In 1982, seven major science fiction films were released in the month and a half span stretching from May 21 through July 9. These seven movies were The Road Warrior, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing, Blade Runner, and Tron. While each have earned their own unique places in the hearts of sci-fi fans and in the pantheon of film, it’s astounding to think of the insanity that was this short span of movie-packed madness. Thrown together, there were enormous winners and devastating losers when it came to the sci-fi battle of the box office.
Although today’s summer movie season sees major film coming out at least every other week, the box office was far different in the ‘80s. Movies lasted for far longer in the theater and there were far fewer films released in total and per week at the cinema. So to have so many now-classic movies of the same genre all packed into one brief span of time is mind boggling. What made the winners into winners? How did perceived losses impact the creators and studios behind films that would be passionately loved in the long run? And why are so many of these movies being remade or sequelized in recent years?
While these seven films all have their devoted followers, the battle of science fiction films is truly the story of how E.T.destroyed the competition and altered the sci-fi landscape. With some help from Box Office Mojo, here’s how it all went down.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is a bonafide family film classic. Telling the story of young Elliot, who befriends the alien known only as E.T. and helps him return to his home planet, the all ages tale was a runaway hit and it’s enchanting story made it a smash with audiences of all ages. Over the years, E.T. has been rereleased several times, adding even more profit to its already impressive intake. In its wake, countless films attempted to capitalize on the film by either copying its ideas or trying to replicate the childlike wonder of the film, but without the talent of its team. E.T. was also nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture. which is only fitting given the critical response that was just as massive as its box office. In total, E.T. remained consecutively in the Top 10 at the box office until March, nearly nine months after its debut, and had it’s last spot in the Top 10 on May 30, almost one year later. During that reign, the film took the number one spot 17 times! This explosion box office reign decimated the competition and left not only fellow science fiction films, but nearly everything else, scrambling for scraps in its wake.
If there is anything that is the antithesis of E.T., it’s writer/director John Carpenter’s The Thing, a grueling and terrifying science fiction horror film that focuses on the fear of the unknown and body horror in its most horrifying forms. Centering on a group of Arctic scientists who have their base infiltrated by a shape-changing alien, The Thing is focused on turning man’s fear of what lurks in the icy depths of outer space into man’s fear of both others and himself. Sharing the same release date with Blade Runner and coming out only two weeks after the debut of E.T., The Thing was one of the films that was crushed hardest under the heels of Spielberg’s all-ages juggernaut, which is often attributed to its completely opposite approach to the idea of alien life. The country was swept up in E.T.’s lovable charm and the heartwarming message of Spielberg’s film. People didn’t seem to be in the mood for what The Thing was offering. It also made the least in the box office of all seven science fiction films discussed here and had an incredibly short run in theaters with just over a month in play. However, its legacy still endures.
Generally disliked by critics, largely ignored at the box office, and buried by tons of studio interference, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runneris the film of 1982 that has had the largest turnaround in the years since debuting. However, it was seen as a fairly substantial failure at the time. While it made more than The Thing, only making $5 million more than its estimated budget put the film thoroughly in the red. Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Blade Runner was heady and not audience friendly. While it focused on megastar Harrison Ford, this wasn’t Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had made him a household name. Perhaps it was his face that the movie studios were banking on, but the film was far from having a wide audience-appealing due to its more subtle nature and artistic focus. But when even the critics disliked it, there was little hope of having the film find a following while still in theaters. Of course, having the studio tinker with Blade Runner by adding a dull voice over and changing the ending didn’t help either.
The big budget Tron was Disney’s only major release of the year and was a fairly large departure from their typical faire. Using cutting edge computer effects and new exposure techniques to create a living computer world, Tronwas unlike anything else at the time. It was also a major financial gamble and even the Disney name couldn’t bring in the audiences. Ultimately, Tron made less than double its budget, which meant it was a minor failure rather than dazzling’s Disney with profits. However, its visual effects and soundtrack were immediately loved by critics and quickly left a mark on pop culture. While this was released furthest away from E.T.’s release date among these sci-fi movies, the lovable alien’s rampage at the box office was still going strong. Like many of the other science fiction films here, Tron’s cult following swelled over the coming decades, which eventually resulted in 2010’s Tron: Legacy.
If there is one thing that separated the winners from the losers in 1982, it was the Speilberg touch. As executive producer on the sci-fi horror film Poltergeist, the film had a major name to capitalize on. While it was Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) who directed it, it was Spielberg’s name that was all over it. Not only that, but rumors persist that it was Spielberg who was the power behind the creation of the film, shadow directing Hooper and having his touch all over the film. Although Poltergeist was originally rated R, Hooper and Spielberg managed to get the rating lowered to a PG (this being pre-PG-13), which vastly widened its audience. Having the thrills of a scary movie with the audience of a family friendly film allowed Poltergeist to rake in the major bucks while having a brief lead in to E.T., which only served to further boost Spielberg’s star. By having Poltergeist tied to his fame, it was one of the only movies to be boost by the E.T. explosion, rather than be buried by it. While the film never conquered a weekend, it had an incredibly long shelf life, staying in theaters through mid-November that year.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
After years on the small screen, Star Trek made its big screen debut with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. While the original movie was made for a whopping $46 million and made $139 million, it was seen as a disappointment compared to studio estimates. This resulted in a far cheaper sequel, namely Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which built off a story and character introduced in the original television series. Here, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise encounter Khan Noonien Singh, who once tried to take over the spaceship and now seeks vengeance. This, too, was released only one week prior to E.T. in the early weeks of the summer schedule, capturing that weekend’s number one spot, but may have only taken a minor hit due to the blockbuster’s success when comparing its box office take to the original. The sequel may have made less than the first film, but one-fourth of the budget meant a far greater profit margin. When combined with a far better critical reception than the original, Star Trek II was the true jumping off point for the continued film series and future television series.
The Road Warrior
The Road Warrior’s story on the big screen is somewhat different from its genre sharers. As an Australian film, George Miller’s sequel to the smash hit cult film Mad Max was made outside of Hollywood and had a larger focus on the box office outside the United States. While it didn’t have the major brand to capitalize on like Star Trek, it was still a major success given its small budget and indy status, which eventually led to part three – Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. With most of the focus in 1982 given to film made within the United States, it can often be forgotten that The Road Warrior was released in the thick of sci-fi madness. The film was also released in Australia at the end of 1981, but foreign release schedules were frequently far different in the ’80s than they are today, with recuts, renamings, and vastly different release dates often scrambling the worldwide legacy of a movie. But The Road Warrior can easily be seen as its own beast.
It’s little doubt that E.T. was the film to beat by the end of 1982 and one of the most impressive box office showings in movie history. Adjusted for inflation, Spielberg’s film is the fourth highest grossing picture of all time! Interestingly, it seems as though E.T. is influencing fewer films these days when compared to many of its 1982 competitors. While the film is still fondly remembered and the general aesthetics of Amblin Entertainment have influenced countless movies, it’s not frequently regarded as a seminal science fiction work. Most of the contenders it squashed have had the good fortune of reevaluation over the years, with many being considered classics in their own rights. However, the fallout of box office disaster hurt the career of John Carpenter and Tron’s Steven Lisberger.
When it comes to continuation, it may surprise some that the only film of these seven to not be carried on in some way was the box office champion itself. The Thing had a prequel/remake made in 2011, Blade Runner has a sequel in the works, Tron was followed by the belated Tron: Legacy, Poltergeist had two sequels and a 2015 remake, Star Trek has carried on in sequels, new shows, and a reboot, and The Road Warrior was followed by Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. However, a sequel to E.T. was developed, called E.T.: Nocturnal Fears, which would see terrifying aliens come to Earth to kidnap Elliot, but Spielberg shut the idea down, knowing that it would only sour the good will and heart of the original.
Science fiction wasn’t the only genre that had major overrepresentation in 1982. Fantasy films ran wild throughout the year, including Conan the Barbarian (May 14), The Dark Crystal (December 17), Cat People (April 2), The Secret of NIMH (July 2), The Beastmaster (August 20), and The Last Unicorn (November 19).While most of these did not rock the world like their sci-fi counterparts, it’s still quite amazing to think of these all debuting in the same year.
Will there ever be a period of time as on fire with imagination, excitement, and science fiction masterpieces as this majestic and heartbreaking period of time in 1982? Maybe. But it will probably be just as disastrous.