June 09, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

My memories of 1986 are not much about movies, although it can't be said that I avoided multiplexes during the course of the year. Rather, when I gaze back through the mists of time, other things dominate my thoughts about the year when I transitioned from a college freshman to a college sophomore, held down a summer "grunt" job, and struggled through a frustrating and unfulfilling relationship with an unstable girl. Charles Dickens had it right: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"

The year opened deceptively quietly, with most of January being event-free - until January 28, when the United States suffered its greatest space disaster up until that date: the disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after takeoff, an event that killed all seven aboard. It was a reminder that, in an era when we had come to take space shuttle flights for granted, these events always skirted close to the lip of oblivion. In my lifetime, there are only two public events that have crystallized perfectly in my memory with all of the details preserved. 9/11/01 was the second. 1/28/86 was the first. (Some of my slightly older friends place these dates alongside 11/22/63.)

Outer space was in the news in early 1986. Not only was there the Challenger disaster, but it was also the year when Halley's Comet made its infrequent visit to this part of the solar system. The event was more hype than substance - I can recall freezing my butt off one February morning standing outside in single-digit (Fahrenheit) temperatures an hour before dawn to catch a glimpse of a fuzzy blotch through the eyepiece of my telescope. I was an unpaid assistant to the astronomer on duty at the university's observatory and, when the comet made its way into the evening during the spring, I got to work crowd control. That's when I started spending time with Kelly. As things worked out, I did some unpaid tutoring of her and our relationship - such as it became - did not develop in a reasonable or healthy manner. Without going into detail (that would require a book), I can say that a few of the good times we had were in that observatory and on the two instances we saw movies. By the end of 1986, Kelly was history.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, where my (then) six-year old wife was living, a revolution forced Ferdinand Marcos out of power. I remember listening to updates about this on the radio without imagining that some day I would be attached to someone who experienced it up close and personal.

In April, the Chernobyl meltdown occurred, renewing world-wide fears about the safety of nuclear power. In Pennsylvania, where I was attending school, the echoes of Three Mile Island could be felt. In November, the first rumblings of the Iran/Contra affair, the scandal that would mar Ronald Reagan's second term in office and would make a household name out of Oliver North, began to reach the news.

1986 was arguably the year I was the most "into" baseball. I can recall a palpable excitement in the run-up to opening day (followed by the inevitable disappointment of watching the game as Steve Carlton - in his last Opening Day start for the Phillies - got blown out). Later in April, there was an early-season extra innings game between the Phillies and Mets that seemed to go on forever. That summer, while slaving away taking hot dishes out of a dishwasher at Woolworth's Diner and Grill, I was never without a portable radio to catch game updates. And, in October, I was as mesmerized by the Mets/Astros and Mets/Red Sox postseason series as any of my New York-bred college buddies.

But what about 1986 at the movies?

I saw only two films during the second semester of my freshman year, and both of those were "date movies" with Kelly. Neither was memorable: John Hughes' Pretty in Pink, an inferior attempt to recapture the charm of Sixteen Candles, and Police Academy 3, the third in perhaps the most wretched cinematic series to come out of the '80s. The levels to which one will stoop in the name of spending a few hours with a member of the opposite sex…

My summer job absorbed only 20 hours per week of my time - 4 hours (5:00 pm until 9:00 pm) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and 8 1/2 hours (12:30 pm until 9:00 pm, including a 30 minute break) on Saturdays - so there was plenty of time to see movies. With my Dungeons & Dragons playing days behind me, I had a fair amount of free time (much of which I spent watching baseball), so my summer movie-going didn't suffer. The summer started out with Short Circuit and Top Gun, neither of which I saw until many years later. On June 13, a pair of movies opened that I ended up seeing back-to-back on Sunday afternoon: Back to School, with Rodney Dangerfield, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. At the time, I loved both. Subsequent viewings, however, have illustrated how poorly the films have aged. Watching the Dangerfield movie 10 years after its release, I didn't laugh once. And poor Ferris seemed just silly and kind of cruel the second time around.

The big summer movie for me was Aliens, which opened on July 18. My friends and I planned to see the movie on Saturday - I concocted some excuse to get out of work - and I rented Alien the night before to get in the mood. (I had never seen it.) Watching those two films within a 24-hour span was mind-blowing. Suddenly, I was a Ridley Scott and James Cameron fan and, although Scott would disappoint with some of his efforts during the late '80s and early '90s, Cameron hit one home run after another. (At the time, I did not make the connection with The Terminator until I was in the theater and saw Michael Biehn. That's when the light went off.)

August brought Stand By Me, which I liked better than I expected to, and The Fly, which I liked a lot better than I expected to. After that, it was time to pack up my things and head back to school. It would be two months before I would see another movie. My sophomore curriculum was considerably more challenging than the one I had skated through as a freshman, and I had no desire to go out on another movie date with Kelly. So it wasn't until I was home for fall break in mid-October that I saw another film. This one was 1986's sleeper hit: Crocodile Dundee, which came complete with a trailer for my must-see production of the year: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales).

Those who have read my self-indulgent Star Trek reminiscences know that, for me, there was a big buildup to that film, which opened the day before Thanksgiving. I had an engineering exam that morning and, once it was over, I was in a celebratory mood, but circumstances demanded that I wait for my friends to arrive home in the evening before heading off to the theater. To this day, Star Trek IV remains the best movie experience I have had. When it comes to an event movie, it's only partially about what's on screen. The whole package, built on a foundation of excitement and anticipation, is what makes it special. I "get" why people sometimes love less-than-great cinematic events, because they're reacting not so much to the production as to everything that accompanies it.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I returned twice more to see Star Trek IV and also found time to catch An American Tail and Hoosiers. It's not an exaggeration to say I spent most of my time away from school during that vacation in theaters. (As I recall, I paid for Star Trek on Friday and Saturday, then snuck into An American Tail on Friday and Hoosiers on Saturday. It was amazing what one could do in an 8-plex.) That was it until Christmas break, when I watched Platoon, The Golden Child, and Little Shop of Horrors (which I disliked the first time but grew to love over the years).

It was immediately before I came home for Christmas break that I met Tracie. That's a story for another time (actually, I wrote about it in my April 10, 2008 ReelThoughts), but Tracie became instrumental in getting my butt into theater seats more than two-dozen times in 1987.

Related reviews: The Color of Money, Stand By Me, About Last Night, The Mission.