The Eighties had a number of films that, in retrospect, appear to be prophetic, predicting changes in society well in advance. Some of these films were deliberate satire, extrapolating existing conditions into what was meant to be parody but has turned into reality. Robocop (1987) presented a view of the 24 hour news cycle complete with vapid talking heads. However, some details couldn’t be predicted. William Gibson, who wrote the cyberpunk novel Neuromancer in 1984, has mentioned that he didn’t predict people today carrying more computing power in our pocket than used for the Apollo missions. However, he did predict asshole billionaires in space.

Being speculative, science fiction extrapolates. What about action and techno thrillers? The focus of an action movie is the action, with the plot leading to the big scenes. Techno thrillers draw from science fiction, but tend to be set either in the modern day or not far in the future. Both can extrapolate from current events to come up with a plausible premise, or as plausible as possible provided audience buy-in. Let’s take the 1983 film, Blue Thunder.

Directed by John Badham, Blue Thunder starred Roy Scheider as LAPD helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, Daniel Stern as his observer Richard “JAFO” Lymangood, Candy Clark as Murphy’s girlfriend Kate, Malcolm McDowell as Colonel F.E. Cochrane, and Warren Oates as Murphy’s superior Braddock. Murphy was a pilot in the US Army before joining the LAPD and had served with Cochrane in Vietnam in an incident that left Frank with PTSD.

During a patrol with his new observer, Murphy spots a few crimes in progress, where he and Lymangood coordinate the officers on the ground. He also has Lymangood report a sedan without license plates as abandoned. Not long after that, an emergency call comes in; Councillor Diana McNeely (Robin Braxton) is under attack at her home. Murphy and Lymangood respond to provide ground units support. During the resulting firefight, McNeely is fatally shot, dying in the hospital later that night. On leaving the scene, Murphy notices that the sedan without plates is missing; when he calls in, no one has been able to get out to the car to remove it.

Murphy and Lymangood are suspended for an unrelated event during their shift. Murphy follows up on his concerns, digging into the death of the councillor. The official record has her dying during a burglary gone wrong. The disappearing sedan, however, has Murphy questioning the offical version. Some digging reveals that McNeely was part of a task force looking into troubles occurring in Watts.

Despite the suspension, Murphy is brought in for a demonstration by the military. On display, an advanced helicopter, nicked named Blue Thunder. The helicopter is meant for anti-terror work, armed with a rotary cannon, heavy armour, an electronics suite capable of video and audio recording, infrared sensors, and even a mobile phone system. Blue Thunder is the military’s answer for fighting crime. During the demo, the pilot, Cochrane, shows how accurate the fire control system is, though there is collateral. The “one civilian dead for every ten terrorists,” ratio is considered acceptable by the military but leaves Murphy cold.

Murphy is Braddock’s choice of pilot for the project, with Lymangood being brought along. Lymangood, though, was a comms expert when he served in the Army and quickly picks up how to use the Thunder‘s electronics suite. First thing he does is change the code to erase the video tapes used in the helicopter. The first patrol goes well, with Myrphy and Lymangood going through the paces with the Thunder on a regular patrol.

When returning from patrol, Murphy sees Cochrane racing off from the parking garage. Instead of landing, Murphy aborts and lifts off again. He follows Cochrane to an office building. Using Thunder‘s electronics, Lymangood is able to locate Cochrane as he meets with several other people. Turns out, Cochrane and his conspirators are working on Operation THOR – Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response, or the use of helicopters like Blue Thunder to quell an uprising, one that they are trying to instigate in Watts that was discovered by McNeely.

Blue Thunder‘s stealth capability is useless when Cochrane opens a curtain and sees the helicopter and Murphy staring right back. Murphy returns to base and has Lymangood retrieve the video from that evening. Not knowing who to trust in the LAPD, Murphy works out a few ideas. Lymangood, though, is tracked down and is tortured and killed as the conspirators try to find the video tape. Erasing the tape is out of the question; the conspirators are left with brute force to find the code Lymangood set.

Murphy hears about Lymangood’s death. Expecting that the conspirators would be after him next, he sneaks into the police heliport and gets in Thunder. He discovers that Lymangood left a message for him that has the location of the videotape. Murphy then steals Blue Thunder, taking off. Once in the air, he makes two calls. The first is to TV station KBLA, trying to reach the anchor or the crime beat reporter to let them know that a package will be coming. The second is to Kate to have her go retrieve the videotape from a drive-in theatre’s dumpster.

The conspirators are quick to react. First thing they send is two regular LAPD helicopters with SWAT team passengers. The machineguns used by the SWAT team aren’t powerful enough to penetrate Thunder‘s armour, though a shot does damage the turret the rotary cannon uses. Murphy takes one down by damaging the engine, allowing the helicopter to use autorotation to land. The other is led on a chase down the LA River, going under bridges and weaving around pylons. Murphy is the better pilot; the pursuing helicopter turns too tight and brushes against a pylon and crashes.

With some time to breathe, Murphy heads to the drive-in to help Kate the best he can. She finds the tape just as an LAPD cruiser arrives. Murphy dusts the cruiser, giving Kate time to get back to her car and escape. She’s chased through the streets of LA as she tries to get to KBLA’s studios, leaving a trail of collisions behind her.

The conspirators escalate. Having control over the messaging, they spin Murphy as being out of control, a crazed sniper in the skies. The message gets repeated over news media. With the spin in place, the conspirators call in a pair of F-16s to handle Murphy and Blue Thunder. The pilots of the F-16s are given the weapons-free go ahead. Murphy, though, is ready. The first missiles fired at Thunder instead pick up the heat of a barbeque chicken restaurant. With the second set of missiles, Murphy hovers near an office building whose windows are reflecting the sun. When the missiles explode in the building, the F-16 pilots pull off and abort their mission.

Cochrane takes things into his own hands and gets into an attack helicopter. He’s able to ambush Murphy, and his chopper’s cannon’s can pierce Thunder’s armour. Murphy is wounded. He runs, but he keeps his altitude low. The chase becomes a cat and mouse game through the canyons of LA’s downtown towers. Murphy’s time as an LAPD pilot wins out, letting him get into an ambush position where he can down Cochrane once and for all.

Kate manages to get to the tape to KBLA, getting past the last hurdle the conspirators used. The reporter watches and updates about the situation in the air gets out. Meanwhile, Murphy flies Thunder out to a railyard. He lands the helicopter in front of a fast moving freight train. There is nothing left of the helicopter. The news reports on new details about Councillor McNeely’s death as Murphy walks away from the wreckage.

The terrorism in the mid-80s was different from today’s. In the Eighties, airplane hijacking meant that a passenger liner got diverted to a neutral airport and the passengers were held hostage for money and political change. Flying a jet plane into a building wasn’t likely, so passengers weren’t as likely to try to fight back. LA was preparing to host the Olympics in 1984, so possible terrorist scenarios were being considered by the police and the military. At the same time, the problems that led to the Watts Riots in 1965 – racial discrimination and high unemployment – were still around and would lead to the 1992 LA riots.

The reaction to terrorism changed after September 2001 when terrorists hijacked three passenger flights to use them to destroy the World Trade Center in New York and attempt to destroy the Pentagon in Virginia. While military surplus had trickled down to police departments, the trickle became a river after the terror attacks. The militarization of police departments has become a concern, especially when the police are called in for issues where the police aren’t needed. Worse, departments are willing to use the gear they get from the military to show that the equipment is needed. For now, the heavy equipment is being used by SWAT teams. Surely police departments won’t purchase a surplus attack helicopter.

What that all means for a theoretical Blue Thunder remake is that the focus should be on the militarization of the police. Instead of a prototype helicopter purpose designed to be a human rights violation, the police department begins a pilot project for a surplus military helicopter. Why should SWAT get all the toys? Keep Murphy and Lymangood as former military; the quagmire known as Afghanistan left scars similar to those caused by the Vietnam War.

The motivations of the conspirators need to be examined. Today’s audience has seen an armed insurrection attempt with no heavy response by police or military and few deaths. There isn’t a taste for shooting one’s own countrymen even if they’re trying to overthrow a duly elected government. At the same time, there were those on the side of the police who had leanings that matched the insurrectionists. Reality is messier than fiction; fiction needs loose ends wrapped up while reality has no such limitations.

Studios are risk adverse, as mentioned many times through the years here at Lost in Translation. With a country so politicized to division, angering either side means a possible loss in revenue. The conspirators need to be portrayed as power hungry with no hint on political leanings. The surplus helicopter is meant for crowd control, preventing or containing riots when protests get out of hand. For some of the conspirators, that means ending a protest before it gets started. The cause of the protest doesn’t matter; could be people protesting a corporation’s business ethics. Paint the protesters in a negative light and the press will cheerlead the use of excessive force against them.

That brings up a new problem. When Murphy gave the tape to KBLA in the film, he could count on the reporter wanting to scoop the competition. While there were stories that network corporate owners would spike, like a problem at a nuclear plant not appearing on the then-GE owned NBC or anything negative about Disney on today’s ABC, the other networks could be counted to run with the story. Today, with one cable news source becoming the propaganda arm of a political party and another changing their approach to go after the same crowd, there’s no guarantee that a reporter would be trusted with the story. Today, Murphy might consider a reporter from the BBC instead of any of the American cable channels or networks. Or he might release the video, now on a USB stick or a micro USB chip, to an online source he or Lymangood trusted. Once in the wild, the Streisand Effect means that any attempt to take the video down just gets more people interested in seeing the video.

Getting the star vehicle is the next step. The original Blue Thunder was an Aérospatiale Gazelle with parts added to allude to the Apache attack helicopter. The F-16s were radio controlled models. There was no need to get support from the military. Today, studios get military help for films, like equipment and troops as extras, in return for portraying the military in a positive light. The original film had issues with the LAPD, who wanted their name scrubbed from the film despite the city obviously being LA. The film used the term, “Metropolitan Police Department,” to assuage the LAPD. One solution on getting the needed helicopter is to just purchase a surplus helicopter that can be modified as needed.

Remaking Blue Thunder needs to take into account the events happening during the original’s production. What made sense then might not work today. At the same time, turning the remake into a purely action film and ignoring the techno thriller aspects will leave the remake hollow. It’s a fine line, especially in today’s political environment.

In 2015, there were plans to reboot the movie, with a writer attached to the project. Drones were to replace the helicopters, but there’s no further word on where the reboot is in its development. There was a short, eleven episode long TV series in 1984, with James Farentino as Frank Chaney, the pilot of the title helicopter, and Dana Carvey as Clinton “JAFO” Wonderlove, the observer and electronics operator. The series came up against Airwolf, another series about a high-tech helicopter. Blue Thunder lost the competition, having low ratings through its run.

This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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