From Star Wars to Blade Runner, the Eighties was a golden era for Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies. With so many big-time and big-name classics, there were a number of movies that fell by the wayside. And some fell WAY by the way-side …
Star Wars, itself, seemed to spawn an entire legion of look-a-like movies in the early 80s (and beyond). Roger Corman “gifted” us with so many Star Wars knock-offs it defies the (lack of) imagination.
Though obviously derivative – like 1978’s Starcrash in which David Hasselhoff actually wields a lightsaber – they can still be a fun wallow in nostalgia.
There were also movies that were so weird, they could only exist in the 80s. There’s the Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum psychic treasure hunt, Vibes, for example.
Nerdatron has searched the dusty stacks and long boxes for all the forgotten classics of 80s Sci-Fi. Did Nerdatron leave anything off the list? If so, comment below with your additions. Also, please support Nerdatron by clicking on any of the affiliate links below to watch these gems.
Table of Contents: Whiskeys of Sci-Fi and Fantasy
- Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
- Starcrash (1978)
- Space Raiders (1983)
- Krull (1983)
- The Ice Pirates (1984)
- Night of the Comet (1984)
- Forbidden World (1982)
- The Stuff (1985)
- Masters of the Universe (1987)
- Tron (1982)
- The Last Starfighter (1984)
- Explorers (1985)
- Dune (1984)
- Enemy Mine (1985)
- Flight of the Navigator (1986)
- Honorable Mentions: Cobra, Trancers, Lifeforce, and more
- Starting on the 1970s List: Zardoz, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Soylent Green, and more
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
John Boy Walton in Space?? Richard Thomas and his famous cheek-mole stars in this movie.
This may be the most derivative of the bunch. A farm boy (John Boy Walton) from an insignificant planet (Akir) pilots a starship, guided by an ancient religion (Varda), to defeat an evil galactic emperor (Sador) … sound familiar?
Just when you think this movie is just the cheap knock-off of Star Wars, you realize it’s actually … a double knock-off. It’s legendary, some might say infamous, producer, Roger Corman, who styled it as the “Magnificent Seven in outer space.” The movie also stars Robert Vaughn (of Superman III “fame”), who played basically the same character (Lee & Gelt) in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.
So it’s also a knock-off of a knock-off of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samarai, making this movie a double, DOUBLE knock-off. The name of the farm boy’s peace-loving planet, Akir, is actually a nod to Akira Kurosawa.
While watching the movie, you might notice that the score is above-average. The movie’s director, Jimmy T. Murakami, had previously worked with the film’s composer on another Corman cheese-fest, Humanoids from the Deep. Humanoids from the Deep and Battle Beyond the Stars were the first two films ever composed by one of the greats: James Horner!
You may notice some similarities between the score for Battle Beyond the Stars and some of Horner’s scores from around the same time, like Krull and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.
That’s not all. Another up and coming sci-fi great helped create this movie. The special effects were designed by James Cameron!
Of course, this movie might be most recognizable for the costume worn by Sybil Danning who played the Valkyrie warrior, Saint-Exmin in the movie:
You may also notice that Roger Corman re-used the spaceship in Battle Beyond the Stars in the next forgotten sci-fi gem, Space Raiders:
Did someone just say David Hasselhoff wielding a lightsaber?? No, Nerdatron is serious, deadly serious:
Obviously just a ripoff of Star Wars, right? The director of Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi, actually contends that the design of Starcrash predated Star Wars. Nobody actually believes this
Andrew Todd of BirthMoviesDeath.com nails the problem with the movie. “Starcrash is obsessed with the ‘stuff’ from Star Wars without understanding the character and story glue that holds it all together.” A kid with a bunch of Kenner action figures could provide a story with better Star Wars “glue.”
That may be all that needs to be said about this cheese-fest, which was also featured on Mystery Science 3000.
Space Raiders (1983)
Much better than Starcrash, but maybe still not a “gem.” While most of the ships are reused from other Roger Corman flicks and some of the sets are pretty lame-o, this one’s still got heart. Plus, there’s more James Horner, who makes everything better.
For the longest time, I thought Space Raiders had the same kid from Flight of the Navigator, but it was actually just the same haircut:
The basic plot is that the kid accidentally becomes a stow-away aboard a spaceship and enjoys some adventures, all while his dad is freaking out. Released three years before Flight of the Navigator (and seven before Home Alone), the Walt Disney company may have just repackaged the idea (and the haircut) and decided to make a better movie.
Also, if you’re gonna rip off Return of the Jedi (in 1983, no less), why keep Sy Snootles and the Max Reebo band?? Ah, the 80s …
Variety called Krull a “blatantly derivative hodgepodge of Excalibur meets Star Wars.” Some of the characters in the book version of Ready Player One even ragged on Krull a bit. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to like in this “Sword & Sorcery“ epic.
First off, you’ve got the Excalibur-like weapon called the “Glaive.” Though some have called the weapon the “brass starfish,” it’s easily one of the coolest fantasy weapons of the 80s.
Some people get tripped up on the term “glaive,” which is actually a pole-arm weapon, i.e. a blade at the end of a pole. But hey, just think of this glaive as a 5-bladed polearm, miniaturized and boomerang-ized for throwing like a Chinese star.
… AND what’s not to love about Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane (though not his voice) in the same movie …
… AND that weirdly humorous teacher from the original Willy Wonka movie:
The PLOT: The planet Krull is invaded by The Beast, who kidnaps Princess Lyssa on the night of her wedding to Prince Colwyn. The Beast imprisons Lyssa in his Black Fortress which has the ability to appear in a new location every day. Colwyn journeys to the Black Fortress with the help of Ynyr, the Old One (Freddie Jones, who also played Thufir Hawat in Dune).
One of the best scenes in the movie (and the Atari game) involves the Widow of the Web. Thankfully, the best piece of storytelling in the whole movie is matched with some of the best visuals, too.
SIDENOTE: Derek Meddings, a master at visual effects, painted many of the matte shots for Krull, as well as some other great movies, including Tim Burton’s Batman, Richard Donner’s Superman, Moonraker, and even Doctor Who.
In the Widow of the Web scene, Ynyr seeks out a mystical seer, the legendary Widow of the Web, who can anticipate the location of the Black Fortress.
Ynyr finds the Widow of the Web living inside a chamber suspended within the web of a monstrous spider at the center of a massive cave. The Widow of the Web was imprisoned in the lair of the Crystal Spider for murdering her and Ynyr’s only child.
The Widow sacrifices herself so that Ynyr can escape the cave. She gives Ynyr the sand from her enchanted hourglass, the same sand which protects the Widow from the Crystal Spider. As he is leaving the cave, Ynyr looks back to see the Crystal Spider attacking the Widow.
… AND it’s got another James Horner score!
Here are some that didn’t quite make the list:
The Ice Pirates (1984)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Jeff Goldblum AND Cyndi Lauper?? Awesome!
Cherry 2000 (1987)
One of Melanie Griffith’s lone outings into Sci-Fi. For more information, see Nerdatron sub-category: “80s Mega Crushes.”
Nerdatron is a sucker for post-apocalyptic 80s movies set in the desert.
My Science Project (1980)
Really not great, but hey! You can watch it for free on YouTube. Also, why did Dennis Hopper do this movie, and WHY such a small role?
WARNING: It’s about to get scary!!
… And in the Sci-Fi/Horror hybrid subgenre:
Nerdatron would instantly start spitting out a list for this category including The Thing, The Fly, Aliens, Predator. But remember! This is about the forgotten gems of the 80s. No one will ever forget these movies. No one could forget some of the scenes in these movies. Like this one!
But there are still some legit “sci-frights” that go unnoticed …
Night of the Comet (1984)
What does a valley girl do at the end of the world? Go to the mall!
But they did some other cool stuff, too. Actually, they hit the radio station first. Yeahhh, I guess that was a valley girl thing, too.
Don’t worry, they eventually get to the good stuff:
Forbidden World (1982)
Yet another Roger Corman movie to make this list is Forbidden World, which again blatantly steals elements from better movies like Alien and Star Wars.
“Welcome to the Garden of Eden. We play God here; we create life. Only trouble is some of the life we create just won’t behave.“
According to Den of Geek: Indeed, as the good doctor in charge of bacteriology at the research base on planet Xarbia, Dr Cal Timbergen, so eloquently puts it [above], Subject 20 is out of control. A “metamorphic mutation” created by splicing synthetic Proto B bacteria with the genes of another organism. Subject 20 was supposed to be a new source of food; instead, it’s dining on the crew.
Sort of hard to follow, but who didn’t jump … here! Right?
The Stuff (1985)
This is sort of like the horror version of The Jerk. You get melty, instead of cross-eyed. Not a lot of redeeming qualities here apart from social commentary.
The movie’s premise according to Ebert: “Some kind of gooey white stuff comes bubbling out of the ground near a petroleum refinery in Alaska. A workman sticks a little of it into his mouth, and, hey, the stuff tastes good. Before long it’s in pink and purple containers on the shelves of every grocery store in the country. Seems like people can’t get enough of it. They eat it morning, noon and night. It takes over their whole diet. It’s just so damn good.”
The director, Larry Cohen, sort of specialized in quasi-realistic horror films. He also made It’s Alive (1976).
But there was some gore that left an indelible imprint – gross!!! And what the heck??
… In the Not-Quite Forgotten Category:
Masters of the Universe (1987)
What’s not to like? Dolph Lundgren, aka Drago from Rocky IV, as He-Man. Perfect casting choice, if you can’t afford Arnold Schwarzenegger (obviously). Also, Courtney Cox!
Apart from that Dancing in the Dark music video, this is the first time I remember seeing Courtney Cox. For more information, see Nerdatron sub-category: “80s Mega Crushes.”
That seen when Evil-Lyn, who looks a lot like Gozer from Ghostbusters (who looks like Sheena Easton, disguises hereself as Courtney’s (aka Julie’s) deceased mom … gets me every time!
By Tron, we, of course, mean the classic Tron. Though the new one was pretty amazing, too. Disney gods, could we please have a sequel to Tron: Legacy? Read more about the possibility here. And please, can Daft Punk return for the score?
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Ernest Cline recently proved the staying power of this classic. His novel Armada is basically a retelling of The Last Starfighter.
So many good things about this movie! You’ve got some of the best kid actors of the 80s and afterward in Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. You’ve got that great feeling from the 80s of the endless potential of computers and basement inventions. You’ve got some solid childhood nostlagia, but …
The aliens were just weird:
Though this movie has been panned by many, such as the following:
This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time. Even the color is no good; everything is seen through a sort of dusty yellow filter, as if the film was left out in the sun too long.
It’s still one of the greats in the book of Nerdatron. What’s not to love about the movie which gives us this epic moment?
Well, there are some issues that are hard to deny. First off, why the “weirding modules”? This special power is much cooler without the stupid device.
Also this. Could have gone without this:
That’s just too much Sting. Yikes.
Enemy Mine (1985)
Enemy Mine is one of the better sci-fi movies of all time, but maybe not “best.” It’s basically a retelling of Robinson Crusoe set under “the two suns and six moons of the volcanic planet Fyrine IV, a grim red landscape lashed by meteors and savage cold.”
As Roger Ebert described it: “The movie has the potential to be a truly great story about communication between alien species; it could have been a space thriller with a mind and a heart. Instead, it gives us an alien that is too human, too familiar. It takes that amazing planet and gives it food, water, gravity and atmosphere that are suitable for both humans and Dracs. It depends on plot gimmicks like the convenient arrival of enemies and the equally convenient arrival of friends to the rescue. It doesn’t dare enough.”
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
The Disney classic with the boy cruising America in an alien spaceship listening to the Beach Boys. Awesome.
Honorable Mentions – Cult Classics:
- Cobra (1986) – “Crime is a disease. Meet the Cure.” Got to love that tagline. Not Sci-Fi, but definitely a Cult Classic. Sly Stallone is Rambo … I mean, Cobra … but not the G.I. Joe one. Stallone basically took Beverly Hills Cop and removed the comedy, like literally – Stallone was originally cast as Axel Foley, but left the project in pre-production, and was replaced by Eddie Murphy. Talk about a different direction!
- Trancers (1984) – Run out of Blade Runner movies to watch? Jack Deth, a Philip Marlowe-esque police detective from the 23rd century, travels to the 1980s – because why not? – to bring his old nemesis to justice. Trancers has an interesting twist on time travel: a drug allows you to time-travel into the body of an ancestor. This should be further explored.
- Lifeforce (1985) – Based off a book called The Space Vampires. Pretty weird.
- Invaders from Mars (1986) – Nurse Ratched is back! … and she really is an alien.
Starting on the 1970s List of Forgotten Sci-Fi Gems, Space Operas, and Cult Classics …
- Zardoz (1974) – an Irish-American Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi movie starring Sean Connery? Yes, please!
- Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) – according to reddit user StereoImaging, Erin Gray and her space suit are all we really need to to know on this one.
- Black Hole (1979) – Disney and Sci-Fi? The most expensive movie ever produced by Disney up to that point and its first to carry a PG-rating. It was pretty high-tech, too. The computer-generated sequence that started the movie was, at the time, the longest in history. It’s about a spaceship crew perched on the precarious edge of a black hole, and followed a similar “derelict space station” motif with “Alien”, also released in 1979. The cast includes Anthony Perkins, who gets murdered by robots in the movie’s best scene, and Ernest Borgnine.
- Soylent Green (1973) – SPOILER: “Soylent Green is PEOPLLLLEEE!”
- Plus, here’s another great list to check out, too