Sci-fi is one of the oldest genres of film, branching back to the very early days of the silent era. While the popularity of the genre has surged and fallen over the decades since then, there are usually at least a few very solid sci-fi films in any given decade. The 1980s were an era of great innovation when it came to filmmaking and their excursions into sci-fi were no different. There are a great many sci-fi films from the era that may not be as well known in this day, but they still very much hold up.

The 1980s was a period in film history rife with change. Coming off the end of the 1970s, films were going through a renaissance with the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster. High-concept films, those that could be described in just a few short sentences, were all the rage and set the stage for many original movies that focused on simple ideas rather than anything too technical. Sci-fi was no stranger to this, however, the nature of the genre led to even their high concept films having some more intricate plots.

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Escape From New York (1981)

The poster to Escape from New York

Escape From New York tells the story of Snake Plissken, the originator for nearly every gruff action hero to follow. After the President’s plane crashes into the island-turned-maximum security prison that is Manhattan, New York. This outwardly simple plot may not sound too sci-fi, but the world that is constructed for this story is entirely dystopian sci-fi. Injected devices that will kill you after 22 hours, tracking bracelets, and a walled-off city keeping in the most dangerous of criminals perfectly sum up a near-future world that is almost hindered by technological advances rather than helped by them.

Re-animator (1985)

Reanimator scientist looks at head on desk

Re-animator is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story from 1922 and tells the story of Herbert West, a college student convinced that he can bring the dead back to life. This film was originally given an “X” rating for the gore and themes but was later edited down to an “R” rating for video rental. This story while at times horrifying and other times comedic is undoubtedly sci-fi. West works the entire film on refining his formula and process so that he can re-animate the dead. He’s often successful, at least partially, but learns the dangers of such unnatural pursuits. This film tells a funny, scary, and intriguing story that especially has a place in the modern era of more technology-focused sci-fi horror stories.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly was a remake of the 1958 film of the same name. It tells the story of an obsessive scientist who accidentally fuses himself with a fly while testing a teleportation pod. This sci-fi horror was an early film in Jeff Goldblum’s career and ranks itself among one of his best performances. The film was especially praised for its practical effects, as Goldblum’s transformation into a human/fly hybrid was expertly done. Pieces of his human form slop off as the transformation goes on, and the film is very good at making the whole thing appear quite gross. It’s a good time for all.

The Running Man (1987)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man

The Running Man comes from the classic era of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action hits. This movie tells the tale of a cop who is framed for a massacre. Due to the totalitarian police state that is this world, he is entered into a game show called The Running Man. In this show, convicts attempt to outrun and survive against armed mercenaries in pursuit of a pardon from the state. While this outwardly sounds like a direct action movie, the world is built in such a way that there are a lot of sci-fi elements. The entire premise of the gameshow feels like a near-future science-fiction take on the dangers of how technology and media can control, and subdue the populace. These themes are eerily present today, especially with shows such as Squid Game becoming so popular with very similar subject matter.

Akira (1988)

Akira anime screenshot

Akira is an anime film based on a manga from 1982. This anime depicts a futuristic cyberpunk world wherein biker gangs rule the streets and the government performs dangerous experiments to serve their own needs. The story can be somewhat complex at times, and arguably deserves a rewatch to fully understand. This film absolutely stands apart from the high concept films that dot the rest of the 1980s, and it's for this complexity that the story is so memorable. Every ounce of this story is coated in sci-fi, all the way down to the bikes that the gangs ride around on. The popularity of this film has led to multiple remasters, meaning someone doesn’t even have to watch old, grainy footage to enjoy the story.

The 1980s were a fun time to be a sci-fi movie lover, for more than even the standards. While there were certainly very big names such as Aliens, The Terminator, and Predator, even the movies that are a bit off the beaten path are worth a watch. Sci-fi as a genre often stands the test of time, whether you’re laughing at how wrong they got things or grimacing at how scarily close these directors actually were. If there’s some free time in the near future, these sci-fi classics from the 1980s are certainly worth a watch.

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