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.
“I do know that when it first went on television, whatever network it was on, their broadcast standards made us take off the opening crawl that said all the equipment in here is either real or in advanced development,” recalls Badham. He continues, “And they said, ‘Well, you can’t prove that,’ because it was secret and half-secret stuff. But now all that stuff is common knowledge, including whisper mode.”
In Variety’s original review, the premise is called “utterly implausible.” Welp, here we are.
Another subtext found in Blue Thunder is the notion of the government using advanced technology to spy on its citizens. And not even real spying, but, let’s say, spying on personal, intimate, information because, well, it’s there – something Edward Snowden has often repeated is happening. In Blue Thunder, there’s a scene in which Murphy and his co-pilot, Richard Lymangood (a baby-faced Daniel Stern), hover above a suburban Los Angeles home, undetected, using an advanced camera and listening device to “monitor” a nude woman doing yoga. Scary stuff… stuff that we all just kind of assume is happening now. (Or, if you believe Snowden, stuff that is happening.)
Snowden’s revelation is not lost on Badham. “You see a lot of stuff (today) that was being talked about at the time; now here’s somebody who says, ‘I don’t like what’s going on and I’m just going to put it out into the world.’ ” The current battle between the U.S. Justice Department and Apple over whether Apple should be forced to unlock an iPhone isn’t lost on Badham either. “Now this war that’s going on between the Justice Department and Apple is another fun thing. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in Tim Cook’s office and in the Justice Department’s office. How are we going to do a deal with the biggest corporation in the world telling us to go f*ck ourselves?”
Watching Blue Thunder today, it’s almost shocking how much the film goes out of its way to not set up a sequel. “We knocked off Daniel Stern for a very good reason,” remembers Badham. “We were determined to show these guys were ruthless.” That’s right, first, the most likable character in the film, Stern’s Richard Lymangood (who is nicknamed JAFO, which stands for “just another fucking observer”), is brutally killed off by being run over by a car. (It might not sound that bad, but it’s a grim scene.)
Badham says he struggled with this decision. “I had second thoughts for a long time about it. Should I have let him be killed or should I have let him be injured severely, which would be the same kind of thing? I remember seeing Beverly Hills Cop 2 and the police captain in that gets massacred, but next thing you know you’re in his hospital room and he’s okay. Some people were arguing at the time that, ‘well, if you go off and kill one of your favorite characters in the movie, it’s going to depress people and they are not going to be happy with it.’ But I was saying it feels like a cop-out to let him just be injured, then cut to him being put in the ambulance on a gurney, not a body bag.”
Secondly, and most importantly, Badham destroys Blue Thunder! And not even in some sort of heroic way. At the end of the film, Frank Murphy decides enough is enough and lands Blue Thunder in the path of an oncoming train. As Scheider’s Murphy walks away, Blue Thunder is hit by a train and blown up into a million pieces.
And if you’re thinking it would be tough to find a train company that would be willing to crash their locomotive into a helicopter, well, as Badham laughed as he remembered that it surprisingly wasn’t, “They said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do it.’ Really? ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do it!’ It was great! “Oh, no problem.”
“It was fun though, I’ve got to tell you,” says Badham about that scene. “When I put that mock-up of it on the train tracks and let the train actually run right into it with explosives built in and everything – there was not such thing as CGI at that time. It was a full-size model. It was pretty amazing.”
Scheider had to be fairly close to the explosion, and Badham says of his reaction, “There’s a little bit of flinch. I’d say he was maybe 150 feet. It’s wherever the effects guy said was safe. And we lined up to right where it would impact and got him lined up in there with that big explosion going on in the background – and you cross your fingers hoping those effects guys are right. It had to be precisely in place, otherwise the rotor blades would have hit the train. It probably wouldn’t have hurt the train, but it’d have killed… God knows what would have happened? We didn’t hurt anyone, thank God. Right afterwards, The Twilight Zone incident happened.”
Shortly after filming Blue Thunder, actor Vic Morrow (the father of Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young children were killed on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie after a helicopter pilot – who was flying dangerously low as mock explosions were going off – lost control. Director John Landis was charged with involuntary manslaughter, charges he was later acquitted of. But as this was happening, Badham couldn’t help but think of his helicopter movie and the stunts he wanted to try, but was stopped from attempting. “Thank goodness we had a really, really tough helicopter stunt coordinator. Jim Gavin was his name.”
Badham remembers being horrified at what happened on Twilight Zone. “John Landis wanted this all in the frame, which meant bringing the helicopter down lower and lower and lower.” He continues, “This was all because Landis insisted upon this stuff.” Adding, “He’s got quite a temper and he’s very insistent on things.”
After the Twilight Zone incident, Badham remembers calling Jim Gavin. “He was tough as nails. If I was lining up a shot that didn’t look safe to him, he would come down on me like a ton of bricks. I‘d say, ‘But Jim, Jim!’ After the Twilight Zone accident happened, I called him up and said, ‘Jim, thank you again for being such an asshole.’ ”
The legacy of Blue Thunder is a strange one, if it even has much of a legacy. (When I’ve told people I was going to do a piece on Blue Thunder, more than one person responded, “I have no idea what that is.”) In 1984, ABC aired a Blue Thunder television series that lasted 11 episodes. Two weeks after its premiere, CBS would air its own “badass” helicopter series, Airwolf. Even though both lived off the hype blazed by the Blue Thunder film, Airwolf seems to have the lasting legacy today. But the Blue Thunder television series may have placed a sour note on the legacy of the film. With the smaller budget, action scenes were directly ripped off from the film, “for awhile, in order to jazz it up, what they’d do is take an entire action sequence that I had shot: montage, editing, everything.”
Badham continues, barely holding back his contempt, “How are you going to do this on a weekly basis as a television show? When they discovered the truth of what I was telling them in terms of their budget, the helicopter became secondary and they all transferred into this A-Team-type van. It was like, ‘Oh jeez.’ We had a lot of words for that and I just stayed away from it.”
That’s right, Blue Thunder the helicopter was often replaced by Rolling Thunder the van, driven by ex-NFL stars Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith. Also gone were stars Roy Scheider and Daniel Stern. Says Badham, “they would take out the close-ups of Roy Scheider and they’d put in Jimmy Farentino. They’d take out Daniel Stern and they would put in Dana Carvey. I thought Dana Carvey was wonderful.”
Oh, and that’s right: Two and a half years before he was on SNL, Dana Carvey co-starred on the Blue Thunder television series.
It’s a strange occurrence that a director like Badham would have two movies so ahead of their time released within three weeks of each other. Badham wasn’t even supposed to direct WarGames. Martin Brest (who would later direct Beverly Hills Cop) had already begun shooting when Badham replaced him. “He was two weeks into shooting,” Badham says, “and he and the studio got into another one of their brawls – they had several, I guess – and the studio said they wanted a change. So they called me and I came over and got involved and turned the picture in a different direction.”
(Some of Brest’s work still remains in the finished WarGames. For instance, a scene in which Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman meets with two computer programmers – played by Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen – in which Deezen is scolded while being refereed to as “Mr. Potato Head,” that was filmed by Martin Brest. “Eddie Deezen, oh, my God,” remembers Badham. “Now that scene was actually completely shot by Marty Brest. And we kept it because it was so well done and so wonderfully fun that we said, ‘Oh, we have to hang on to this.’ ”)
Still, Blue Thunder needs a resurgence. Even though it looks like a “badass helicopter movie,” it’s not a movie that’s going to make a person feel good at the end of the day. It’s going to make you feel pretty shitty, because what was viewed as “implausible” in 1983 is the world we live in now.
And Blue Thunder saw it coming.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.