From looking down 2016’s box office results, it’s clear that a certain trend shows no sign of stopping. Sequels, remakes and reboots abound, tapping into audience nostalgia to massive success.
Family animation is one of the few areas where original stories can become big hits, and even they are soon sequel-ised.
A similar trend is taking hold of TV. Shows are revived, remade, spun-off, and increasingly adapted from films. They range from the more prestige, anthology-format FARGO down to procedurals like MACGUYVER and sitcoms like FULLER HOUSE.
This should be no surprise, given the challenges faced by films and TV. The buzzword ‘peak TV‘ means that more scripted shows are being produced than ever before. Films and TV are competing not only with each other but other media, gaming, the internet. Instant brand name recognition solves part of the marketing challenge.
Faced with this kind of trend, how are original properties to survive and get noticed? One way is in using the power of nostalgia to bring new stories to an audience, balancing the familiar with the new.
You shouldn’t like things just because people tell you you’re supposed to.
The Duffer brothers at one time pitched for an adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. When they didn’t get the job, they channeled some of this energy into an original project, a new series for Netflix.
Pop culture of the 1980s heavily influenced STRANGER THINGS. With comparisons often drawn from BACK TO THE FUTURE.
The kids think they’re in a Steven Spielberg movie. The teens think they’re in a John Carpenter movie. The adults think they’re in a Stephen King novel.
There are other explicit references, from the kids playing Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons to horror movie posters on walls in the background. Even the casting of Winona Ryder in a central role works as a meta-reference.
Understanding a reference, even one that’s widely known, makes an audience member feel like they’re in a special club.
The result also helps word of mouth, which is how Netflix builds audiences. It’s easy to describe a show to someone else if it’s like something they already know and have enjoyed.
Nostalgia’s not a silver bullet
– Dr. Clay Routledge, quoted in Variety
However, nostalgia alone can’t explain the popularity of STRANGER THINGS. If this formula were so simple, every show could follow it in order to build the same kind of buzz.
If STRANGER THINGS didn’t work as its own story, there would be no need to keep watching beyond the first few episodes. The effect would quickly wear off.
Beyond the tone, the setting, and references, STRANGER THINGS is always carefully grounded in its characters’ problems.
These problems are fundamental and universal, regardless of generation. Shifting friendship groups are a part of anyone’s coming of age. Every parent’s nightmare is that their child might go missing.
The nostalgia and the sci-fi elements of the story are both put into a recognisably human context.
There was one exception. The “justice for Barb” conversation (a spoilery explanation) grew out of a criticism of the show. After convincing the audience that Nancy and Barb are good friends, and making this conflict central to Nancy’s character, the characters all but forget her fate.
In a rare misstep, STRANGER THINGS gets caught up in plotting (connecting Nancy to the efforts to save Will Byers) and overlooks its characters.
Is this on? I mean, can break through walls, I just can’t… can’t get this on…
While making THE INCREDIBLES, Brad Bird described a more general but similar concept that served as a guiding principle:
the mundane and the fantastic
Even while crafting spectacular action sequences, Bird focused on their emotional significance to the characters. The Incredibles have superpowers along the lines of the Fantastic Four. However, more importantly, they are a plausibly dysfunctional family.
A father wants to recapture old glory from his younger, more adventurous days. A mother feels unsupported by her husband in raising her children. A teeange girl dislikes social situations, hiding herself and her talents from the world. A young boy doesn’t know where to channel his energy.
Even the climax, where these superheroes team up to fight a supervillain to prevent his giant robot from destroying a city, boils down to something recognisable. They’re arguing over the remote.
Remember the future
However, misplaced nostalgia is partly what lets down Brad Bird’s later film TOMORROWLAND.
While ostensibly a family adventure, the generation most likely to appreciate the reference to the Disney theme park and the retro futurism design are older adults, closer to George Clooney’s age.
Nix’s (Hugh Laurie) climactic monologue shows a nostalgia for a past vision of the future that the film itself shares. While the story aligns the audience with the heroes, the themes seem to side with the villain.
The result is a muddled attitude towards its own nostalgia. This identity crisis was reflected in unsure marketing and the film failed to connect with an audience.
You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.
Two recent films at the lower end of the budget scale demonstrate a more complex relationship with nostalgia.
In some ways, Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND is a tribute to classic Hollywood musicals, despite the contemporary setting.
However, it also makes nostalgia a flaw for one of its characters. The title of course has a double meaning, referring to Los Angeles and a dream world.
Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) concept of jazz is very much rooted in the past, and this is partly what’s holding him back from success (at least financial success).
This allows the film to somewhat have its cake and eat it too. It can express the character’s nostalgia while subtly questioning it.
Do you miss it? Living on the ranch?
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, like STRANGER THINGS, takes some inspiration from John Carpenter (STARMAN) and Spielberg.
However, this story of a young boy with extraordinary powers is executed in a far more sparse style, that of an independent rather than blockbuster film.
There are emotions and there are explanations for what’s going on, but both are buried deep beneath the surface.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols, while admitting some similarities and inspiration, also expressed frustration at the comparison:
it always hits me like a sideswipe, because I’m like, ‘Wait, I wasn’t going for that. I was just going for a natural progression of this story.’ And you can talk about the merits of that on its own, but when you [say], ‘Does it do this specifically?’ No. Because I’m not Spielberg.
Nostalgia is a powerful force. Films and TV shows, whether original or adapted, can harness it to create a strong hook.
However, it’s vital that the project targets this carefully and deliberately for the right audience. One generation will have a completely different set of reference points to another.
Nostalgia can also be a double-edged sword. If it sets unhelpful audience expectations this could lead to a film being seen as a poor facsimile of a previous experience.
Once that initial reason for tuning in wears off (because it will) there has to be something new and substantial there too. The ’80s style of STRANGER THINGS may have earned it its buzz. What we come away talking about though are the characters.
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