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What Did 80s Movies Teach Us About Tech

July 17, 2015

With Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the series launched by 1984’s Terminator, opening earlier this month, I thought it would be fun—and funny, given my name—to take a look back at other 1980s movies…with a sci-fi and or tech theme, of course. Technology played a significant role in 80s pop culture, and films touched on everything from artificial intelligence to teleportation.  Join me as I hop in my DeLorean and revisit a few recurring themes.


It seemed that hackers in the 80s were either mischievous highschoolers or frustrated computer programmers, and neither group had much trouble breaking through security barriers.

  • Top pick: WarGames (1983) – Years before he hacked into Mr. Rooney’s attendance database as Ferris Bueller, Matthew Broderick pulled a similar move in WarGames as Seattle teenager David Lightman. David, however, wasn’t satisfied with just changing his grades and was soon swept up into a computer simulation with Joshua, a supercomputer looking to start World War III.
  • Honorable mention: TRON (1982) – Kevin Flynn, a software engineer out to prove his work was stolen by a colleague, found his hack backfire when he was transported inside his former employer’s mainframe computer. A sequel, TRON: Legacy, came out in 2010 and centered around Kevin’s son, Sam.


The teen prodigy was a familiar character in 80s television, appearing in “Doogie Howser, M.D.”, “Head of the Class” and “Max Headroom”, among others.  And while Revenge of the Nerds may be one of the first films that comes to mind, Hollywood introduced us to some other memorable geniuses.

  • Top pick: Real Genius (1985) – The 80s are known for excess, so it’s no surprise that my top pick featured two prodigies under one roof. Pacific Tech students Mitch, the youngest freshman admitted to the university, and Chris, a prankster and physics mastermind, partnered up to help their professor build a laser for the CIA. 
  • Honorable mention: SpaceCamp (1986) – Capitalizing on the nation’s interest in space travel, this movie followed the adventures of a group of gifted teenagers (and Max, a 12-year old whiz kid) at an educational camp at Kennedy Space Center. When Max befriended Jinx, the resident robot (what? didn’t your summer camp have one?) and expressed his desire to journey into space, Jinx launched the group’s shuttle into orbit even though it wasn’t flight-ready.


Robots came in many shapes and sizes in the 1980s, and it usually just took a well-timed bolt of lightning* to bring them to life.

*not to be confused with Mogwais, who must be kept away from flashes of bright light

  • Top pick: Weird Science (1985) – Two Chicago high-schoolers, looking for confidence and popularity, created their dream girl, Lisa, on a computer (with help from a hack into the government’s system for power, naturally). Lisa’s arrival—and her magic powers—proved more than they bargained for. A remake is allegedly in the works, but no word yet if Danny Elfman is back on soundtrack duties.
  • Honorable mention: Short Circuit (1986) – A military robot named Number 5 gained a sense of free will and uncanny street smarts after being hit by a power surge in a storm. He teamed up with Ally Sheedy to avoid being sent back to his inventors. In the inevitable 1988 sequel, Number 5 ran amok in New York City.

Bonus category – Instant Messenger:

Top (and only) pick: Pretty in Pink (1986) – Chicago’s Shermer High School was really ahead of its time: the library computers had instant messenger with photo capabilities, conveniently allowing Andie to interact with Blane. Who knew a 1980s school system could let students import glamour shot photos of their classmates on what appeared to be an old Apple IIe?

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:

Where’s the flying car sci-fi promised?

Connected cars of the past

The Nintendo power glove 

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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