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Good Sci-Fi Movies (1985-90): Total Recall of an Unforgettable Era

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Michael Taylor itcherThe mid-80s were a tumultuous time bolstered by fads and technological advances, yet fearful of nuclear Armageddon, disease and tragedy. Cinema echoed these concerns in films like ‘Lifeforce’, ‘Miracle Mile’ and ‘The Hidden.’ ~ Michael Taylor

Back to the 80’s…

Thanks to the success of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the 1980s were full of sci-fi spectacles. This extended to the latter half of the decade in box office smashes like ‘Aliens’, ‘Total Recall’ (find more great similar films here) and ‘Back to the Future.’

While appearing as mere escapism on the surface, many sci-fi films of the era explored the triumphs and terrors of an age that included the rise of the personal computer, the nuclear arms race between America and the Soviet Union, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fear of AIDS.

Let’s explore some of the most provocative good sci-fi movies from 1985-1990 that still hold up today.


Totally Far Out Sci-fi Movie Recommendations

‘Enemy Mine’ (Wolfgang Petersen, 1985)

If one receives evil from another, let one not do evil in return. Rather, let him extend love to the enemy, that love might unite them…

Dennis Quaid stars as Willis Davidge, a spaceship pilot who crash-lands on an inhospitable planet after engaging in an aerial dogfight. He discovers that Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett, Jr.), the pilot of the ship he shot down, has also survived the crash.

These mortal enemies must overcome their prejudices and preconceptions to survive in a brutal world with harsh conditions and a hostile threat.

Despite fine cast performances and William Petersen’s assured direction, ‘Enemy Mine’ was a box office flop, with its themes of peaceful coexistence over warfare not connecting with moviegoers looking for more bombastic entertainment.

This is a shame as that unique, emotional quality makes it one of the most distinctive science fiction films of the 80’s.

‘The Quiet Earth’ (Geoff Murphy, 1985)

It seems I am the only person left on Earth…

Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) is in a panic: he woke up to a world where he’s seemingly the only human left in existence.

After contemplating suicide to end his loneliness, he’s relieved to discover two other survivors. Together they venture out to discover what caused the rest of humanity to vanish, and if it can be reversed…or if there is another threat in store.

This New Zealand post-apocalyptic thriller offers a contemplative, unusual pacing that keeps the audience in step with its questioning heroes, leading into an ambiguous ending ripe for debate in deciphering its meaning.

‘Lifeforce’ (Tobe Hooper, 1985)

That girl was no girl. She’s totally alien to this planet and our life form… and totally dangerous…

London is under attack from a humanoid alien who sucks the life out of her victims, turning them into zombie-like creatures.

It’s up to the astronaut that brought her to Earth to stop her path of destruction before she takes over the world.

Directed by ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ filmmaker Tobe Hooper, ‘Lifeforce’ proved too much for mainstream audiences at the time. Given the “alien threat” was a fully nude female space vampire it was hard to market, leading to box office disappointment.

Was it the best film of the 80s? Certainly not. Did the fact that it was produced by Cannon Films, the arbiters of questionable taste, doom it to campy obscurity? Most assuredly!

But thanks to Hooper’s direction and a script from ‘Alien’ scribe Dan O’Bannon, it’s an arresting cult oddity with train wreck appeal!

‘The Hidden’ (Jack Sholder, 1987)

Neither has a criminal record. They both lead normal lives until a few days ago, and now they’re killing people…

This fast paced actioner focuses on an alien parasite capable of possessing human bodies, using its power to commit rampant robberies and homicides in greater Los Angeles.

It’s up to an FBI agent with a mysterious past (played by ‘Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan) to end the malevolent extraterrestrial reign of terror.

‘The Hidden’ has a wonderful high-octane pace, making for a wild adrenaline ride (the opening car chase is particularly fantastic) that throws in a dash of absurdist humor for good measure. Unfortunately, despite rave reviews, it wasn’t a box office hit, but it’s gained cult status over the years.

‘Miracle Mile’ (Steve De Jarnatt, 1988)

I hope this isn’t happening, I’ve had real awful dreams about atom bombs…

Harry Washello’s (Anthony Edwards) is looking forward to his date with Julie Peters (Mare Winningham), a waitress he met earlier in the day at a Los Angeles diner.

But their romantic evening comes to a halt when he discovers that in less than an hour his city will be under nuclear attack. Can he and Julie escape before annihilation?

‘Miracle Mile’ creates an almost unbearable level of dread, mirroring the real-life panic that would surely accompany such a horrific event. Adding to the tension is that like the show ‘24,’ it takes place largely in “real time.”

The film’s bleak tone was commercial suicide upon its release, playing upon American’s deep paranoia about the Cold War arms race with Russia. It still packs a punch, remaining a dark delight for uncompromising viewers.

‘The Abyss’ (James Cameron, 1989)

We have no way of warning the surface. And you know what that means? It means, whatever happens, is up to us…

Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are petroleum engineers on a top secret mission: to help a group of Navy SEAL’s recover a nuclear sub that has sunk deep into the ocean.

But when the couple (who were previously married to each other) uncovers a mysterious life form beneath the sea, they begin to question both the motives of the SEAL team and the phenomena they’ve uncovered, leading them to an eye-opening revelation that will change their lives forever.

Everyone knows director James Cameron from films like ‘The Terminator’, ‘Aliens’, and ‘Avatar‘. But ‘The Abyss’ often gets overlooked.

One of the biggest budgeted films of the decade, it underperformed largely due to a plot hard to convey in trailers. Its peaceful message didn’t associate with Cameron’s previous work.

But upon closer examination, it shares all the best qualities of Cameron’s more famous films: exploring science fiction through grounded, relatable characters, and highlighting all that’s wonderful and terrifying about technology.


Gazing into the 80’s Abyss…

While ‘The Abyss’ wasn’t a huge hit, its pioneering use of CGI would inspire Cameron’s eye-popping T-1000 effects on ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’.

This would change the face of moviemaking forever, offering a new frontier of visual effects that would shape 90’s classics like ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘The Matrix’ and Pixar’s ‘Toy Story,’ and every big-budget film we enjoy today.

And the 80’s cinematic influence still proves vibrant, felt today by the seemingly endless amount of reboots and remakes of popular properties from the decade.

Well, that wraps up my look at good science fiction films from 1985-1990.  Now I turn it over to you: what films from that era would you recommend? Be sure and tell me in the comments. And be sure to check out my lists of good sci-fi from 1970-75, and 1975-80 as well.

I’ve included some honorable mentions below featuring some established classics as well.

Honorable Mentions: ‘They Live’, ‘Predator,’ ‘The Fly,’ ‘Aliens,’ ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Robocop,’ ‘Total Recall,’ ‘Brazil’, ‘Bad Taste,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Hardware’, ‘Night of the Creeps,’ ‘From Beyond.’

My name is Michael Taylor and I′m your go-to source for finding the best in Alternative rock in all its various genres, such as Goth, Grunge, Post-punk, Shoegaze, Britpop and Electronica, with some metal thrown in for good measure. Film-wise, I′m all about sci-fi and horror, comic book movies, and cult classics. I love checking out all the best concerts and film events in my hometown of Austin, TX. I′ve written for sites such as Cracked, and I cover all my various pop culture obsessions on my site
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