Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night, two remakes of beloved 1980s movies (souped up with CG and 3-D, of course) hit theaters tomorrow. Earlier today, the Internet went crazy over the news that Ridley Scott is rebooting Blade Runner. With Hollywood’s seemingly never-ending series of ‘80s revamps, apparently everything old is new again, but the logic for the continued revisiting of one of cinema’s worst decades is beyond understanding. Seriously, how many honest-to-God masterpieces were there in the 1980s? A half-dozen, maybe? (For the record: Raging Bull, Do the Right Thing, Blue Velvet, Raiders, E.T., and The Thin Blue Line, but feel free to play the home game).
As we’ve discussed before, nostalgia is a powerful thing; our faculties for critical judgment aren’t always in place when we’re, say, pre-teens, and the demographically desirable audience that these films are being pitched to were either (on the far side) very young children when these films were released, or (on the younger end) kids when they first saw them on VHS. They hold the memory of those movies as a sacred thing, a talisman of childhood. But have you ever gone back to these movies? Good heavens. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten of the most financially successful and culturally iconic movies that, come to find out, are actually terrible. Add your own in the comments; if you disagree, we’re sure you’ll let us know.
Sure, it’s full of lines (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) and moments (“the lift” is a surprisingly important reference in Crazy, Stupid, Love) that have embedded themselves into the pop culture subconscious, but Emile Ardolino’s 1987 coming-of-age drama is a hacky, formulaic sudser, filled to the brim with stock characters marching through a “wrong side of the tracks” narrative that was smelly old cheese by the early ‘60s that the picture is set in. “The title and the ads seem to promise a guided tour into the anarchic practices of untrammeled teenage lust,” wrote Roger Ebert, in his one-star review, “but the movie turns out to be a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds.” (Plus, what’s with those weird Sapphic overtones in that late scene between Baby and her sister?) The mixed reviews didn’t matter, though; the picture was an unexpected smash, becoming the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video, and it begat an in-name-only 2004 prequel and a stage version. And, of course, earlier this very month a remake was announced, with the original film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega (who helmed all three High School Musical movies) set to direct. God help us.
Tony Scott’s 1986 Tom Cruise vehicle was the year’s biggest box office hit, raking in a robust $176 million; it is also a slick, soulless monster, a 110-minute music video with all of the nuance and substance that implies. This tale of Navy fighter pilots was produced with the full cooperation and support of the armed forces, who helpfully suggested script changes to make it into the PG-rated flag-waver we know and love; once those changes were made, they got the planes and boats on the cheap — in other words, a taxpayer subsidy for what amounts to military propaganda. “What is this commercial selling?” asked Pauline Kael. “It’s just selling, because that’s what the producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and the director, Tony (Make it Glow) Scott, know how to do. Selling is what they think moviemaking is about. The result is a ‘new’ art form: the self-referential commercial. Top Gun is a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” Though it ended up taking care of the first part too—the Navy actually went so far as to set up recruiting booths at theaters showing the film—Kael was right; Top Gun became the quintessential ‘80s movie, all image and style, all sizzle, no steak.
Three years before Top Gun, Simpson and Bruckheimer found their first major hit in the story of a pretty Pittsburgh welder who moonlights as a dancer in one of those improbable movie nudie bars where the girls don’t actually get naked, but the working-class patrons applaud and cheer politely anyway. The picture’s level of originality is on display from the opening sequence, in which the welder takes off the face mask and… shakes her hair back! Holy crap, that there welder is a girl! The screenplay by Thomas Hedley Jr. and king of high-concept junk Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls, Basic Instinct, Sliver) is loaded with stock characters, overdone situations, and casual misogyny, stopping occasionally for treacly “character moments.” “Some nights I just can’t wait to get up there,” our heroine says softly, a big tear rolling down each cheek, “just so I can disappear.” And then she takes her boyfriends’s hand and puts it inside her shirt. What a feeling, indeed.
The Cannonball Run
If an alien civilization ever needed to understand what exactly American popular culture was in the early 1980s, our most honest move would be to hand them over a DVD of The Cannonball Run with a sad, resigned shrug. Director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds (whose previous collaborations included Smokey and the Bandit, Smokey and the Bandit Part II, and Hooper) reteamed for a picture that basically amounted to Love Boat on Wheels: put together a giant cast of friends, icons, has-beens, and never-weres, put them all into fast cars, point them across country, and film it. Let the hilarity ensue! “Full of terribly inside showbiz jokes and populated by what could be called Burt and Hal’s Rat Pack, film takes place in that redneck never-never land where most of the guys are beer-guzzling good ole boys and all the gals are fabulously built tootsies,” wrote Variety . “Overall effect is akin to watching the troupe take a vacation.” And everyone came along; The Cannonball Run came in #6 for the year, grossing $72 million—just ahead of the year’s Best Picture winner, Chariots of Fire (maybe if them limeys woulda went down that beach in a Camaro, they’da made a lil’ more money, yeee haaaawww!).
So how exactly did a low-budget movie with no stars from a Canadian production company become the fifth-biggest movie of 1982 (ahead of Star Trek II, Poltergeist, and 48 HRS.)? Two words: “shower scene.” Sure, the picture is brainless, loathsome, sexist, and irritating, poorly written, woodenly acted, and incompetently made. But its centerpiece sequence—in both the film and in its ad campaigns—was a scene of a bunch of teenage boys peeping in on a bunch of teenage girls in the shower, and in that pre-Internet-porn age, that sold some tickets (and got some teenage boys to set their alarms and sneak down to the family television in the middle of the night when it ran on Cinemax). Don’t go mistaking it for a good or even entertaining film, though; the gags are thin, the plot is non-existent, and the pacing is slack. It’s a bad movie, but one that came along at exactly the right moment.
To be clear: it’s not that Beaches is a melodramatic, weepy drama aimed primarily at a female demographic. It’s that it is a hopelessly maudlin, simple-minded, poorly done melodramatic, weepy melodrama aimed primarily at a female demographic. Garry Marshall is a good director of light comedy (or at least he was, once upon a time), but he’s utterly lead-footed here, marching his charismatic leads through a slab of pure soap opera that audiences would’ve giggled through in the ‘30s, and doing it with utter seriousness. “Though its stars work hard to hold the attention,” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “they are asked to play this story absolutely straight. Even viewers with a taste for melodrama will doubtlessly expect more irony or perspective on the genre that Beaches has to offer.” Plus, it is the movie that unleashed “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and that is reason enough to brand it as pure evil.
Perhaps the year’s least-wanted remake (and that is a tough prize to win) is Craig Brewer’s reimagining of Footloose, Herbert Ross’s utterly brain-damaged 1984 rock musical, remembered these days primarily for Kenny Loggins’s horrible (yet indisputably catchy) title theme and that scene with Kevin Bacon dancing (badly, badly) in a barn. It’s an utterly dopey movie whose ridiculous plot and stock characters exist only to get from one MTV-style dance number to the next. As Roger Ebert noted, it “is a seriously confused movie that tries to do three things, and does all of them badly. It wants to tell the story of a conflict in a town, it wants to introduce some flashy teenage characters, and part of the time it wants to be a music video. It’s possible that no movie with this many agendas can be good; maybe somebody should have decided, early on, exactly what the movie was supposed to be about.” There’s a chance, we suppose, of that decision being made on the new one, but from the looks of its trailer, we’re dubious.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Sylvester Stallone was a box-office MVP in 1985, starring in both the #2 and #3 highest-grossing pictures of the year (Back to the Future was #1). His summer action movie Rambo: First Blood Part II was a sequel to the reasonably thoughtful (as far as those things go, anyway) 1982 film First Blood, in which Stallone played a quiet Vietnam vet pushed too far. Whatever subtlety had survived that film’s production was long gone by the time they got to Rambo, which morphed the hero into a greased-up muscle-bound killing machine, going back to Southeast Asia to rescue POWs—but only, after asking if “we get to win this time,” he is assured that “this time, it’s up to you” (“as if the last time, it was up to smarmy politicians holding Rambo back,” notes David Sirota, in his recent and excellent book Back to Our Future). That sop to the “fought the war with one arm tied behind their backs” spin out of the way, Rambo proceeds to mount a patently ridiculous one-man war. It’s hard to decide what’s sillier: the events as portrayed in the film, or how they were interpreted by our actual president at the time, who said during the 1985 hostage crisis, “I saw Rambo last night. Now I know what to do next time this happens.”
The jingoism was no subtler in Stallone’s other 1985 release, his return to his original franchise, Rocky IV. The picture’s level of sophistication is established right at the top, with the imagery of a US flag boxing glove and a Russian flag boxing glove colliding, and then exploding. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the picture right there — empty symbolism, meaningless action. The film that follows is an astonishingly amateurish stew of misguided comic beats (hey, remember Rocky’s robot?), mawkish melodrama, and endless, endless music video-style montages, including the worst single sequence of the series: a music video (“There’s no easy way out…”) of Rocky driving in his Lamborghini, intercut with strobe images of villainous Drago and flashbacks to all of the previous films. The empty sounds of power rock and the fetishism of Rocky’s conspicuous consumption surely represent the series at its most soulless (and its laziest—a good five minutes of the picture’s slender 91 minute running time is whiled away recycling footage from previous films), while the clips from the earlier films are downright jarring—they seem to be airlifted in from another dimension, the unique and memorably flesh-and-blood creations of the first movie unrelated to this world of dull humanoids. Oh yeah, and then at the end, when Rocky takes down the enormous Russian in Russia in front of a crowd of Russians, what do you know, they start to chant Rocky’s name. It is, charitably speaking, a moment that strains credibility.
1987’s second-highest grossing film was Fatal Attraction, the tale of infidelity gone awry that became a kind of crash course in all that was wrong with the way movies were (and still are) being made. Director Adrian Lyne (who also did Flashdance) and screenwriter James Dearden’s picture was troublesome enough to begin with, what with its blatant deck-stacking and its intellectually corrupt appropriation of feminist language for its mentally unstable villainess (Glenn Close): “The horror subtext is the lawyer’s developing dread of the crazy feminist who attacks his masculine role as protector of this property and his family,” wrote Pauline Kael. “It’s about men seeing feminists as witches, and, the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch. She terrorizes the lawyer and explains his fear of her by calling him a faggot.” But then there is the matter of the ending. The film originally ended with Close’s off-screen suicide, an outcome clearly foreshadowed by an earlier conversation about Madame Butterfly. But that conclusion didn’t test well enough for Paramount executives, who claimed that audiences wanted a more satisfactory on-screen expiration for the Close character, so Lyne went back and re-shot the film’s bone-stupid “bathtub sequence,” in which she is drowned by her lover, and then rises from the water, an unkillable Jason or Freddy or Michael Myers figure, so that she can be shot through the heart by the wronged wife. Audiences ate it up. The picture made a mint. And studio executives had a justification to re-shoot endings, tailoring them to the basest instincts of a dumb audience. And isn’t that what mainstream moviemaking is all about these days?