Written by Liam Ball.
Even though we’ve been living in the 21st century for the past nineteen years, it feels like we’ve been stuck in the 80s. Shows like Stranger Things (2016–) and The Goldbergs (2013–) strive to not only tell stories set within the 80s, but to convey the aesthetic and themes of the decade. The Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things seeks to combine the children’s adventure films from their childhoods, such as The Goonies (1985), with the cosmic horror of a typical 80s Stephen King novel. And The Goldbergs is Adam Goldberg’s retelling of the decade from the perspective of his family. It effectively builds on the concept of The Wonder Years (1988-1993), but with the added benefit of being based on real people. As such, shows like these aim to not only be about the 80s but to bring forth the past in such a way that it feels like it was the best decade to be alive.
But why is this the case?
Human behaviour is odd, to say the least. We like to live in comfortable patterns and routines. A large portion of our taste comes from our formative years, when we were introduced to the media that shaped us into who we are now. We become infatuated with how things once were—when, as far as we could tell, they were at their best.
The things we adored as kids have a massive influence on us—to such a point that what we go on to create later in our lives can end up mirroring them. Steven Spielberg’s entire early career can be seen as one great call-back to the adventure serials he grew up watching in his youth. The Star Wars series was the result of George Lucas’s love for space serials from the 30s and 40s, most notably Flash Gordon (1936). Lucas also created the film American Graffiti (1973) based on his teenage years in the early 60s, where a large part of his life was about ‘cruising’ and meeting girls. It was an aspect of his past that he felt compelled to document.
This feeling is known as nostalgia, ‘a yearning for the return of past circumstances, events, etc.’ (Collins English Dictionary 2nd ed., 1986) The general rule for the call-back decade as far as I have discerned is a general gap of twenty to thirty years. This is the approximate distance between Spielberg and Lucas’s childhood influences and their early films.
The use of nostalgia can too often lead to dark places though. In the present-day entertainment industry, it is very easy to be somewhat creatively bankrupt in favour of being profitable. How do corporations accomplish this? By copying exactly what worked before. This is why there are so many sequels, prequels, spinoffs, reboots, and everything else in between. The 80s were seen as the origin point of the modern-day blockbuster and, as such, the amount of properties from then that have been regurgitated has reached the point of excess.
So, what does this mean?
Well, in today’s current landscape, properties of the past smother any potential newcomers that could grow into their own landmarks. But, then again, there have been a few exceptions. Horror in the past decade has experienced a bit of a second renaissance with success stories like It Follows (2014) and A Quiet Place (2018). It also goes without saying that the John Wick film series has been a surprise hit across the world, without the need for a pre-existing audience.
However, it’s important to remember that nostalgia isn’t inherently good or bad. Our love for the retro is the first step to critically evaluating the past and assessing what is worth carrying further into the future. The use of retrospect—to observe the past and reflect on what has made us who we are, and what exactly inspires us to create what we create—is vital for the artistic medium. Our desire to reincorporate aspects of the past leads to innovation in the stories we tell, and how we tell them.
Walt Disney built an entire empire out of repurposing old fairy tales, altering them to fit his social context; the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999) came into being as a result of their combined love of film, especially Kung Fu action films and cyberpunk anime such as Akira (1988); and each new interpretation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that comes to our screens is always different from the last.
To create something through the lens of nostalgia is a good chance to explore what the past can mean to you and to experiment with your own ideas in a familiar environment. It allows you to self-reflect and write from a personal and relatable place. Just remember to not indulge too deeply in nostalgia. Otherwise, instead of coming up with something truly original, you’ll end up with something derivative.