Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In the past, we've ranked the finest soundtrack songs, but for this week's Debate Club, we wanted to focus specifically on sci-fi films that have the best original tunes. If it seems like this list is pretty 1980s-heavy, well, you're not imagining things: That decade was the high-water mark of pop and rock artists writing songs specifically to be featured in big films. (We almost considered including Will Smith's "Men in Black," which is a fantastic track from the '90s sci-fi flick.)
To make the cut, though, both the song had to be good and it had to really embody something essential about the movie it's in. (However, that doesn’t mean the movie itself is good. As you're about to see… yeah, some of these films are total stinkers.) When you hum these tracks in your head, though, there's a decent chance you'll think of the film as well — for better or worse.
Here we go.
'The Touch' (from Transformers: The Movie, 1986)
Of all the great factoids about this song — and this wonderful Vulture piece from a few years back has a gaggle of them — our favorite is that it is inspired by a line in Iron Eagle, was written for Cobra but ended up in Transformers: The Movie (all 1986). This song achieved double immortality when Dirk Diggler sang it in Boogie Nights (1997) and later made a meta cameo appearance in Bumblebee (2018). It's terrible, but it will live forever in our souls. We are luckier for it.
'Weird Science' (from Weird Science, 1985)
Before Danny Elfman was Danny Elfman, he was the lead singer of Oingo Boingo, a band that John Hughes liked. Hughes asked him to write a song for his new movie, and Elfman just dreamed up a little ditty while he was driving in the car. It's a goofy, silly song, but it, along with Tim Burton and Pee-wee's Big Adventure, introduced Elfman to the world of movie scores, and the rest is history.
This didn't turn out to be one of Hughes' best movies. But its legacy lives on in this song, and everything that came after.
'Flash' (from Flash Gordon, 1980)
It was a very Queen thing — a very Brian May thing, actually — to do an entire soundtrack for a science-fiction movie. Clearly they picked the wrong movie — Flash Gordon is so bad the only thing lasting about it is that it became a subplot in a bad Seth MacFarlane movie — but this song still rocks. Flash Gordon the character is instantly cooler because he has this song written about him. That's the only thing cool about him anymore, but we all have to have something.
'Repo Man' (from Repo Man, 1984)
A snarling '80s cult film deserves a gnarly theme song to match. Enter Iggy Pop, who sums up the movie's alienation and attitude with his first lines: "I was riding on a concrete slab / Down a river of a useless land / It was such a beautiful day / I heard a witch doctor say / I’ll turn you into a toadstool." "Repo Man" found the punk pioneer teaming up with some fellow heavyweights, including Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, to bash out a don't-give-a-f*** scorcher. This is one of Pop's most underrated rockers.
'The Power of Love' (from Back to the Future, 1985)
Like Back to the Future, this Huey Lewis and the News smash was unavoidable in the summer of 1985, landing at No. 1 and becoming a radio staple. "The Power of Love" takes its cues from Robert Zemeckis' time-travel hit: It's catchy, cheerful, optimistic, maybe a little bit cheesy, but mostly just fun, drilling its killer keyboard hook straight into your brain. This band had had several Top 10 singles by this point, but here's where they crystallized their slick pop-rock into a generational anthem. Plus, it's used really well in the movie when Marty is trying to get to school.
But we do sorta agree with Lewis' nerdy teacher: Marty's version of the song isn't the best.