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WonderCon Panel Recap: The Films of 1984, Thirty Years Later

1984 was the greatest pop culture year of all time. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but I know that for me, personally, 1984 was the year that shaped me. (For the record, I happened to turn ten that year.) It certainly was the year that shaped the rest of the decade, and arguably even the next thirty years.

For starters, in the music world, 1984 was the year that the “Holy Trinity” of Pop Superstars were officially crowned; the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out in December of ’83, but it owned the airwaves of that first half of 1984, and, really, the rest of the year. There was no YouTube then, but if you wanted to watch the video, all you had to do was turn on MTV and wait an hour or so… it was played non stop, virtually on a loop. Prince had his breakthrough success with his album 1999 the year before, but no one was prepared for the juggernaut that was the soundtrack to Purple Rain. And finally, after struggling for years in the dance clubs on New York, Madonna finally cracked the Billboard top ten with songs like Borderline and Lucky Star before finishing the year coming off a giant wedding cake singing Like A Virgin, writhing on the floor and offending parents everywhere. She became a household name that very night. Those three pop superstars – all born the same year, 1958, two black men and a woman – dominated the music world that year, and they changed the way we viewed pop music forever. From that point on, they owned the rest of the decade and well into the next. The Mileys, Biebers, and Chris Browns of today all in some way or another want to emulate them, and hope to have half as much of their staying power.

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The kids’ television and toy culture spawned a multi-billion dollar business that year as well, as toy lines He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, and Transformers got half-hour animated series which ran five days a week in syndication, all aimed at selling products to children under the guise of storytelling. But considering the massive box office success for Transformers and G.I. Joe as live-action movies today, and the continued rumors of a He-Man movie, the effects of those shows are another example of how the pop culture of 1984 resonates into today.

And then there were the movies. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Beverly Hills Cop, Dune, This is Spinal Tap, Sixteen Candles, Footloose, Amadeus, Splash, Purple Rain, Revenge of the Nerds, The Neverending Story, Firestarter … the list goes on. Elm Street and Karate Kid were recently rebooted, Terminator, Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Indiana Jones are planned to be. In short, just as with music and other areas of pop culture, it’s clear we are all still kind of living in the cinematic world that 1984 created.

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To talk about the movies of ’84, a WonderCon panel, Greatest Geek Movies of 1984: Big Brother Wasn’t The Only One Watching When Doves Cried, consisted of film lovers and professionals like Ashley Miller (co-writer of Thor, X-Men: First Class) David E. Williams (GEEK Magazine editor) Robert Meyer Burnett (Free Enterprise) Daren Dochterman (Star Trek: Phase II) Steve Melching (Clone Wars, Transformers: Prime), Chris Gossett (Red Star). and moderator Mark Altman (DOA: Dead or Alive). After showing a montage clip of the movies of ’84, they jumped right into the conversation on what might be the greatest movie year ever.

So just why was 1984 so great for movies? When asked why James Cameron’s original The Terminator is so resonant to this day, for example, Ashley Miller, who is currently working on an all-new Termintaor television series, said, “Here’s why people believe it works… and when I mean people, I mean the people who write checks. The uninitiated think it works because Jim Cameron is an amazing action director. And yeah, the action in The Terminator is dollar for dollar, pound for pound, astounding… it’s great stuff. But that’s not why it works, or why we’re still talking about it today, and why thirty years later we are talking about what other stories are in that world, because on an emotional level, the best Terminator stories have always been love stories. The first one is ‘boy meets girl’ in the weirdest possible circumstances. We watch Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor fall in love, and we understand why they fall in love. We follow these movies through the chase structure because we care about the people in the center, and we care because they care about each other. And when you boil down what The Terminator is about, it’s a love story.” Mark Altman chimed in: “It’s also about shoulder pads.” Miller agreed, adding, “Oh, it’s totally about shoulder pads… shoulder pads and amazing hair. Sarah Connor could stop bullets with that hair.”

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The subject turned to another massive hit that summer, also one of the most divisive sequels ever released up to that point: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. When asked about Temple, Clone Wars‘ Steve Melching chimed in with his childhood memories: “The summer of 1984 was a really magical summer, because we had all these really creative inventive movies that went on to spawn these iconic franchises that endure to this day. Temple of Doom, I really love it and I’ll defend it, and it isn’t a great movie, but it has an incredible demented energy to it that none of the other Raiders sequels had to it, it had a great musical score, it had the best villain of any of the sequels… Mola Ram is a crazy and over the top fun villain….can anyone even remember the villain for Last Crusade? I felt beat up leaving the theater, because the last 45 minutes was one long sustained action sequence.”

Another divisive movie of 1984 is David Lynch’s Dune, an ambitious yet costly flop when it came out. Robert Meyer Burnett recalled seeing it, hating it at first, then slowly coming to appreciate it as time went on. “December of ’84 was exciting for anyone who was a sci-fi fan, because you had two giant science fiction literary adaptations being released- Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 and Dune, which was based on what was one of the five best sci-fi novels of all time. It already had its very storied history with Alejandro Jodorowsky. When Dune came out, I just thought it was amazing that Dune was even made. It was just weird… it had this giant floating croissant that folds space, this creature with an undulating vagina as a mouth breathing in space, everyone was wearing leather, and there was weird homosexual overtones with Baron Harkonnen pulling out some young boy’s heart plug…. (at this point moderator Mark Altman cracked, “So, a typical Saturday night at Bryan Singer’s house?” Ouch.) Burnett continued, “So I hated the visual effects when I first saw it; The spaceships weren’t cool, but the production design was amazing, and I hated everything about it, but I was also obsessed with Dune, and yet I also love Dune, and I ended up watching it over and over. It had a score by Toto! Who hires Toto? And the prophecy theme by Brian Eno! This movie was so insanely weird.”

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The panelists then went through as many films of ’84 in the remaining hour that they could, and they still managed to only gloss over some… when talking about the “Soviets invade small town America” movie Red Dawn, directed by John Milius, a staunch conservative in liberal Hollywood (a movie that when mentioned anywhere there’s a crowd, someone will always yell out “Wolverines!!!” – this time was no different), Steve Melching pointed out that for him, sixteen at the time, the idea of high schoolers fighting off a Soviet invasion was tremendous wish fulfillment. Moderator Mark Altman simply said, “it’s an interesting artifact of the time”

In speaking of the somewhat controversial Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Darren Dochterman said “If years later, someone hadn’t invented the term ‘jumping the shark’, I would have come up with it for the movie Star Trek III.”  He had a lot of love for another ’84 film though, The Last Starfighter. That movie, which was one of the earliest uses of CGI in a mainstream movie, didn’t do too well, but found an afterlife thanks to the double whammy of cable and VHS. In fact, 1984 had a lot of smaller films that didn’t do well at the box office when they came out, but gained notable cult followings thanks to cable and the emergence of video stores, like Alex Cox’ Repo Man, described on the panel by moderator Mark Altman as the David Lynch movie that Lynch didn’t make: “It’s got every single thing you could possibly imagine, conspiracy, radioactive aliens in the trunk of a 1964 Chevy Malibu, you name it.” Another cult film was The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a movie that bombed at the time is quoted all the time now (“Wherever you go… there you are.”)

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Of course, you can’t finish a conversation about the films of 1984 without talking about the big daddy that year: Ghostbusters. Steve Melching took point on this one: “This is Saturday Night Live and SCTV kind of coming together and taking this ridiculous kind of paranormal concept of ghosts, and then combine it with the mundane. They’re like plumbers…who just happen to go out and catch ghosts. It’s a brilliant mash-up, and it should have spawned a much bigger franchise than it did. We only got the one sequel out of it, and maybe that’s a good thing. But it endures in pop culture to this day… if you say ‘who you gonna call?,’ everyone still knows what that means.”

And with that, the panel came to a close, without talking about tons of movies of that year that the panel just didn’t have time to get to (what? no Footloose?) But the sheer amount of classic films that weren’t talked about shows just how pivotal a year it was for movies… and how just an hour was just not enough to cover it all. I mean…they barely were able to cover the sheer genius that is Ice Pirates. Doesn’t that say everything right there?

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