The summer of 1983 saw the release of a movie that would prove to be years ahead of its time, tackling issues that make much more sense in today’s internet age than they ever did to anyone watching during Ronald Reagan’s first term in office. John Badham, who six years earlier directed John Travolta to movie stardom in Saturday Night Fever, helmed this now-classic film, which was the first time a lot of viewers even knew that computers could communicate with other computers over a phone line using something called a “modem.” It made many aware of a whole new world of what could be done in terms of spying, how information was traded, and just the general mischief that could be accomplished by what amounted to one bored teenager.
That movie was, of course, WarGames which would go on to be the fifth highest-grossing film of the year behind only Return of the Jedi, Terms of Endearment, Flashdance, and Trading Places.
WarGames was a movie ahead of its time and is still very much a part of the cultural zeitgeist today. It’s not too hard to find it playing somewhere on cable on any given day. But just three weeks before the release of WarGames, another major release directed by Badham appeared in theaters. It was quite possibly even more ahead of its time than WarGames, yet despite doing serviceable business at the box office (it would finish 17th for the year), it’s never had the lasting cultural significance it deserved. Maybe that’s because Blue Thunder was a movie made more for 2016 than for 1983.
“WarGames was much more appealing,” Badham says today. “A little kid doing outrageous things? Sure, it’s going to be great! But this one was digging in the same field.” He continues, “The material was just so different. When you read Blue Thunder, it has the darkness built in. But WarGames, you’re feeling for this little kid who is way out of his depth and it’s just kind of funny.”
If you were just skimming movie titles on the streaming site of your choosing (or, in the ‘80s, browsing the aisles of your local video-rental store), Blue Thunder would probably scream, “badass helicopter movie.” (At least, that’s what I certainly thought as I settled in to watch Blue Thunder for the first time on cable when I was way too young to understand what was at all happening.) But if you watch Blue Thunder today, it makes a remarkable statement about government spying and drone warfare… only, back then, no one thought that was possible. Blue Thunder just came out 33 years too early.
“Maybe it was perceived as an action movie for guys,” says Badham of Blue Thunder. The film stars Roy Scheider as Frank Murphy – a Vietnam War veteran who now pilots helicopters for the LAPD – but its advertising played up the fact that the “star” of the movie was this state-of-the-art and, yes, “badass” helicopter named Blue Thunder that could snuff out villains with precision accuracy and hover undetected with features such as “whisper mode.”
Written by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien and co-wrote 1990’s Total Recall, the dirty little secret about Blue Thunder is that the movie hates Blue Thunder. This is not a film that’s trying to tell us “Blue Thunder the helicopter is something that should exist.” And even though Scheider’s Frank Murphy winds up being the pilot of Blue Thunder, he’s against it from the start – particularly during a scene in which Murphy’s longtime nemesis (played by Malcolm McDowell) pilots Blue Thunder through a test sequence. In this scene, Blue Thunder, which was developed as a counter-terrorism measure for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games, destroys a lot of mock “terrorists,” but it also takes out quite a few civilians with its “precision accuracy” – something the LAPD is willing to live with in exchange for protection from terrorists. This is something we hear almost daily today about the effects of drone warfare.
“It was kind of outlandish at that point that we were referring to that,” says Badham about the notion that civilian deaths were acceptable, “a few civilians.” In the opening credits of Blue Thunder, text informs us that the technology we see in the film was based on real technology. At the time, this all seemed so outlandish that when Blue Thunder eventually aired on network television, that line had to be removed.