John Badham’s Blue Thunder is the most eerily prescient film you’ll ever see that centers on the adventures of a super-helicopter and its pilot-turned-enemy. All other predictions may be in doubt right now, but I stand behind this one.
What makes the movie work is that it has the soul of a paranoid seventies techno-thriller stuffed into the structure of an eighties action flick. It has a world-weary cynicism to it, best embodied by Roy Scheider as Frank Murphy, an LAPD chopper pilot whose war trauma is so baked into him that it almost seems to show in the creases around his eyes. He’s assigned to try out Blue Thunder–“Hey, that’s the name of the movie!”–an experimental helicopter stuffed to the gills with high-tech surveillance equipment and hard-hitting armaments; it’s military-grade equipment being turned over to the the police for in-country use. Ostensibly, Blue Thunder is a kind of emergency response to the coming Olympic Games, which will see huge crowds and possible unrest. Don’t worry, the party line seems to run: it’s not for keeps, honest. Sure, it’s a huge amount of power, but it’s going to be used responsibly and ethically, we promise.
That is, of course, immediately and demonstrably not the case. Frank Murphy is our good guy, and even he’s an inveterate, casual peeping tom who just got handed a whole new way to be a voyeur. But while Frank is willing to misuse his job–from time to time–for a little gratuitous thrill, other people involved in the Blue Thunder project have more dedicated goals and a bigger picture in mind.
To us, by this point, it almost doesn’t even qualify as a conspiracy. Of course the project has a kind of built-in fascism, with Blue Thunder poised to be critical in quelling dissidence of any kind, and of course its architects are willing to sanction any kind of death in order to get and keep their authority. (In an especially nice touch, the CHUD-like secret behind Blue Thunder is code-named THOR–Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response; the Nordic name gestures at a kind of implicit white supremacy. Those fuck-weasels are big on their Norse gods.) But if all this just sounds like watching grim reality play out in front of you, the movie also throws in some cool aerial sequences and, again, Roy Scheider–as well as some satisfying and well-paced (though less probable) catharsis, in which the conspiracy is revealed and America actually cares. At least for a moment. The film does end with Scheider destroying the helicopter, temporarily ridding the city of ultra-militarized police, but hey, it was only five million dollars. Even in 1983, you could guess that a replacement would come along. Sooner or later, one always does.
Blue Thunder is streaming on Amazon Prime.