Back to the Eighties

Much of the 1980s is now more than a quarter century ago. Movies from that time can now carry layers of significance that weren’t possible when the films were first released. The Redford Theatre recently screened two films from the early 1980s that sent me and probably many other filmgoers on interesting trips down memory lane.

As I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) on July 22, 2011, I was impressed with how functional the special effects were, how they moved the story along without getting in its way.

The effects relied in great part on the spacecraft model techniques that were pioneered in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You didn’t have the overabundance of effects of the CGI-driven technology of today’s movies.

At times, I expected a scene to go on and on, to show off all the time and money put into the special effects, like many movies of the 21st century. But that didn’t happen. The effects included some early computer-driven graphics that were just as restrained and plot-driven as the model and light effects.

Star Trek II was part of what now looks like a Golden Age of adventure movies, from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. This period included Jaws, the first three Star Wars movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Cocoon, and Back to the Future. This summer’s hit movie Super 8 is an homage to that time, just like those older movies paid tribute to the science fiction films of the 1950s and the Saturday afternoon serials of the 1930s and 1940s.

That rich period of action movies also included the first Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. The image of Reeve as Superman was so strong that he tried to avoid typecasting in that role by branching out into such films as the 1980 romantic drama Somewhere in Time, which I saw at the Redford on August 5, 2011.

Somewhere in Time, which was filmed in part on Mackinac Island, has become somewhat of a phenomenon, almost a cult film for the masses. However, when it was first released, it failed both critically and financially. But it later gained a strong following, thanks to cable and video showings of the movie. It’s become such a special movie to many people that a Somewhere in Time fan club has been formed. The president of that club, Jo Addie, appeared at the Redford and explained its appeal.

“Why do we still talk about this movie? Well, I get asked that a lot by the press, and I would say that it’s because of its theme. It’s good to look at, the music is fantastic, the stars are incredible, the story is awesome,” Jo remarked. “But I think it is the story, because it’s about the power of love, it’s about finding the one, and it gives people hope.”

She explained that this theme touches people who are looking for someone special; people who treasure the companionship of certain people in their lives; and people who value the memories of important people who have left them.

I can understand the initial reaction of fans and critics in 1980. When I first saw Somewhere in Time at the Redford in 2001, I had a hard time understanding its appeal, and some of it I found creepy (like Christopher Reeve’s hotel room scene near the end).

But I’ve seen it two more times at the Redford since then, and the anticipation for the key scenes, like the “Is it you?” scene, add greatly to the pleasures of the movie. The movie is like a record or CD that gets better with repeated listenings. It does have its weak moments, but if you make the effort to take the movie on its own terms (an approach I usually reserve for artier films), it can be a richly rewarding experience.

I gained new appreciation for Jane Seymour’s radiance, particularly her impromptu speech in the theater. Christopher Plummer gives a powerful performance in a role that I think is underrated for both its acting prowess and its plot importance. And Christopher Reeve gives us something to remember besides his portrayal of the Man of Steel.

As I walked out into the summer night, I thought of how strongly people connected with the movie, how it added emotional depth to their lives. It’s remarkable, the lasting impact of what in 1980 appeared to be just another Hollywood release. I smiled a little, shook my head a little, and made some further adjustments to my definition of a “good movie.”

Now and Then

Both Star Trek II and Somewhere in Time included actors and actresses whose careers since the early 1980s couldn’t help but affect how we saw them in these movies.

Star Trek II included a very slender Kirstie Alley in a much more serious role than she later played on the TV comedy Cheers. And William Shatner was just Captain Kirk, years before Priceline ads and other television appearances.

And then there was Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time. I’m sure many people felt a poignant sense of loss, thinking about his later paralysis and early death. You might have thought about the “finding the one” experiences of him and his wife Dana, who also died young.

Both Star Trek II and Somewhere in Time had a spiritual, moral, and emotional depth that you don’t often find in commercial movies. They both ended with scenes of rebirth and new life that spanned time and space.

In the early 1980s, the Redford was just starting its current programming, providing moviegoing alternatives to new releases like Star Trek II and Somewhere in Time. It’s a tribute to the Redford’s longevity that it can now show such films as decades-old classics.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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