In Search of Tomorrow–Ambitious five-hour documentary chronicles 50+ sci-fi movies of the 1980s

Review by C.J. Bunce

I Love the ’80s was a ten-hour VH-1 series that waxed nostalgic for all things pop culture in the decade, and a new five-hour documentary strives to do the same thing with the sci-fi genre movies of the decade as its focus.  In Search of Tomorrow: A Journey Through ’80s Sci-Fi Cinema is the result of a crowd-sourced project, now available for pre-order exclusively at the project’s website here.  It is one of several projects we’ve seen like it over the years, the best being Must-See Sci-Fi (reviewed here), Turner Classic Movies’ guide to 50 significant science fiction movies, and James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction (reviewed here), a book and series which gives insight into the genre’s most significant creations via interviews with the directors that made them.  In Search of Tomorrow features only a handful of A-listers in its interviews–the advertised top talent being Peter Weller, Billy Dee Williams, Dee Wallace, and Nicholas Meyer.  It pulls together a group of the few remaining actors, visual effects artists, and other creators behind the scenes who fans of the genre probably haven’t seen in decades (yes, it’s been more than 30 years since the 1980s).  Writer/director David Weiner focuses on a swath of 54 movies that reflects the best–and the worst–of the decade.

The show digs into five or six movies for each year of the decade, with some effort by Weiner to splice in other movies by way of quick clips along the way, although even with the long five-hour format, a surprising number of major movies are brushed over or left out entirely.  A recurring wall of movie posters is used to guide the documentary, and you may find yourself pointing to the posters to the left or right wondering why those aren’t mentioned.  The most value is where Weiner was able to find an abundance of creators for a film–the biggest of these is for RoboCop, which offers comments from director Paul Verhoeven, and actors Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, and Kurtwood Smith, among others.

The documentary follows that I Love the ’80s format of including input from people outside of Hollywood, from critics and writers to an astrophysicist, a futurist (?) and a psychologist (?).  More interesting is seeing an actor or director from one movie commenting on another, like Peter Weller and Shane Black describing their take on the movie Aliens.  Some movies have few or no contributors signed on for the documentary, with critics, etc. practically apologizing for films with big fan followings while trying too hard to prop up other, more lackluster entries.  But that’s what the fast-forward button is for.  Ultimately diehard fans will have seen most of the content before, but those new to the 1980s will get a good overview of what they have missed, and without the need to compile the special features from the films’ DVDs or Blu-rays.  Since the documentary dives into some truly obscure movies, even experts may find one or two they haven’t seen yet.  (Have you really watched Galaxina?)

So expect to see insiders and outsiders sharing the love for the full range of great science fiction movies, from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to The Empire Strikes Back, three Star Treks (sorry, Final Frontier), Back to the Future, The Terminator, and Aliens, to Predator and WarGames, beloved classics like The Last Starfighter, Tron, Short Circuit, and Weird Science, cult favorites like Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, Alien Nation, and Escape from New York, old-school style sci-fi like Outland and The Final Countdown, and there’s also plenty (probably too much) of… the other stuff, that VHS store, discount back wall fare like Earth Girls are Easy, Megaforce, Strange Invaders, Cherry 2000, and Mac and Me.

Any time you make a list, somebody (maybe everyone) is going to be unhappy, and that’s both the appeal and downside.  As with I Love the ’80s, each year is offset by segments on decade-spanning topics, including “Futuristic Visions and Cautionary Realities,” “Scoring Brave New Worlds” (Brad Feidel discusses The Terminator anvil), and “Practical Creature Effects.”  The best of these is “VFX Movie Magic,” with contributions from John Dykstra, John Knoll, Dennis Muren, and a sort of grumpy Phil Tippett.

Surprisingly interesting entries include Gene Simmons discussing Runaway, and what is probably the last interview with director Ivan Reitman, who died last month.  Keep an eye out for multiple actors who are so personally tied to a movie role from the 1980s they refer to the characters in their interviews as “I.”  Barry Bostwick talks spandex, and Jesse Ventura is a hoot (Ventura can’t seem to get past his personal rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which the rest of us forgot about in 1989).  Bruce Boxleitner talking Tron (and visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw sharing Tron Easter eggs) is as good as it sounds, as is seeing Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart talk about The Last Starfighter, Sam Jones and Melody Anderson talking Flash Gordon, Sean Young discussing Blade Runner and Dune, and Clancy Brown talking about anything.  Very few young contributors made the cut, the youngest probably being once-young actors Star Trek II’s Ike Eisenmann (59), Flight of the Navigator star Joey Cramer (48), and Aliens’ Carrie Henn (45).  We’re reminded of missing people from the documentary who died young, too, like Bill Paxton, River Phoenix, and Miguel Ferrer.

Sure, it would be great for this to have been more like James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction with contributions by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, William Shatner, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and other big names–it would make an awesome show.  But this is what we have, and it’s still a nice opportunity for some of the second tier sci-fi movies of the era to get revisited by those that made the movies, one last time, all these years later.  You still may be left wondering why they couldn’t land Steve Guttenberg or Ally Sheedy to discuss Short Circuit.  I wish more of the connective material–there’s an over-reliance on Wil Wheaton and Bill and Ted’s Alex Winter to fill in gaps–was swapped for detailed discussions of significant 1980s sci-fi classics virtually ignored by the production, like They Live, The Thing, The Philadelphia Experiment, Starman, Lifeforce, The Quiet Earth, D.A.R.Y.L., The Fly, Captain EO, Solarbabies, Invaders from Mars, and SpaceCamp, among others (okay, I’m fine they left out Deep Star Six).  It’s also interesting two sci-fi movies included in Turner Classic Movies’ Top 50 Sci-Fi movies of all time: the Oscar-nominated Brazil and The Brother From Another Planet, didn’t get coverage here.

A good journey through the 1980s via its sci-fi movies, reflecting the life and times of the era and its view of the future, In Search of Tomorrow: A Journey Through ’80s Sci-Fi Cinema is available for a short time for pre-order exclusively at the project’s website here (available on Blu-ray and DVD).  It’s unfortunate this is not available as a digital option via Vudu, as I think more people would check it out.  Also, it’s well-suited for a Netflix release in the vein of The Movies That Made Us (although that does not seem likely since Netflix makes its own documentaries).  Find out more about In Search of Tomorrow at the project’s website.

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