1982 was the seminal year of Magic Hour and it exploded with more genre films than any previous year since 1977. The experiments became bolder and the risks for the studios greater. This was also the end of the experiment with science fiction and fantasy films. Nevertheless, most of these experimental films that were seen as a failure then became some of the most influential and most often imitated films in the decades to come leading right up to the present.
In the horror genre, there would be another mix of science fiction and horror and like Alien; it would work on all levels. However, unlike that film it would not perform nearly as well. Despite that, the film itself is a taught, character driven study in paranoia and the horror of the unknown. A remake of the Howard Hawks 1951 film, John Carpenters’ version of The Thing uses advances in make up techniques and animatronic puppetry to disturbing effect. The mimetic organism that slowly works its way through the Antarctic research team feels dangerous even when off screen and when it is, the Rob Bottin designed effects truly feel alien and terrifying. Kurt Russell once again provides a wonderful portrait of cynicism and distrust in his performance and that may be the most disturbing thing about this film. It’s this distrust in humanity that leads to his survival in the end. The production design again is amazing and builds the atmosphere. You can almost feel the cold in the stark cinematography and the blue/white color palette that dominates the film. The score by Ennio Morricone adds to the disquiet permeating the narrative. Add to this, a wonderfully open ended last scene and it’s hard to understand today why audiences didn’t respond to it upon release.
However, along with many films this year, it illustrates one of the elements that contributed to Magic Hour’s end. In this case, audiences responded overwhelmingly to E.T. and were more interested in seeing optimistic visions of the future like Star Wars, so here (along with the failure of Blade Runner) we have the studios locking down one of the “marketable qualities” it would begin to hone in the years to come. Genre films would need to be upbeat and avoid grim settings and complicated characters. Robots and dragons weren’t enough. They had to be “audience friendly” too. This was where the science fiction and fantasy genres became less of a platform to experiment with ideas and more about making a profit and that meant “don’t challenge the audience too much.”
The big horror entry of this year would come surprisingly, from the same director who eclipsed The Thing in the first place: Steven Spielberg. Poltergeist was officially directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame but in reality, Poltergeist was directed by Spielberg himself and it shows. There’s a sense of the epic in how the story unfolds and of course, the focus on family is an undeniable Spielberg touch. Despite this, the film has truly frightening imagery and doesn’t shy away from the gore. As was common in this period, the intense opposition to the protagonists of the story, work to involve the audience that much more in the final outcome.
This is a haunted house movie brought into the Star Wars era and creates a perfect balance of special effects, performance and atmosphere. The casting in this film really makes the story work from the “hippy parents” who play the mounting stress very real to the ethereal and off center Tangina who guides the family through its tribulations. This film expertly builds mounting tension through its characters just as much as with the events that unfold.
In the hands of Spielberg, at the height of his creativity, what we get is a dark fairy tale about the love of family but in the best Grimm’s fairy tale tradition, which exploits the subconscious images of myth to amazing effect. He makes us pass through all the night terrors of the dark, foreboding forest before we’re allowed to reach the safety of the home village. In essence, he does to horror films what Lucas did with science fiction and like the best films of the period; it adds a new element to give us something we haven’t seen before. In this case, science and the paranormal are played in equal parts. This illustrates an important characteristic, which blockbusters today have left by the wayside. This is the inclusion of big philosophical ideas in tandem with amazing visuals. That’s why one of my favorite scenes in this movie is the one in which the scientists speculate in hushed tones about where Carol Ann’s voice on the TV originates from, coming to the conclusion they’re receiving it from “inner space”. There’s a lot of heady stuff here about the nature of life after death and what happens to a persons’ essence after they cease to exist. Did I mention this was a blockbuster, popcorn flick?
Another horror film of this year also dealt with a poltergeist but this one, far more disturbing. The Entity stars Barbara Hershey as a woman actually raped by an unseen assailant, the entity of the title. To this day, many consider this one of the scariest films ever made, including Martin Scorsese. The depictions of rape by the poltergeist are truly terrifying. Like Spielberg, this film incorporates science also but to even more frightening effect and the ending is chilling after we’re led to believe that the danger is over. The narrative is frightening but the novel element of trapping a ghost keeps the viewer watching until the end no matter how scared they become. As was usual within Magic Hour, the last horror film on the list comes from a filmmaker/screenwriter not known for genre movies.
Fantasy films would continue their exploration with two more groundbreaking works. John Milius would create the barbarian sub genre with Conan The Barbarian and launch as many imitations as Star Wars had five years earlier. Unrelentingly grim and violent, this is a tale of revenge with an edge that would not be seen in this genre again until Game of Thrones. The film features another great thing about this period of film in the casting of an unknown lead that perfectly inhabited the role with no prior baggage that a Hollywood star would bring for an audience. Arnold Schwarzenegger conveys the hard life and merciless mindset of Conan in his marble faced, stoic performance.
The design by Ron Cobb is striking and perfectly conveys the beginnings of civilization just crawling out of the prehistoric age. The score by Basil Poledouris is epic and aggressive signaling the tone the film will take with the very first note struck. James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom conveys a haunting and hypnotic power in what feels like one of the worlds’ first charismatic dictators and the final confrontation between himself and Conan is everything it should be. The ending shot is wonderfully evocative and leaves you wanting to see more of Conan’s adventures. Unfortunately, he would return in a much-watered down form a few years later. Indeed, this was one of the last times a mass audience would see someone swing a sword with the expected bloodletting happening on the other end. From this point on, that would only be shown from a historical perspective.
The other fantasy film of the year stretched its creativity to such an extent that it lacked any human actors at all. The Dark Crystal seen today is a mystical, dreamlike hero’s journey that features one of the most completely realized fictional worlds ever shown. In every frame, strange wildlife scurries around the main characters. Strange fauna is seen everywhere. Even the rock formations seem alien. Concept Designer Brian Froud worked with the films creator and co-director Jim Henson for years to world build in impressive detail. Although filled entirely with puppets, Jim Henson was purposely trying to distance himself from The Muppet Show and Sesame Street by creating a story that would “get back to the darkness of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” He sought to create a darker fantasy environment that wasn’t quite adult but was based on his belief that it was unhealthy for children to never be afraid. This is a philosophy that seemed to be shared by many other filmmakers of the time and is desperately needed in today’s over PC’d film environment where jeopardy never feels immediate or real in so many blockbuster CGI fests.
To see what was accomplished with animatronics and skilled puppetry in this film is still a revelation today. The non-human characters feel real with a tangible mass and presence that is mostly lacking in the modern age of digital creations. The Skeksis feel truly dangerous. The Mystics exude a gentle spirituality. The Gelflings and the Pod People are earthy and real with cultures of their own. The design of this film was so original that we’ve never seen its like again and I don’t think because of a lack of believability or emulation. It’s because it simply can’t be replicated by anyone other than the original design team. It’s just that unique. For all of the films’ unique and alien design aesthetics, the story is grounded in the familiar and brings the audience along with it, carried forth by the two most human characters we see who are both likeable and relatable.
Unfortunately, audiences stayed away, many citing parental concerns about its dark nature being too radical a departure for the creator of Kermit The Frog. It probably didn’t help matters that the world was fully in the grip of E.T. fever and simply wasn’t interested in a more challenging version of animatronic puppetry. So for the second time, the long shadow of E.T. claims another victim in ’82, making for another failed experiment but like most of the financial duds of Magic Hour, it would come to be seen as the masterpiece of innovation and originality that it was in the decades following and is now cited as one of the best fantasy films ever made by many sources. Outside of 1984’s The Never Ending Story and 1987’s Legend, fantasy would not have another renaissance until Peter Jackson brought the genre back bigger and better than ever in 2001.
So, what about that behemoth that dominated the box office and put The Thing in a corner? Is it all people say it is? In my humble opinion, it deserves all the praise it gets. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial has been called many things. One of my favorites is “the greatest Disney film that Disney never made.” It does feel in a way, like those first five Disney films (referred to often as the Big Five) in that there is a real sense of jeopardy and sadness prevalent in a tale told from the point of view of children. The scene where Michael finds E.T. ashen colored and lying in a stream near death with scavengers closing in is intense. It recalls the death of Bambi’s mother at times or the frightening circus that transforms Pinocchio’s companion into a donkey. Like Henson, I would say that Spielberg subconsciously or consciously agrees with him in that it’s unhealthy for children to never be afraid. This film is probably one of the best cases for that argument.
From the beginning the forces chasing E.T. evokes empathy from the audience for him. This is the start of another element that was always the stock and trade of cinema and which high concept films use to deliver in equal parts along with there sense of wonder. I’m talking of course about the ability to move you, to stir your emotions. Whether it’s Luke staring into the twin suns dreaming of a greater destiny or E.T. saying goodbye to Elliott, the blockbusters of Magic Hour (and a good bit beyond too) moved us to genuine feeling. This element is almost completely absent in even the best big films of today. Heck, most films period. They can occasionally dazzle us on a superficial level but they don’t move us to tears anymore. E.T. draws you in through feeling instead of cleverness. Add to that, all the other parts of this film are firing on all cylinders.
The production design is dreamlike and familiar all at the same time. Spielberg’s direction seems to be perfect in every scene, every shot. It feels as if, wherever he’s placed the camera that there is no other place more perfect at that time. John Williams score is moving, stirring but somehow never feels contrived or manipulative but always organic to the emotions the moment brings out in you. The casting couldn’t be more perfect. This is three of the best child performances ever put on screen. They feel natural in every moment and the emotions and heartache they go through feel real and earned. The design and execution of ET is amazing to behold and still holds up. He feels not just like a living thing, but also like an ACTUAL CHARACTER. The face is both gentle and wise beyond measure. He evokes a sense of play and mischief at times and serious thought at others. This is a being of complexity, which is amazing coming from a puppet. The ending is perfect on every note.
The impetus behind this film points out another shift from then to now. In an age were filmmakers tweet with the audience while still in production and change their stories sometimes through this process, at a time when films are created through market research so they can give the audience EXACTLY what they THINK they want, it’s interesting to note that one of the greatest films ever made came from Spielberg’s belief that only him and a few of his closest friends would see it. He wasn’t making this film to appease a mass audience. He was making this for himself. The subtext in the story is about divorce and the absence of a father figure in a young boy’s life. By placing such a personal experience in the context of a science fiction story, Spielberg connected to something primal and personal in all of us. In that is where the power of this film resides. Films are always more effective when, instead of giving the audience what they want they give the audience what it DOESN’T KNOW it wants yet.
The most effective pieces of art throughout history have come from artists who create for themselves and then just hope the audience agrees. A harsher way to put it was in the words of Gene Roddenberry: “A writer who writes not for himself but only to please others isn’t an artist. He’s a whore.” Either way, E.T. stands as one of the most beautiful examples of the relationship between filmmaker and audience. It was a big deal and it damn well earned it.
That wasn’t the only science fiction film to stir emotions in an audience that year. Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan is to this day, considered the finest of the Trek films and like E.T. it’s for good reason. Star Trek 2 is a case study on how to adapt a television show to the big screen, especially when it comes to the characters. On 60’s TV (not so much today), the characters pretty much had to stay the same from week to week. They could learn new things but they couldn’t really grow. They had to stay familiar in order to not confuse an audience who had no access to VCRs and Netflix streaming. Star Trek was one of the very first times a television show made the move to the silver screen and in doing so, one of the first things audiences and the studios expected was to see a bigger version of what they saw every week and yet like sequels, things had to stay familiar.
One of the greatest moves Nicholas Meyer made in this adaptation/soft reboot of Trek was to let the characters grow and become more complex. Kirk lamenting middle age is something that would’ve never been allowed to occur in the TV series but here, the focus on the character explores aspects that we’ve only previously suspected. It’s not just the world that feels bigger but also the characters themselves. Giving Kirk a son was a stroke of genius and having Spock die wasn’t just an emotional moment but adds a wonderful dimension to Kirk, a man who has always cheated death as we’ve seen repeatedly in the original television run. That’s why the most moving moment to me in the death scene is the very last shot where we slowly pull away from Kirk slumped up against the glass. Look at how Shatner plays that moment. Kirk is in utter shock. He’s never faced death and the reality of it leaves him utterly unable to process the fact that Spock is really gone. He just can’t believe it. It’s moving and the character of Kirk will be forever changed.
Add to that the wonderfully unhinged performance of Ricardo Montalban, whose blind hatred ultimately clouds his supreme intelligence and you have a film that serves all of its characters well. Even Spock has changed since his mind meld with Vger in the first film. He’s a man closer than ever to being at piece with his dual nature, a fact wonderfully illustrated in a moment when he has to translate the phrase “sauce for the goose” for Saavik by pausing then telling her “the odds will be even.” These characters feel like real people as opposed to the new films, which do just the opposite by turning them all into cartoon versions of themselves. They’re not people in the new films. They’re caricatures of THESE characters.
Beyond this, the rest of the film offers new elements that feel like Star Trek and yet give us something new. The Genesis Device is a wonderful concept that would have been right at home in any of the original 89 episodes. Like the best episodes, it offers a great sci-fi concept that creates a moral dilemma for both the audience and the crew of the Enterprise. It also feels like maybe a sly parody of the Death Star. In Star Trek, the planet destroyer becomes inverted to a torpedo that creates life. The new uniforms look great and the Enterprise feels like a real ship with a real crew more than it ever has. The introduction of the Reliant was also the first time we are aware of Starfleet outside of the Enterprise and makes us think about the larger organization outside of this one crew and ship. Even the inclusion of horror elements works great here and are both original and feel like Star Trek. Finally, the James Horner score is one of his best and evokes the heroism and adventure inherent in the show’s DNA. It’s no wonder to me that the finest Star Trek film would be made at the height of Magic Hour.
Even Clint Eastwood had to flex his muscles in science fiction with Firefox, an interesting mixture of sci-fi and the espionage film. Eastwood plays a spy intent on stealing Russia’s new MIG-31. The first two acts consists of a taught action thriller with the last act becoming a visually impressive special effects flying sequence that recalls Luke’s trench run from A New Hope. It’s an interesting combination of genres that heralds the use of special effects as a new tool for any kind of film not just the fantastic.
The two last films of the year and the last for Magic Hour, represent the true spirit of these past 5 years and stand today as iconic in many peoples minds and probably more tellingly; were only moderate successes marking the end of Magic Hour.
The first is the continuation of Disney’s great experiment with Tron. This could almost be seen as the culmination of all of their previous Magic Hour films even though it was begun before all of them. In every way this film was trying something new, from production to technique to costumes to execution and even to a slight subversion of the popular narrative of the time. Visually, this film is LITERALLY something audiences had never seen before. This is the birth of the future of filmmaking. Welcome to a little something that would come to be known by its acronym: CGI.
1982 saw two of the earliest uses of this in feature film (the first was the Death Star schematics in Star Wars). There was the Genesis Demonstration Reel in Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan, but that was only a small sequence. Tron would feature a combination of CGI and traditional rotoscope animation for almost its entire run time. Even if people found the story pedestrian or confusing back then, it was impossible to deny the visual impact of what they saw. Besides the pixilated imagery, the world of Tron is impressive to behold in its design. Created by Syd Mead, who is probably the greatest concept designer to ever contribute to movies, the landscape, vehicles and costumes are original and striking. Along with Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Mead gave the film a visual language that seems to define digital fantasy worlds to this day. The design and physical shooting were the easy part though because CGI was so new that director Steven Lisberger had no choice but to make his film like a traditional animated piece. This meant creating each frame from scratch on computers then photographing each one individually to be played back at 24 frames per second. No wonder this was a Disney project as they were the only ones who could understand the patience needed to undertake such a laborious process.
Such a unique film deserves an equally unique score and Tron has that with the Wendy Carlos soundtrack. At times mesmerizing and at others energetic, it’s a wonderful mix of electronic synth and orchestral compositions, at once grounding the audience in a traditional approach and at other times evoking the unfamiliar and weird with its futuristic, cyberpunk-like sounds which subconsciously brought to mind the 16-bit Atari music many were familiar with at the time.
The biggest complaint about this movie is the “traditional narrative” following that of the first Star Wars film. To many, it looked like Disney was stuck in Joseph Campbell mode considering The Black Hole and Dragonslayer and now Tron seemed to be repeating this story structure but I see something unique even here. Yes, this is the typical Star Wars storytelling method but there’s a shift in perspective here that’s new. It’s obvious that Tron is Luke, Yori is Leia, Sark is Vader, Dr. Gibbs is Obi-Wan and Flynn is Han Solo and that’s the thing. The story isn’t told from Tron’s point of view but Flynn’s. This is essentially Star Wars told from the perspective of Han Solo, which gives even this story a fresh perspective. As a kid, I could relate to Tron’s character more but as an adult; Flynn feels much more relatable and that has made the film age well in my opinion. Another film that got a continuation decades later, this would mark the third Magic Hour film to be seen as a failure that year but gain a cult following as time went on.
The final film in the Magic Hour cycle is also the final word on Magic Hour itself. This is the culmination of this movement and the purest expression of it. Its financial failure, along with the others of 1982, would also seal its end. In every way Blade Runner is what Magic Hour is all about. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is essentially a 28 million dollar science fiction art film, which in 1982 was a hell of a big budget. Plagued with script problems, a difficult shoot including feuds between actors and director, actors and actors, and director and crew, post production difficulties and budget overruns; the final film is a beautiful, dark exploration on what it means to be human as well as the nature of memory, the conundrum of mortality and the meaning of religion. In the end, its cyberpunk vision of the future has become nothing less than prophetic in its depiction of an over policed, corporate controlled megalopolis wracked with environmental destruction (depicted in the complete absence of natural life) and a clear division of rich and poor in which the wealthy live high above the clouds, bathed in sunlight and literally rain there pollutants down upon the poor.
Aside from floating cars and the advertisements for obsolete companies, this depiction of Los Angeles in 2019 is pretty close to present day reality, from its retro-fitted buildings and cars to its high density, multi-cultural population. Even the vertically induced class separation is visible in the form of the financially successful elite populating the mountains of the Hollywood Hills as it looks down upon the urban clutter of the San Fernando Valley.
The visual look of the film, whether it’s the production design or special effects photography, is so rich that it becomes the subtext of the story itself. In a lot of ways, this film seems to take a narrative page from 2001 in conveying a large portion of its story through the feelings the visuals evoke in the viewer. The costumes, hair styles, set design, colors, use of space and timber of performances are all just as important here as any expositional scene, maybe even more so. The music by Vangelis is hauntingly beautiful and as thought provoking as what’s being explored onscreen. It’s yet another experimental score for another experimental film just as Tron is and one of the best ever composed.
The characters are complex and the contrast between the empathy of the replicants and unemotional cruelty inherent in many of the humans in the film is striking and makes for some unforgettable performances. Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty is both terrifying and sad. Hearing his speech at the end of the film on the edge of death is memorable, relatable to most of us and breaks my heart every time. Which of us hasn’t lamented which of our unique experiences in life will be lost and known only to us after we cease to exist? I can’t ever remember another movie character that can crush a man’s skull in one scene and make me feel such empathy for him 15 minutes later. Sean Young’s portrayal of Rachel evokes similar feelings. At once alarmingly sexual with a mature intelligence, the way the tears stoically run down her face as Deckard tells her that her memories have been implanted transforms her into a little girl that’s just been told there is no Santa Claus. Like Batty’s death, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Even Zhora, Pris and Leon’s murderous impulses seem to stem from a desperate survival instinct that makes you lament their ends on some level.
On the other side you have Dr. Eldon Tryell, played with a wonderfully sociopathic sense of detachment by Kubrick favorite Joe Turkel. In one character, we get probably the screen’s best allegorical stand in for the evil of corporations themselves. In his every gesture, voice inflection and expression all the faults that lay within the capitalist, big business system is given a physical embodiment. In complete contrast is William Sanderson’s J.F. Sebastian who like Tyrell, seems to be a concentrated metaphor, this time for the uncountable masses of the downtrodden working class in this dystopian future. The only human character that seems to possess empathy, he is a man of much worth who has been convinced (or has convinced himself) that he’s worthless. In the framework of this sad Geppetto is another death to lament.
So what of the cynical, cowardly asshole at the center of the tale? Harrison Ford’s performance has been derided for being clichéd and one-note but for me that’s exactly the point if you follow Scott’s interpretation that he’s a replicant. He’s right out of a Raymond Chandler novel and any number of noir detective films right down to the trench coat and failed marriage and why wouldn’t he be? If he were a replicant that’s been designed for a police squad to detect other replicants and kill them then wouldn’t the designer pull inspiration from such sources? Everything about this character is a wreck outside his ability to do his job, almost like that was what he was born or even created to do. He can’t even turn down the job when all his instincts tell him to. He’s not a bad character, he was just drawn that way.
Finally, the script to this film is brisk and literate with whole lines that speak volumes and endlessly make me think. I remember when I saw 12 Years A Slave for the first time, I immediately thought of Roy and Leon’s lines: “Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it means to be a slave.” Just that dialogue perfectly conveys the evil of slavery and it’s brilliant.
Like so many of the films of Magic Hour, despite its initial failure it has become enormously influential and praised in the time from then to now. Like some of the other so called “failures” and “moderate success” from this time, Blade Runner has even spawned a continuation (to be released next year) by the same forces that considered it a mistake all those years ago. With many of these films of 1982, hindsight is truly twenty/twenty.
With 1982, Magic Hour came to an end. The last ethereal light of that waning sun slowly vanished to be replaced with the long night to follow. Looking back at that last year, the writing was on the wall as the summer of E.T. contained more failed experiments in the genres of the fantastic than any other before it. It’s a good example of how quickly the fickleness of the audience can change. Just a year before, a film about a tribe of cavemen who didn’t speak any English was a hit, then the next year not even Han Solo could save a unique and visually spectacular science fiction tale.
Some blame the long shadow of E.T. that summer, eclipsing all other would be blockbusters as some blame Star Wars itself for creating this high stakes, high concept film environment we currently endure. It’s of course an inescapable fact that these films had a definite impact in these ways but is it really fair to blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for creating original, exciting films that so enthusiastically captured people’s interest because it connected with them in such a resonant way? They only did what they were supposed to do as filmmakers, to enlighten the viewer on the human condition in an entertaining and unique way. No one told the studios to focus in on their works for the next 40 years to the point of extreme tunnel vision. These filmmakers certainly didn’t twist the arm of executives until they oversaturated the market with the most surface level elements of there achievements until all other options have been eliminated or highly marginalized, but by 1983 this process was under way as the studios sharpened there marketing skills and honed there demographic tools.
However, it wasn’t a clearly delineated line by any means. There was a little bleed over in the form of Disney’s second horror outing with the poetic Something Wicked This Way Comes, essentially a darker version of Ray Bradbury’s own Dandelion Wine. Douglas Trumbull would try directing with the experimental Brainstorm. Animation would try something different again with Rock & Rule and David Cronenberg would again merge horror with science fiction to comment on entertainment and censorship with Videodrome.
Even 1984 would bring us new ideas that seem at home in Magic Hour with The Terminator, Repo Man, and Dune to an extent but there was a subtle shifting of aesthetics and narrative that would continue to move more towards a corporate dictated “audience pleasing” model. Less Outland and Blade Runner and more My Science Project, Last Starfighter and He Man.
By 1985, even Mad Max had been neutered to become an action-oriented children’s film with a famous rock star to draw in the rest of the crowd. The R rating would survive a while longer, mainly in the form of action films (Robocop, Rambo) but would slowly be pushed almost off the edge of a cliff by the more family friendly (and therefore more ticket sales) PG-13 until modern day where a fourth R rated Mad Max film with strong box office would be greeted as something of a miracle, feeding an audience thirsty for adult, high concept adventure like a desert Bedouin finding a working well.
This current climate was solidified though in the summer of 1983 with the release of Return of the Jedi. By looking at the differences between the original Star Wars film and Jedi, the contrast between Magic Hour and most of what followed is pretty clear to see. Look at how that wonderful, cluttered, lived-in look from the first two films seems to have disappeared largely in the third as if someone has gone around Lucas’ universe with a vacuum cleaner and a new coat of paint. Then there’s the Ewoks. They never bothered me personally but notice how we all know that name yet nowhere in the film is that word spoken. Merchandising can be a great asset. Say that last sentence with the Emperor’s voice. Then there’s the absence of violent imagery. Charred relatives and missing limbs that bleed are replaced by burp jokes and Ewoks knocking over stormtroopers Marx Brothers style and did Luke stop by Supercuts just before the movie started?
Speaking of the power of merchandising, nothing speaks more loudly to the beginning of the imbalance between commerce and the art of storytelling then one seminal event of the same year. He Man and The Masters of the Universe made its debut and this marked the beginning of what I see as an unfortunate new trend. He Man was the first time that a product was created before the story with the sole purpose of selling toys. Transformers would soon follow.
Now, I’m not saying a lot of these 80’s films aren’t fun or lack quality. Who doesn’t love Back to the Future and Innerspace after all but what I’m attempting to point out is a slow move away from unfettered experimentation with interesting adult themes that lend true substance and complexity to the work. I still remember being bummed out as a kid as I slowly watched the smoke and chrome of Magic Hour be replaced with day-glo colors and leg warmers as the 80’s droned on.
In the end, the main question I’m left pondering is can this ever happen again? Could there ever be a Second Magic Hour? The spirit of it is still alive and we get little glimpses of it in films like A.I., Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly and in the works of filmmakers like Shane Carruth, Duncan Jones and Christopher Nolan who have all been heavily influenced by the genre films of this time. It appears on the small screen too in the form of Game of Thrones and the revived Battlestar Galactica.
Yet, despite these isolated incidents we are awash in a sea of sameness and uninspired narratives that seem terrified to show us anything truly original or comment on the reality of the current world we live in. Most tragic of all is that they seem to lack the ability to move us as ET did or make us stand up and cheer like we all did the first time the Death Star blew up in Star Wars but does this mean it’s impossible? I don’t think so. Everything moves in cycles and as Spielberg recently pointed out, I think people are going to get tired of comic book films. I myself have liked a few but if I see one more superhero movie that features the destruction of a major city or small town in the third act I’m going to remove my own eyeballs with a limited edition replica of Bilbo’s sword, Sting. I never wish for a film’s failure and I realize no one ever sets out to make a bad film but when I see a big budget failure of something like The Lone Ranger or a huge second week drop off of Transformers, I’m filled with just a tiny bit of hope, not because I revel in the disappointment of the filmmakers or the fans but because I see the opportunity for change, the possibility of a propaganda controlled and complacent public to demand something different by staying away.
Some also wonder about the storytellers themselves possessing the ability to deliver anymore but my answer to that is to turn on your television. The quality and originality haven’t vanished it’s just migrated. It’s hiding behind the small screen like a French Resistance cell just quietly biding its time underneath the city as it waits for that moment of weakness to strike.
Spielberg has made his statement and whatever you think about his current abilities, he’s always built his success on being able to anticipate what the audience wants before they know themselves so there’s still weight in his words. Likewise, after the failure of King Kong a few years back, Lucas declared the death of the blockbuster. I think the two guys who created this juggernaut in the first place may be right and the coming mountain of gold that The Force Awakens will undoubtedly make will not, in the end, change that. These guys have a good point. Comic book films will eventually go the way of the western and we can already feel in our bones the deadly folly of Disney’s upcoming Star Wars over-saturation that we know is somewhere on the other side of those coming massive box office receipts.
Marvel, Star Wars, and Transformers aren’t going to go the way of the Dodo mind you but their power will wane and that may be when Magic Hour will come again and when it does, let’s hope those filmmakers look back at those magical 5 years when unfettered creativity was allowed to roam free along with the budgets to make them possible. Like Spock told Kirk in Star Trek 2, there are always possibilities and like that wise old Vulcan we realize that the setting sun is an inevitability just like we know that the sun also rises.