The next chapters of #GuardiansOfTheGalaxy and #StrangerThings are two of the most anticipated pop-culture events of 2017. Marvel's comic book property and Netflix's tale of supernatural adolescent horror both share something — besides clever writing, likable characters and imaginative stories — that may be the key to their success: '80s nostalgia, which has swept popular culture in recent years.
A nostalgia piece sets its story in a specific era, populating itself with tropes and cultural symbols that give it more personality. Many films do this and aren't considered nostalgia pieces, whereas a nostalgia piece relishes in them, constantly calling attention to i era using music, contemporary topics and more.
Traits of the Trend
Stranger Things didn't have to be set in the '80s, but that decision is one of the keys to its wide appeal. It constantly brings attention to its era, using its retro technology as plot devices and filling itself with film clips and movie posters that evoke the popular culture of 1983. One subtle homage is the iconic title font, modeled after the one found on many books by popular author Stephen King, who enjoyed his greatest success during this decade.
Stranger Things recalls King, as well as two other titans of '80s entertainment, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. The plot of the series (children protecting someone from malevolent forces in the United States government) strongly resembles E.T. However, stylistically it closely resembles the often dark and moody works of John Carpenter, directly referencing his 1982 masterpiece The Thing on several occasions.
E.T. and The Thing are often considered two of the most diametrically opposed but also iconic alien-themed films of the era, and Stranger Things combines traits from both of them to create its story.
Guardians of the Galaxy similarly elicits its nostalgia with a fish-out-of-water tale. Peter Quill is abducted from earth in the 1980s with only a smattering of belongings, a cassette player, several tapes and a few toys to remember his home by. He has not seen how Earth has changed in the last 30 years, so he remembers it as he left it.
He listens to songs from the '60s to the '80s, and recalls several pop culture milestones of the time such as Footloose, the film that made Kevin Bacon into a star. Most shocking of all was the film’s soundtrack, which introduced many people to these classic hits for the first time. It became the year's top-selling album, proving that songs from that era still have an audience.
How The '80s Trend Took Off
Stranger Things and Guardians of the Galaxy may be the culmination of this nostalgia boom, but it started over a decade ago. Its origins may be traceable to the remake/sequel boom that began with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Transformers; in spite of mixed reviews, these properties did well when it came to the numbers.
Soon, efforts were made not to just evoke names of the era, but to capture the spirit of the era itself. Two of the most overt examples of this are the comedic video game #FarCry3BloodDragon, and the outlandish action farce, #KungFury. These two properties have a lot in common. Both were modeled after low-budget '80s exploitation films (Blood Dragon based on a post apocalyptic future and Kung Fury based on martial arts and cop movies). Both featured the return of popular '80s talents, featuring Michael Biehn and David Hasselhoff respectively.
They both even featured electronic synthesizer scores filled with retro hits and returning talent. Both enjoyed great success, proving that this era had a unique allure that would bring audiences in.
So, why is this happening now? There are a number of reasons that can be attributed to this sudden interest in all things 1980s. Nostalgia pieces seem to find their best life at around 30 years after the fact. #BacktotheFuture for example is a piece of '50s nostalgia. Set in 1955, it was made and released in 1985.
Stranger Things similarly came out 33 years after its set date. This may be due in large part to people having grown up in that era making their way into the film industry, looking to pay respect and tribute to the things that influenced them in their youth. Back to the Future director #RobertZemeckis, for example, was a child of the '50s, as the Duffer brothers who created Stranger Things were growing up during the '80s.
Another, more sobering reason is that these films may reflect an overall mood felt around the world in this day and age. Fiction is often done as a form of escapism, and those who are nostalgic desire nothing more than to go back in time to a much simpler era. Given the recent upheavals found in international politics, national security, financial troubles and ever more urgent concerns about the environment, these examples of creative media provide a portal back to a world where those concerns didn't seem as urgent as they do today.
These trends can be recognized in past films. During the early '60s, there was a far more optimistic feeling in the United States; risk-taking films like Psycho and Cape Fear became big box office draws. However, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and America's descent into the Vietnam War, a more cynical age began that lasted the rest of the decade. At the same time, period movie musicals took off such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story, both set in past eras such as the '30s and '50s. They provided audiences with an idealized glimpse into the past, and the period musical trend lasted the rest of the decade. They only lost their popularity when the Vietnam War began to dwindle.
Contemporary global concerns can also be reflected in allegorical period-themed pieces. During and after World War II, from the 1930s to the 1950s, Westerns were the most popular genre in American cinema. Films from such artists such as director John Ford and actor John Wayne provided what may have been an unintentional allegory to the deteriorating situation in Europe that eventually plunged the world into war, and remained popular during the postwar recovery era. Since these films were set in the past, there was an indication that the danger had already gone by, a subtle reassurance to viewers that, as dangers of the past are long gone, their current worries would be as well. If the Wild West could be tamed, so could the war in Europe.
In media, film in particular, what is popular often reflects the trends of the time. When the world is more stable and safe, you see films take greater risks and go to much darker places. When things are going poorly, people want to escape, so you will see films play it safer and give viewers some freedom from the grievances of the outside world.
One of the best ways to do that is recalling fond memories of the past and of youth. Stranger Things, though horror-based, does this very well. It provides a feeling of safety. In Guardians, Peter Quill isn't nostalgic for the era itself; it is what he remembers about home. For him, and many viewers, the '80s still feel like home.
How Long Will It Last?
You will probably see it continue until things quiet down and we once again find ourselves hopeful of the future instead of fearing it. Right now this nostalgia provides a cushion of sorts to help us get through these troubling and polarizing times, and the trend doesn't end at the screen. Vinyl records are being made again and enjoying great success, and there are even made to order VHS tapes of current films and TV shows.
Nostalgia pieces have always been a part of popular culture. In about 10 years you will likely start seeing increased examples of '90s nostalgia, and perhaps in about 30 years we may see people start to pine for the more simple days of 2017. We may not like this era now, but we will likely start to miss it when it's gone.
The '80s were hardly a walk in the park, with many in the world fearing the nuclear button would be pushed. Now that it is over, that unpleasant fear is forgotten, replaced with fond memories of a pre-digital era of cassette tapes and John Carpenter movies.
How long do you think the '80s nostalgia trend will last? What eras would you like to see explored more in film and television? Let us know below!