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The Best Sci-Fi Movie of Every Year in the 1980s

The 1980s is arguably one of the most influential decades in pop culture history, especially in film. The ’80s saw the return of studio movies, and a bump in B-rated horror films. Science fiction had previously been a genre that was heavily explored, from creature features of the ’50s to The Twilight Zone. However, ’80s sci-fi provided a hybrid of horror elements to the popularized genre. The exploration of space and the overt transparency of politics floored some of these films.

The first science-fiction movie was produced in 1902, and was entitled A Trip to the Moon. Despite the film being a picture from the silent film era, A Trip to the Moon is considered to be a pioneer for the sci-fi genre. According to Nerdist, the film stuck out for its masterful special effects, and the exploration of science in the new world of cinema inspired filmmakers for decades to come.

A Trip to the Moon’s special effects later inspired the great creature features of the 1950s — especially the ones about scientifically altered creatures or martians from space. However, it wouldn’t be until nearly 80 years after its premiere that the true boom of science-fiction would take off for good. Here is the best sci-fi- movie of every year in the 1980s.

1980: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

In 1977, George Lucas changed the face of cinema forever with what would become one of the most popular and highest-grossing film franchises of all time. Three years later, The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters and featured the first-ever battle between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vadar (David Prowse).

After the retrieval of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in A New Hope, the Rebels are pursued by the Death Star across the galaxy. Realizing that he can’t win his fight against Darth Vadar without training first, Luke seeks the help of Jedi Master Yoda to guide him on the path to becoming a Jedi. The second film’s masterful finale sets up the pace for what is technically the “last film” in the trilogy.

What Makes It the Best

1980 was a relatively slow year for sci-fi as far as major films go. However, the largely anticipated release of the second installment in the Star Wars franchise would outshine any other film by far. The Empire Strikes Back utilized the popularization of space exploration flawlessly, right down to Yoda’s puppet effects. The use of practical effects throughout the film adds to the overall charm of those early Star Wars movies. Empire Strikes Back explores more territory and spends more time in space, as more creatures and characters are introduced throughout. Stream on Disney+

1981: Escape from New York

Set in 1997, Escape from New York is a beloved action/science fiction film by director John Carpenter. The film finds itself at the conclusion of an epic world war between the United States and the Soviet Union. During wartime, the entire state of New York was transformed into a maximum security prison, one in which Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) resides. After the president is kidnapped, Snake is granted an opportunity to earn his freedom by completing a rescue mission for the President’s safe return.

What Makes It the Best

Escape from New York is one of many political commentaries by Carpenter, focusing on a disjointed society. The film’s subsequent messages are hidden within the plot and in the guise of action sequences. Snake’s true quest is for his freedom, and it can be argued that the character shares some commonality with that of the Terminator, who would make his debut three years later.

What makes the film stand out the most from its counterparts of the same year, is the ease of its watchability. The heavy brigade of action sequences and simplicity of the missions make the film easier to understand for the average moviegoer — especially when compared to David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Stream on Tubi

1982: The Thing

Other than being regarded for its stunning practical effects and brilliant portrayal of isolation-based paranoia, The Thing is one of the best sci-fi/horror films ever made. It takes place on a base shrouded in a tundra of ice. When a stray dog runs into the group’s camp, it prompts the men to visit a neighboring base.

Yet the dog isn’t exactly what it seemed to be, and shortly after its arrival, men begin to be taken over by an unknown invader. The literal “thing” takes its victims one by one, replicating their bodies, and moving on to another vessel. In the end, only two remain (Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Keith David’s Childs), and one of them is The Thing.

What Makes It the Best

The Thing is a film that a viewer can physically feel while watching, which is easily what makes it the best film of 1982. It focuses on isolation, anxiety, and paranoia as it rips through an all-men’s base in the artic region. The ambiguity of the film’s ending allows for multiple interpretations as well as theories.

According to Screen Rant, there is a theory floating around that there were actually two things who were battling each other for the entirety of the movie. Despite being an interesting take, that would squash the very best part of the film, which allowed audiences to decide for themselves, all while putting them in the same position as those on the base. Stream on Paramount+

1983: Videodrome



Release Date
February 4, 1983



James Woods , Sonja Smits , Deborah Harry , Peter Dvorsky , Leslie Carlson , Jack Creley

David Cronenberg is notorious for his practical effects and for delivering some of the best body-horror films of all time. Videodrome was Cronenberg’s first film that received backing from a Hollywood studio, and led to The Fly in 1986.

The 1983 film follows a man named Max Renn (played by James Woods), who is the president of a failing television channel. During a late-night session of brainstorming, Max finds a program called “videodrome,” and is drawn in to the subjective nature of the program. However, when his wife goes missing after her audition with “videodrome,” Max seeks more insight into the program’s true nature.

What Makes It the Best

Videodrome mixes an array of disturbing imagery with purposeful low-quality video editing. Due to this, many categorize the film in the sub-genre of analog horror, which is associated with found footage films. The overall grotesque nature of Videodrome, amidst the uptick in home television programs taking over the entertainment platforms, is a perfect commentary on the culture of the 1980s. The need to produce and keep up with multiple other broadcasting platforms aids the main character’s desperation in falling for “videodrome” all together. Rent on Prime Video

Related: The Best Sci-Fi Movie of Every Year in the 1990s

1984: The Terminator

1984’s The Terminator was the start of one of the most well-known action franchises of the modern era. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator, a robot cyborg disguised as a human, who is sent back in time to assassinate an influential figure, Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton). Also transported through time is Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn), who acts as a protector to Sarah. It is revealed that the Terminator’s gripe isn’t directly with Sarah Connor, but with her future son.

The Terminator, like many other ’80s sci-fi movies, projects its plot into the far future, where science has taken an extreme turn against humanity. Overall, at least in the first installment, the Terminator is the antagonist to the plot, yet is the most well-known figure in the movie.

What Makes It the Best

The Terminator focuses heavily on future artificial intelligence and the salvation of humanity. In the ’80s, the film delivered one of the most tangible plots of its time. The first home computer was established in the early ’70s, and by the ’80s, a computer was a household standard. The Terminator focuses heavily on artificial intelligence, and how, in the film’s 2029 future, computers are self-aware.

Fear of technology and the invasion of human existence run strong in the blood of the film, which connects it so well to the year that it was released. However, The Terminator’s plot isn’t just central to 1984 and hints at points of relevance even today. Stream on MAX

Related: 10 Best Movies Where Robots Take Over, Ranked

1985: Back to the Future

The Back to the Future franchise has been one that has long endured the test of time. The first installment was released on the Fourth of July weekend in 1985. The film catapulted the career of Michael J. Fox, who played Marty McFly. Fox was already a well-known name, but Back to the Future‘s blockbuster status allowed for the actor’s comedic chops to shine.

Marty McFly finds himself transported back to the 1950s, after a test run on the Delorean Time Machine goes wrong with Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd). Marty locates Doc from the past and discovers he, and his future, will cease to exist if he doesn’t successfully unite his parents at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance.

What Makes It the Best

Back to the Future is, and always has been, a pop culture phenomenon. The film’s innate ability to feel almost timeless allows it to move freely across generations of audiences. However, it is the general plot of time travel that makes this not only one of the greatest films ever made, but also one of the best sci-fi films of 1985. Countless films have explored time travel, but it is Back to the Future’s ability to remain lighthearted and entertaining that keeps it re-watchable. Stream on Peacock and Hulu

1986: The Fly

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The Fly

Release Date
August 15, 1986



David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly mirrors the plot of the 1958 original, with an updated twist. Cronenberg took the film from a standard sci-fi creature feature, and turned it into the grotesque body horror it is today. Jeff Goldblum played Seth Brundle, a scientist who accidentally crosses his hairs with a housefly during a science experiment. Brundle, at first, believes all is fine, and the experiment was a success. However, as time passes, he and his girlfriend (Geena Davis) notice his change from man to fly begins to take over his whole body.

What Makes It the Best

Science is ever-changing, and the rapid speed at which it moves creates room for error sometimes. The Fly not only replicates these errors, but also brings their horrors to life — making the sci-fi aspects of the film all the more fleshed-out. However, sci-fi films often blend their ideas with current real-world events and issues. According to The Guardian, The Fly was meant to serve as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic that spiked in the 1980s. Rent on Prime Video

1987: RoboCop



Release Date
July 17, 1987


1hr 42min

At the time of its release in 1987, RoboCop was a huge financial success. The film was released as a summer blockbuster and served up action, violence, and a bit of comedy. RoboCop, much like other sci-fi hits of the ’80s, focused on future entanglements with a dystopian public and law.

When a Detroit police officer is murdered by a gang, the major corporation, Omni Consumer Products, obtains his body and restores it as a human cyborg. Officer Murphy (played by Peter Weller) is completely unaware of his previous life, and strikes a campaign to make crime obsolete in the city he protects. Yet, as Robocop (Weller) spends more time in the real world, he begins to realize more aspects of his human life.

What Makes It the Best

Films of 1987 followed a similar sci-fi trend to others that came before. Releases such as Predator featured Arnold Schwarzenegger battling an alien-like creature, while Spaceballs curated a parody of Star Wars. RoboCop stands out, as far as 1987 is considered, for its successful execution of original content. RoboCop makes subtle suggestions about “big corporations” vs human autonomy, and begs to ask: what makes us human? Stream on Tubi

1988: They Live

they live

They Live

Release Date
November 23, 1988



John Carpenter was a master at planting political commentary into his films, but They Live is by far the most obvious of them all. Despite the studio’s deep desire to steer away from the aliens being capitalists, Carpenter decided that capitalism was integral to the film’s plot.

George Nada (played by Rodney Piper) finds himself in L.A. looking for work, and secures it at a construction site. He is invited by his co-worker to stay in an area where the homeless live and food is provided. Nada makes his way to a church nearby and finds a case of sunglasses, that, when worn, allow him to see the truth of society around him. Nada and a group of rebels fight to deliver the truth across America, only to discover that the wealthy elite are part of the alien regime.

What Makes It the Best

They Live is one of the most culturally relevant sci-fi films of the 1980s, but also today. The structure of ideas situated throughout the film allows for it to strike a point across decades of time. Yet, despite its plot devises and visual aids, the simplicity of the sunglasses make They Live the cult classic it is today. The film’s message rings true for most things, that if we open our eyes the truth is always right in front of us. Rent on Prime Video

1989: The Abyss

the abyss

The Abyss

Release Date
August 9, 1989



Although James Cameron is most notably recognized for his achievements with big blockbuster names like Titanic and Avatar, most of his early successes were sci-fi ’80s films. After breaking the mold with The Terminator, Cameron jumps underwater with 1989’s The Abyss. The film follows two engineers who are recruited by a Navy SEAL to travel to the deepest depths of the ocean on a secret retrieval mission. As the team persists deeper and deeper, they realize that they aren’t the only living forms underwater.

What Makes It the Best

Cameron’s ability to create visually stunning films through practicality always serves as a treat to audiences. The Abyss is everything you could want in a science fiction film. There’s suspense, stakes, underwater alien life, and technologies that are plausible but just out-of-reach enough. Rent on Prime Video


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