The Nostalgia Machine
In 2016, Netflix released an original series to its streaming platform. The characters sported high-water jeans, bowl cuts, and scrunchies. They blasted The Clash and David Bowie on their boomboxes. They skated to school, traded Marvel comics, called their friends on rotary phones, and threw around phrases like “wastoid” and “mouthbreather.” The show was Stranger Things, and it was boldly, unapologetically eighties.
In 2017, theaters around the country began playing the live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Even with a celebrity cast and new songs on the soundtrack, the movie retained the childhood charm that had captured so many viewers’ attention when it was first released decades earlier. People old and young flocked to see the retelling of a classic fairytale, but it was especially poignant for those who had grown up on Disney’s animated films.
While seemingly unrelated, these two releases are both tied to a greater pattern in the media landscape. One release is original content with a deliciously retro, old-school setting; the other is a reimagining of existing source material. The common denominator is that they both capitalize on their audiences’ longing for times past — they evoke that “good old days” feeling of comfort and familiarity. Both Stranger Things and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast are, at their core, nostalgia machines.
Now, the first products of this sort were able to blend quite well into routine entertainment industry schtick. After all, remakes and reboots are nothing new. When a cultural phenomenon strikes viewers in just the right way, it’s bound to be reiterated in some form years down the road. So when Disney started to bring back its iconic stories as live-action blockbusters, they didn’t provoke much suspicion.
But the early reboots were a symptom of a much larger disease. Remakes became more than just a one-off affair; soon, they were popping up everywhere, created and distributed by everyone. Ghostbusters made a reappearance in 2016 with an all-female cast and then again in 2020 with a younger generation of actors. King Kong and Baywatch made their return in 2017, followed by A Star is Born and Ocean’s 8 in 2018. Jurassic Park got new life with Jurassic World, Harry Potter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Left and right, franchises were being resurrected, revitalized, stretched, and sequel-ed.
Simultaneously, a distinct but connected trend was growing in Hollywood. In addition to studios capitalizing on nostalgia by dredging up old content, they had another trick up their sleeve: creating fresh films and shows with the aesthetic and cultural appeals of past time periods. The effect of these creations was twofold: for adults, they harkened back to their golden years, referencing the sort of brands and public figures that parents could point to and say, “Look, canned Snack Pack pudding!” At the same time, they captured the attention and fascination of younger viewers who wanted to vicariously experience the magic of the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s through the media they consumed. It was a no-brainer, then, that studios decided to set Bumblebee (a Transformers spinoff) in 1987 and It in 1989. Likewise, it came as no surprise that GLOW and Pose, both based on the ‘80s, became critically acclaimed shows. The message was clear: nostalgia was a moneymaker. The past was in high demand.
But profiting off the fact that people love to return to the memories and products of old times can present a problem. After all, a synonym for “old” is…stale. This is particularly true for the reboots and remakes. Studios justify their decisions in many ways — “Showcase modern CGI! Ignite a new generation of fans!” — but the result often feels uninspired. Even worse, these reiterations take up slots in theaters that could be filled by original, insightful films. They take eyes and dollars away from content made by smaller or more independent studios. They lower the creative standard for what Disney and its contemporaries produce.
The reasoning behind the demand for reboots and tributes is pretty innocuous. In uncertain times, a new version of a classic childhood movie can provide the kind of comfort and escapism that many people are looking for. And a television show set in the ‘70s can serve as common ground for a middle-aged parent and a teenager who grew up fantasizing about the age of flare jeans and peace signs. But completely saturating the movie and TV industry with rehashed content does a disservice to audiences and creators alike. Reboot culture has gone from merely irritating certain viewers to stifling creativity and endangering the survival of authentic, standalone creations.
Nostalgia is a powerful tool. But as they say in the first, second, and third iterations of the Spiderman franchise: with great power comes great responsibility.
by Hannah Wong