This is the first of a new series I am planning about the movies, comics, toys, etc of the 1980s. In this entry I will briefly cover four genre films of 1980, Mad Max, Empire Strikes Back, Superman II, and Flash Gordon.

American science fiction started off bleak in the new decade with the release of the dystopian film Mad Max. Origionally released in Australia in 1979, Mad Max first played in American theaters on February 15th of the following year.

Written and directed by George Miller, a young Mel Gibson plays “Mad” Max Rockatansky, who drives a supercharged V8 powered Black Pursuit special through a dystopian Australia. He is a highway patrol cop who comes into conflict with a motorcycle gang (played by real bikers) led by a character named Nightrider.

Miller was inspired by his time working as a Dr. in Sydney where he saw many patients from car accidents, as well as witnessing car wrecks as a child. (1) The film was also inspired by the 1973 oil crisis which effected car owners both in Australia and around the world. His film would inspire (to date) three sequels, and made over $100 million world wide.

The dark trend would continue with what would be the highest grossing film of the year, The Empire Strikes Back. Released on May 17th. Empire was the sequel to the 1977 surprise smash hit Star Wars, which launched the first modern multi-media franchise that inspired everything in it’s wake.

Based on a story by Star Wars creator George Lucas, Empire was directed by Irvin Kershner with a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Set three years after Star Wars, this film has the heroic rebels on the run from the evil Empire. Famous for ending with the villains on top, Han Solo gets captured, and in one of the great twists in film history, Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. (When filming that famous scene, actor David Prowse, who played Vader, read the fake line “Obi-Wan killed your father.”)

As first film, Empire had an extensive action figure line that ran until 1982 (In 1983 the toyline shifted to that year’s Return of the Jedi film.) It is noteworthy that toy company Kenner also tried a new minature die cast toy line in 1982 called the Micro collection, which included vehicles and playsets. While the traditional action figures were succesful, Kenner lost money on the Micro collection.

Initially having mixed reviews, Empire is now considered the best Star Wars film. During it’s initial run it grossed $547 million worldwide.

Another film that was a part II would be released just about a month later in Superman II. Based on the DC comcis character, its predecessor was released in two years prior, but the studio actually filmed both movies back to back. Richard Donner directed the first film, and was fired from II with around 75% of the film completed. Richard Lester would finish it, his work included a new beginning set in Paris and a new ending.

Banished to the Phantom Zone in the beginning of the first film by Superman’s father Jor-El, Superman II has General Zod, Ursa, and Non accidentally freed to wreak havoc on Earth. Unlike the first film, where he fought Lex Luthor, Superman now faces villains his physical equal, all the while wishing to become an ordinary man and settle down with Lois Lane.

Lex Luthor appears in this film as well, assisting the Kryptonian villains in their conquet of the planet, on the condition that Luthor would rule Australia.

Superman II premiered in America on June 19th, though it was previously released overseas. It would make $190 million at the box office.

Also of note is that over 25 years later, in 2006, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on DVD. This version has a new beginning which cuts the Paris scene, a different ending where Superman reverses time again (as he did in the first film) and footage of Marlon Brando returning as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El.

The last science fiction film of 1980 was an old character that inspired a lot of science fiction, but their own film was not nearly as succesful. Flash Gordon was origionally a character created for newspaper comic strips and debuted on January 7th, 1934. Drawn by Alex Raymond, it was created partly to compete with the already popular Buck Rogers strip. Buck Rogers, coincidentally, was in its second season of his own three year run on American television in 1980.

Flash Gordon features the titular character, a quarterback for the New York Jets, unwittingly sent into outspace along with travel agent Dale Arden and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov. In space they encounter Ming the Merciless, played by Max Von Sydow, who plans to destroy Earth, apparantly out of bordeom.

Interstingly enough, George Lucas himself attempted to do a Flash Gordon movie in the late 70s, but was unable to acquire the rights. Failing this, Lucas would go on to create Star Wars. Flash is one of the myriad influences Lucas had in making his franchise, specifically regarding Empire, an ice planet and a floating city.

Mike Hodges would go on to direct Flash, which was co-written by Michael Allin and Lorenzo Semple Jr. Semple helped develop the 1966 Batman TV show, which was known for its campy style, a similar style would be used for this movie.

Flash made $27 million in its North American release. While it is now a cult classic and fondly remembered for its soundtrack by Queen, it is the only movie of the four sci-fi movies of 1980 to not get a sequel. Flash would go onto appear in a handful of cartoons and TV shows, but this film would be the last high profile moment of this science fiction icon.

1: Scott Murray and Peter Beilby, “George Miller: Director”, Cinema Papers, May-June 1979 p369-371

 

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