A few weeks ago, I pondered what it is about ‘80s pop and geek culture – music and movies, in particular – that makes it so enduring.
Now, as families gather to watch movies or stream shows, it’s the perfect time to introduce your kids to even more of ‘80s geek culture. I dusted the cobwebs off my memories, polled my social media network, and was scolded by my husband for forgetting a few crucial films. All to create my Ultimate Geek’s Guide to ‘80s Movies.
To narrow the selection, I tried to pick films with content suitable for children 13 and under.
I also aimed for a science fiction / fantasy element.
That criteria, alone, eliminated nearly all the John Hughes films from the list. So, don’t gasp in disbelief that 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club aren’t here.
I love them, too. But, to be honest, if we’re talking ‘80s nostalgia, Hughes deserves his own article.
I also left the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises off, because you’re either a fan or you’re not – and one paragraph in an article isn’t likely to change your mind.
In my opinion, these must-see Sci-Fi and fantasy flicks from the ‘80s are the perfect way to relieve your childhood or teen years.
Break out the Jiffy-Pop and Pepsi and enjoy!
Back to the Future
I’ll start this list with my hands-down favorite ‘80s film – and one my husband saw in theaters eight times – including once with our kids during the 1985 movie’s 30th anniversary re-release. The sequels are good, but they don’t compare to the original Back to the Future, which stars Michael J. Fox as a teenager who takes a time-traveling DeLorean on a quest to the 1950s to ensure his own future existence.
Want to blow your mind? Check out this deep-fake video starring two of my favorite Avengers. It’s almost enough to make me hope for a reboot.
The NeverEnding Story
This 1984 classic about a 10-year-old boy named Bastian who is bullied and escapes to an imaginary world through a storybook resonated with so many of us geeks and misfits back in the ‘80s. The special effects, cutting edge at the time, may not keep today’s kids captivated. But the story line endures. Best of all, you can watch it free (with commercials) on IMDB.
E.T. the Extraterrestrial
Released in 1982, E.T. the Extraterrestrial was the first movie I ever saw at a drive-in – and probably also one of the last until recent times, when we found the Silver Moon Drive-in in Lakeland on our last trip to Central Florida. Considering that Dora and the Lost City of Gold was playing that night, it’s safe to say E.T. is also the BEST movie I have ever seen at a drive-in – by a long shot.
Probably everyone reading this knows the plot. A young boy, Elliott, discovers an alien in his shed. Boy and alien become friends. Action, adventure, fun, and laughs ensue, complete with a very (very!) young Drew Barrymore. The classic Steven Spielberg movie spawned an immersive ride at Universal Studios that, in spite of its aging special effects, still tends to have long waits and lots of fans. Even after all these years, kids and adults love E.T.
Grab those Reese’s Pieces out of the Easter baskets and get set to watch E.T. on Amazon Prime now.
“Number 5 is alive!” If you can hear a high-pitched, excited, robotic voice when you read that sentence, you might just be a GenXer who loved the movie Short Circuit.
Number 5, is, in fact, a Cold War era robot developed by the fictional NOVA Laboratories. After being struck by lightning, the robot becomes sentient, escapes the facility, and is taken in by an animal caregiver, Stephanie Speck, played by adorable ‘80s icon Ally Sheedy. Because, of course.
The rest of the movie revolves around Number 5 trying to dodge the NOVA scientists because he thinks they will disassemble him. If you think Short Circuit sounds a bit like “E.T… but with a robot,” you’re not entirely wrong. The movie is short and sweet and fun for the whole family.
Sidenote: I can’t be the only one who sees a resemblance between Number 5 and Wall-E, am I?
This fantasy / comedy directed by Penny Marshall and starring Tom Hanks follows the adventure of a boy who makes a wish to be “big” and, overnight, transforms into a kid in an adult body. He falls into a job as VP of Product Development at a major toy company and creates a fairly successful life as an “adult.”
Unbelievable? Perhaps. But also unbelievably funny, sweet, and poignant.
Viewers from the Northeast will love the familiar local references, especially the carnival at Cliffside Park, New Jersey, and the giant, foot-operated electronic keyboard at New York City’s F.A.O. Schwartz toy store.
This 1983 SciFi / coming-of-age adventure is, believe it or not, not a John Hughes film. But it does star Mathew Broderick, who later went on to star in Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Ally Sheedy of Breakfast Club fame. The movie begins with teen hacker David Lightman changing his and his friend’s school grades and, later, trying to hack into a game company.
Instead, he reaches an artificially intelligent NORAD supercomputer designed to run war simulations. Not realizing it’s more than a game, he agrees to play, “Global Thermonuclear War,” setting off a simulation that could result in World War III.
In spite of the dial-up modem Broderick’s character uses to access other computers, the technology and the plot of WarGames stand the test of time, making this a great coming-of-age thriller to share with your tween or teen kids.
I confess, The Goonies had fallen off my radar until a friend mentioned sharing it with his tween boys a few weeks ago. Goonies is available on Amazon Prime right now, and is worth a watch.
The movie stars Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, and Corey Feldman (former Tiger Beat readers should remember all those names!) as a band of misfit boys who leave their suburban homes and set off on an adventure to find a pirate named One-eyed Willie.
It delivers classic ‘80s mischief, laughs, adventure, and kids with way more freedom than we could ever imagine giving our children today. In spite of the PG rating, some parents may not approve of the language and references.
This comedy horror film combined the cuteness of furry creatures with incredible violence – so much so that studios created the PG-13 rating two months after its release. In spite of some of the scarier scenes, kids will love Gizmo.
Take the time to watch this classic with your tweens, and they’ll get the reference when you tell them they can’t eat after midnight and understand when you randomly use the phrase, “Never get ‘em wet!” It’s free now on IMDB.
Released the same time as Gremlins, Ghostbusters is another comedy horror that’s a must-see for teens and some tweens. Parents may find the movie a bit too violent – and a little bit too racy – for younger children.
There’s great debate over whether the original is better than the 2016 remake, starring an all-women Ghostbusters team and Chris Hemsworth as their sexy-but-not-so-smart secretary, Kevin. I think it would make a great family movie night to watch the original and the reboot back-to-back and decide for yourselves.
What’s on the menu? Chinese take-out, with marshmallows and Twinkies for dessert, of course.
This is another movie that nearly didn’t make my list. But I have cool Facebook friends who share my love for ‘80s nostalgia and reminded me of this classic.
A darkly disturbing fantasy musical by produced by Jim Henson, Labyrinth, follows the trials of teenage Sarah on a hero’s journey to rescue her infant brother. In the beginning of the movie, he is kidnapped by the Goblin King Jareth, played by David Bowie in an obscenely tight costume. Sarah meets a whole team of mystical characters who help her along the way as she traverses the labyrinth.
If you’re homeschooling, this is a great movie to showcase the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey for older kids. It’s also one of the few movies on this list with a strong female lead.
Speaking of strong female leads, are you even a GenX geek if The Terminator doesn’t rank somewhere on your list of most memorable science fiction movies of all times?
The 1984 release spawned five sequels plus a television series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the original movie inspired countless girls, as one of the strongest women we’d ever seen in a movie. Full stop. (Until she became a general in recent movies, Princess Leia really could not compare.)
Fortunately, finding strong women characters today is a lot easier, but the action, plot twists, and excitement make the original Terminator movie one worth revisiting. Bonus points because fans can spend a whole weekend binge-ing all the movies.
The Last Starfighter
The Last Starfighter features teenage gamer Alex Rogan, who is abducted by the creator of his favorite video game to fight an actual interstellar war.
Yes, the whole “video game is actual” real plot is fairly contrived. But when done well, stories like these (think: Ender’s Game and Ready Player One) tap into our geeky collective unconscious to resonate with many fans. At the time it was made, 1984, the film was lauded for its special effects. The Last Starfighter provides straightforward fun that has stood the test of time. It’s worth checking out on Amazon Prime here.
The Dark Crystal
Like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal is a 1980s-era Jim Henson masterpiece with astounding cinematography, costuming, and special effects, all with a great fantastical adventure story behind it.
The Museum of Moving Images in Queens features a Dark Crystal display where you can see the Gelflings and Skeksis from this enchanting fantasy movie.
The characters – and the movie itself – may be a little dark and scary for younger kids. But tweens raised on Harry Potter will love being immersed in the imaginary land of Thra, following the young Gelfling Jen on his quest to overthrow the evil Skeksis and bring balance to his world.
The Princess Bride
I don’t know what I love more about this movie: the comedy, the quotable lines, the all-star cast, or the enduring and undeniable romance between Westley (Cary Elwes) and Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright).
I even have my own “geek love” story about this one. Upon learning I had reached the age of 24 or so and had never seen The Princess Bride, my boyfriend (now my husband) hunted down a VHS tape of the movie and gave it to me as a gift. I believe it was one of the last VHS tapes we ever bought.
Fortunately, now you can stream it on Amazon Prime, so there’s no excuse to miss one of the best fantasy adventure movies ever made.
Rounding out this list wasn’t easy because I know I’m leaving off a bunch of notable ‘80s movies – many because they just really aren’t appropriate for most kids. (Aliens or Predator marathon, anyone?)
But this is one of my favorites for light-hearted fun. And it’s the only John Hughes movie on the list because of its science fiction-based plot. Plus, I feel it’s one of the ultimate geek comedies. Also, it features a young Robert Downey Jr. in a supporting role. All winning qualities for a top geek flick in my book.
Haven’t seen it? Teen geeks Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) hack into a government super-computer to create a real-life woman using a computer simulation, a doll, and a power surge. Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) is smart, beautiful, and has magical powers. Teenage adventures ensue.
This movie earned a PG-13 rating, just like many on the list, but the themes, language, and blatant sexuality may be too much even for younger teens.
Still, it’s campy fun for after the kids go to bed.
Which favorite ’80s movie will you be sharing with your kids during your next family movie night?