1980s Summer Blockbusters That Were Way More Successful Than We Realized

Over 100 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 1980s Summer Blockbusters That Were Way More Successful Than We Realized
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Vote up the '80s summer blockbusters that were much bigger than you realized.

In the vast history of cinema, the 1980s were a banner decade. Movies like Raging BullBlade Runner, and Sex, Lies and Videotape broke new cinematic ground, while blockbusters like E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialTop Gun, and The Empire Strikes Back reminded audiences why it was worth returning to the theater again and again. 

The decade also included excellent movies that never received the praise they deserved, and forgotten box-office success stories that haven’t stayed as fresh in the minds of movie fans as the Star Wars sequels or Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters. It’s hard to believe, for example, that a movie like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids could out-earn Die Hard by tens of millions of dollars, or that Australian comedy Crocodile Dundee could be $2 million shy of unseating Top Gun as the highest-grossing movie of 1986. But the summer box office of the 1980s was full of surprises that were more successful than you realized.

  • 1
    108 VOTES

    Summer Release: 1983

    Box Office: $79,567,667

    A geeky high schooler and the threat of WWIII converge in John Badham’s 1983 sci-fi movie WarGames. Starring Matthew Broderick as a teen who accidentally hacks into a government supercomputer and nearly starts a nuclear war, it’s both ahead of its time and endearingly, woefully dated in its portrayal of cutting-edge technology of the day. Critics marveled over its timeliness in addressing the rapidly evolving renaissance in the tech sector as well as political tensions between the US and Russia. In fact, it was so believable to people at the time that it inspired the Reagan administration to transform and revamp the country’s cybersecurity and cyberoffensive systems. It also showcased two of the most popular young actors of the period, Broderick and Ally Sheedy, making its box-office success a near certainty. 

    With all these factors in its favor, WarGames fared well financially despite opening one week after Return of the Jedi. It amassed $6 million during its opening weekend and nearly $80 million throughout its theatrical run. This made it the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year behind JediTerms of EndearmentFlashdance, and Trading Places, and it even managed to pull ahead of Roger Moore’s sixth Bond sojourn, Octopussy.

    108 votes

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  • 2
    112 VOTES

    Summer Release: 1986

    Box Office: $91,258,000

    Rodney Dangerfield was hot off the success of Caddyshack when he played the starring role in Back to School. He plays a self-made millionaire with no formal education who enrolls at his son Jason’s university when he discovers that Jason is an unpopular C student who can’t get into a fraternity or secure a spot on the dive team. The result is outlandish hijinks, plenty of heartwarming sentimentality, and a takedown of stuffy academia on par with Dead Poets Society (minus the tragedy and desk standing).

    Back to School was such a hit when it was released in the summer of 1986 that it beat Aliens and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the box office, becoming the sixth highest-grossing movie of the year behind Top GunCrocodile DundeePlatoonThe Karate Kid Part II, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Even critics were won over by Dangerfield’s exuberant antics, noting the comedian’s surprisingly touching performance and ability to make a broad comedy emotionally satisfying. 

    112 votes

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  • 3
    115 VOTES

    Summer Release: 1985

    Box Office: $76,113,124

    Ron Howard’s 1985 sci-fi tearjerker Cocoon offers a refreshing deviation from the usual tropes of the alien genre. The protagonists are residents of a retirement home, for one thing, and the alien invaders are the good guys. When the seniors trespass onto a nearby property to swim, they find themselves full of youthful energy and good health due to the life force that has been injected into the water by visiting aliens. It’s a sentimental, life-affirming movie that feels a little like an episode of Golden Girls directed by Steven Spielberg. Critics showered it with positive reviews, and audiences showed up in droves.

    Opening the same summer as Back to the Future, the first Rambo sequel, and Rocky IV, it managed to pull in $76 million worldwide, enough to make it the sixth highest-grossing movie of 1985. This success may come as a surprise to those who have never seen or even heard of the movie. It isn’t one of the classic films of the ‘80s that are frequently revisited and beloved, such as Back to the Future or E.T. But the reason is probably because it’s un-streamable, and DVDs are few and far between. According to one investigation into this mystery, music rights may be to blame for its disappearance, but whatever the reason, Cocoon was one of the most popular movies of 1985, and would likely still be a favorite gem of the ’80s if anyone could watch it.   

    115 votes

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  • Summer Release: 1984

    Box Office: $76,572,238

    Romancing the Stone stars Kathleen Turner as a popular romance novelist who travels to the Colombian jungle with a treasure map to exchange as ransom for her kidnapped sister. In the process, she meets and reluctantly falls in love with an American smuggler played by Michael Douglas. Featuring the kind of breathless adventure romance associated with earlier movies like 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and 1951’s The African Queen, it is full of old-fashioned charm and excitement. It was not, however, expected to perform well at the box office, and executives at 20th Century Fox were so disappointed with early versions of the movie and with director Robert Zemeckis in particular that they fired him from the upcoming production of Cocoon

    Despite its old-fashioned storyline and the negative sentiment from the studio, Romancing the Stone was a roaring success. Making only a modest $5 million in its opening weekend, it soared to $76 worldwide after word spread that it was not to be missed. Despite competition from other blockbusters that summer such as GhostbustersIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Karate KidRomancing the Stone, a retro comedy romance set in the jungle, was the eighth highest-grossing film of the year

    99 votes

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  • Summer Release: 1981

    Box Office: $41,092,328

    Clash of the Titans bounded into theaters in the summer of 1981 and pulled in a respectable $6.6 million on its opening weekend. It's an old-fashioned epic steeped in mythology about the young Greek hero Perseus and his quest to rescue Princess Andromeda from the gorgon Medusa. Producer Ray Harryhausen was mining his past success with visually spectacular sword and sandals movies such as Jason and the Argonauts and the three Sinbad films. Laurence Olivier makes a bombastic appearance as Zeus; Harry Hamlin as Perseus has excellent hair; and the in-camera special effects appeal to Old Hollywood nostalgia. Despite its impressive showing at the box office, however, it was overshadowed by an unstoppable force that dominated the summer of 1981.

    Clash of the Titans debuted the same weekend as Raiders of the Lost Ark and was doomed to second place during its opening weekend and to cult status thereafter. Although their opening weekends were comparable (Titans pulled in $6.6 million to Raiders’s $8.3 million), Spielberg’s film was an instant classic and trounced Harryhausen’s old-school fantasy with almost $390 million worldwide compared with Titans’s $41 millionClash of the Titans may be remembered as an endearingly corny relic of the past, but it ranked 11th overall at the box office in 1981. 

    103 votes

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  • Summer Release: 1986

    Box Office: $174,803,506

    Of all the surprise hits of the 80s, Crocodile Dundee might be the most extreme. An Australian production starring an Australian actor (Paul Hogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay), and an American actress in her feature film debut (Linda Koslowski), it wasn’t exactly a sure thing, but the story of a roguish crocodile hunter in the Australian outback (Hogan) who is convinced by an American journalist to visit New York proved to be box-office gold, surpassing all expectations and even landing an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. 

    When it debuted in America, Crocodile Dundee was already Australia’s highest-grossing movie of all time. Worried that the Aussie slang and foreign setting might deter US audiences, Paramount cut several minutes from the film and emphasized Dundee’s misfit adventures in New York in the marketing rather than the sizable portion of the movie that takes place in Australia. The tactic paid off. In its first 17 days, the movie grossed $31 million and took the top spot at the box office for weeks on end. Despite other high-profile releases such as PlatoonThe Karate Kid Part II, and AliensCrocodile Dundee was the second highest-grossing movie of 1986 and was less than $2 million shy of Top Gun. Two years later, the sequel, Crocodile Dundee II, grossed $109 million globally to become another surprise hit, ranking No. 6 at the 1988 box office ahead of Die Hard.

    97 votes

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