ReelThoughts: May 20, 2009

"1985"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


On a global scale, not a lot happened in 1985; this allowed trivia to dominate the news cycle. Ronald Reagan officially began his second term but no one really noticed. It had long been assumed that the Great Communicator would be in office for eight years, so the inauguration was a mere formality. A change in leadership with long-term implications occurred in March, when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the top of the Soviet Union. Although US/USSR relations did not noticeably warm during 1985, this represented the beginning of the end of the Cold War. (It concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991).

1985 also saw one of the biggest marketing debacles of the century when Coca Cola changed its formula and began manufacturing "New Coke." The original formula was only unavailable for about two months; Coke began retailing it as "Coca-Cola Classic" in July and sales for Old Coke immediately eclipsed those of New Coke. Having never sampled New Coke (not being much of a soda drinker in those days), I can't testify to how different from Classic Coke it was, but my friends opined that it tasted a lot like Pepsi.

In August, Robert Ballard located the wreck of the Titanic - without this discovery, Cameron's movie doubtless would not have been made. Nintendo began selling the NES in the United States in October, re-igniting interest in home video games (it had been waning since the late-'70s surge that accompanied the release of the first Atari system). And, in November, Microsoft released version 1.0 of Windows. No one thought much of it in 1985, but this was the cornerstone of an empire.

For me, 1985 was the year I became a man (to borrow the cliché). It had nothing to do with age or sex or anything of that sort. Going away to college and living on my own brought about the transformation. 25 years later, I can still vividly recall that first week at the University of Pennsylvania. With no phone or television in my single-person dorm room, I was effectively cut off from my "old life," even though my parents lived less than 25 miles away. My leisure time - and I had a lot of it that first semester - was consumed by writing short stories, listening to the radio, and reading. Lots of reading. I didn't see many movies. The nearest theater, despite being literally around the corner, was run-down (surprisingly, it continued operating into the mid-1990s). My parents purchased their first VCR in September, but that didn't do me much good except when I was visiting home. Over the Christmas break at the end of the year, I probably watched two-dozen older movies - most of them R-rated (stuff I had missed in theaters over the years because I had been too young). My first VHS purchases were Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

In 1985, I viewed the VCR as an almost miraculous technology, even though I was starting a curriculum in electrical engineering, a discipline devoted to demythologizing devices like this. It amazed me that I could insert a tape into the machine and, at the touch of a button, watch a favorite movie or TV show. Today, this is second nature, but it was revolutionary in the '80s. I recorded a lot of crap those first few months just to be able to re-watch it later. I later embarked upon a campaign to video record nearly everything I had on cassette tape. (I succeeded with Star Trek and Doctor Who. Sadly, I never got video copies of those T.J. Hooker episodes…)

So much happened to me during the course of 1985 that movies were nothing more than a footnote. None of the releases, even the ones I liked, stayed with me very long. My newly acquired driving abilities allowed me to attend non-summer films. Witness was an example of this. I remember driving to the station wagon to the mall one frigid February Sunday afternoon with a couple of friends. We didn't know what the movie was about, but we were aware that it starred Harrison Ford and were expecting some sort of action thriller. I recall being unpleasantly surprised by the direction in which the story moved, although I approved of the Kelly McGillis exposure. When I re-watched it on video about a decade later, I realized it was a very good movie, but that wasn't my reaction at the time. Less than a month later, I was at another multiplex to see The Sure Thing - not normally my kind of movie, but one that I enjoyed nonetheless.

Summer arrived without the usual flurry of high-profile May releases. In fact, the only movie I saw that month was the final Roger Moore Bond outing, A View to a Kill, which opened Memorial Day weekend. June wasn't appreciably better, with only Cocoon drawing me to theaters. A number of my friends went to see Goonies, but I declined. It would be 20 years before I would get around to seeing the movie (my wife urged me to watch it shortly after we were married), and I became convinced that I made the right decision all those years ago to stay home.

The most enjoyable movie of the year - in what was admittedly a poor year - arrived in a DeLorean over Independence Day weekend. Back to the Future was not only the year's top grossing film, but (to date) also the only non-Star Trek or Star Wars movie I saw more than once theatrically. The other July release I attended was Sliverado, largely because it featured John Cleese. As with Witness, I didn't get what I expected. In this case, however, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the movie, so I wasn't disappointed.

By the time August arrived, I could sense the approach of college and I began focusing on things other than movies, like trips to the shore and saying goodbye to friends who were heading to other parts of the country. I played my last paper-and-pencil Dungeons & Dragons game in late August. For whatever reason, once my friends and I ended our campaign after a marathon weekend session the weekend before Labor Day weekend, I never started another game. The only movie I saw in August was The Black Cauldron, primarily because I was a fan of the Lloyd Alexander book series upon which it was based. One of my favorite vampire movies, Fright Night was released in August 1985, but I didn't see it until the summer of 1987 (on video).

The first movie I saw at the crummy theater near my dorm was Commando, which was packed on opening night. At the time, I thought it was a lot of fun. My opinion changed when I re-watched it the following year on video, leading me to recognize that an enthusiastic audience can alter one's impression of a movie. The night I finished finals that semester was December 20. With an evening to kill before going home, I saw something new that opened that day: Out of Africa. I thought it was an unbearable bore (an opinion I have since changed). Of course, it went on to win the Academy Award.

So ended my first semester at college and 1985. 1986 would not only mark another Star Trek movie year, but the first time I made a date with a girl to see a movie and she actually showed up.

Related reviews: Back to the Future, Out of Africa, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Sure Thing.


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