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:
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.
Ghostbusters, 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.
Sigh. 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’sdescribed 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.