While Star Wars was redefining the entire medium, Steven Spielberg was making a science fiction movie of his own, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg wanted to bring films into the heartland of America. According to the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, written by Peter Biskind, Spielberg had an argument with the screenwriter Paul Schrader. “[Spielberg] said, ‘I want these people to be people the suburbs, just like people I grew up with, who want to get on the spaceship at the end.’ Schrader had spent his life away from average Americans, couldn’t have cared less about Spielberg’s John Does. The argument grew heated. ‘If somebody’s going to represent me and the human race to get on a spaceship, I don’t want my representative to be a guy who eats all his meals at McDonald’s,’ Schrader yelled at Spielberg. ‘That’s exactly what I do want!’” (262-263). This exchanged perfectly showcases the changing mind sets between New Hollywood and the blockbuster. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a big success with both the public and the critics. It helped showed that Star Wars wasn’t a one chance thing. Science fiction was here to stay.
There were two other big science fiction released at the end of the seventies; Richard Donner’s adaption of the famous comic book super hero, Superman and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Blockbusters where in a way an evolution of the B movie. Star Wars was a serious attempt at the Flash Gordon serials, Alien was a killer monster movie with actual effort put in to it, and Superman was movie with respect and talent behind it. Superman producer Ilya Salkind would later say, “It was a whole interesting phenomena that started happening and if one thinks about it, it was just doing these big movies but doing them pretty well. Literally doing the B movies of the old serials and doing them A.”
The eighties were a golden age of science fiction films. Not only did Hollywood has the means to deploy special effects but they had the well to do it. The door was open and everyone wanted a piece of that Star Wars pie. The Flash Gordon connection was not lost and a Flash Gordon movie was rushed into production. The producer pushed for a more campy and comedic tone with a very modern soundtrack performed by the rock band Queen. The film became a cult classic but it didn’t capture the public imagination the way Star Wars did.
With the rise of the blockbuster also came the franchise and the sequel. While in some cases this worked out. Some worlds and stories need to spread out to further tell the tale, but mostly it was just Hollywood greed. Studios wanted to capitalize on a well know brand for an easy sell. Sequels existed before but the blockbuster mindset normalized it. After the success of Star Wars George Lucas went to work on its sequel The Empire Strikes Back. Work on the first film exhausted him that Lucas felt that he couldn’t direct The Empire Strikes Back so he hired Irvin Kershner to direct and Lawrence Kasdan to write. The result was a much darker film than the first. Lucas invested 33 million of his own money to have more creative control over the film. He made it back after three months in theaters.
Star Trek also made the leap from television to the big screen at this time. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the first film to use computer generated images for a computer simulation appropriately enough. Ironically, a year earlier director John Carpenter used wire frame to create an illusion of a computer simulation in his film Escape From New York.
Much of the science fiction films out at this time where mixed in with other genres. The Road Warrior and The Terminator were clearly in the realm of action. They also helped make Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger mega stars. Schwarzenegger is perfect as the titular time traveling assassin. He was basically like a tank in person form. Ghostbusters on the other hand was clearly a comedy. Normally a movie about ghosts would be more horror fantasy but writer and star Dan Aykroyd was a fan of the paranormal and tried to present the ghost hunting as a science with nuclear reactors and proton packs and the main characters are presented as scientists. Pseudoscience but still science.
CGI was a growing standard for special effects. Two films in the early nineties helped cement CGI as the go to tool for special effects, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Jurassic Park. Terminator 2: Judgement Day follows a new Terminator, the same model as the first, but reprogrammed to save a young John Connor as the machines has sent a new liquid metal T-1000 model to kill him. James Cameron uses CGI for the T-000 shapeshifting effects. While with Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg used CGI for the dinosaur movements that he couldn’t get with animatronics. Science fiction had never been better. Then the nineties happened.
The nineties where a dark time for pop culture in general. Everything seemed fine at first, our economy was booming, we had a cool saxophone playing president but things began to become bland. Everything was over focused grouped and felt like giant commercials for other stuff. It was a time where Hollywood could turn a Nike commercial starring a basketball player and a carton rabbit into a movie and no one thought that was weird. The science fiction movies that where made were large scale disaster films like Independence Day and Armageddon.
But by the end of the nineties, things were changing yet again. 1999 say the release of The Matrix. The story of a man who discovers that reality is nothing more than virtual reality created by artificial intelligence to control mankind. While it hasn’t aged particularly well. The sunglasses and the black trench coats stand out, but it did that blockbusters could at least try to say something more than just the typical explosions. Strap it in folks, next time we finish.
Biskind, Peter (1998). Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-And Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon and Schuster.