ReelThoughts: March 09, 2009

"1982"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


The thing I remember most forcefully about 1982 isn't the Falklands Islands conflict, the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, or the death of Brezhnev. It was the arrival in theaters of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That might seem like an insignificant thing to recall, but 1982 represented the start of a two-year span during which my appreciation of the '60s TV show reached nearly obsessive levels. The program's health in syndication meant that hardly a day passed when it wasn't on TV. (I believe Sunday was the only Star Trek-free day.)

In terms of individual titles, I saw only 11 movies during 1982, but since I watched Star Trek II a dozen times, this represented the highest volume movie-going year during my time in high school. From a film-related perspective, it was notable for a second reason: my neighbor across the street purchased a subscription to HBO. Since I dog-sat for him when he went on vacation (which seemed to be quite frequently, especially during the summer), that gave me a lot of chances to "catch up" on movies I hadn't seen, most of which were R-rated. The first R-rated movie I can recall seeing on TV was Mel Brooks' The History of the World Part I. Then there was the Bo Derek Tarzan and The Blue Lagoon. (I can assure you that any teenage boy with access to HBO during the early '80s watched both of those movies, and not because they represented great advancements in plot development or characterization.) I also tried to watch Friday the 13th, but didn't even make it to Kevin Bacon's death. I nodded off while sitting in my neighbor's easy chair with the dog at my feet and awoke to find Harry Hamlin fighting Medusa.

In some quarters, 1982 would become known as the year when the teen exploitation sex film came of age. That's primarily because of Porky's, which was unapologetically raunchy and became the year's surprise blockbuster (grossing in excess of $100 million and coming in at #5 on the year-end moneymaking list), but two other features helped build the genre's reputation. It's unfair that both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin ended up being lumped together with Porky's and its later copycats/wannabes, but that's the way it works with success, which Porky's undeniably had. Both Fast Times and Last Virgin were about horny high school teenagers, featured naked bodies, and were comedies, so that allowed the distributors to market them using lines like, "If you liked Porky's" I didn't see any of these movies until they debuted on HBO the following year, but even at the tender age of 15, I recognized that Porky's was crap and Fast Times was good (plus had hotter naked women). I didn't know what to make of The Last American Virgin, which started out like any other stupid teenage comedy before morphing into something unexpected and touching.

As was the case in 1981, I mostly stayed out of theaters until the weather started getting warmer. My first film of the year was one I had been looking forward to for almost as long as Star Trek II. Back in the early '80s, I was a comic book collector and the one title I never missed (and of which I possessed nearly all of the 100+ issues) was Conan. So, naturally, I was dying to see the movie. Unfortunately, it was rated R. This didn't pose much of a problem for one of my friends, who was 18 (and looked even older). But for a 14-year old who looked like he was 11 There was only one solution: get my dad to take me. After a little coaxing, he agreed. I don't think he was excited to see the movie and I don't think he thought it was very good, but he was a good sport about the thing. This was my first R-rated movie and the first time I saw a fully naked woman in a movie theater (unless you want to count the PG stuff from Clash of the Titans). Normally, I view the idea of cinematic nudity as a great plus - but my 14-year old mind didn't think that way with my father sitting next to me. How mortifying! My general impression of the movie, which has improved over time, is that it fell short of my expectations. When it was over, I was more impressed by the trailer for Star Trek II (which showed before Conan the Barbarian since the movie would be opening in that mammoth 2000-seat theater in three weeks) than with the main feature.

My first viewing of Star Trek II ranks near the top of my most electric motion picture memories. Since I was unable to procure a ride to the mall on Friday, June 4 or Saturday, June 5, I had to wait until Sunday to see it. (My 18-year old friend was no help - his parents wouldn't let him borrow the car.) That meant two extra days of wondering whether Spock would die, as rumors suggested. For the showing, the theater was packed and there was more energy in the room than for anything since The Empire Strikes Back. The audience was diverse - men, women, boys, girls. Star Trek, while still not quite mainstream in 1982, was more homogenized that it would become when male geeks dominated the fanbase in the 1990s. The audience I saw the movie with reacted in all the right ways: cheers when the Enterprise fought back and tears when Spock's final moments arrived. The exodus from the auditorium when it was over was muted, followed by discussion in the lobby over whether it was true that Leonard Nimoy had already signed on to direct Star Trek III and that it was going to be called In Search of Spock. (No one believed they would use that title because of Nimoy's association with the TV show In Search Of - surprisingly, however, they came close.)

The rest of the summer consisted of returning to the increasingly depopulated 2000-seat theater to see repeat showings of Star Trek II and catching new films. On the weekend when E.T. opened, my friend and I sat through three consecutive showings of Star Trek II (this was back in the days when you didn't have to vacate a theater when the movie ended - you could stay and watch it again if you wanted to). He still didn't have use of the car, so my parents dropped us off around noon and picked us up at 7:00. Other movies I saw that summer included E.T., which underwhelmed me (and still does) but became a monster hit, Tron, Blade Runner (which I didn't like at the time), and three re-issues: Bambi, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (It should be noted that Star Wars seemed to be re-issued on an almost annual basis.) I didn't see much during the fall, but returned to theaters over Christmas break to see three movies: Tootsie, The Dark Crystal, and Airplane II.

From an awards standpoint, Gandhi became the latest overrated prestige picture to take home the Best Picture Oscar (although Kingsley deserved his Best Actor nod). The year's most worthy film, Sophie's Choice, didn't even merit a nomination, although Meryl Streep won Best Actress. Jessica Lange, only six years removed from the horror that was King Kong, was nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, and won the latter. For my part, I wasn't interested in critically lauded pictures. It would be ten years before I struggled to stay awake through Gandhi and I didn't see Sophie's Choice for the first time until the day after I watched Schindler's List theatrically (those were a happy two days).

1982 ended with Andropov in charge of the Soviet Union, the stock market in the midst of a bull run, and a year of sequels on the horizon.

Associated reviews: First Blood, Sophie's Choice, Tootsie, The Last American Virgin.


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