Saturday, April 5, 2014

Revisiting the Fantasy Films of the Early 1980s

Tonight I finally got around to watching the first of the new Hobbit flicks.  (Parenthood made seeing it in the theater last year a non-starter.)  It got me thinking about how robust the fantasy genre has been since the first Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, after years of being B-grade straight to video fodder.  If you would have told someone in 1994 that twenty years later that big-budget adaptations of works by Tolkien and George RR Martin had been made into hugely successful films in the case of the former and an acclaimed and popular television show in the latter case, they would have thought you were nuts.  This has been part of a general nerding of American popular culture, where comic book-inspired films have joined fantasy in the multiplexes and computers are cool, not geeky.  It has not always been thus, of course.  A few years ago on my old blog I discussed how there had been an attempt to bring fantasy mainstream in the early 1980s, and speculated as to why it didn't take at that time.  Here's what I had to say:


Looking back on it, I'm struck at the number of fantasy films released during the early 1980s. Here's but a cursory list: Dragonslayer, Krull, Beastmaster, Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, Heavy Metal (I count it as fantasy, at least), and the genre's cream, Conan the Barbarian. I didn't notice at the time, since I was starting to get into D&D and was reading fantasy novels (particularly the Dragonlance series) in the mid-to-late eighties, it all seemed so natural for these movies to be crowding the shelves at the video store. (Perhaps this proliferation of these films even helped spark my interest in the games and books.)

How to explain this sudden spurt in sword and sorcery? Part of it might come from the growing popularity of role playing games at the time, as Dungeons and Dragons burst onto the scene in the 70s. (Hollywood always wants to jump onto the latest trend picked up by The Kids.) Some of it, I think, grew out of the counter-culture's embrace of Tolkien, and the general New Age interest in magic and paganism. Most of all, however, the new spate of fantasy films was enabled by the massive success of the Star Wars films. Although it could technically by classified as "science fiction," the Star Wars saga derives its true power from its inherently mythic nature. The Force is a kind of magic, Obi Wan a Merlin, the lightsaber a sword from the stone etc. (I'm not saying anything Joseph Campbell hasn't said before.)

George Lucas thus inadvertantly paved the way for a slew of films featuring magic, sword wielding mythic heroes, and quests. The death of New Hollywood and its cinematic realism along with the heretofore unimaginable success of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars made Hollywood see big bucks in escapism. Funnily enough, this meant that formerly B movie genres like fantasy and sci-fi finally got made with real budgets.

The burst in fantasy films would be short-lived, however. I blame it on the failures of 1984's Conan the Destroyer and 1985's Red Sonja, which made it hard for Hollywood to keep pouring dollars into what had long been considered a low-end genre. In fact, I can't think of a major fantasy film hit between 1982's Conan the Barbarian and 2001's Fellowship of the Ring. (And no, Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time doesn't count.) The original Highlander is about the only thing that comes close, and the highly hyped Willow didn't live up to expectations.

It's hard to say what the fantasy films of the early eighties say about their time, or at least a lot harder than interpreting slasher and post-apocalyptic. I would say that fantasy worlds are always past worlds, even if they are in another world, like Middle Earth. They are roughly medieval, bereft of gunpowder and modern technology, and most importantly, still enchanted. Because these settings are the bedrock of the genre, fantasy expresses a deep seated ambivalence about modernity. (This, by the way, is why Luke Sykwalker must destroy the technological terror of the Death Star not with his targeting computer, but with his "feelings.") Just as post-apocalyptic movies exhibited a pessimism about the future, fantasy displays a disenchantment with the present. As the economy recovered and faith in the nation revived in the mid-80s (as can be seen in films from Top Gun to Red Dawn), the retreat to an imagined past offered by fantasy became less attractive. The deeper meaning of fantasy and its ambivalence towards the present might explain (beyond the film's obvious quality) how The Fellowship of the Ring became the first cinematic sensation after 9/11.

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