale war as he fights back. This gripping film explores the issue of mistreatment of Vietnam veterans with a powerful hand, aided by Sylvester Stallone’s haunting performance as Rambo.
Long before Tim Burton would become one of the crowning pop culture figures in the Goth community, he was a budding filmmaker whose career began after a short film he made called Vincent gained notice. His first feature would be Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but the film that really would establish him was his follow-up, a comedy known as Beetlejuice. Centered around a ghost couple who mistakenly hire the “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse to scare a new family out of their home, the film showcases the kind of wondrous visuals and playfully morbid nature that would define Burton’s style.
13. The Princess Bride
The fantasy genre had a major boom in the 1980s, with plenty of variety from sweeping epics like Conan the Barbarian and Legend to more playful fare like Labyrinth and Willow. One work that has grown into becoming a fond classic among this boom is The Princess Bride. Framed within the set-up of a grandfather reading his grandson a story, the film’s tale of adventure and romance as farmhand Wesley seeks to reunite with the lovely Princess Buttercup pulls off a wonderful balance of poking fun at fairy tale conventions while sincerely capturing the joy of them.
So, those are my recommendations when it comes to introducing oneself to movies from the ’80s. I hope that this sample platter of films helps to offer a gateway to ’80s pop culture for someone new. There are plenty of other films I could have added to this list, but I didn’t want to go on too long. Perhaps you might discover these other works yourself, after dipping your toes into the pop culture pool.