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Part III in our trilogy: What did 80s movies teach us about tech?

August 28, 2015
By Sarah O'Connor

Earlier this month, I revisited my favorite decade, the 1980s, and looked back on technology themes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Last Starfighter and Big. This week, I’ll conclude the trilogy by examining how the 80s treated cell phones, artificial intelligence and special effects.

Cellular phones:

The first mobile phones became commercially available in the early 1980s. You may remember them fondly as unwieldy status symbols with retractable antennae.

  • Top pick: Wall Street (1987) – Most people recall a few key points from this drama that peeked inside the world of Manhattan stockbrokers: Gordon Gekko’s suspenders and hairstyle, his “greed is good” speech—and his enormous cellphone. At the time, we were likely impressed by Gekko’s wealth when he called Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) from the beach, but today his brick-like phone seems as dated as Bud’s girlfriend’s interior design skills.
  • Honorable mention: Sixteen Candles (1984) – Not only was Jake Ryan the most popular boy in high school, but his father was so wealthy, he had a phone in his car. Caroline and Ted even answer a call meant for Mr. Ryan as they drive home from the dance, although that would be the least of Jake’s problems that evening.

Robots / artificial intelligence:

The cyborgs I covered back in July were good-hearted creations that helped their companions. These robots were malicious killers out for destruction.

  • Top pick: The Terminator (1984) – In the future, John Connor leads the uprising against the machines, which are controlled by an automated defense network known as Skynet. The Terminator T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) travels from 2029 to 1984 to kill John’s mother, Sarah, and prevent his birth.
  • Honorable mention: Blade Runner (1982) – In 2019, Tyrell Corporation creates replicants with four-year lifespans to work off-world; they are banned from Earth. Blade runners such as Harrison Ford hunt down renegades who attempt to visit Earth in order to live longer.

Special effects:

Some 30 years later, I still remember reading that sound engineers shook a bowl of jelly to create the sound of E.T.’s footsteps. And didn’t you look for a tell-tale split-screen whenever a set of identical twins was shown in an 80s movie?

  • Top pick: Ghostbusters (1984) – In this comedy, ghost-catchers try to contain a haunting in Manhattan. They first realize things are not what they seem when they’re shushed at the New York Public Library, and they soon encounter Slimer, a green goblin who terrorized the city with ectoplasm, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, a towering giant lumbering through Columbus Circle. Imagine that it was all filmed in less than one year, and in 1984, no less.
  • Honorable mention: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), an archeologist, travels the world in this adventure film to retrieve and protect a biblical artifact. Most remember Indy’s attempt to outrun a tumbling boulder through the temple, the pit of hissing snakes in the Well of Souls (Indy hates snakes) and the otherworldly occurrences that happen when the Ark is opened.

Any other fun 80s movies or themes I missed? Let me know in the comments.

You may also enjoy these past posts on 80s technology:

What did 80s movies teach us about tech?

What else did 80s movies teach us about tech?

Friday Fun: Are robots coming for your job?

 As marketing communications manager, Sarah O’Connor develops and supports strategies to promote TEKsystems’ brand to job seekers, consultants and clients. She enjoys running and exploring new cities—preferably both at the same time. 

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