ReelThoughts: May 03, 2009

"1984"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Hardly a day passed in 1984 without someone mentioning George Orwell's novel. For me, the year was less about whether we were inching nearer to a society monitored by Big Brother than of the freedoms afforded by turning 17. Beginning September 25, I could drive and see R-rated movies without an accompanying adult. Little things in the grand scheme of things, but big things for high school senior.

On the current affairs front, 1984 was a sedate year, at least until its last couple of months. In November, Ronald Regan walloped Walter Mondale in the U.S. Presidential election (59% to 41%), although this was hardly surprising. The economy was good after years of being in the doldrums and Reagan was an extremely popular, grandfatherly figure. Mondale never had a chance; the Democrats, recognizing that Reagan was unbeatable, chose him as a sacrificial lamb. Another incident of note occurred in early December in Bhopal, India. A chemical leak at a Union Carbide plant killed 2000 and injured about ten times than number (thousands of whom would later die). It was one of the worst man-made, non-military disasters in recent history.

After a lackluster 1983, the movie industry returned to form in 1984 - or maybe that was just the perspective of a teenager. Nevertheless, after spending few hours time in theaters during 1983, I returned to multiplexes with a vengeance in 1984. Of course, since this was a Star Trek year (which 1983 was not), a certain amount of loitering in theater lobbies was mandated. Nevertheless, my theatrical visits were not limited to motion pictures featuring the crew of the starship Enterprise.

As had become typical of my movie-going patterns during high school, I stayed away from theaters during the first four months of the year. Why go see a film that held little interest for me when I could stay at home and play Dungeons & Dragons or write programs for my TI-99 4/A computer? By this time, the world had entered the video game era, so there was also an Atari to play, complete with a roster of cartridges that included Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong. All the arcade favorites at home.

With the arrival of May, however, I started paying attention to the movie listings in the paper. On May 4, I almost had my first movie date. It was all set up but, at the last minute, she lost her ride so I ended up outside the multiplex alone. Hindsight being 20/20, I should have asked my mother to pick her up and drop us both off. The movie was Sixteen Candles, the film that introduced the name of "John Hughes" to the teen crowd and, as a face-saving gesture, I saw it anyway. It was the first time I ever watched a movie by myself. Considering that the 300-seat auditorium was filled with couples, I decided that going to a theater alone was not the thing to do. It would be seven years before I would repeat the experiment. On that occasion, fortunately, the result was more favorable.

A week after the aborted date, we tried to get together again, but couldn't find a movie we both wanted to see. I was set on The Natural (which I ended up seeing with a male friend); she wanted something - anything - else. As a result, we never went on that movie date (or any other kind of date, for that matter). The summer heated up over Memorial Day weekend with the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Seeing that was a curious experience because there was so much anticipation going in and some much hatred coming out. I can never recall a movie where people turned so quickly on a franchise in two hours. Even Star Trek V didn't engender that sort of negative reaction.

Speaking of Star Trek, The Search for Spock arrived the week after. In a previous column, here's what I wrote about the experience: "Five friends and I arrived shortly after 3:00 on the afternoon of Friday, June 1, 1984 to see the 3:15 p.m. showing. The theater was about half full, a result of most Trekkies being gainfully employed. They may have been willing to take a day off for the 'event' of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, but Star Trek III didn't warrant the same treatment. By unanimous agreement, my friends and I had decided beforehand to stay for a second showing, and the 5:45 one was almost full. When we left the building around 7:30, there were long lines for the 8:00 and 9:00 showings (the Eric Twin Moorestown was using both auditoriums for Star Trek III). Midway through the second showing, I developed a splitting headache. To this day, the thing I remember most clearly about opening day for Star Trek III is that pain."

Over the rest of the summer, I saw Star Trek III six more times, often on weekends when nothing new had opened (or at least nothing I was interested in). Before the summer started, I told more than one person that I intended to see Star Trek III more times than Star Trek II (twelve times). I didn't achieve that goal, in part because The Search for Spock did not stand up as well as The Wrath of Khan to repeat viewings and in part because the theater where it was showing depressed me.

June 8 was a big day, with Gremlins and Ghostbusters opening. Since they were playing in separate theaters in the same complex, I was able to see both on Saturday, June 9. The longer lines were for Ghostbusters, which became the highest grossing film of 1984. (Note: Beverly Hills Cop was released in early December and ended up totaling about $5 million more than Ghostbusters, but some that was earned in early 1985.) I had to sit in the front row for that movie, and left with a sore neck. My opinion of Ghostbusters at age 41 is the same as it was at age 17: some amusing parts, but hugely overrated.

The Karate Kid was the first significant film to open after school closed in mid-June. I wasn't excited about seeing this but I went because some of my friends were going (and, being a few months older than I was, they were able to drive, so there was no need to recruit parental transportation). That ended June. July brought The Last Starfighter and The Muppets Take Manhattan, both of which provided the desired painless, unchallenging entertainment. Revenge of the Nerds also opened, but it was R-rated (and I was still two months shy of having a driver's license) - I saw it when it showed up on cable the next year and was glad I didn't pay to see it.

Then came September and its associated perks and baggage: the start of my senior year of high school, visiting colleges, getting a driver's license, and finally having the world of R-rated movies open to me. I celebrated on October 26, the Friday before Halloween, by going to The Terminator. Much to my chagrin, I was not carded at the box office. I informed woman in the booth what movie I wanted to see, paid my money, and was given a ticket. In fact, only once was I required to produce identification to gain admittance to an R-rated movie: When Harry Met Sally.

The Terminator was not the last movie I saw in 1984. In December, I caught John Carpenter's Starman. I was interested in Dune but, for reasons I no longer recall, I didn't get around to seeing it. In retrospect, it was a wise choice. Still, even without Dune, 1984 proved to be a busy year for movies, with 11 titles on my list. It was with some sadness that, when I compiled my first-ever "Top 5" list in December of that year, Star Trek III managed only third place, falling behind The Terminator and Starman.

Ahead loomed 1985 and the great mystery: college. But, unknown to me at the time, there would also be a VCR.

Related reviews: The Terminator, Sixteen Candles.


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