Note:Despite the title, which thought was short and sweet for purposes of this article, I will also include entertainment in the genres of science fiction, comic book adaptations and action, as well as, one Netflix series that fits our criteria. A more accurate title might have been Modern Genre Entertainment Set in the Eighties. But that's a little lengthy and not quite as catchy. In recent years, I began taking note of a number of horror, sci-fi, action and comic book superhero fare set in that enigmatic era known as the Eighties. At first I didn't think much about it.
But little by little, as someone who has managed the weighty task of selling a few screenplays which were actually produced, and who also understands the complexity of this feat, I became fascinated by the phenomena. Let me preface this by saving I love period pieces. More often than not, I want to see film and TV projects set in a not too distant past we've left behind and can now only wax nostalgic about. Or I want to see worlds from the far-flung past we can only just imagine in this modern age of ours. However, as someone who has been in the room as they say pitching projects to the various producers and veepees of entertainment companies around Hollywood, I know that nothing furrows brows more quickly than when you boldly announce that your passion project is set in a bygone generation. Producers and Veepees equate period pieces with massive expense and inflated budgets.
So, the real question is why the Eighties? For me, the answer - my answer - is simple: it is one of my favorite eras and the generation in which I came of age. I don't think it's a big stretch that other producers and filmmakers at a similar stage of life also reflect positively on those amazing times and find it great fun artistically and nostalgically to operate in that theater, as they say.
When I first saw the 2017 feature version of Stephen King's novel IT, it was a no-brainer for me. The novel was written in the Eighties. So, staying true to the material, the producers and director kept it set in that era. I enjoyed the movie and if some studio executive had convinced them to update it to modern day, in my opinion, the movie would have sucked (the kids would have spent the whole movie texting and posting Instagram My Stories of the killer clown, @Pennywise).
But what about other projects? I can name four more just off the top of my head. There is the 2017 espionage action flick ATOMIC BLONDE starring Charlize Theron. Then there's the 2010 remake of indie hit film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, retitled LET ME IN (both set in the 80s). Another is the 2009 mega-budget graphic novel film THE WATCHMEN. Finally, there's the runaway hit horror/sci-fi Netflix series STRANGER THINGS (going into its third season).
When I initially saw the commercials for Atomic Blonde, I wasn't very interested. I believe the marketing team behind the commercials wanted to sell the action and not highlight the fact it was a period piece. It wasn't apparent - at least to me - that it was set near the end of the Cold War at the collapse of the Berlin Wall. I think the studio was afraid that the fact it was set in the past would turn off young movie-goers. My guess is it was Charlize Theron's attachment that got it the greenlight (she was also a producer). It was unfortunate that I didn't realize the time period it took place in when it was in theaters (I definitely would have coughed up my money). Awhile later, I saw a different trailer on cable promoting the film. This promo showcased the time period. I watched it that same night. Although the storyline and characters were simplistic (it was adapted from graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY), I loved first and foremost the fact the story took place at such a pivotal moment in world history. The second thing I loved was the soundtrack, which featured The Clash, Der Kommissar, Siouxsie and the Banshees, a Flock Of Seagulls and David Bowie (hell yeah). Theron was good in the title role. There was also a solid supporting performance by French-Algerian dancer/model/actress Sofia Boutella. Usually, I have a problem with fight scenes where a non-superpowered woman takes on four or five guys (which would be a hard, if not impossible, feat for most guys). However, the director David Leitch - a former stunt coordinator - made the scenes believable. Theron's character often got as good as she gave, leading to the memorable cinematic scene where she immerses her battered body in an ice bath. Charlize Theron is probably the only person who could make that look sexy (I'll never look at ice-baths the same again).
In LET ME IN, based on LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a Swedish novel by author John Ajvido Lindqvist and subsequent film, we find a lonely little boy named Owen beset by bullies who he fantasies about killing. His fate changes when he befriends child vampire Abby (played by Chloë Grace Moretz). It's set in 1983 New Mexico. The film focuses primarily on the twelve year old couple's fragile relationship, rather than the familiar tropes of vampirism. The sensibility of the characters reflects themes and values of the Eighties. Many critics praised the film for staying true to the source material, while others criticized it for being derivative of the Swedish version.
In the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS - which owes a nod to the King novel IT and a few of Steven Spielberg's sophomore movies, we have a group of pre-teen fanboy friends searching for their missing nerd-in-arms, who becomes trapped in the Upside Down - a messed up parallel dimension. The team befriend a young girl named El (short for Eleven), the psychic victim of government experimentation. Ironically, lead Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things, later plays Richie Tozier in IT. Seasons one and two are heavily immersed in Eighties culture and music (the Clash song Should I Stay or Should I Go is a pivotal part of the first season storyline). In season two, they hang out at the local video arcade (a typical thing to do back then). I miss pinball machines.
Like IT, THE WATCHMEN is based on source material, in this instance, a beloved graphic novel. Fascinatingly, it paints an alternate history in which America won the war in Vietnam, the Watergate break-in never happened and the world teeters on the brink of World War III with the Soviets. To have updated this world to a contemporary one would not only have been a disaster, but would have drawn the ire of fanboys and fangirls universally. As it is, the project languished in development hell for many years. Although some say it wasn't great, I thought helmer Zack Synder did a visionary job, with some stand-out performances by actors Carla Gugino, Billy Crudup, Malin Åkerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson and of course Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian.
In the first book of my new novella series MIDNITE REVIEW OF THE FREAK KING, my main character Beauregard Quixote Freidkin, a contemporary college student lost in a haze of Eighties music (which he plays every Friday night on the university radio station) and fantastic conspiracy theories, is a throwback to my carefree college days. Not surprisingly, he is one of my favorite characters to write and, as some characters seem to do, Quixote practically leapt off the page and took on a life of his own.
Anyway, to sum it all up, the main things these projects seem to have in common is their reverence for the Eighties. And who can blame them? For those of you reading this who were there, there's no need for me to explain. (If you know, you know). And for those of you who weren't there, but have discovered the magic of that undefinable era on your own, kudos. It was a simpler time of rubix cubes, breakdancing, sweater dresses, the mullet, new wave, hip-hop and punk rock music, unforgettable icons, the specter of the Cold War and lots and lots of drugs and easy sex. As people tend to do when looking back, we gloss over the darker corners of that time (I lost more than a few friends to drunk driving, drug ODs and AIDs). But its whimsical weirdness lives on in the pop culture that encapsulated and celebrated it. Or in the words of the original Silk Spectre, "I'm 67 years old. Every day, the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it, keep on getting brighter."
Now where the hell are my damn parachute pants?