Making Movie History – A Look Back At 1984
1984 is widely considered one of the greatest years in film, producing a staggering amount of films that are still loved and quoted 30 years later. From ‘Footloose’ to ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, 1984 brought some of the greatest comedies, horror films, and sci-fi spectaculars ever seen on the big screen. Here’s a look at some of the biggest and most memorable films celebrating their 30th anniversary this year. In the event there’s a film on the list that’s slipped under your radar, I’ve included a short synopsis of each film as well as a look at its legacy since.
Synopsis: Chicago teenager Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) moves in with his aunt and uncle in a small town that has banned dancing and rock music. Ren falls for the daughter of the local Reverend who has lead the charge in keeping dancing and rock music illegal. Reverend Moore eventually sees the error of his ways and the bans are overturned, allowing the students to finally have a prom, which is strangely well choreographed for a bunch of students who haven’t been allowed to dance.
Legacy: The film’s title track by Kenny Loggins has become synonymous with the 1980s. The lasting popularity of the film led to a 2011 remake starring Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough. Though the film did not have the same lasting impression as the original, it still earned good reviews and nearly tripled its budget return at the box office.
‘This Is Spinal Tap’
Synopsis: The birth of the modern mockumentary, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ follows the three main members of Spinal Tap; David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls, and Nigel Tufnel, while on their 1982 American tour. The band runs into problems with low ticket sales, unimpressive set pieces, getting lost on their way to the stage, prop failures, exploding drummers, and the eventual split-up and reunion.
Legacy: ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ is a reported favorite comedy for bands to watch while on tour, and was even deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress in 2002 and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Actors Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest (all former Saturday Night Live cast members) have released several albums as Spinal Tap, and have appeared on several shows in character including ‘The Simpsons’, which Shearer is a regular cast member of.
Synopsis: The newly appointed mayor reverses previous restrictions for applicants at the police academy such as gender, age, height, etc., allowing for a broader range of new recruits. Trouble maker Carey Mahoney is sent to the police academy in lieu of going to jail, and does everything he can get thrown out as he’s not allowed to quit. The higher ups in the Police department also want to make the academy such a difficult experience as to weed out the undesirable cadets allowed in by the new mayor.
Legacy: Though critically panned, ‘Police Academy’ was a huge financial success, being the 6th highest grossing film of the year. It spawned 6 sequels, of diminishing quality, and a short lived television series. Talk of a reunion film has been going around for years, however cast members David Graff (Tackleberry) and Bubba Smith (Hightower) passed away before a new film could be made.
‘The NeverEnding Story’
Synopsis: Bastian Bux is a quiet boy who is accosted by bullies from school, hiding in a bookstore to get away. Bastian “borrows” a book, The Neverending Story, which the shopkeeper warns is not safe. Bastian hides in the school’s attic and begins reading about a fantasy world called Fantasia, its Empress, and a young hero named Atreyu. As Bastian reads it becomes clear that he isn’t just reading about Fantasia, he’s an active participant and a key figure in their battle against The Nothing.
Legacy: Two sequels were created, the first in 1990 starring Jonathan Brandis as Bastian, and the second in 1994 with Jason Richter taking the role. The film has been regularly referenced in pop culture, and the rock band Atreyu derives their name from the character in the film. A remake of the original story was talked about in 2011, but licensing rights prevented it from getting off the ground and the project was abandoned.
Synopsis: Sam Baker is struggling to get through her 16th birthday, which her family has forgotten about while focusing on her older sister’s wedding the following day. While at school, Sam is embarrassed to find that a sex quiz she filled out for her friend was inadvertently picked up by her crush Jake, whom she mentions as the guy she’s saving her virginity for. While she pines for Jake, she’s regularly accosted by a geeky freshman who is trying to win a bet among his friends by sleeping with Sam.
Legacy: One of the most successful films of the year, ‘Sixteen Candles’ is also one of the iconic John Hughes films of the decade along with ‘The Breakfast Club’ as a film widely credited with accurately capturing the feeling of being a teenager at the time. A sequel has been discussed for several years, with Molly Ringwald looking to produce it herself at one point. After the passing of writer/director John Hughes, Ringwald has said she doesn’t feel it would be right to try to remake such a classic and iconic film.
‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’
Synopsis: Taking place before the events of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, Dr. Jones escapes a Shanghai crime boss along with his 11-year-old sidekick Short Round and Club Obi-Wan singer Willie Scott. After their plane crashes in the Himalayas, Indiana Jones and his group wind up in a village in Northern India where the villagers believe he has been sent to them by Shiva to retrieve the village’s children and sacred stones. Investigating nearby Pankot Palace, Indy and company are taken prisoner by the high priest Mola Ram who has the village’s three sacred stones and is using the missing children as slave labor in the mines looking for the other two stones.
Legacy: Along with ‘Gremlins’, ‘Temple of Doom' ushered in the need for the PG-13 rating after its horrific and graphic content was deemed too scary for a standard PG audience. Though a success, the film is criticized as being the worst of the original three Indiana Jones films, as well as criticized for its weak lead actress (Director Steven Spielberg’s wife) and misrepresentation of the Indian culture including the depiction of the Goddess Kali and the eating of snakes, eyeballs, and monkey brains as a delicacy.
‘Star Trek III: The Search for Spock’
Synopsis: Following the events of ‘Wrath of Khan’, Admiral Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise have returned to Earth to receive praise for their work in stopping Khan and for the Enterprise to be decommissioned. After an encounter with a mentally disturbed Dr. McCoy and later with Spock’s father, Kirk realizes that though Spock’s body may be dead, his mind and spirit are alive within McCoy. Not able to convince Starfleet Command of the importance in reuniting Spock’s mind and body, Kirk and his crew go renegade and steal the Enterprise to return to the Genesis planet where Spock’s body was left.
Legacy: Though unable to match the success of its predecessor, ‘The Search for Spock’ was still a successful film and an exception to the rule that all odd numbered Star Trek films are bad. It was also the feature film directing debut of Leonard Nimoy, whose directing style was so well liked that he was asked to direct the follow-up, ‘The Voyage Home’. The film contains several impactful images for Star Trek fans with the death of Kirk’s son David, and the destruction of the beloved Enterprise when Kirk initiates the self-destruct.
Synopsis: After an encounter with a ghost at the New York Public Library and being fired from Columbia University, paranormal experts Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler decide to go into the business of paranormal investigations and elimination, called Ghostbusters. Off to a slow start, their only client is Dana Barrett, a cello player who has a strange encounter with a demonic beast in her fridge. The Ghostbusters finally get a call to catch a ghost at the Sedgewick Hotel which leads to wide-spread attention and business for the Ghostbusters. While the Ghostbusters are busier than ever, they are still investigating Dana Barrett’s apartment building, discovering it was designed to harness spiritual energy and bring forth the Sumerian god Gozer and the apocalypse.
Legacy: ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ regularly swap spots as the highest grossing film of the year when taking into account inflation and rereleases the following year. ‘Ghostbusters’ has had probably the most enduring legacy of any film on this list, with a sequel in 1989, two cartoon series, several video games, and a wide range of merchandise including action figures, cereal, drinks, and prop replicas. A third film is currently in the early stages of pre-production, with the intention of reuniting the original crew, except for Bill Murray who has refused to even entertain the idea of a new film, and pass the torch on to a younger crew.
Synopsis: Inventor Randall Peltzer is searching for the perfect Christmas present for his teenage son Billy, coming across a creature called a Mogwai in an antique store in Chinatown. The store owner refuses to sell the Mogwai, claiming it to be too great a responsibility, but his grandson agrees to sell Peltzer the Mogwai in the alley to earn money for his family. Randall gives his son Billy the Mogwai, who has been named Gizmo, and gives Billy the same three instructions the storeowner’s grandson gave: Never expose it to bright light, never get it wet, and never feed it after midnight. Due to an accident in Billy’s room, Gizmo gets wet and immediately produces several other Mogwais of varying intelligence and hostility. Later, due to an unplugged clock, Billy mistakenly feeds the new Mogwais after midnight and they turn into violent Gremlins who then reproduce even more and wreak havoc on the town.
Legacy: As stated before, ‘Gremlins’ is one of two films from 1984 directly responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating, due to the scary content. A commercial success, it received a mixed reaction from critics. A sequel was made several years later that took the story in a more straight comedic turn, making the already funny Gremlins a bit less scary and even lampooning plot holes from the original film. Gizmo has also become a highly sought after plush toy which was rumored to be the inspiration for the Furby craze. And Warner Bros. has reportedly been in negotiations with Steven Spielberg to reboot the franchise.
‘The Karate Kid’
Synopsis: New York teenager Daniel Laruso and his mother move to California where Daniel has a hard time fitting in. He immediately makes friends with a cheerleader, Ali, but the attention she shows Daniel frustrates her ex-boyfriend Johnny who uses his fellow Cobra Kai karate students to bully and abuse Daniel. Coming to Daniel’s aid is his apartment’s handyman, an Okinawan immigrant named Mr. Miyagi. Agreeing to teach Daniel karate, through unconventional means, Miyagi gets Daniel ready to face his bullies one-by-one at the All Valley Karate Tournament.
Legacy: To say this film has had an impact on pop culture might be an understatement. Pat Morita’s Oscar nominated performance as Mr. Miyagi has been copied and lampooned many times, with his “wax on, wax off” approach to teaching karate being a favorite quote. The film resulted in three sequels, two with Ralph Macchio and one with Hilary Swank, and a 2010 remake starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. The remake was criticized the use of the original title with Karate being a Japanese martial art but the remake taking place in China and dealing with Kung Fu. Morita and Macchio also maintained a close friendship outside of the films, so much so that Macchio delivered the eulogy at Morita’s funeral.
‘The Last Starfighter‘
Synopsis: Alex Rogan lives in a trailer park community with his mother and younger brother, filling his free time with his girlfriend and playing the ‘Starfighter’ arcade game at the trailer park’s convenience store. Shortly after impressing the whole park by breaking the high score, Alex is approached by the game’s creator and invited into his car. It is revealed to Alex that the car is really a spaceship and the ‘Starfighter’ game is actually a test for seeking out new Starfighters to fight in the war against the Ko-Dan Empire. After an assassination attempt too close to home and the destruction of the other Starfighters, Alex agrees to fight against the Ko-Dan, along with his navigator Grig, against overwhelming odds, being the last Starfighter of the Rylan Star League.
Legacy: Though not as widely successful as the rest of the films of the list, ‘The Last Starfighter’ was a financial and critical success and maintains a cult following today. Several video games were made under the Last Starfighter title, some based directly on the film and the film’s game, others being similar in name only. The film also spawned comic book adaptations, an off-Broadway musical, and talks of a remake that are still going on today.
‘Revenge of the Nerds’
Synopsis: Best friends Louis and Gilbert are excited to attend Adams College, but shortly after arriving they and the other freshmen are expelled from their dorm by the Alpha Beta fraternity who burned their house down during a party. Forced to live in the gym, the freshman class are granted permission to join fraternities, but Louis, Gilbert, and a small group of nerdy Freshman are not selected. They decide to rent a house together and start their own fraternity, an Adams College chapter of Lamba Lamda Lamda. The Tri-Lambs feud with the Alpha Betas, culminating in the Greek Games, a carnival and tournament for the fraternities and sororities with the Alpha Beta’s control of the Greek Counsel up for grabs.
Legacy: When asked what kind of film he intended to make, director Jeff Kanew said he was going to make a movie so raunchy that he’d be ashamed to put his name on it. ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ was a financial and critical success, being one of the Top 20 films of the year. Three sequels followed, one theatrical release and two made-for-TV. A pilot for a television adaptation was created in 1991, but was so poorly received that a full series was never commissioned. A remake was planned and reached the filming stage in 2006, but shooting was cancelled after only two weeks, and the whole project was scrapped due to difficulties in production. 20th Century Fox has said it is highly unlikely another remake will ever be picked up. (And let’s be honest, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ pretty much has the market cornered now.)
Synopsis: Artificially intelligent machines from 2029 are waging a war against humanity and their leader John Connor. Unable to solidify a victory against the human resistance, the machines send a T-800 assassin back in time to 1984 to kill John Connor’s mother Sarah before John is born. In response, John sends one of his most trusted soldiers, Kyle Reese, to defend Sarah from the Terminator and to assure his birth and the future of humanity.
Legacy: Not expected to be a huge success, ‘The Terminator’ blew all expectations out of the water, being a box office and critical smash hit, propelling the career of director James Cameron and solidifying Arnold Schwarzenegger as a box office draw. Schwarzenegger returned for two sequels, the first widely considered one of the greatest sequels ever made. Though not technically in the movie, Schwarzenegger’s face appeared on another actor’s body as a T-800 during ‘Terminator: Salvation’. A television series surrounding Sarah and John Connor after the events of ‘T2’ lasted for two seasons before being cancelled at the end of the second season in the middle of a cliffhanger. Schwarzenegger is set to return for a 5th Terminator film, 'Terminator: Genesis'.
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’
Synopsis: Teenagers in Springwood are being haunted by a similar nightmare, a burnt man wearing a Christmas sweater, a dirty brown fedora, and a glove on his right hand with razor sharp blades extending from the finger tips. As her friends start dying in horrific ways, Nancy is the one to figure out the connection to the children of Elm Street and this burnt man, Freddy Krueger. While he was alive, Krueger was a child killer, terrorizing the families on Elm Street. Released on a technicality, Krueger was hunted down by the parents and burned alive. Krueger now seeks his revenge on the parents’ children, killing them in their dreams.
Legacy: During a time of other classic horror films like ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Halloween’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ stood out as both a financial and critical success, praised for its frightening elements, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy. Englund would go on to reprise the role of Freddy in seven more films and a television series, making Krueger one of the most popular horror movie icons of all time. The part would be passed on to Jackie Earle Haley for a 2010 remake that was a financial success but failed to recapture the audience attention earned by the original.
‘Beverly Hills Cop’
Synopsis: Detective Axel Foley is working a case in Detroit when his childhood friend Michael comes for a visit after getting out of prison. After a night out, Michael is killed outside Axel’s apartment and Axel is ordered to stay away from the case. Knowing Michael worked as a security guard for an old friend in Beverly Hills, Axel asks for vacation time with the intent of going to Beverly Hills to track down Michael’s killers. While in Beverly Hills, Axel steps across the line and gets the attention of the Beverly Hills Police Department who don’t like Axel’s rule-breaking ways, but come to his assistance in bringing down Michael’s killers and a smuggling crime ring.
Legacy: The only film in 1984 to challenge ‘Ghostbusters’ for the number one spot at the box office, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ was originally set to be a more serious action film for Sylvester Stallone. When Stallone left the project the script was rewritten to capitalize on Eddie Murphy’s comedic abilities, a change that would make the film one of the most successful comedies of all time. Murphy would return for two sequels, with ‘Beverly Hills Cop 3’ being so terrible that even Eddie Murphy has expressed his displeasure over the project. Murphy has been open about his desire to make another film to make up for the third, with a fourth film in pre-production as part of a new contract between Paramount Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Murphy also tried to create a television series for CBS with his character being the Chief of the Detroit Police Department and his son, played by Brandon Jackson, being the new brash Detective on the force. The pilot was presented to CBS but they declined to pick up a full series.