From “E.T.” to “Blade Runner,” the 1980s were a decade of innovation and imagination when it came to science-fiction in movies, especially when it came to special effects. By harnessing the power of new technologies like computer graphics and animatronics, filmmakers were able to transport us to new worlds and introduce us to strange, otherworldly creatures. Here, we take a look at some of the most memorable special effects in 80s sci-fi movies.
The Alien in “Aliens” (1986)
The first “Alien” movie in 1979 shocked audiences with its gory depictions of the titular extraterrestrial, but it wasn’t until the sequel “Aliens” that the creature was given a major upgrade. Designed by legendary artist H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph in “Aliens” was more menacing than ever thanks to its sleek, biomechanical design and its ability to move quickly and efficiently. The filmmakers used a combination of practical and visual effects to bring the creature to life, from actor Lance Henriksen donning a suit to puppeteered models and post-production editing.
The Facehugger in “Alien” (1979)
Speaking of “Alien,” its most famous scene involves the Facehugger, an alien parasite that latches onto its host’s face and implants an embryo into their body. The moment when the Facehugger first leaps out of its egg and onto John Hurt’s face is one of the most memorable moments in sci-fi history, made all the more terrifying by the realism of the creature’s movements and appearance. The Facehugger was created using a combination of puppetry, models, and live action filming, and it remains an iconic element of the “Alien” franchise to this day.
The T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
Okay, so “Terminator 2” technically came out in 1991, but we had to include it on this list because of its groundbreaking use of CGI to create the T-1000. Played by Robert Patrick, the T-1000 is a shape-shifting android made out of liquid metal, which allowed for some truly mind-bending special effects. From the moment the T-1000 walks through a barred gate, to its bullets leaving gaping holes in walls, audiences were blown away by the seamless integration of computer animation into the film.
The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in “Ghostbusters” (1984)
While “Ghostbusters” might not be a traditional sci-fi movie, its finale certainly features one of the most unforgettable special effects of the 80s. When the villain unleashes the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on New York City, the results are both hilarious and awe-inspiring. The giant marshmallow mascot was brought to life using a 40-foot-tall puppet that was filmed from a variety of angles and then composited into the final scene. Even today, the sight of Stay Puft marching through the city streets remains a beloved moment in sci-fi movie history.
The Skeksis in “The Dark Crystal” (1982)
“The Dark Crystal” might not be as well-known as some of the other movies on this list, but it’s still a beloved cult classic among fans of puppetry and practical effects. Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the movie tells the story of a world ruled by the Skeksis, a race of vulture-like creatures that terrorize the other inhabitants. Using animatronics, puppetry, and some clever editing tricks, the filmmakers brought the Skeksis to life with incredible detail and realism, making them some of the most memorable villains in sci-fi history.
The Prosthetics in “The Fly” (1986)
David Cronenberg’s body-horror masterpiece “The Fly” features some of the most memorable prosthetics work in cinema history. As the scientist Seth Brundle undergoes a horrific transformation into a human-fly hybrid, the makeup and special effects team had their work cut out for them. From the gruesome transformation scene to Jeff Goldblum’s final, grotesque form, every moment of “The Fly” is a testament to the power of practical effects and prosthetics in creating a sense of horror and disgust.
The Practical Effects in “The Thing” (1982)
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is another sci-fi/horror classic that relies heavily on practical effects to create its terrifying creatures. From the moment the sled dog is revealed to be an alien parasite, to the climactic showdown with the shape-shifting creature, every moment of “The Thing” is filled with gruesome and memorable practical effects. The decision to use practical effects over CGI (which wasn’t even an option at the time) has paid off in spades, as the movie’s creature effects are still considered some of the most impressive ever seen on film.
The Lightcycles in “Tron” (1982)
Even though “Tron” is remembered more for its groundbreaking use of CGI than for its traditional special effects, we couldn’t resist including the film’s iconic Lightcycles on this list. These futuristic motorcycles emit walls of light behind them as they hurtle through a neon-lit digital world, and they remain some of the coolest vehicles in sci-fi movie history. The Lightcycles were created by using actual motorcycles that were then modified with added pieces and lights, and they still look impressive even by today’s standards.
The Flying DeLorean in “Back to the Future” (1985)
Finally, we couldn’t leave off the most memorable ’80s sci-fi movie of them all, “Back to the Future.” Though the movie doesn’t feature any fantastical creatures or elaborate makeup effects, it does have one of the most memorable vehicular special effects of all time. The moment when Doc Brown’s DeLorean hits 88 mph and time-travels through the sky is a hallmark of ’80s movie magic, and it remains an iconic moment in pop culture history.
The 1980s were a time of incredible innovation and experimentation in sci-fi movie special effects. From gore-filled horror movies to family-friendly blockbusters, filmmakers pushed the boundaries of what was possible with practical and digital effects, creating some of the most memorable moments in movie history. These examples are just a taste of what the decade had to offer, but they stand the test of time as shining examples of the power of special effects in bringing otherworldly stories to life on the big screen.