Blue Thunder (1983) predicts eye in the sky

By Janet Hetherington

This weekend I watched Blue Thunder, a 1983 sci-fi actioner featuring Roy Scheider as a LAPD helicopter pilot battling PTSD and high-flying nemesis Malcolm McDowell rather than sharks this time around.

Directed by John Badham with a script by Dan (Alien) O’Bannon and Don (Arachnophopia) Jakoby, this film offers viewers a glimpse of cutting-edge early 80s technology --  infrared scanners, powerful microphones and cameras, built-in mobile telephone, computer and modem, and a U-Matic VCR – all wrapped in a boxy, black military-style helicopter. It may seem old-school to the today’s viewer, but as I watched, I found Blue Thunder provided insight on how such technology could be used to watch, record and even influence personal information about people.

It’s also a story about post-Watergate distrust of government institutions. Scheider’s character Frank Murphy gets to fly Blue Thunder (that’s the name of the copter) and gets to test out all its bells and whistles. When a councilwoman is murdered, Scheider suspects it’s more than a rape-and-robbery gone wrong. With the help of Blue Thunder’s infrared scanner and VCR recording technology, he gets the evidence he needs to prove that the government and police orchestrated the murder to keep the true purpose of the copter a secret. It is not meant to protect against terrorists at the 1984 Olympics as it’s purported to be, but rather to suppress anti-government protesters.

What I found interesting was Scheider’s giddiness to use the copter’s computer databank to look up people. You’ve got to remember that few people had access to that technology. It wasn’t until August 1991 that the World Wide Web went live to the world. When Scheider looks up his own name – with the help of his geeky partner Richard Lymangood (played by Daniel Stern) – he learns his personal data is being “reformatted.” In fact, Scheider is being set up as the fall guy for Project THOR (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response), so the thunder god in this morality play is blue.

Most of the movie consists of aerial chase scenes and a lot of stuff getting blown up, but I found the underlying themes still resonate. In the early 1980s, we didn’t know much about how technology could affect our lives. Blue Thunder also reminded me of some other films:

The Net (1995): Sandra Bullock plays a computer programmer who stumbles upon a conspiracy, putting her life and the lives of those around her in great danger.
Stealth (2005): Deeply ensconced in a top-secret military program, three pilots (Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx) struggle to bring an artificial intelligence program under control before it initiates the next world war.
Eye in the Sky (2015): Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare.

You might want to check out WarGames (1983), also directed by Badham. In that film, a young man (Matthew Broderick) finds a back door into a military central computer in which reality is confused with game-playing, possibly starting World War III.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “WarGames was directed by John Badham, best known for Saturday Night Fever and the current Blue Thunder, a thriller that I found considerably less convincing on the technical level. There's not a scene here where Badham doesn't seem to know what he's doing, weaving a complex web of computerese, personalities and puzzles; the movie absorbs us on emotional and intellectual levels at the same time. And the ending, a moment of blinding and yet utterly elementary insight, is wonderful.”

Rotten Tomatoes gives Blue Thunder (1983) 84%.