It has been said that 1982 was the greatest year ever for sci-fi and fantasy films. It saw the release of E.T. the Extraterrestrial; Blade Runner; Tron; Conan the Barbarian; The Dark Crystal; The Thing; Poltergeist; The Road Warrior; and, of course, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (And that’s just the top tier. There were also such lesser lights as Creepshow; The Beastmaster; The Sword and the Sorcerer; Cat People; Firefox; The Secret of NIMH…)
I’d argue that genre fans enjoyed a 2014 that rivaled that fabled year. The biggest box office hit was also the best Star Wars chapter since 1983: Guardians of the Galaxy. Full of humor, heart and imagination, it demonstrated the malleability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made stars out of a talking tree and a bazooka-toting raccoon.
Marvel was 2-for-2 this year, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier offering a superb blend of superhero action and political thriller, not to mention the singular sight of Robert Redford hailing Hydra.
“Graphic novels” inspired two more of this year’s best. Snowpiercer literalized the class struggle between the 1% and the 99% in a firefight raging across a futuristic train endlessly circling a frozen, post-apocalyptic planet. The criminally overlooked Edge of Tomorrow may have had one of the worst titles* in recent memory, but it was an exciting and often hilarious tale of time-looping warfare against invading aliens, with fine performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.
Two reboots shared the setting of a ruined San Francisco. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes expanded on the critical and commercial success of the venerable franchise’s recent reinvention with a tragically unavoidable conflict between humans and simians. And while the latest Godzilla fell short of greatness thanks to its bland human characters, it did a more than adequate job of erasing the previous American remake from our collective memory.
And, of course, The Lego Movie shocked everyone by transforming a crass marketing exercise into a tribute to creativity with a wonderfully meta third-act twist.
This was a year in which even the second-tier films were pretty darned good. Among them were the time-tripping X-Men: Days of Future Past; the enjoyably ludicrous Lucy; and The Battle of the Five Armies, the inevitable finale of The Hobbit trilogy. And while neither Interstellar nor Under the Skin did it for me, both were a good bit more memorable than average genre entries.
I suspect that the reason that this remarkable string of cinematic releases went uncelebrated is that nowadays we’re accustomed to tentpole sci-fi and fantasy flicks. Back in 1982, we were only a few years out from Star Wars. Other notable films had followed in its wake, among them Superman and Alien, but the summer of 1982 saw the first sustained run of mega-money, influential titles.
The year to come (which actually came as I was typing that last paragraph) looks promising, though most of the big releases are franchise follow-ups: Star Wars, Terminator, The Avengers, Mad Max and Jurassic World. Hopefully there’ll be a few surprises. I’m still holding out hope that Jupiter Ascending will turn out okay.
* Though the alternative titles were no better. The original novel was nonsensically named All You Need is Kill. For home video, the film was retitled with its theatrical marketing tagline Live Die Repeat. They might as well have called it Groundhog Day Meets Starship Troopers; at least that would’ve informed the audience what to expect.