The 1980s heralded a move away from the character-driven cinema of earlier decades and brought a renewed focus instead on high-concept blockbusters with the potential to hit colossal audiences. Opening with The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Indiana Jones (1981) and E.T. (1982), the ’80s were marked by ‘event’ films that drew unprecedented crowds and laid the foundations for the genre films of today. As Ronald Reagan became America’s first TV-star president, escapist films with high entertainment value became the main currency of Hollywood. A stark example of this period of de-politicized mainstream cinema comes from Die Hard (1988) director John McTiernan: he deliberately included the twist that the ‘terrorist’ villains are in fact simple bank robbers so that the film could be a purely entertaining blockbuster.
The 1980s was also the era that brought the rise of the film franchise. We see James Cameron take Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic horror film Alien (1979) and re-imagine it as a pulse-pounding action flick in Aliens (1986).
Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding gore in films like Indiana Jones (1981) and Gremlins (1984) led to the creation of a new age rating: PG-13. As a device, this enabled popular cinema to explore dark, visually graphic material without sacrificing audience sizes.
This environment of high budgets and the perpetual pursuit of must-see cinematic experiences created a melting pot of innovation that yielded classics in the genres of horror (The Shining, Hellraiser), fantasy (The Princess Bride) and science-fiction (The Terminator, Predator). Similarly, Hollywood’s efforts to target the younger generation gave birth to the teen-comedy, as exemplified by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and The Breakfast Club (1985).
But despite the impact of these crowd-pleasing successes, the ‘80s still offered plenty of thoughtful works with theme and artistic symbolism at their heart. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) achieved cult success with its unnerving depiction of suburban America, and Platoon (1986) provided a visceral ground-level depiction of the Vietnam War regarded by many as the best work exploring this bleak episode in U.S. history.
So, whether you draw inspiration from the spiritual journey towards a meaningful existence in Tender Mercies (1983) or John Rambo’s first action outing in First Blood (1982), we hope that the screenplays in this compilation offer lessons you can incorporate into your own writing.
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A Fish Called Wanda
In London, four very different people team up to commit armed robbery, then try to double-cross each other for the loot.
Ellen Ripley is rescued by a deep salvage team after being in hypersleep for 57 years. The moon that the Nostromo visited has been colonized, but contact is lost. This time, colonial marines have impressive firepower, but will that be enough?
The life, success, and troubles of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, the contemporaneous composer who was insanely jealous of Mozart’s talent and claimed to have murdered him.
The discovery of a severed human ear found in a field leads a young man on an investigation related to a beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer and a group of psychopathic criminals who have kidnapped her child.
Dead Poet's Society
English teacher John Keating inspires his students to look at poetry with a different perspective of authentic knowledge and feelings.
An NYPD officer tries to save his wife and several others taken hostage by German terrorists during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
A troubled child summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his homeworld.
Escape from New York
In 1997, when the U.S. president crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum-security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in to rescue him.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
A group of Southern California high school students are enjoying their most important subjects: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
A high school wise guy is determined to have a day off from school, despite what the Principal thinks of that.
Field of Dreams
An Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come.
A veteran Green Beret is forced by a cruel Sheriff and his deputies to flee into the mountains and wage an escalating one-man war against his pursuers.
Full Metal Jacket
A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.
Gandhi’s character is fully explained as a man of nonviolence. Through his patience, he is able to drive the British out of the subcontinent. And the stubborn nature of Jinnah and his commitment towards Pakistan is portrayed.
A boy inadvertently breaks three important rules concerning his new pet and unleashes a horde of malevolently mischievous monsters on a small town.
Hannah and her Sisters
Between two Thanksgivings two years apart, Hannah’s husband falls in love with her sister Lee, while her hypochondriac ex-husband rekindles his relationship with her sister Holly.
An unfaithful wife encounters the zombie of her dead lover; the demonic cenobites are pursuing him after he escaped their sadomasochistic underworld.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
In 1938, after his father Professor Henry Jones, Sr. goes missing while pursuing the Holy Grail, Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. finds himself up against Adolf Hitler’s Nazis again to stop them from obtaining its powers.
Kiss of the Spider-Woman
A gay man and a political prisoner are together in a prison. The gay man narrates the stories of two fake movies and his own life.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, a cynical drifter agrees to help a small, gasoline rich community escape a horde of bandits.
Nightmare on Elm Street
The monstrous spirit of a slain child murderer seeks revenge by invading the dreams of teenagers whose parents were responsible for his untimely death.
The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.
Out of Africa
In 20th-century colonial Kenya, a Danish baroness/plantation owner has a passionate love affair with a free-spirited big-game hunter.
A young soldier in Vietnam faces a moral crisis when confronted with the horrors of war and the duality of man.
A team of commandos on a mission in a Central American jungle find themselves hunted by an extraterrestrial warrior.
In 1980 Miami, a determined Cuban immigrant takes over a drug cartel and succumbs to greed.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
After the Rebels are brutally overpowered by the Empire on the ice planet Hoth, Luke Skywalker begins Jedi training with Yoda, while his friends are pursued by Darth Vader.
A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.
Terms of Endearment
Follows hard-to-please Aurora looking for love, and her daughter’s family problems.
The Breakfast Club
Five high school students meet in Saturday detention and discover how they have a lot more in common than they thought.
The Elephant Man
A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous façade, there is revealed a person of kindness, intelligence, and sophistication.
A group of young misfits who call themselves The Goonies discover an ancient map and set out on a quest to find a legendary pirate’s long-lost treasure.
The Princess Bride
While home sick in bed, a young boy’s grandfather reads him the story of a farmboy-turned-pirate who encounters numerous obstacles, enemies and allies in his quest to be reunited with his true love.
A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.
In 1984, a human soldier is tasked to stop an indestructible cyborg killing machine, both sent from 2029, from executing a young woman, whose unborn son is the key to humanity’s future salvation.
A research team in Antarctica is hunted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims.
A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth.
As students at the United States Navy’s elite fighter weapons school compete to be best in the class, one daring young pilot learns a few things from a civilian instructor that are not taught in the classroom.
A young and impatient stockbroker is willing to do anything to get to the top, including trading on illegal inside information taken through a ruthless and greedy corporate raider who takes the youth under his wing.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
A toon-hating detective is a cartoon rabbit’s only hope to prove his innocence when he is accused of murder.
Article by Oliver Taylor
Oliver Taylor is a qualified doctor and aspiring screenplay writer. He developed his interest in writing whilst completing a medical degree at Cambridge University, during which time he was president of the Footlights comedy society (alumni include Stephen Fry, David Mitchell, and Emma Thompson). He has had screenplays recognized in multiple competitions, was shortlisted for the BBC Comedy Writer’s room in 2018 and has had material broadcast in comedy radio shows on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. You can follow Oliver on Twitter and watch more of his original comedy shorts on YouTube.