Each summer there’s usually a sleeper hit; a mid-to-big budgeted contender for cinematic supremacy that breaks free of the pack and becomes the event of the season. Hollywood invests millions of dollars in increasingly hedged bets to secure their audience’s fickle attention. But this year, as the silly summer season draws close to its end, it seems they’ve been outdone by the small screen. Summer of 2016 will be remembered as the summer of… 1983.
Netflix’s original series Stranger Things has become something of an eight-part phenomenon, collecting viewers and trending continuously on social media for a relatively short period of time (all eight episodes were made available at once, sating the ‘boxset-binge’ urge that has proved increasingly popular in recent years). But a few brief weeks into it’s existence and something has become clear; Stranger Things is an incredibly lucrative and desirable product, as a legion of spin-off T-shirts already available from various online geek dens can testify.
Normally you’d expect a premier season to build an audience through slow-moving word-of-mouth groundswell, but Stranger Things has exploded with the kind of speed I doubt even Netflix particularly anticipated. It’s the kind of instant-hit execs dream of (in film and TV alike), and that it’s the small screen that’s won out this year that will be the major blow to Hollywood’s confidence.
Part of this may be down to the studios’ relatively slim pickings this summer. Suicide Squad may be raking in the box office for Warner / DC, but it hardly received the critical fanfare they’d have hoped for (though this doesn’t seem to have stalled viewers as much as the Dawn Of Justice press seemed to), Marvel opted out this year, while the remainder of the money has been shared out fairly evenly between dwindling returning franchises Jason Bourne and Finding Dory. Elsewhere Spielberg’s The BFG has performed solidly if unremarkably given the director’s assumed summer clout (when was the last time he utilised that, by the way?). But if any of the above have captured the public zeitgeist it seems to have been Stranger Things
Openly taking its cues from the Spielberg, Joe Dante and Stephen King favourites of old, the show is a paranormal mystery set in the eerie Indiana sticks. Created by the suspiciously named Duffer Brothers, the show was marketed very specifically to target the age bracket believed most susceptible to such rose-tinted remembrances, aimed squarely at those with warm memories of VHS tapes, telephone boxes and endless summer holidays biking in the woods (be they genuine experiences or those presented during a tea time screening of E.T.). As a 33 year-old at the time of writing, basically, this was aimed directly at me.
And that nostalgia factor has become an increasingly valued commodity, so much so that I proved initially resistant to the show as I felt it’s angle was a rather conspicuous, cynical ploy (I’ve since been swept up in its charms). It’s often moaned that Hollywood has no new ideas anymore and that the recent glut of 80’s era remakes and reboots are part and parcel of a wave of movies being presented to us that wholesale borrow from another generation’s creative minds. Stranger Things has succeeded in sweeping the younger age-ranges as well, tapping that most coveted market; the millennials. If anything is going to keep them at home instead of out Pokemon hunting, it seems this is it. But why? When a show is designed around coveting a certain era, what makes it connect to a generation for whom many of its references will be completely lost?
Part of the answer to this knotted question seems to come from how, since the year 2000 especially, the codification and splicing of the past has replaced original thinking in the world of big business entertainment. Historically culture has always borrowed from previous eras and nostalgia is not a new term, but the degree to which it has proved pivotal to new releases and Western storytelling has risen steadily year-on-year as the 21st century has wriggled through its infancy. We’ve grown accustomed to a culture of collage assembled from the pieces of extant materials, refitted and tesselated differently ad nauseam.
Does such dependence of past glories and their anointed import add anything of value to the films and TV shows offered though? At it’s worst, resting on the laurels of nostalgia leads to little more than a perfunctory conveyerbelt of past products being paraded before the modern consumer until they become meaningless relics intertwined with one another. Small films such as Turbo Kid or Hobo With A Shotgun made their voices heard on the coattails of such converybelting, but once the initial “oh hey there’s a Rubick’s cube, neat” factor evaporated, films of their ilk leave precious little behind to savour. They become confused with the mess of cultural footnotes that they’re intrinsically tethered to, either via their stunt casting coups or that most ungainly Hollywood trope; lumpen product placement.
Witness too the brief and totally unconvincing grindhouse revival, from which a glut of faux video nasties appeared, nearly all of which proved dismal wastes of time, their faux scratches looking awkward and pathetic when applied to cheap and decidedly modern digital filmmaking techniques. This entire inexplicable subgenre survived solely on outmoded shadows from the past. Deluded and misguided values such as racism and mysogyny don’t work in a society that’s supposedly evolved to recognise them as such.
The grindhouse revival is something of a cult aberration however compared to the mass market reassemblage of 80’s consumables. The use of past glories to shorthand production companies, studios and filmmakers to an audience’s endearment makes more sense when looked at from an economic perspective, particularly following the near-global recession that began in late 2007/early 2008. Hollywood, though it would like to think otherwise, is not recession-proof, and this is really where you can see bets getting hedged the hardest. Original ideas carry an ‘x’ factor with them; an unpredictability which isn’t welcome when you’re positioning yourself to spend hundred of millions of dollars on a project nobody might turn up to see.
But take an established name or an established cultural signal point, and you have something to trade on, or at the very least you can work an angle. The quality of the output is almost immaterial at this stage. Look at some of the more memorable films of the past few years in terms of mass appeal, and you’ll find virtually all of them derive from a franchise previously thought defunct (Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road) or one so steeped in nostalgia that people will turn up either because they are hardened established fans still eager for more, or – and Hollywood must be laughing at this crowd – just to see if someone’s fucked it up (Ghostbusters – happily sailing through, which is more than can be said for the likes of Point Break, RoboCop, Total Recall or Terminator Genisys). Even your more notable ‘original’ works are getting in on the game (Guardians Of The Galaxy, 10 Cloverfield Lane). Guardians and 10 Cloverfield Lane work remarkably well, I hasten to add. And this is surely down to the tonal harmony of their appropriations. Don’t get me started on the travesty of cultural harvesting that was Pixels.
What’s being harvested isn’t just the ideas of the past, but the past itself. There’s sense in this also. The world is pretty grim at the moment. There’s violence in the streets, political upheaval, rapidly increasing divides between the rich and poor, etc. etc. What people want during times like these is escapism. We crave it. And what’s more comforting than the familiar? Tapping into fond memories of E.T. or Stand By Me is just as palpably diverting as something of far deeper fantastical reach (Game Of Thrones for example). Nostalgia is big business. Psychologically, it’s bankable. Because it invites the audience to temporarily regress.
Stranger Things is not particularly original or innovative, but it is well made and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, despite some nagging sexist overtones creeping in at the edges. It has a killer soundtrack which pointedly sounds like Mark Snow remixing John Carpenter (or maybe it’s the other way around?) that’s been speedily made available to buy, it boasts high production values and overall very consistent acting talent (even more commendable given the inexperience of many of the younger players). It does trade heavily on its setting and time period (wow, a ham radio! etc) but not so much as to prove too distracting or detrimental. As a hit, it’s a rather pleasingly legitimate one, even if it doesn’t quite chisel its way into the upper ranks of TV being produced at this time.
But it’s also perfect summer viewing in that it’s relatively slight. In that it’s distracting. In that it’s fun and involving and, at just eight episodes, it’s easily consumed. To drift into hyperbole for a moment, but it’s success may prove as pivotal as that of Spielberg’s own greatest achievement Jaws some 40 summers ago. Stranger Things may cause a sea change in how television is developed. Historically, a network season avoided broadcasting in the summer. One can readily imagine campaigns shifting to compete for this newly recognised and lucrative marketplace.
Why do the ‘young folks’ buy into it? How is a He-Man figurine or a game of Space Invaders possibly hitting the same appeasing triggers in someone not yet twenty years old? The answer may be that it’s because their own youth has been assembled from the relics of a generation older than they are. They may not connect to the historical origins of such trinkets, but they connect to their cultural value as signposted by films and television. That is where we potentially run into trouble in the future. If we don’t allow some breathing space for genuine invention, there will be nothing for coming generations to salvage from our own years other than the faded remains of those before us.