Yesterday we brought you Paul Duane’s takedown of (almost) everything 1986 has to offer the dedicated cineaste, so today we redress the balance with some of our contributors’ favourite memories of the year that saw the birth of Pixar, Ghibli and The Simpsons, though the animated film we’ve selected below is a little less cheery than any of those.
Big Trouble In Little China
Spank The Monkey
If the actual plot of Big Trouble In Little China was the plot that its lead character thought was happening, we wouldn’t still be talking about it today.
Think about it. “White hero helps group of Chinese people save kidnapped woman from blood-drinking demon.” Sure, there are elements towards the end of that sentence that are guaranteed to grab your attention. But even in 1986 – when we could barely spell ‘cultural appropriation’, let alone understand the concept – there was still something (to use the language of the time) ‘problemacious’ about Caucasian filmmakers raiding Chinese cinema and mythology for ideas, and putting a white man front and centre of the resulting movie.
Thankfully, John Carpenter and his writers took one simple step that futureproofed Big Trouble: they made their hero an idiot. It’s easy to miss just how little impact Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) has on the story – mostly, it’s his pal Wang (Dennis Dun) and bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong) who are running the battle against the evil David Lo Pan (James Hong). For large parts of the climax, Burton’s either unconscious or trapped under the body of the one person he’s managed to kill. He has one useful skill, which he conveniently demonstrates in Act One and finally gets to use in Act Three, and that’s about it. Carpenter made a homage to Chinese fantasy cinema starring every Asian-American actor he could find in Hollywood, and used Russell as a way of luring people into cinemas to watch it. It nearly worked, apart from that last part about luring people into cinemas.
It’s actually quite a faithful homage as these things go, although that may well be what scared viewers away from it. It certainly looked unlike anything else in cinemas at the time (with the notable exception of Richard Edlund’s blue magical lightning effects, which permanently nail this to the mid-1980s). Carpenter’s key achievement is to navigate the astonishing shifts in tone Big Trouble achieves during its 100 minutes: from realistic buddy movie, to brutal martial arts drama, to campy comedy, to creepy horror, all the way up to the point where a supporting character can literally explode with rage and it doesn’t seem especially unusual. Any director who can contain all that within a single film deserves all the money you can throw at them.
It took me a couple of years to discover that in the Hong Kong originals Carpenter was referencing, there were directors who were achieving that level of tonal incontinence across individual scenes. But by the time I got to see films like Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain and A Chinese Ghost Story for myself, I’d been effectively prepared for their craziness by Big Trouble In Little China. It was my gateway drug into half a lifetime of Hong Kong fanboyhood, and I’ll always love it for that.
When The Wind Blows
On the dating site OK Cupid, one amongst its many insane questions (“Do you believe in dinosaurs?”, “Would you be prepared to squeal like a dolphin during sex?”) is: “In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”
I answered “No” to that one because I’d rather potential dates didn’t think I was a complete lunatic. But I added a note to say “I’m slightly fibbing. I was an 80’s child.”
It’s not that I wanted nuclear war to happen, you understand. It’s just during the 1980s, it felt inevitable that it would. Why would any super power have that many nuclear weapons and not use them?
So when I watched Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows for the first time as an adolescent, I believed we were potentially three minutes away from the world exploding in an everything-melting flash of heat and light. I think the “What’s the Point?”-ness appealed to twelve-year-old me. Stop banging on about the future, grown-ups. It’s not like we’re going to make it out of the 1980s alive.
Nothing to my mind says “mid-1980s” like the threat of mutually assured destruction. And books, films and television gave me plenty of opportunities to indulge in those grim fantasies. When the Wind Blows (adapted from Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel) was the most heartbreaking contribution to the Death-by-Nuclear-button-pushing oeuvre. I enjoyed being traumatised by it, obviously. Self-indulgent little Armageddon fantasist, that I was.
The two main protagonists are Jim and Hilda, an elderly couple who enjoy a quiet, non-descript life in a picturesque part of the English countryside. While this film epitomises the mid 1980s for me, there is nothing 1980s-ish about Jim and Hilda. Not a shoulder pad, pair of legwarmers or a spray-heavy big hairdo between them. They are very much 1940s people. From Hilda’s headscarf and a pinny and “We survived the war” attitude to Jim’s braces and strong belief in listening to the authorities and doing what’s right. “Doing what’s right” in this instance means building a nuclear bomb shelter in the kitchen, in accordance with Governmental Guidelines.
Inevitably, The Worst happens. The sequence in which the nuclear explosion devastates a world that was – just minutes before – getting on with its own business is truly shocking. The cosiness of Briggs’ drawing style makes it all the more horrific that such violence could exist in Jim and Hilda’s world. It’s like if thirty minutes into The Snowman, everyone started blowing one another’s heads off with sawn-off shotguns.
Jim and Hilda survive intact and stoically make a go of things. We have to watch, with increasing dread as the couple balls things up royally in the days that follow. Don’t leave the shelter, you idiots! Why are you drinking the rainwater? Really, really, don’t drink the rainwater. Oh god, you’re fucked.
And they were fucked. Of course they were. The world around them was smashed and melted and radioactive and no amount of Blitz spirit was going to fix it.
Re-watching When the Wind Blows has reminded me that nuclear war probably wouldn’t be exciting. It’s grim and boring and then all your hair falls out, your gums bleed and your skin blisters. And you die. Horribly.
I should probably change my answer to that OK Cupid question, really.
I’ve not seen it in years, of course, but that doesn’t matter. Some things stick with you. Swordfights. Lightning crackling through underground car parks. Sean Connery swashbuckling around the place. Clancy Brown fucking shit up on a battlefield. Queen. There’s a certain windswept majesty to this, undercut by the nagging feeling that you’re watching an extended music video (in a way, you are, of course. Russell Mulcahy found it harder to ditch his promo clip style than, say, David Fincher and even in the swishly hypermodern Resident Evil flick he directed there’s a hint of the early-80s smoke-and-mesh-shirts ragged retrofuture so memorably pickled in the Wild Boys video). The refusal to explain exactly why this is all happening.
i.e. Nobody is from space.
There are huge problems with the film, we all know them. There’s the worn joke of Connery’s accent; he’s an Egyptian who has adopted a Spanish identity, but he sounds Scottish. Christopher Lambert is French, speaking a second language, and plays the titular Highlander (Is it possible they got the wrong scripts, and everyone was just too embarrassed to switch them?). There’s the women, who are fridge magnets – if they’re not being held hostage or dying to prove a point about how lonely immortality really is, they’re being assaulted by murderous Russians (oh YEAH the villain is Russian, it was the 80s). Except Celia Imrie, I guess, but that’s a thankless role, too. From Connor’s loving wife to his denouncer, she is nothing more than a catalyst for his move from human society to that of the immortals.
Who are not from space.
It all chugs along with enough confidence in its own stupid premise to make it fun to watch, but it hit me when I was about ten or eleven and it never left me. It feels like a story from an older time that I glimpsed in its most recent form. That it has longevity (if not immortality, per se) is clear from the wearying franchise it has spawned; novels, comics, an animated series, a TV series that itself birthed movies, and, most obviously, several movie sequels.
None of which mentioned fucking space.
Oh, and it’s being rebooted. That was always going to happen, after all what isn’t, these days? In two years we will be rebooting MostlyFilm as a grittier, more realistic film and pop-culture website. It doesn’t matter. Highlander remains, thirty years on, in the old sense, a cult classic. The rest, a catalogue of diminishing returns and outright travesties, can be comfortably ignored. You know where I’m going with this, but it’s true. There really can be only one.
“You’re the only person he’s ever treated decently,” says Stockard Channing’s character to reluctant bride Rachel (Meryl Streep) as she tries to persuade her to get to the altar where her husband-to-be is waiting. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement. And it’s safe to say that when Nora Ephron wrote Heartburn, a ‘thinly disguised novel’ which she later adapted for the screen, about her marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, he wasn’t best pleased.
He’d been portrayed on film before, of course, by Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, so he was probably used to being seen as more heroic. Jack Nicholson isn’t the easiest man to trust at the best of times, but as Mark Forman, he’s all slick insincerity, in full idiotic grinning glory, a man you wouldn’t trust to look after your goldfish, and the only nod to Bernstein’s career are the frequent references to him ripping off his friend and family’s experiences for his ‘column’.
But enough about him. This is a film about heartbreak, loss and betrayal, with a side serving of dark humour and the New York quips made famous in Ephron’s writing. The book kicked off the divorce memoir, and though there are signs of what was to come in Ephron’s later films, what is enjoyable here is the not the meet-cute but the misery. Even as Rachel, pregnant with her second child, is sighing ‘I’m so happy’ and obliviously revelling in the ‘day-to-dayness’ of what she assumes is a contented relationship, Jack’s disappearing for hours on end to ‘buy socks’, which here is a euphemism for having sex with his mistress, the very tall Selma Rice.
Like many of us before her, Rachel has her epiphany while at the hairdressers. Listening in on their gossip, she suddenly recognises all the little signs she either didn’t notice or ignored, and runs home to rifle through drawers so that she can quite literally show her cheating spouse the receipts. Rachel is, at this stage, so pregnant she has to get pushed out of sofas, and her inelegance and vulnerability makes the betrayal all the more awful. When she runs from her husband to her father’s apartment in New York, her behaviour is completely recognisable. She checks whether he has phoned on an hourly basis, eats a lot of rice pudding, and falls asleep in front of the TV where every channel features tales of cheating men. It’s all played to perfection by Streep, and for Ephron it’s something of a reclamation of pain through humour.
This is a very 1980s film, a film of unthinking privilege, featuring fancy meals and house renovations, casual insensitivities at high-end parties, therapy groups, and a nanny called Juanita. It’s also fairly slight. But, thanks mainly to Streep’s performance, it’s a film with real emotion, with heart, a clear-eyed appraisal of what happens when the dream dies.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
It’s just a bunch of happy accidents, really. Not much about Star Trek IV should work: for starters, the script was a cobbled-together rush-job wrung out of potential Eddie Murphy vehicles and Let’s Save JFK! time-travel nonsense. Add The Shat forever playing silly buggers over cash and prestige, the story being forced to start on the heels of the last one, where the now-renegade crew of the Enterprise were left stranded without their ship, and the plot a teetering plate of For Some Reason spinning on top of a pole made of purest Will This Do?
But sometimes it will just do, and the reasons don’t matter, if what you end up with is a damn good time. And The Voyage Home really is a damn good time.
A giant alien dildo parks itself above Earth and starts destroying humanity. We later find out that it’s doing so because it can no longer detect the presence of whales in the sea. (It has to be stressed here that the whys and hows of this are NEVER EXPLAINED, which is simply too audacious to be deliberate.) The only people who work out what’s happening are Kirk and crew, who decide to go back in time to rescue a pair of whales and bring them home in the hope that it might – might, mind you – appease the huge and deadly Pringles tube in orbit.
(Again, the technicalities of the pretty-much-impossible journey are tossed off with a ‘pfft, we’ve done it before’, which similarly took real stupidity or massive swinging balls.)
And so we get 90 minutes of the Enterprise crew in 1986 California; fish out of water trying to get fish into water, and it’s all an impish joy from start to finish. Everyone gets a moment to shine, director Leonard Nimoy’s deft comedy touch (he’d direct Three Men & A Baby the next year) making goofy and deadpan work equally well, and even coaxing Shatner’s best ever performance out of the randy old goat. Quite how it took twenty years to remember that the original series was no stranger to yukking it up every so often is a mystery, but the po-facedness that had dogged the movies to this point wasn’t missed in the slightest.
Spoilers be damned – everything goes to plan, and the renegade crew get rewarded with a new Enterprise. The Star Trek movies were never shy about fetishising their designs, and as Kirk and crew’s faces light up when they fly by their new baby, so does everyone else watching it happen. It was mostly downhill for the NCC 1701-A bunch from here, but they’ll always have San Francisco.
Yes, I know whales aren’t fish.
We Love 1986 continues on Friday.