American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations


During the 1980s, American cinema underwent enormous transformations. Blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E. T., and The Empire Strikes Back grabbed huge revenues for the studios. At the same time, the growth of home video led to new and creative opportunities for independent film production, resulting in many of the decade's best films. Both large- and small-scale filmmakers responded to the social, political, and cultural conditions of the time. The two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan spawned a new Cold War with the Soviet Union, which Hollywood film both embraced and critiqued. Also during this time, Hollywood launched a long-awaited cycle of films about the Vietnam War, exploring its impact both at home and abroad. But science fiction remained the era's most popular genre, ranging from upbeat fantasies to dark, dystopic visions. Bringing together original essays by ten respected scholars in the field, American Cinema of the 1980s examines the films that marked the decade, including Ordinary People, Body Heat, Blade Runner, Zelig, Platoon, Top Gun, Aliens, Blue Velvet, Robocop, Fatal Attraction, Die Hard, Batman, and sex, lies & videotape.


The 1980s significantly transformed the nation's political culture, as it did the Hollywood industry and its products. Today, the United States is an extremely conservative nation, and the turn toward right-wing policies began in the eighties with the administration of Ronald Reagan. Today, Hollywood filmmaking is beset by out-of-control production costs with no ceiling in sight, and these soaring costs, and the industry's turn toward the global film market for its blockbusters, have their origins in the 1980s.

The decade's most important developments, however, have given rise to a set of core myths in both domains, even as the realities of film and politics proved to be more complex, more nuanced, and more contradictory than the myths acknowledged. The myths about American film in the period are these: blockbusters took over the industry, leading to a general lowering and coarsening of the quality of filmmaking; the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg epitomized this blockbuster style and proved detrimentally influential on a generation of American filmmaking; and Hollywood film mirrored the politics of the Reagan period, shifting to the political right and helping to popularize the Cold War politics of the era.

Popular Perceptions

Each of these propositions is partially true, but like all myths each also distorts by oversimplifying complex and often contrary realities. Each proposes a monolithic view of Hollywood and American culture in the period when, in fact, a more diverse and heterogeneous set of films and influences was at work. Let's consider each of these propositions in turn as a way of building an introductory survey of the decade.

The critical tendency to equate eighties filmmaking with blockbusters is understandable because in that decade the industry did realize that motion pictures were capable of generating a tremendous amount of revenue, and the studios aimed to produce one or more blockbusters each year. As a . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.