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Stranger Things & Ghostbusters: The Refreshingly Familiar Vs. The Tired Retread

There will be minimal Stranger Things and Ghostbusters spoilers in this post.

What would you rather watch: an homage or a recreation? To put that into the context of film and TV, would you rather watch a film/show which wears its influences on its sleeve but still manages to be its own thing, or a film/show which is an official recreation or continuation of something you’ve already seen, like a reboot, revival or sequel?

You might not actually have an answer to that. You might prefer to take things on a case by case basis, or you might be of the opinion that you don’t necessarily have to choose since you can always watch both.

That’s what I did this weekend. Pop culture was suddenly awash in 80s nostalgia. There was a new Ghostbusters movie in theaters, a new Stephen King-esque story on TV and Scott Baio’s name was in the headlines, thanks to his Republican National Convention appearance. What the hell year is this? 1984?

I saw the Ghostbusters movie, and didn’t like it. I watched almost all of the Stephen King knock-off, Netflix’s amazing Stranger Things, and loved it. And, um, I guess I just ignored Baio. Let us speak of him no more.

Stranger Things, if you haven’t heard, is like a sweet love letter to the Steven Spielberg of the 1980s wrapped up in a blanket made of spare parts from John Carpenter and David Cronenberg movies and giftwrapped with re-used Stephen King book covers. Heck, just look at one of the 80s-riffic billboards dotting the Los Angeles skyline right now:

Stranger Things series launch billboardThat’s the Dead Zone/Needful Things book cover font married to all kinds of familiar, 80s imagery, a bit of E.T. here, a splash of Goonies over there, a hint of Firestarter, etc.

The 8-part series, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, is set in 1983, and stars Winona Ryder as the unstable Indiana mother of a boy who goes missing on his way home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. As she becomes gradually unglued while the local cops look for her boy, his friends mount a search of their own, and come upon a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers and no social skills, as unfamiliar with emotional concepts like friendship and trust as E.T. was with Earthly items like TV and beer. Eventually, government-like men come after them, and, sure enough, there is a pivotal moment involving them riding their bikes while cars chase after them down 80s suburban streets.

Of course, that E.T. comparison is far from the only you’ll make while watching the episodes. The homages to films, TV shows and books of the era are so plentiful that Vulture created a quick-reference glossary for everyone, from A (Alien, Aliens, Altered States) to V (Videodrome), and they probably still missed some things.

Stranger ThingsGhostbusters, meanwhile, has both nothing and everything to do with the 80s. It’s officially considered a franchise reboot, even though it hits so many of the same story beats of the 1984 original it could be considered a glorified remake just with completely new characters. Either way, it’s clearly set in the present day. For example, in this version the Ghostbusters upload video of their their early ghost encounters to YouTube, the land where the angry internet commenters live. There are all manner of easter eggs spread throughout, clearly hoping to appease fans of the original films without alienating those who are coming to the franchise for the first time. The film’s not going to remind you of anything other than the original Ghostbusters as well as Paul Feig’s prior movies with Melissa McCarthy and maybe every other recent big movie to end in an orgy of CGI mayhem.

Of course, it was only made because Sony had a profitable I.P. from the 80s to exploit. As such, the existence of this film speaks more to the state of blockbuster filmmaking than it does to any specific period of time or style of film. As YouTuber Comic Book Girl 19 argued:

“From the perspective of regular moviegoers, a lot of you are going to say, ‘I saw it. It was fine. I laughed a couple of times,’ but the thing is you’re not going to remember this in a couple of weeks [just like you forgot about the Total Recall and RoboCop remakes]. Shit, I was forgetting it right after I stepped out of the theater.”

Obviously, opinions differ on the quality of the movie, but imagine how much more could have been possible if Paul Feig had just made an R-rated supernatural comedy with the same cast but none of the franchise connections. What if he’d really been able to let his cast loose, and not worry about screeching the plot to a halt to work in a Dan Aykroyd cameo? It would have been so much cleaner for them to make something new and run the risk of being accused of stealing ideas from Ghostbusters (and any other movie they looked to for inspiration) as opposed to adopting that recognizable I.P. and inviting all of the unavoidable comparisons.

91sn32QSigh. I’ve made this argument before, back when this new Ghostbusters was a mere rumor. And I’m not going to waste too much more of my time making it again because who really wants to be the old man yelling at a cloud. However, I think the timing of Stranger Things hitting pop culture at the same time as the new Ghostbusters is an interesting opportunity to re-examine the grand possibilities of TV and the waning creativity of film. The Duffer Bros. were able to mold something beautiful out of a wide variety of influences, and perfectly capture not only what 1983 was really like but also what we tend to think it was like based upon the movies of the era.

Here’s how TVLine’s Matt Webb Mitovich described his reaction to Stranger Things:

It was the series’ 1980s sensibility that spoke to me most, having been a teen in 1983 myself. God, those were good times. Fiddling with the latest Realistic gadget from Radio Shack, playing interminable games of D&D (I was a horrible dungeon master), praying you’d get an Atari for Christmas (I had to settle for the Sears knock-off). Stranger Things in a tactile manner tapped into all of that and more, delivering regular nods to movies from that time (and since), plumbing the familiar in a fresh way, the sum of its parts adding up to something immersive — not unlike a heavily salted tank of water.

Obviously, for a fan like that the show’s appeal is rooted in nostalgia, but it didn’t come out of some super calculated, paint-by-numbers corporate approach. As the Duffer Brothers told Vulture, the sheer 80sness of the show came about organically:

Matt: When we were first starting to talk about the idea [for the show], we had talked about a paranormal-missing child story line. Then we were talking about some of the mysterious government experiments that we felt were happening at the tail end of the Cold War, right when rumored [projects] like MKUltra were ramping down.

That was the initial idea, and we thought that made sense either at the tail end of the ’70s or early ’80s. Then we hit upon the idea: Oh, this is great because this allows us to also pay homage to the films we grew up on.

And they had the freedom to realize that vision on Netflix. Now, all sorts of younger fans are probably being turned on to older King, Spielberg, Carpenter and Cronenberg stories. The actress at the heart of Stranger Things, Millie Brown, is only 12-years-old, and by her own admission working on the show has left her obsessed with the 80s.

Here’s the thing, though: You can make some valid arguments against Stranger Things for being a bit too derivative just the same way you can tear down Secret Life of Pets for borrowing too much from Toy Story. Taking inspiration from elsewhere, and then putting your own spin on it does not guarantee greatness. Sometimes it’ll just seem like a cheap knockoff. However, at least the Duffer Bros. were allowed to make that experiment whereas Paul Feig became just the latest director to helm another Hollywood retread. He at least offered a new twist with the female cast. However, the cost of playing in the global marketplace has crowned I.P. the unassailable king, but that claim is looking more and more dubious, especially as film continues to cede the cultural conversation to TV.


  1. This is an excellent post. I like the way you hooked me in with the question/test at the beginning. I haven’t seen either of these but feel excited to see “Stranger Things.” Certainly Netflix wants people to try it, every time I turn on Netflix or get to the end of a similar genre film, the ad appears with creepy music.

  2. I have more favourable memories of homages and parodies. For example, “Galaxy Quest” clearly wears its influences on its sleeves and has a predictable ending but still has its inventiveness.

    On the other hand, “The Force Awakens” is enjoyable like McDonalds. It’s the same as something you’ve had many times before. Doesn’t really have much ambition.

    1. Galaxy Quest is a fantastic example. Super 8 is another. I also liked Kramous, which was a Joe Dante homage, specifically Gremlins, that still felt like its own thing.

  3. I am starting to feel like I am missing something big, because I really, really didn’t like Stranger Things. It felt kind of trite to me, mostly because I was unable to connect to any of the characters. Granted, I gave up in the middle of episode three or so, because I couldn’t stand the “look how mysterious this all is” vibe any longer, but still….

      1. Well….kind of. Usually I am all over everything from the 1980s (honestly, a great decade all around, well, if you ignore HIV and Chernobyl, but the world felt so hopeful back then), and I really appreciate that for once a TV show doesn’t has to be “edgy” but comfortable to recreate a world before smart phones and internet. I caught myself thinking that I wish that someone would approach a Three Investigators series this way (not that I think that there will be one anytime soon). But that might be part of the problem. I kept thinking “I have seen that before, just so much better.” When ET did it, it was a stark contrast to the way aliens were portrayed in the media. Stand by me is a deliberate play on nostalgia and reality. But this…this feels like lost met all those old properties. It doesn’t feel like it has something new to say. But the deal breaker are really the characters. They feel so cliché. the cliché group of outsiders with their cliché family problems and the cliché secret agency to go with it. There is nothing for me I could latch onto.
        But if they do the Three Investigators in this style, I would watch it in a minute. Because those books have actually characters which are easy to relate to, without the need to pretend that they are “normal” or “the outsiders”.

        I think part of the problem might be that I am European…there are so many popular book series from England and Germany which are less known in the US but were a big deal during my childhood and actually did get decently produced TV series. This feels like one of those, but with a “uhhhh, mysterious!!!” element thrown in…and I always HATE it when TV shows do that because I have learned over the years that American TV shows never pay up on their promises. They have a big build-up and then fizzle off into nothing, because apparently the writers themselves had no plan in advance. This warned me away from the series from the get go, but the trite characters did the rest. I can’t even remember any of their names, aside from eleven.

      2. “I kept thinking ‘I have seen that before, just so much better.'”

        I guess that speaks to the larger point of my piece, though. While we are stuck in a perpetual loop of sequels, remakes and reboots until the film industry implodes (or so Spielberg/Lucas predicted) it’s at least nice that the Duffer Bros. had the opportunity to make something which causes us to think “I’ve seen this kind of thing before, just under a different title and with different characters” as opposed to “I’ve definitely seen this before because I’m watching a remake/reboot/sequel.” Of course, not all homages are original enough to stand on their own, and not all reboots/remakes/sequels are so derivative that they fall apart. However, lately I’m learning to appreciate that there are still mechanisms in place in the industry which allow something like Stranger Things to happen, and nobody told them, “It’d be so much easier on our marketing department if you just made this a straight-up Stephen King adaptation. Here’s a list of books we have the rights to.”

      3. There has been a shift towards new ideas and untapped properties in the last years. Yeah, nostalgia is big, too, but after decades of studios getting away with making the same movie again and again, the have more trouble to get away with it in times in which the message “Just watch the original again” spreads like a wildfire. And I wonder how long Netflix will get away with their type of storytelling. It feels a little bit samey to me at this point.

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