The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), TOP GUN (1986), ROBOCOP (1987), and DIE HARD (1988).

Tim Burton’s Batman was a game-changer for summer blockbusters. It closed out a decade marked by light and sunny escapist entertainment by applying a more serious, atmospheric attitude, both dark and thrilling. It also ushered in a new level of hype that became an integral part of the movie-going experience. And it pointed the way for comic-book movies to become the dominant vehicle for summer entertainment.

Before Batman, Hollywood had created comic-book movies as silly, second-tier product. With the exception of the first Superman movie, comic-book movies lacked high production values and fidelity to their source material.

Things began to change when comic-book artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore offered their takes on the superhero genre. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns brought a new level of psychological depth and graphic sophistication to comics.

Meanwhile, Hollywood was searching for the new Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, another prodigy with a childlike sense of wonder to dazzle audiences. Enter Tim Burton, who scored two hits, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, before turning 30. The surprise success of these dark, anarchic films marked Burton as having the ability to be edgy and still appeal to mass audiences. The execs at Warner Brothers could sense that audiences’ tastes were changing and a risk-taker like Burton might be necessary for Batman.

Batman arrived at the end of a decade where greed ran rampant, recession was imminent and people sensed things were getting worse, not better. Burton’s vision of Batman matched his audience’s feelings of restlessness and unease.

Every aspect of the movie was infused with Burton’s desire to present the world of Batman as a reflection of modern dystopia. Anton Furst’s groundbreaking production design took elements of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Depression-era Art Deco Manhattan, heaping layers of urban squalor upon itself.

But if there’s one image that defines the bold new vision of Burton’s Batman, it’s the Batsuit. Designer Bob Ringwood totally rejected the gray and blue image from the camp TV series. Ringwood’s design is a suit that contains drama in itself, something powerful but unwieldy, something closer to Robocop than Adam West. The Batsuit is a vision of man made superior by advanced technology, but also encased and imprisoned by it. It’s a 21st-century suit of armor for a Dark Knight, and it is still the template for how we see Batman today.

At the same time, the new Batman’s rigidness made him a foil for the film’s true protagonist. The Joker, with his anarchic wit and irreverent gags, is the heir to Beetlejuice. the charismatic anti-hero and master of ceremonies of Burton’s funhouse. At the same time, he was the comic alibi that could make Burton’s seriousness acceptable, breathing life and energy into his arty aspirations.

The Joker may have overwhelmed Batman in this film, but looking at the superhero movies that followed, we see the real winner, in a legacy of dark, disturbed protagonists whose vulnerabilities reflect the anxieties of our era. At the same time, Batman’s demons yielded a new dimension of interior drama and fragility that feels real—something that modern-day superheroes with their unlimited CGI powers can’t compensate for.

With its groundbreaking character types and radical visuals, Batman provided a new template for blockbuster storytelling, one that could even overcome its greatest weakness: its script. The plot of Batman may dip into incoherence, revolving around the Joker’s wanting to become some kind of homicidal artist by poisoning the citizens of Gotham until they die with a smile on their face.

Then again, the plot holes didn’t seem to matter to audiences. What mattered was the vision, the mood, the experience of a live-action comic-book movie that treated its source material seriously. Burton’s Batman provided the signal for a new comic-book movie whose ambitions often surpassed its abilities to deliver. These films are often incoherent or overloaded, but at their best, they come through with unforgettable images and moments. The Joker’s master plan has come to fruition. For better or worse, we exit the theater with a smile on our face.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), TOP GUN (1986), and ROBOCOP (1987).

The 1980s were dominated by action movies. Previous decades saw action movies held in more or less proper proportions, with action relegated to war movies, westerns, or the occasional spy thriller. John Wayne, William Holden, Steve McQueen, and Lee Marvin would preside over the action, usually playing men of few words. Then, the 1970s saw a shift towards existential dread as the rise of crime in cities allowed movies to tap into the audience’s fear of social unrest. (The plots of westerns and caper thrillers were too exotic to have any real-world connections. Vietnam had, for the moment, made the gung-ho heroics of war movies seem rather unseemly.) Movies like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and various blaxploitation offerings gave us vigilante thrills and heroes that restored order in times of civil unrest. Guys like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were older and still men of few words, but they were now providing comfort and safety.

But the ‘80s saw an accumulation of action movies, with a heavy emphasis on the flexing of one’s muscles. Cop buddy movies, urban vigilante movies, POW rescue movies, Chuck Norris karate movies, Death Wish sequels, you name it, dominated the theaters. The existential dread of the Watergate era had been replaced by Reagan-era optimism. Along with Eastwood, who had managed to become an elder statesman of action, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had become pillars of American might. The recurring image in ‘80s action movies was of an obscenely pumped-up one-man fighting machine. (It wasn’t a Stallone or Arnold movie until they were fighting the bad guys while wearing a tight t-shirt that accentuated their forearms.) Movies like Nighthawks, The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando, Cobra, and The Running Man were outrageously entertaining comic-book depictions of outsized masculinity. But by summer ’88 audiences were starting to feel fatigued by all the car chases, shoot-outs, fistfights, and explosions. We kept going to action movies, but we were rarely surprised. That is, until one movie caught everyone by surprise and forever changed the language of the genre.

Die Hard was something new, an over-the-top blowout its director made personal by injecting humor and humanity into its incredible action set-pieces. Director John McTiernan staged the action with a you-are-there immediacy that was different from most other action movies. Your perspective was constantly shifting along with the hero’s, as if you yourself were always under the threat of attack. Die Hard was a ‘70s disaster movie crossed with a ‘80s one-man action vehicle, but it played like a witty character study.

And the character of John McClane turned out to be one of the most endearing action heroes in movie history. As played by Bruce Willis, McClane is a screw-up forced into action because bureaucracy and macho posturing are causing inaction. McClane is fully aware that he’s in way over his head. He sees the dark humor of his predicament which gives his one-liners a playful spontaneity. (“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs!”) The casting of Willis in the lead was a masterstroke. We may now take for granted that TV actors can transition into movies, but back in 1988 it was a rare occurrence. (TV star Mark Harmon made a bid for action superstardom with the summer ’88 buddy thriller The Presidio, but he forgot to bring the humor.) On Moonlighting Willis played a smart-ass cut-up, but what made him instantly likable was the feeling that Willis himself was a smart-ass cut-up. In Blake Edwards’ comedies Blind Date and the criminally underrated Sunset, Willis displayed a knack for light slapstick and farce that, if you weren’t paying attention, could be seen as being one-dimensional. Willis always makes you aware that he knows he’s in the middle of an incredible situation. That’s what makes him such a compelling actor. (It’s also what makes him a star.) We want to see how Willis/John McClane (or Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction or Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout or David Dunn in Unbreakable) gets out of a sticky situation. In Die Hard, Willis created a new action movie archetype: the everyman superhero.

The reason we root for McClane is because we know just how outmatched he truly is. As the villain Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman ushered in a new golden era of movie villains. With the exception of the Bond villains (who were just as dashing as Bond himself), the bad guys in movies were almost always secondary characters who rarely registered. (Anyone remember the name of Fernando Rey’s character in The French Connection?) The hero was the star, and stars can’t be upstaged. For the most part, memorable villains appeared only in exploitation movies (Vice Squad, 52 Pick-up) or intense psychological dramas (Manhunter, Blue Velvet). But Die Hard changed all that as the filmmakers realized the best way to make the hero look good is to put him up against someone stronger and in complete control. Previously, villains were the ones that sweated. Here, McClane’s undershirt is drenched in fear and desperation. Gruber is the ultimate villain for the 1980s: a sharp-dressed corporate raider who seizes the Nakatomi Corporation during its Christmas party in order to steal $640 million in negotiable bonds. Rickman infuses Gruber with such high comic levels of contempt and self-satisfaction that we’re genuinely startled when he turns violent. It’s a wickedly sinister performance, never more so than when he compliments Nakatomi president Takagi (James Shigeta) on his suit by flatly saying, “Nice suit. John Philips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there.” Rickman makes being bad look good.

Die Hard looked and felt different from most other action movies. Shooting in widescreen allowed McTiernan to fill the frame with extra information about the Nakatomi building’s layout. Over the course of the movie, as McClane crawls through elevator shafts and ventilation ducts, we become familiar with recurring locations throughout the building. (McTiernan displayed a similar mastery of geography with the jungle-set Predator.) The cinematography by Jan de Bont (The Fourth Man) was quite daring for an action movie as he opted to pan on action instead of keeping the camera static. In an early scene, when one of the bad guys slides down a flight of stairs, the camera slides along with him. The many scenes of McClane running through empty offices and hallways have a thrilling sense of movement. By showing the building under construction, McTienran and De Bont could place fluorescent lights in the ground and have half-finished structures in the foreground. In one of my favorite sequences, as the LAPD S.W.A.T. team prepares a rescue attempt, we’re given several perspectives at once. There’s the computer expert Theo (Clarence Gilyard) watching the S.W.A.T. team get into position on a close-circuit monitor, while Hans looks down from an executive office. We also see McClane looking on helplessly as the police walk right into an ambush. (The climax of this sequence is one of the movie’s highlights.) The nearly non-stop score by Michael Kamen gives each set piece its own rhythm. At various points in the score Kamen incorporates Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” A playful acknowledgement that all an audience might want from a movie is to be thrilled.

There’s a distrust of authority and upper management running throughout Die Hard. The movie aligns itself with the working-class, be it funky limo driver Argyle (DeVoreaux White) or patrol officer Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). It’s when those in power arrive on the scene (S.W.A.T., the FBI, Deputy Chief Robinson) that ego begins to interfere with getting the job done. Of course McClane is a NYPD officer, but we quickly intuit that he doesn’t follow the rules. (Die Hard with a Vengeance begins with McClane on suspension.) This highlighting of the conflict between individual action and teamwork is really a variation on the ingrained conservative value system of action movies. John McClane is no different from Popeye Doyle, except we now cheer him on without reservation.

This conservative streak allows for some satirical riffing on alpha male action-movie heroics. Unlike his Planet Hollywood partners, Willis isn’t afraid to show a vulnerable side. In a brilliant touch that immediately makes McClane relatable, he spends the entire movie running around in his bare feet. We become acutely aware of the beating McClane is enduring, especially when he has to run across shards of broken glass. This is contrasted with the macho posturing of those in charge like blowhard Chief Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the borderline psychotic FBI agents who take over the negotiations. (During the rooftop climax, when the feds are manning a gunship, an agent exclaims, “Just like fuckin’ Saigon!”) Gruber is amused by alL the futile attempts to outsmart him and his men. At one point he asks McClane, “You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?” McClane’s response both mocks and pays respect to old-fashion American heroism.

It’s interesting to note that the summer of 1988 saw established action movie icons attempting to maintain their dominance. Stallone’s Rambo III was so by-the-numbers that even its title was tired. Schwarzenegger tried to make fun of his own image by doing the cop buddy action comedy Red Heat. In a symbolic changing-of-the-guard, Eastwood came out with the final Dirty Harry movie, the surprisingly entertaining The Dead Pool. But Die Hard set the template FOR all future action movies. The most immediate reflection of its impact was Hollywood’S attempt to copy its success with a series of “Die Hard on a …” movies. We got everything from “Die Hard on a submarine” (Under Siege) to “Die Hard on a plane” (Passenger 57) to “Die Hard on an island” (The Rock). (In the best Die Hard clone, Jan de Bont’s spectacular Speed, Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven is the kind of guy who joined the LAPD because he saw Die Hard in theaters.) The movie’s more lasting impact is shown in the way it presented the hero, foregoing he-man stoicism in favor of intelligence and vulnerability. Die Hard gave us a hero with brains as well as muscles. You can see its influence in characters ranging from Batman to Jack Ryan to Ethan Hunt to Jason Bourne to James Bond (Daniel Craig’s take) to Jack Bauer. One of the movie’s taglines at the time claimed, “It will blow you though the back of the theater!” Boy, did it ever.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), and TOP GUN (1986).

The summer of 1987 saw few new ideas in Hollywood. Coming off of summer ‘86’s head-spinning tug-of-war between steroid genre offerings (Cobra, Top Gun) and movies attempting to deconstruct genre conventions (Aliens, The Fly), Hollywood seemed content to make movies that felt more like covers than original compositions. In his review of the requisite Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Predator, Roger Ebert wrote, “Predator begins like Rambo and ends like Alien, and in today’s Hollywood, that’s creativity.” Elsewhere, Boomer TV favorites were blown up for the big screen, as with Brian DePalma’s surprisingly square The Untouchables, while Dan Aykroyd gave a career performance in the clever Dragnet. There were also John Hughes-inspired teen comedies like Adventures in Babysitting and Summer School. The creatively bankrupt sequels included Superman IV, Jaws: The Revenge, and Beverly Hills Cop II, a movie that was all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. The newfound Top 40 popularity of oldies music tied to the surprise success of Stand By Me led to movies like La Bamba and Dirty Dancing. (Can’t Buy Me Love managed to cross a John Hughes teen comedy with a golden oldie. That’s what’s known as “high concept!”) Even Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable Full Metal Jacket was viewed by some as an also-ran, coming as it did on the heels of Platoon. But there was one movie that combined violence, satire, and humanity so brilliantly that even its most ardent fans didn’t fully realize it was showing a future that was quickly becoming the present.

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a future shock comedy set in the very near future, which is really a cracked reflection of the present. Unlike, say, Blade Runner, which luxuriates in its beautifully framed images of urban decay, RoboCop has a more lived-in look and feel that gives its story a startling immediacy. Set in Detroit (shot mostly in Dallas, TX), the movie captures the ever-widening disparity between the corporate-political power structure and everyday working citizens. The glass and steel of the numerous looming skyscrapers reflect the fear and need for protection of those in power from a restless citizenry enveloped in crime and madness.

Verhoeven, a Dutch director who had achieved some success with intense art-house offerings like the psychosexual freak-out The Fourth Man, brought a much-needed dose of subversiveness to Hollywood action movies. Directors like Walter Hill, Richard Donner, and Peter Hyams operated in a slightly accelerated classical form. Clean images and pauses in between action set-pieces were the hallmarks of traditional action movies. Verhoeven gleefully took a butcher knife to classical forms and came up with a potent mix of ultraviolence and biting satire. The screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner took a perennial 80s action movie—the cop buddy movie—and cranked up the energy to 11. Audiences conditioned by countless cop buddy movies were ready for a movie that went through whiplash tonal shifts. The popularity of this movie, which would typically go from a laugh to a moment of poignancy to a crowd-cheering bit of vigilante violence within the same few minutes, showed that audiences were able to make emotional adjustments at a quicker pace than previous generations of moviegoers. We were all entering a world of speed-up.

As the movie opens Detroit is being overrun by crime while an undermanned police department threatens to go on strike. The city fathers are so desperate for a solution that they partner with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation, which has created a prototype for a mechanical law enforcement unit called ED-209. The scene where the ED-209 is demonstrated remains one of the greatest scenes in science fiction movies—the machine malfunctions and kills an executive. The humor comes from the sight of a machine following its programming even in the face of utter compliance. (The machines will always come out on top.) When the ED-209 fails to live up to expectations, another eager executive (Miguel Ferrer) says he has a different program that will keep costs down and is guaranteed to work. All he needs is a volunteer.

That’s when Verhoeven introduces us to Murphy (Peter Weller), an earnest police officer partnered with Lewis (Nancy Allen). Weller infuses Murphy with a winning mix of joy and professionalism that tells us he loves being a cop. (The way Murphy practices un-holstering his gun is a nice touch.) He has such an easy rapport with Allen that we’re immediately on their side. (Verhoeven has some perverse fun by making Allen look almost as masculine as Weller by outfitting her with a haircut that’s just painful to look at.) When Murphy and Lewis find themselves in a high-speed chase they work in almost perfect harmony. A problem occurs when they get separated as they pursue a gang of crazed drug-dealing anarchists into an abandoned warehouse. The scene where Murphy is shot to death is so brutal that it puts us on point in wanting to see him get revenge.

Murphy’s body is so ravaged by gunshots that he becomes the perfect candidate for the RoboCop program. In the sequence where he is built, a series of POV shots subtly replaces a human perspective with a computerized one. The images become more square, as if the world were being viewed through a computer monitor. (The shot of a woman giving RoboCop a kiss is curiously moving.) When RoboCop goes out on the street for the first time Verhoeven clearly riffs on the part in every superhero story where the hero puts on his costume for the first time; Verhoeven frequently takes standard situations like a convenient store robbery or a hostage negotiation and gives them a warped comic spin that doesn’t detract from their excitement. I especially like RoboCop’s solution to stopping a rape in progress. (“Madam, you’ve suffered an emotional shock! I will notify a rape counsel center!”)

Made in the pre-CGI era, RoboCop is one of the last great practical effects movies. Matte paintings, stop-motion animation, and cutting-edge costumes give everything a tactile quality that’s still thrilling to see. The stop-motion animation of the ED-209 by Phil Tippett is jaw-dropping, especially in a slapstick bit where ED-209 chases RoboCop through the OCP building but is defeated when it can’t navigate a stairwell. Rob Bottin’s make-up effects and costume design remain the best of his career. Coming off his very sticky (and overly painted) effects work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bottin’s work here has a more flexible and believable feel. RoboCop’s uniform is like a cross between Japanese comic art work and military chic, turning Murphy into a believable man of steel. (Think a walking Ford Taurus.) Late in the movie, when RoboCop takes off his helmet and we see Murphy’s face for the first time since his death, Bottin’s bald cap prosthetic makes Weller’s already intense blue eyes even more penetrating. RoboCop’s internal struggle with his human instincts is over. Murphy is back.

Verhoeven’s nasty playfulness is constantly popping up throughout the movie. He has an especially kinky preoccupation with the connection between sex and machines. The scene right before Murphy is murdered shows Lewis coming upon one of the more deranged bad guys, Joe (Jesse Goins), taking a leak. When Lewis pauses long enough to glance at his privates, it allows the bad guy to get the upper hand and leads to Murphy’s death. Later, when Lewis and Murphy are reunited, she helps him fix his targeting system by correcting his aim. It’s the closest they will come to consummating their relationship. For Verhoeven, sex is partially mechanical. (Showgirls is all about manufactured sex.) The rousing score by Basil Poledouris uses both orchestration and electronic sounds to highlight the contrast between the organic and mechanical.

Verhoeven’s most daring gambit is the perfectly timed moment of satire. The idea was such brief inserts of humor would lighten the intensity of the action, but instead they just intensify the action, forcing us to be prepared for anything. At various points in the movie the action is interrupted by media newsbreaks (“You give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world!”), that inform us about incidents like American troops aiding Mexican nationals with a raid in Acapulco, or when the U.S. accidentally wipes out Santa BarbAra from outer space. The fake commercials are hysterical, especially a spoof of Electronic Battleship called Nukem. (“Pakistan is threatening my border!”) Of course, the most startling aspect of RoboCop is its depiction of the corporatization of America and the outsourcing of labor for profit. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the most ruthless of the OCP execs, spouts rhetoric that at the time sounded like a send-up of Gordon Gekko, but now wouldn’t be out of place on Fox News or a CPAC conference. It’s casually mentioned that OCP has found profitability in industries that had been deemed money losers. These include hospitals, prisons, and space exploration. They now want to take over the Detroit police department and turn it into a moneymaker. In 1987 this sounded like an outrageous satire of the 80s Wall Street culture. Today RoboCop stings, as its vision of the future were all too real. Verhoeven brings it home by staging the final showdown not in the streets of Detroit but in a boardroom.

But RoboCop’s most lasting legacy is RoboCop itself. This film marks the first time moviegoers were made to identify with a machine. Before, machines and aliens in movies were seen as something otherworldly. Even when we were made to feel an attachment to a non-human character like, say, E.T., we saw him through a human perspective. But RoboCop was different because the most human character in the movie was a machine. Every other character in the movie, even the loyal Lewis, was secondary. When RoboCop walks through the now abandoned house where his wife and son lived, we’re made to fill in the emotions he can no longer compute. Movies were now embracing technology and machinery. Everything from Total Recall to Terminator 2 to A.I. to I, Robot to Transformers has showed us machines that are more human than humans. We no longer rage against the machine. We are the machines.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), and PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985).

The 1980s saw Hollywood going to war. America’s defeat in Vietnam instilled a sense of hopelessness that ran throughout the 1970s. The Vietnam movies of the late ‘70s (The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now) were all about mourning and the tentative first steps necessary for the country to move on. Then, with the election of a former Hollywood star as President, Hollywood decided to re-up with the military and make movies that were the equivalent of Reagan’s military intervention policies. The distrust of the government and the military during the ‘70s was now giving way to a cinematic flexing of American might. All that was needed to build up morale was a few easy wins, and after that, the Vietnam disaster would hopefully seem like a bad dream.

From the softening of basic training in movies like Private Benjamin, Stripes, and An Officer and a Gentleman to re-staging Vietnam in men-on-a-mission action dramas like Missing in Action and Uncommon Valor,Hollywood saw it was better for business if America came out on the winning side. (The first Rambo movie, First Blood, would be the rare movie during this time that tapped into the rage and marginalization of returning Vietnam veterans. Its sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, would turn that rage into comic-book fury, complete with the crowd-baiting question, “Do we get to win this time?”) Vietnam cast a shadow over movies that weren’t even explicitly about the war. Vietnam became a shortcut to character development. Sylvester Stallone’s character in Nighthawks was a pacifist because of his experiences in Nam, while Roy Scheider’s pilot in Blue Thunder suffered from “stress” due to his tours of duty. Movies as varied as The Exterminator to Commando to the first Lethal Weapon all used Vietnam to heighten the audience’s identification with the lead character. All of this cinematic stockpiling of goodwill came to a head in 1986 with the release of a movie that turned Hollywood’s restaging of Vietnam as a winnable war into an advertisement for America’s outsized belief in its own exceptionalism.

Tony Scott’s Top Gun is a visual and aural assault, a full-throttle “ride” that doesn’t stop for pesky things like story. The story goes that the pitch for Miami Vice was “MTV cops.” The pitch for Top Gun could have easily been “MTV pilots.” Scott, along with his older brother Ridley, Adrian Lyne, and Alan Parker, was at the forefront of a group of British TV commercial directors. These directors made advertisements cinematic. When they got their shot at making movies, they infused their movies with a powerful visual sense. Ridley Scott made rust and dirt and grime look authentic and cool in movies like The Duelists and Alien. Parker gave everything an artificial beauty, even a Turkish prison in Midnight Express. Lyne’s use of backlighting throughout Flashdance would become a mainstay on MTV. But Tony Scott was the bad boy of the bunch. He could do everything they could do but he didn’t have any pretensions about subject matter or critical response. Pauline Kael described Top Gun as a “…recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” As it turned out that’s exactly what audiences liked about it. Advertising was now a legitimate form of storytelling.

The story of Top Gun is so simplistic that it’s almost child-like. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer helped shape mainstream American movies by specializing in movies that anyone could follow. Movies like Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Days of Thunder gave viewers such a cocaine-adrenaline rush that you came out of the theater ready to take on the world. They made movies about winning, and in the 1980s that’s what audiences wanted to see. The screenplay (more like a scenario) by Jack Epps, Jr. and Jim Cash may have centered on hotshot Navy pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his training at the Top Gun school but, really, the movie was about you and your dream to be the best at whatever you did. Simpson and Bruckheimer’s movies played like a cross between a rock concert and a motivational seminar.

The movies' pop psychology trappings didn't lessen their entertainment value (who doesn’t like a rush of adrenaline?) The opening credit sequence remains one of the best of the decade. From Harold Faltemeyer’s iconic synth-guitar theme to Jeffrey Kimble’s vivid filtered cinematography to the eroticized, slo-mo pans of fighter jets getting ready for a dawn run, the sequence seduces you into wanting to go to war. Even Kenny Loggins’ anthemic “Danger Zone” is part of the quickening of your senses and making you not question the sheer manipulativeness of what you are seeing. (“Revvin’ up your engine/Listen to her howl and roar”…) There aren’t really any scenes in Top Gun, just set-pieces. There aren’t really characters, either. Any nuance or shading in the characters is due to the characters' personalities, not the writing. The characters’ names do most of the work of characterization. When a character named Viper is described as the finest fighter pilot in the world (and he’s played by the sturdy Tom Skerritt), more than half the job is done.

The movie gives us a comic-book version of masculinity. Vulnerability is kept to a minimum. This leads to a good dose of (unintended?) homoeroticism. The verbal showdowns between Maverick and his chief rival Iceman (Val Kilmer) are kind of wonderful in the way the actors play the scenes totally straight. (They’re like the scenes between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur, except the actors in Top Gun don’t know their secret.) The locker room scenes have a PG level of jocular aggression, while the famous volleyball sequence is meant to appeal to the girls in the audience, but it’s clear Scott knew it would also appeal to men. (The use of Loggins’ awkwardly titled “Playing with the Boys” pretty much seals the deal.)

The aerial photography is still some of the best of its decade, if not in film history. The five major flight sequences help distinguish Top Gun as a superior action movie. Most flyboy fighter pilot movies relied heavily on “realistic” footage but rarely bothered to inform the viewer to what exactly was happening. Scott’s insistence on pre-planning the maneuvers and choreographing the flight sequences allowed him to display a sense of scale that recalls the Death Star run in Star Wars. (Lucas uses CGI the way Scott uses practical and model effects.) We genuinely feel like we’re in the cockpit of one these fighter jets. There’s a palpable feeling of exhilaration during takeoff or when one of the jets has to spin in order to avoid being shot down. There’s also genuine terror, especially when Maverick’s jet goes into a flat spin and he and his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards) are forced to eject.

When Top Gun is in the air, it’s terrific popcorn entertainment. It’s the scenes on the ground that are more problematic. Unlike the non-musical sequences in Purple Rain, where the characters’ interactions were kept direct and intense, the scenes in-between flight sequences have a workman-like pacing that exposes just how thin the story really is. The best performance is by Edwards, who uses humor and sincerity to get us to love him. His death in the movie genuinely hurts. Kelly McGillis is the movie’s biggest weakness. SHE displays none of the confidence that made her so memorable in Witness, her previous movie. She has zero chemistry with Cruise, or more accurately she has just enough to get by. Compared with Cruise’s erotic connection with Rebecca DeMornay in Risky Business or McGillis’ passionate embrace of Harrison Ford in Witness, their scenes together are pretty tame. The one scene between them that works is when they’re sitting on her porch and listening to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” The movie constantly tells us that they’re in love. (The gorgeous Berlin theme “Take My Breath Away” goes a long way in convincing us they’re a couple.)

Cruise’s chemistry with McGillis doesn’t really matter anyway. What matters is his chemistry with the audience. Cruise’s all-American image is so integral to the success of Top Gun that audiences and critics didn’t fully grasp that it takes a rare kind of acting skill to make what he does look effortless. In Risky Business, he used his baby-faced wholesomeness to get us on his side, even if he was playing a junior pimp. From his somewhat slight frame to his little-boy voice, Cruise, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to have the makings of one of the biggest movies stars in the world. But Cruise’s fabled work ethic is transmuted into his characters’ winning cockiness and we can’t help but be on his side, be it in The Color of Money or A Few Good Men or Magnolia or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In Top Gun, Tom Cruise became a star by embodying America’s belief in overcoming adversity in order to come out on top.

(NOTE: Oliver Stone would commit a courageous act of star vandalism by casting Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Cruise’s Ron Kovic is Maverick, humbled by the ugly reality of war, only to come out a winner on his own terms.)

Is Top Gun a good movie? That’s a tricky question. It’s certainly a watchable one that has managed to stick around long after other, more respectable movies have faded from memory. However, of all the movies surveyed in this series of articles it’s the one that has very little resonance today. The release of Stone’s Platoon at the end of ’86 effectively killed Hollywood’s un-ironic love affair with war. (The release of Robocop the following summer would usher in Hollywood’s long-standing romance with technology and machinery.) Top Gun’s influence can been seen in movies like The Rock, a mostly humorless “ride” that forgot to add the rock ‘n’ roll. (The Rock director Michael Bay is like Tony Scott’s ugly stepson. He’s the father of Chaos Cinema.) Top Gun is an artifact, like bellbottoms or the bob hairdo, from a seemingly more innocent time. It represents a coarsening of summer entertainment, a moment when advertising became a part of the storytelling. Who knew what was once considered crass marketing would now look restrained and old-fashioned?

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), and PURPLE RAIN (1984).

The summer of 1985 was, quite simply, the worst summer of the 1980s. I should qualify that statement by saying it was just impossible for that summer’s crop of movies to live up to the pop ecstasy of summer ’84. The inmates-running-the-asylum aesthetic of such movies as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Top Secret!, Purple Rain, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was now being replaced by a safer, more conservative one. Ronald Reagan had been re-elected and it seemed as if order was being restored. Of course there is no evidence for a correlation between Reagan’s re-election and the conservative, retro tone of the movies from summer ’85 (most of the movies were in production when Reagan was elected), but it sure felt like there was one. Rambo: First Blood Part II, A View to a Kill, Fletch, Brewster’s Millions, Pale Rider, Silverado, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, Day of the Dead, Explorers, The Black Cauldron, and European Vacation all had a haven’t-I-seen-this-before feeling about them. Spielberg, who had taken a critical lashing for the intensity of Temple of Doom and was in the middle of making his first bid at “adult” filmmaking with The Color Purple, gave a peace offering by producing the junior Indiana Jones romp The Goonies and the Eisenhower-meets-Reagan time travel comedy Back to the Future. (I should stress that some of these cinematic reruns were quite entertaining, particularly the Rambo sequel and the two Spielbergs.)

Then, near the end of the summer, a spate of movies came out that, rather than rehashing worn-out movie trends, attempted to both deconstruct and comment on certain genre conventions. Tom Holland’s Fright Night used comedy and eroticism (and gory special effects) to rebut all those witless slasher movies, while Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead was a much needed antidote to George Romero’s heavy-handed zombie movies. And Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius was like a teen raunch comedy written by Albert Einstein. But one movie seemingly came out of nowhere and signaled a change in mainstream American movies.

Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a candy-colored toy box of a movie. A series of sight gags, non-sequiturs, and flights of invention, the movie has a mad, on-the-fly structure, built with the insane logic of a children’s story. The story, as much as there is one, is about a boy and his dog, or in this case, a boy and his bike. There’s such an elemental purity to Pee-wee’s attachment to his bike, that when it’s stolen, we totally identify with his anger and feeling of helplessness and are willing to follow him anywhere in order to be reunited with his bike, even if that means going to Texas!

At the center of everything is Pee-wee Herman, a man-child who looks like a cross between 50s kids' show host Pinky Lee and a mime. As embodied by Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s initial appeal was the way his child-like innocence allowed him to get away with making sexually-tinged remarks. The sexual innuendo and physical comedy of, say, the famous 1981 HBO special The Pee-Wee Herman Show was startling in the way it made us recognize the countless inappropriate moments that make up our childhood. And Pee-wee’s speaking voice was like a cross between a guttural snort and a high-pitched whine. Depending on your tolerance of adolescent humor, Pee-wee Herman was either the most obnoxious character since Tony Clifton or a cross between Harold Lloyd and a child star.

Burton's training as an artist and animator allows him to stretch the boundaries of movie frame. (It was his animated shorts Vincent and especially Frankenweenie, with its story of a boy re-animating his dead dog, that led to him getting the job of directing Pee-wee's Big Adventure.) He brings an animator's sensibilty to the live-action form. The cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, Cloak & Dagger) has a tactile Pop Art look, as if the color processing was done by Crayola. (Red and grAy never looked so shiny.) The production design by David L. Snyder makes everything look like a pop-up book come to life. Pee-wee’s kitchen is one big impractical Rube Goldberg breakfast machine, A kid’s idea of efficiency. (The joke of this contraption is that it goes off without a hitch.) Of course, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is most remembered for Danny Elfman’s first collaboration with Burton. Reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s ragtime Gremlins theme, Elfman’s score is a cross between Saturday morning cartoon themes and the music you hear upon arriving at the circus. Elfman has fun adapting the main musical theme for the movie’s many environments. (I especially like how the music gets a slight Mariachi flavor when Pee-wee visits Texas.) Elfman’s scores of late have been rather routine in their eccentricity, but his early collaborations with Burton (not to mention his scores for Midnight Run and the first Mission: Impossible) gave the telegraphing emotionalism of movie scores by guys like David Grusin and John Wlliams a much needed injection of playfulness.

The adventures that Pee-wee has are so disjointed that their unpredictability keeps you in a delightful state of anticipation. The screenplay by Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol keeps sequences brief, almost like extended sketches. (Reubens and Hartman got their start at The Groundlings.) It’s as if the vignettes are a kid’s idea of what places they’ve never been to are like. When Pee-wee attempts to hitchhike across the country, there’s no real danger because we know he can handle himself, even when he’s picked up by an escaped convict. (Curiously, this sequence contains the only moment of sexuality as Pee-wee helps the fugitive Mickey (Judd Omen) evade capture by pretending to be his wife. After they’re clear of the authorities, Mickey gives Pee-wee a fleeting once-over. The rest of the movie is devoid of Pee-wee’s trademark sexual innuendo.) A biker bar is like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, while all of Pee-wee’s fears are visualized through stop-motion animation, especially Large Marge. The highlight of the movie is when Pee-wee goes on a tour of the Alamo in hopes of locating his bike in the basement. Jan Hooks’ performance as the perky, gum-chewing tour guide is a little masterpiece of comic timing. (“Do we have any Mexican-Americans with us?”) As a native of San Antonio, I found this sequence almost cathartic as it deflated the unquestioned reverence towards the Alamo.

The climax of the movie is like a mini It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as Pee-wee finds his bike on the Warner Brothers studio lot and cycles though several adventures in the span of ten minutes. Pee-wee makes appearances in everything from a Japanese monster movie to a Twisted Sister video all the while enjoying every moment of it. The mash-up of movie genres and sleight-of-hand visual gags is dizzying. Burton’s most subversive joke comes after Pee-wee has caused all manner of destruction, when the execs at Warners want to make his story into a movie.  Little did anyone know just how telling this twist would be as the studio’s co-opting of Pee-wee’s adventure would foretell Hollywood’s growing awareness of the audience’s desire to claim a movie (or, more accurately, a movie’s sensibility) as theirs. Studios may not have fully understood Burton’s funhouse mix of 50s horror and deadpan humor, but they could see that audiences were connecting with it. Studios quickly learned it was good business to allow directors with just enough rebel-outsider “vision” to helm their big-ticket projects as a way to entice audiences growing ever more skeptical of being “sold” a movie. Everyone from the Coen brothers to Wes Anderson to Peter Jackson to J. J. Abrams to Guillermo Del Toro to Joss Whedon have done a brilliant job of maintaining their cult figure status while shaping mainstream audiences’ tastes. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, both Tim Burton and Pee-wee Herman showed that you could find success in being different.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



This video essay is part of the "Cruel Summer" series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), and WARGAMES (1983).

If the 1980s are considered a decade of excess, then 1984 was the peak of that excess. George Orwell’s book 1984 had already given the year so much significance that an inexplicable energy and urgency coursed through it. Reagan’s re-election was pretty much a given, a recession was ramping up, and a wave of conservative values was washing over the country. While there wasn’t yet a sense of hopelessness, there was a feeling that maybe things would get better if only we could just get through the year. All this restless energy was channeled into music. In a rare case in which the stars aligned just right, the music released during 1984 was not only the most exciting of the decade but would turn out to be some of the most endearing pop music of the next 30 years. MTV was entering its third year and had, in a sense, become the number-one radio station in the country. If you had a video in heavy rotation on MTV, you had a hit record. During the summer of 1984 you were likely in any given hour to see videos for Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Madonna’s “Borderline,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” The Cars’ “You Might Think,” Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Heart of Rock N’ Roll,” Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” Rick Springfield’s “Love Somebody,” Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” Tracy Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” Duran Duran’s “The Reflex,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” not to mention the videos of Michael Jackson, especially “Thriller.”

The movies took their cue from the music as Hollywood entered into A symbiotic relationship with MTV, both as a new form of storytelling but, more importantly, as a powerful marketing tool to reach the coveted youth audience. Movies like Rocky III, Flashdance, and Staying Alive demonstrated the potential success for music-fueled storytelling and an accelerated editing style, but the movies of 1984 showed Hollywood going all-in on this new aesthetic. Almost any movie worth remembering from 1984 was connected to pop music. Footloose was the movie for the high school class of ’84, while Against All Odds had a power pop sensuality. Repo Man and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai had a madcap sci-fi punk vibe, while This Is Spinal Tap deflated the pomposity of heavy metal. The raw energy of the burgeoning hip-hop scene was showcased in the (still exciting) Breakin’ and Beat Street. Even music-oriented movies that flopped had soundtracks that rocked. Walter Hill’s rock ‘n’ roll fable Streets of Fire gave us Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You,” while Rick Springfield’s vanity project Hard to Hold had a soundtrack better that the movie. Disco mastermind Giorgio Moroder made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis relevant to the MTV generation by adding a modern rock score, while ALSO scoring the soundtrack to the unjustly forgotten computer romance Electric Dreams. Even big name directors got into the act, as Brian DePalma showcased Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” in his horror-porno satire Body Double while Milos Forman displayed a punk-ish attitude towards classical music in the Best Picture Oscar-winner Amadeus. But there was one movie (and record) from 1984 that would not only be representative of the entire year, but also become a cornerstone of pop culture.

Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain is a one-of-a-kind mix of rock concert, intense drama, romance, and comedy. A star vehicle designed to showcase the talents of rock-fusion musician Prince, Purple Rain was that rare vanity project that worked. (Both Rick Springfield and Paul McCartney attempted similar movie projects in ’84, but they were a bust.) Magnoli (who had been an editor on James Foley’s youth-rebel drama Reckless) made his feature debut as a director with this film, displaying a remarkable understanding of quick-cut, backbeat-driven movie-music visuals that very few filmmakers have been able to duplicate. When pop stars attempt to cross over into movies, the results are often embarrassing. The Elvis movies are a classic example. Crummy direction and writing turned one of the century’s most charismatic entertainers into a depressing robot on screen. (With the exception of Jailhouse Rock, the Elvis movies would have been perfect for MST3K.) Performers ranging from Diana Ross to Peter Frampton to Neil Diamond all tried to translate their control of the stage to the big screen, and the results were a display of ego gone wild. Their fame as pop stars worked against them, because it caused them not to work hard enough at portraying characters. (Only The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night displayed the kind of looseness and willingness to look silly that’s required to hold a viewer’s attention.)

Purple Rain was different. Prince was still a mystery, not yet the all-caps superstar he is today. From the movie’s beginning, when we heard a voice introducing The Revolution, followed by an anticipatory electro-synth drone accompanied by Prince’s spoken-word proclamations about life, we knew we were seeing something new, something vital. On songs like “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” and “Controversy” Prince’s fusion of hard rock funk and dance rhythms was like an antidote to the polish of disco. (The music sounded like the next evolutionary step following The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls.) But Prince still hadn’t broken out. Purple Rain was his coming out celebration. Young audiences flocked to it expecting a show, and Prince delivered.

The opening “Let’s Go Crazy” number both sets the stage for Prince’s showmanship and put the story into motion. Unlike, say, Footloose or Flashdance, where the pop music was used to enhance a scene by giving it a beat, Purple Rain integrated the songs into the story. All the musical numbers are both interwoven into the story and separate from the drama, as if commenting on the lives of the characters. At times, Purple Rain plays like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Cabaret. Magnoli keeps the numbers visually arresting by using movement in the foreground to give them different perspectives. Not using a steadicam, he uses the swaying of the crowd’s bodies or the back and forth of waitresses trays to let us know life is going on even while the music plays. (Streets of Fire had a similar introductory musical number, but its song, “Nowhere Fast,” was no “Let’s Go Crazy.”)

The story of Purple Rain is almost primal, with its elements of frustration and rebellion. While the movie isn’t explicitly autobiographical, it creates a heightened version of reality; Prince and all the other performers play characters they can inform with their life experiences. The inexperience of the cast and crew affords them a cocky fearlessness, as the movie has a let’s-put-on-a-show energy, crucial to its success. The young people in the audience knew they weren’t seeing high drama. Instead, they related to the story of The Kid’s (Prince) desire to express his pain as an extension of their own similar desires. The Kid’s tentative romance with Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) is first fueled by eroticism and hostility, but soon turns into a test of The Kid’s maturity. The movie tells us that if The Kid can learn to be generous and trusting, that might be what he needs in order to become a star.

This all sounds kind of heavy, but Magnoli is wise to keep the non-musical scenes brief and direct. No dialogue-driven scene seems to last longer than five minutes. This isn’t entirely because of the inexperience of the actors, but more because the music is so powerful that the scenes don’t need to be extended. The Kid’s romancing of Apollonia happens mostly through visuals. Their first meeting is done with eye contact and the help of the camera. Their first date is when they go riding on his motorcycle as “Take Me With U” plays on the soundtrack. (“I don’t care where we go/I don’t care what we do.”) When Apollonia is being wooed by The Kid’s rival, Morris (Morris Day), he sings “The Beautiful Ones” as a defiant ultimatum. (“Do you want him? Or do you want me?/Because I want you.”) Magnoli’s editing and the hot cinematography by Donald Thorin (Thief) give each number a palpable sense of momentum. “When Doves Cry” is used powerfully in a mid-movie montage to develop characters and fill in holes in the movie’s chronology, while Thorin uses fiery red lighting for “Darling Nikki” to accentuate The Kid’s desire to humiliate Apollonia.

What’s fascinating about Purple Rain is the matter-of-fact way it presents a racially integrated world. Until Purple Rain most black characters in movies either lived in a white world, or were held at arm’s length in movies dominated by black characters. But Purple Rain presented a world where race and gender were shown in something approximating the right proportions. The explicit sexuality of the characters was thrilling, as black sexuality had been mostly chaste (Sidney Poitier movies) or presented as something mythic (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song). The time was right for black sexuality to be presented on screen accurately, and it turned out Prince was just the man to do it. The only drawback was in the treatment of its female characters. Purple Rain isn’t wholly misogynistic but like Saturday Night Fever, it isn’t entirely enlightened either.

Prince doesn’t really act in the film, more often standing still and using his presence to draw us closer to him. This is smart because his normal speaking voice lacks authority. Prince does anger and contemplation beautifully. He’s less assured when trying to be conversational. (His best scene is with Clarence Williams III, who plays his abusive failed musician father. They create just the right amount of tension, giving the scene a hushed intimacy.) Luckily the other actors around Prince are strong enough that they balance some of the movie’s shakier scenes. Wendy Melvoin is quite good in her big showdown scene with The Kid, while Billy Sparks is a natural as the manager of the First Avenue club where all the drama unfolds. Of course the scene-stealers of the movie are Morris Day and Jerome Benton. Day is like a cross between The Mack and James Brown, with Benton as the straight man for his outrageous one-liners. (“Let’s have some asses wigglin'!”) The two performances by The Time ("Jungle Love," "The Bird") are bumptious fun and work as welcome relief from the intensity of the other numbers. Morris is the leader of his band, but he knows to share the spotlight with his fellow musicians. That’s what The Kid needs to learn in order to go to the next level.

The movie’s final act is an extended battle of the bands, as The Revolution and The Time fight for supreme dominance at the club. The three-song set by The Revolution works as a kind of three-part movement toward the movie’s conclusion. “Purple Rain” is a spellbinding one-take performance as The Kid reconciles with those he’s hurt. (I love the moment when he kisses Wendy on the cheek.) “I Would Die 4 U” is used for the movie’s final character montage, while “Baby I’m A Star” pretty much says it all. (It’s easily the best number in the movie.)

Purple Rain is an anomaly, in that no matter how hard directors have tried, its success can’t be repeated. (Anyone remember Under the Cherry Moon or Graffiti Bridge?) It’s a movie whose title conjures up a moment in time. Purple Rain is a movie, a record, a sound. Its legacy is the audience’s wanting nothing but a good time.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

For more commentary on significant films of the 80s, see this 5-part video essay by Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz for The L Magazine! Parts 1 and 2 cover 1984.



This video essay is part of the "Cruel Summer" series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), and ROCKY III (1982).

The fantastic opening sequence of WarGames uses one of the most basic constructs of video games: just when you think you’ve figured out a level, it turns out to be part of a bigger scenario. We first see an approaching car in the middle of a nasty storm. Two men (played by the late John Spencer and Michael Madsen, both looking very young) approach a house and enter its welcoming living room. After they walk up to a mirror, we learn they’re at a military outpost. Soon they are in an elevator that immediately descends into the Earth. When they reach their destination, we realize they’re in a fortified room in a nuclear missile silo, from which they’re in charge of launching a retaliatory strike if the U.S. is ever attacked. After an alarm goes off, an emergency message is received: an order to launch the first of ten nuclear missiles. As they insert their launch keys and go through the required checklist, the one who’s a veteran (Spencer) starts to have second thoughts about turning the key. The scene climaxes with the Madsen character pointing a gun at his commanding officer and ordering him to “turn your key, sir!” The sequence ends with what is known in the gaming world as a cut scene, an abrupt transition to daylight.

WarGames is the best video game movie ever made, precisely because it isn’t explicitly based on a video game. Hollywood has had mostly disastrous results when they’ve tried to tap into the video game market. Beginning with the Tie fighter sequence from Star Wars, video game graphics and situations have been clumsily incorporated into movies like, say, 1979’s Moonraker, a classic example of Hollywood attempting to retool an established property (in this case James Bond) to take advantage of a current craze. Arcade games like Pac-Man, Defender, and Galaga became part of the youthful movie-going experience. The line from Pong to Star Wars to Pac-Man to Atari to Hollywood seems fairly obvious. Hollywood’s first official video game movie was the summer ’82 release TRON, a spectacular sight and sound show that flopped but that Roger Ebert correctly described as “. . . breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities.”

WarGames is one of those movies. It works because the story is the main focus, not the technology. (That’s why a movie like the summer ’84 release Cloak & Dagger can retain a retro freshness while TRON: Legacy plays like a rerun.) Director John Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes knew that the sight of a home computer system was exotic enough that they didn’t need to linger on it in order to keep the audience’s attention. That’s what separated WarGames from the glut of other summer ’83 releases that had some kind of video game and/or computer plot point. There was the speeder chase in Return of the JEDI that played like a take-off on Defender, while in Superman III,Richard Pryor played a computer programmer coerced by Baddie Robert Vaughn into working for him. (The climax of the movie had Vaughn firing missiles at Supes while seated at the controls of the world’s biggest game console.) Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie played like a cross between a Tex Avery cartoon and a video game. Even The Man with Two Brains had a throwaway gag of Dr. Necissiter’s (David Warner) brain transfer machine needing quarters in order for it to work. But WarGames felt organic (even if its story was a high concept mix of Steven Spielberg suburbia and Cold War fear). WarGames has a primal pop immediacy that uses the Reagan-era fear of a Russian invasion as a way to tap into the then percolating fear of modern technology.

After that intense Fail-Safe opening, the action switches to Colorado, specifically the NORAD command center where U.S. defense strategies are enabled in the event of an enemy attack. (In reality NORAD only handles detection, not actual military defense strategies.) At the time of the movie’s production, the NORAD set was the most expensive in history ($1 million) and it remains one of the most famous, ranking with the War Room from Dr. Strangelove. The shot where we first see the set is a beaut as a single analyst walks into a rather nondescript room, then, in an unbroken shot, the camera follows him as he walks up some stairs and a panning shot allows us to take in the massive computer screens that make up the front of the NORAD complex.

It turns out that the emergency launch was a test to see if the men in the missile silos are willing to turn the key. Twenty-two per cent of the men failed the test, which is viewed as a major problem by Washington. Some of the President’s men have arrived at NORAD to discuss ways to address this problem. Gen. Beringer (Barry Corbin) is a veteran of war who acknowledges the need for technology but feels safer knowing that men are in the silos. McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) is a civilian analyst who wants to replace the men with computers in order to guarantee the President’s orders are carried out. The film allows us to see validity in both sides.

We then meet David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a bright kid who lives to play computer games. When we first see him he’s at an arcade playing Galaga. (There’s a brief fun shot of all the games as we try to spot our personal favorite. The detail of David playing Galaga and not, say, Pac-Man is just right. Pac-Man is a game of timing where Galaga requires real skill.) At school, David likes to stay under the radar. He invites Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy, to come over to his house where he uses his personal computer to dial into the school’s computer and changes a recent scoence test grade from an “F” to a “C.” He does the same for her, because she also did poorly. When she orders him to change the grade back, he does, only to change it to an “A” after she leaves. David and Jennifer are cut from the same cloth as the kids in a Spielberg movie; you can almost imagine a cinematic suburb where the split-level houses from E.T., Sixteen Candles, Risky Business, and, yes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are all lined up. The byplay between Broderick and Sheedy is charming and blessedly lacking in teen sexual anxiety. David may be the movie’s first computer hacker, but he’s devoid of paranoia or arrogance. He’s like Mark Zuckerberg’s well-adjusted older brother.

What connects David to the men in the missile silos is his desire to play with the ultimate computer system. When he hacks into a computer game company he inadvertently finds himself playing a game with the W.O.P.R. (War Operation Plan Response), the U.S. Defense computer that comes up with every possible scenario in the event of World War III. Naturally, David wants to play a game of “Global Thermonuclear War,” representing the Russians himself. The sequence where David and Jennifer play on his computer and the people at NORAD scramble to come up with a proper response is close to slapstick. (The cross-cutting by Tom Rolf sustains tension impeccably.) The moment David ends the game is chilling, equating sudden termination of game play with possible nuclear annihilation.

Finally David realizes he almost caused nuclear war, but the W.O.P.R. insists on finishing the game. The idea of computers becoming aware and taking over the world is not new. (Think of 2001, when the HAL 9000 suggested to Dave Bowman that he take a pill and reconsider what he was doing.) The W.O.P.R.’s indifference is just the natural extension of the military creed about turning men into killing machines. Why bother with the men when the machines can simply follow their programming? In its own way WarGames foretold the day when our dependency on computer technology would be at the heart of all our fears.

Of course, Badham and his collaborators don’t bludgeon you with this message in this big-studio summer movie. Badham is known as a journeyman director, something quite rare in today’s Hollywood; he’s able to adapt to whatever environment a story is set in, giving the movie a sense of pacing and character—as in the classic Saturday Night Fever. His other worthy credits include the unjustly forgotten Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Short Circuit, Stakeout, and the underrated real-time thriller Nick of Time. Released a couple of weeks before WarGames, Badham’s Blue Thunder showed a noir-ish techno style that was like an adult video game. For WarGames he was aided immensely by the cinematography of William A. Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby, 1941), whose clean, bright lighting was indicative of early ‘80s movies. (Shooting several computer screens, Fraker does a really lovely job with reflections.) The score by Arthur B. Rubinstein is a mix of militaristic bombast and early sketches of electronica. My favorite musical cue is when David has his first “conversation” with his computer and asks, “What is the primary goal?” Both the answer and accompanying music never fail to create a genuine moment of dread.

The one thing that has made WarGames hold up to countless repeated viewings long after its then novel computer terminology has become dated is the depth of its supporting characters. Today, gadgetry and armory have placed ahead of character, but WarGames is a reminder of when Hollywood seemed to have things in somewhat proper proportions. Coleman allows McKittrick’s weakness for logic to keep him from being an unfeeling martinet, while Corbin is absolutely winning as a career military man only too aware of the situation’s severity. Corbin’s delivery of the classic line, “Goddamnit, I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it’d do any good,” is typical of his good ol’ boy charm. Maury Chaykin and the incomparable Eddie Deezen play a couple of computer geniuses with a mix of jocular aggression and know-it-all superiority. (“Mr. Potato Head! Back doors are not secrets!”) The one misstep in the movie is the conception of the character of Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood), a computer programmer who disappeared after personal tragedy and the realization that his work was going to be used for all the wrong reasons. A cross between Stephen Hawking and Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Falken’s pessimism about humanity and belief in futility is the only place where the movie is explicit about its no-nukes message. Wood eventually wins viewers over, especially when he tells Gen. Beringer, “What you see on these screens up here is a fantasy; a computer-enhanced hallucination. Those blips are not real missiles. They're phantoms." That’s just the set-up for the movie’s climax, a spectacular sight and sound show that suggests that the futility of war might be beside the point. It suggests that all of life’s lessons will be learned online.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



In this series, frequent Press Play contributor Aaron Aradillas will analyze a significant movie from each year of the 1980s. The previous installment: The Blues Brothers (1980).

When Bill Murray came on the scene at the start of the 1980s, he represented a fundamental shift in comedy. He specialized in an utter emotional detachment from any and all situations. His fans claimed he was deconstructing the absurdity of whatever predicament he found himself in. The famous Saturday Night Live sketch of Murray as a lounge act performer singing about Star Wars was funny because he knew how pathetic the guy was. Murray did nothing but asides and put-ons. Some critics praised him as a Groucho Marx type, but if you looked closely, some of his lines had a nasty streak; while Groucho took the air out of a tense situation, Murray made you tense.

Performers like Jack Nicholson, Richard Pryor, even Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS., specialized in upsetting the status quo, speaking up for those who couldn’t speak, and expressing suspicion of those in power, Murray spoke for himself, suspicious of everyone. The most courteous thing he would do is not remind you that he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s almost impossible for Murray to do sincerity. His worst scene as an actor? His plea for goodwill toward your fellow man at the end of Scrooged. He’s like a bully telling you to be kind to others or else.

Murray became a comic hero pretty quickly. He gave the genial summer-camp comedy Meatballs a groovy anarchic charge. Along with Rodney Dangerfield, he was the highlight of the surprise hit Caddyshack. But it wasn’t until the release of Stripes in the summer of 1981 that Murray became a star. A service comedy that was surprisingly reverential toward the military, Stripes was the kind of anti-Establishment comedy that appealed to audiences. It was safely subversive but not offensive.

Directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, along with Harold Ramis, Stripes had the kind of anti-authority attitude that even conservatives could get behind. Rather than trashing institutions like the military, the movie just made the individuals in power look comically foolish. This was a big change from the thinking of just a decade earlier. At that time, young people questioned the nature of long-standing institutions far more aggressively. (It’s interesting to note that Stripes was originally conceived as a vehicle for Cheech and Chong. They truly didn’t trust institutions.) Now, it seemed, a compromise was being reached as Stripes predicted the coming onslaught of pop militarism in American movies. Just six months before the release of Stripes, Goldie Hawn had scored a hit (and an Oscar nomination) with the post-feminist service comedy Private Benjamin. Now we had Stripes. Throughout the 1980s, a whole series of movies did a brilliant job of allowing us to forget the trauma of Vietnam. Uncommon Valor, An Officer and a Gentleman, Missing in Action, Firefox, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Heartbreak Ridge, Aliens, Iron Eagle, Top Gun, RedDawn, Platoon Leader, and Commando all suggested, in one way or another, that Vietnam was a winnable battle. A lot of these movies were outrageously entertaining. They were also cinematic recruitment posters. (Oliver Stone’s Platoon would single-handedly provide the antidote to Hollywood’s love affair with war.)

The opening of Stripes indicates it’s going to both play with and poke gentle fun at images of authority. The first image we see is a commercial for the Army playing on a television. Murray’s John Winger views the commercial with a mix of skepticism and (possible) curiosity. Murray’s trademark ironic detachment surfaces with his first line of dialogue. (“I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”) Winger is so blasé about life that when his girlfriend leaves him, he looks as if he is just going through the motions of being hurt. When Winger says, “Then, depression,” we laugh: If a Murray character is depressed, that would suggest he was once happy.

(Murray aficionados will no doubt know that Joel McHale’s character on Community is an homage to the stock Murray character. The difference being is that McHale’s Jeff Winger genuinely does care about his studymates.)

Luckily for the movie Murray’s coolness is tempered by Harold Ramis as his loyal best friend Russell. When Winger decides to join the Army because, frankly, he has nothing else to do, Russell accompanies him almost for the intellectual exercise of seeing where this will lead them. Or, in the parlance of Animal House, one stupid gesture deserves another. What gives the movie its zip is the comic spin given to standard basic-training scenes. There’s a less abrasive National Lampoon/MAD Magazine quality to some of the gags. There’s also a surprising sense of reverence toward the military, particularly in a shot at dusk where the platoon is going through an obstacle as they sing a recruitment song. Bill Butler’s crisp cinematography makes it clear this shot is not meant to be ironic. On the other end of the shot is the famous scene of the men marching and singing Manford Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” as a cadence. (It is said that after the release of Stripes this became a popular cadence.) What you get with that bit is the acknowledgement of rock & roll’s place in the military.

Sgt. Hulka gives the movie’s situational comedy some weight. It was a masterstroke to cast Warren Oates as Hulka. He represents authority, but not totalitarian authority. He has Winger’s number the moment he sees him. He understands the impulse to question people in power. (He does it himself.) But he also knows that some semblance of order is needed to sustain life. Murray’s best scene is when Sgt. Hulka calls him out on his bad attitude and the audience ultimately comes to side with Sgt. Hulka.

From that point on, Murray’s performance picks up. The scene where he takes the guys to a mud wrestling contest has a playful three-ring circus quality. (The sequence is helped tremendously by John Candy’s wonderfully light comic presence.) When Murray is called upon to deliver an inspirational speech (a staple of 80s movies), he makes it off-kilter enough that he almost sounds convincing. It’s a jingoistic speech with a little sting. (“We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!”)

The movie climaxes, of course, with an action sequence, as Winger, Russell, and their MP girlfriends must enter enemy territory (Germany and Czechoslovakia!) to rescue their fellow soldiers. Like the parade finale of Animal House, this sequence is about destruction, but it ALSO works as an action set-piece. Stripes toys with AN anti-authority stance but ultimately adheres to tradition. And at the center is Murray, thumbing his nose at everyone and everything. In recent years. a generation of filmmakers have found interesting ways to utilize Murray's limited range of emotions. John McNaughton located Murray's capacity for menace in the brilliant Mad Dog and Glory, while Wes Anderson maximized Murray's deadpan detachment by turning him into a terrific supporting actor in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. (When Anderson forced Murray to play a front-and-center character who had to care about others in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the result was both compelling and uneven.) But in the beginning, with Stripes, Murray's what-me-worry cocky arrogance turned out to mirror both the audience's and American movies during the 1980s.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



In this series, frequent Press Play contributor Aaron Aradillas will analyze a significant movie from each year of the 1980s. First up: The Blues Brothers (1980).

According to John Landis, The Blues Brothers was the last movie made under the old studio factory system, in which Universal had everything from the props to the costumes made on the lot. The Blues Brothers feels, indeed, like a transition from the old to the new. It takes the form of a big studio musical, but its execution is all 1980s bigger-is-better filmmaking.

The first movie to expand a sketch from Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers was “high concept” before that term even existed. When The Blues Brothers was made, Landis was the go-to comedy director working in Hollywood, having just made National Lampoon’s Animal House,the most successful comedy in movie history. Stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had just ended their time on SNL, possibly the most culturally influential TV show of the late ‘70s. The Blues Brothers was the right movie, hitting at just the right moment. This movie fed an audience leaning toward the sophisticated comedy of Woody Allen and Steve Martin on the one hand and slob comedies like Animal House, Caddyshack, and Meatballs on the other.

The movie itself, despite its winning ingredients, is a big, lumbering, at times awkwardly paced thing that only intermittently comes to life. The screenplay by Aykroyd and Landis is less a script than a scenario. The story of Jake (Belushi) and Elwood (Aykroyd) putting the band back together, in order to raise money to pay off the back taxes owed by the orphanage where they grew up, has a Mickey-and-Judy-let’s-put-on-a-show innocence that’s quite appealing. The problem is that Landis stretches this story to over two hours, which allows for several unnecessary storylines. (Pacing has always been a problem in Landis’ work. It’s telling that his best movie, An American Werewolf in London, is also his shortest.) There are no scenes in The Blues Brothers. The movie consists entirely of sequences, numbers, and set-pieces. Consequently there aren’t any real characters. Everyone is more or less a cast member. As it turns out, this would be the modus operandi for a vast majority of movies made throughout the 1980s.

The problem with The Blues Brothers movie is the concept of the Blues Brothers themselves, a soul gimmick. (The band’s best performance remains their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” The sight of white boy John Belushi proclaiming he has soul is funny and kind of touching.) At the time no one seemed to question or even be concerned with the sight of a couple of white guys performing predominantly black music. (Inexplicably, The Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues remains one of the all-time best-selling blues records.) The difference between the Blues Brothers and, say, Elvis or the Stones or Eminem is they rarely attempted to do anything that would test them as performers. They were an instant nostalgia act.

Landis probably knew the appeal of the act was limited and that’s why he added so many subplots, ranging from Illinois Nazis to Illinois state troopers to The Good Ole Boys to Jake’s parole officer to Carrie Fisher chasing the boys in their trademark police car. All of these adversaries have potential, but most of them don’t go anywhere. (The Illinois Nazis unfortunately provide the movie with a gratuitous scene of Henry Gibson shouting ugly rhetoric into a bullhorn.) Landis is clearly emulating It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, but what made that movie a masterpiece was its gags on top of gags. It also allowed performers like Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, and Jonathan Winters to play characters that showcased their talents. Belushi and Aykroyd are kept mostly in check throughout this movie. Belushi’s kamikaze style is what made his appearances in Animal House and 1941 so memorable. And Aykroyd is best when he uses his Asperger’s-esque detachment to subversive comic effect. (His career performance remains his portrayal of Joe Friday in the underrated Dragnet.) The only sequence where the buried antisocial behavior of their act comes to the surface takes place when they disrupt the peace in a snooty restaurant in order to persuade Mr. Fabulous to join the band.

The musical performances are a mixed bag; small bits of each number indicate just how good they could potentially be. Whatever reservations you may have about Belushi and Aykroyd as bluesmen, the band itself, a combination of Stax musicians and a New York horn section, is always fun to listen to. And a couple of the players manage to emerge as terrific comic actors, especially Willie “Too Big” Hall and the recently deceased Donald “Duck” Dunn. The band’s big performance at the Palace Hotel Ballroom is fun but the song selections just remind you how good the originals are. I mean, compared to Solomon Burke’s original or The Rolling Stones’ cover, Belushi’s version of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” just ain’t cutting it. Belushi’s best vocal is on the movie’s opening song, “She Caught the Katy.” The song is used to score Jake’s release from jail and reunion with his brother. The opening guitar picking and blast of the horn section get the movie started on a high note, And Belushi’s phrasing is good because he doesn’t force it.

Unfortunately the promising opening song is followed by the movie’s worst musical number. The boys are sent to church to get some inspiration. James Brown plays Rev. Cleophus James, a showman who leads his congregation in a boisterous rendition of “The Old Landmark.” Designed as a tribute to black gospel music, the number borders on offensive as George Folsey’s frenetic editing makes the dancers into leaping bodies, killing any chance of the song’s building to a climax, and turning the spiritual into something comical. Besides, who wants to see The Godfather of Soul do a gospel song? Aretha Franklin does better with her rendition of “Think,” but Landis stages the dancing awkwardly. And when the band plays a rowdy country bar, the mere sight of Jake and Elwood in their costumes performing “Theme from Rawhide” simply doesn’t do enough to make the connection between country music and the blues.

Then, Ray Charles does a fantastic cover of “Shake a Tail Feather.” Charles proves to have perfect comic timing. (“It breaks my heart to see a boy that young go bad.”) And it’s also the best edited and choreographed of all the musical numbers. Even better is Cab Calloway donning his trademark white tux and performing “Minnie the Moocher.” He makes an effect Belushi and Aykroyd struggle to accomplish look effortless.

The Blues Brothers is best remembered for its extended climactic car chase, and it’s still a doozey. Cars fly, spin, flip, careen, and crash into one another like a pileup at a Hot Wheels factory. (“This is car 55. We’re in a truck!”) Landis sustains the comic momentum of the sequence in what amounts to the movie’s best musical number. The sheer audacity of the sequence at the time turned out to be prophetic, as it pretty much announced the 1980s as the decade of the bigger-and-louder-is-definitely-better school of filmmaking. The Blues Brothers put the existential dread and emphasis on the personal of ‘70s filmmaking in its rearview mirror. What it was speeding toward didn’t matter. The chase was all that mattered.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.