Films Back In The 1980’s, Like Beaches, Were Made For Adults, Not Just Teenage Boys

By Hadley Freeman
Saturday 3 September 2016 04.00 EDT


When do you think Hollywood will remake the 1986 movie Soul Man? I’m thinking Christmas would be a good time, because nothing says “warm, fuzzy, festive feeling” better than a movie in which the white lead blacks up because he’s pretending to be African-American in order to bagsie a scholarship to Harvard. OK, sure, it might seem a little perverse reviving a film whose attitude towards race was so bad that it sparked protests 30 years ago. But still: it was made in the 1980s, the decade the American movie industry is currently desperately, mindlessly cannibalising, so the kids are going to love it.

After this summer’s reboot of Ghostbusters, Hollywood studios have decided that reviving 30-plus-year-old movies is very much the way to go. Preferably movies that don’t have wildly fervent fan bases, though, after the fightback from devotees of the original Ghostbusters, who believed the way to prove their pure love and maturity was to act like big babies and spew hate about the new movie across the internet. So, while The Breakfast Club (hopefully) won’t be remade any time soon, the not-quite-as-adored Splash is. Yes, the 1984 Daryl Hannah-Tom Hanks comedy that includes the timeless line: “All my life I’ve been waiting for someone, and when I finally find her, she’s a fish.”

A remake of Stephen King’s It, the film that gave a generation a phobia of clowns and Tim Curry in at least equal measure, has long been in gestation. Beaches is also getting a reboot, which I’m sure seemed like an easy sell in the boardroom: “A tearjerker for the ladies! With songs! We’re printing money!” But anyone who has ever watched this Bette Midler bonanza with one of those said ladies, or who happens to be one themselves, will know that if there’s one demographic you shouldn’t mess with ”“ even less than Ghostbusters’ tragic manboys ”“ it’s the thirty- to fifty-something woman with a bottle of sancerre in one hand and a hairbrush in the other, into which they are belting The Wind Beneath My Wings.

I know something about 1980s movie nostalgia. I even wrote a flipping book on the subject, which is surely the definition of being an 80s nerd, about why movies from this era still have such a special place in the affections of those who lived through it ”“ and also those who didn’t. If you think the simple answer is sentimentality, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But you wouldn’t be right, either. My parents don’t sentimentalise the films of their youth, and nor do I. The truth is, there are specific qualities about the best of these films ”“ Back To The Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing, Die Hard and all the rest ”“ that have given them a life far beyond the limitations of time and generational differences.

As is the way with all nostalgia, this passion for 80s films is really an expression of what we lack today. The dialogue was generally better then; films are now mostly made with the international market in mind, and special effects are easier to translate than witty one-liners. Working-class characters existed, and the women didn’t look like half-starved models. These films were made for adults, not just teenage boys. I could go on, but I think there might already be a book on this subject.

These modern remakes miss the point because they impose a contemporary approach on films that are loved ”“ not for their storylines (which can be pretty lame, to be honest), but for their now old-fashioned-seeming values. Ghostbusters had good intentions, giving roles to women in what was previously an all-male franchise, and Splash is doing something similar, turning the titular mermaid into a merman. But honestly, I’m not sure if putting Channing Tatum in a fish tail is the feminist dream realised.

The only 1980s movie remake that has got it right is neither a movie nor a remake. The hugely successful Stranger Things series on Netflix ”“ conceived and directed by the Duffer brothers, who were born in 1984, the year after the show is set ”“ understands that it’s the shonky spirit of these films that captivates, as well as the sweetly dodgy special effects and the pithy scripts. It mixes in movie references; but it’s in the depiction of a familiar but more innocent-looking time that Stranger Things really shines, when kids talked on walkie-talkies and not iPhones. Instead of redoing a beloved old house by ripping out all the old furnishings, they’ve built a new structure and decorated it with vintage pieces. It’s better and more exciting than any film I’ve seen this year, and proves that sometimes you need to go back to (get to) the future. But then I would say that.

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