Stranger Things, Blockbuster Reboots, And The Best Way To Profit From The Past

Hollywood is obsessed with the past. Whether it be reboots, remakes, reimaginings, or regurgitations, the biggest trend in blockbuster filmmaking is to dust up old properties and revamp them for the present. Essentially, movie studios are cashing in on the public’s nostalgia for the stories they grew up with. Just this year alone, audiences have seen new iterations of Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Jungle Book, Tarzan, Independence Day, Star Trek, and Alice In Wonderland, just to name a few. While some elitist pop-culture snobs like myself might complain about the lack originality in blockbuster filmmaking these days, there is very little reason for Hollywood to change this philosophy. Financially, existing franchises and properties are more reliable bets for box office success. Additionally, funding truly new and unique ideas is a risk no matter the scale, and making an original big-budget blockbuster is an even bigger one. So, if movie executives are choosing between green-lighting a $120 million reboot of a story they know people love or an equally expensive original film with no established  audience, it’s easy to understand why the original ideas are losing out.

But what if these two seemingly opposite ideas could be merged? What if we could combine the built-in audiences of stories past, with the originality of stories future? Wouldn’t that be, to complete the “Christmas Carol” metaphor, the perfect way to create stories present?

It’s easy to be skeptical of the idea, after all it’s admittedly a bit outlandish, but stick with me for a couple paragraphs, I’ve seen Stranger Things come true.  

(I’ll take my award for the greatest transition sentence in the history of writing now, thank you very much)

stranger_things

Stranger Things is a NETFLIX original series from the Duffer Brothers and executive producer Shawn Levy (Director of Real Steel, one of the greatest films ever made). The show is a throwback science fiction thriller about the search for a young boy named Will, who goes missing in a small town in the midwest. The down-on-his-luck police chief, Will’s wide-eyed nerdy friends, and his headstrong mother each launch separate investigations into the disappearance, but what starts as a simple missing child case unravels into something much, much more.

If that premise sounds familiar that’s because it is. Stranger Things is a uniquely original reboot of stories and characters we’ve seen before. There’s hardly anything new or groundbreaking to be found within the show’s eight episode first season. The whole series is a hodgepodge of references to everything from Spielberg to Guillermo Del Toro (And a whole bunch more in between). In fact, when you really think about it, the show owes almost as much to the films that came before it as Star Wars: The Force Awakens does. Only, Stranger Things isn’t a reboot, remake, reimagining, or regurgitation. It’s not a sequel, or prequel or squeakquel. It’s an entirely new story that feels fresh and exciting when you are watching it. To put it simply, you’ve seen movies and TV Shows just like Stranger Things, but the show is so well-executed that it doesn’t really matter.

stranger things kidsStranger Things is astoundingly well-made. The show’s child actors, responsible for carrying a huge portion of the show’s plot, are incredible. The biggest compliment to give them is that they don’t feel like actors. For the most part it seems like these kids are just playing themselves, that’s how natural the performances felt. Winona Ryder takes a role that could easily be cartoonish and over-the-top and turns it into the show’s grounded emotional center, while David Harbour (Best known to me for his flawless delivery of this line) takes his small-town cop character and turns him into a pseudo-Indiana Jones hero (With the hat to match!).

stranger thingsOn top of that, the show is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The camerawork is equal parts scary and enticing, all while being full of energy. The story weaves from bright science labs, to dark forests; from dystopian alternate realities, to the innocence of an eleven year old’s bedroom. Visually, the show presents these settings as starkly different places, but it always feels cohesive. For a show that genre hops so consistently, the tone of Stranger Things never feels unnatural. It can go from light hearted middle-school hijinks akin to Saved By The Bell to a full on Carrie-esque murder-spree in the span of a single episode without ever feeling disjointed or inconsistent. All of which is a testament to the show’s creators and primary directing team, The Duffer Brothers.

Though a lot of the pair’s dialogue can be a bit trite at times, especially when it comes to the romantic entanglements of teenagers and preteens. The Duffer Brothers created an immersive and riveting world with Stranger Things. They created characters who are easy to love and even easier to root for. They took the stories of the past, and updated them for a modern audience, and in doing so created one of the best pieces of storytelling (TV or otherwise) of the year.

ghostbusters2Coincidentally, on the same day that NETFLIX released Stranger Things (July 15), Sony Pictures debuted Paul Fieg’s updated Ghostbusters. Now, I’m going to preface this by saying I actually really enjoyed Fieg’s film. Kate McKinnon gave one of the single funniest credits-to-credits performances I’ve ever seen (Seriously, everything she does on screen is hysterical). Additionally, I loved the final action sequence, particularly the way it looked. I can’t remember the last blockbuster that dared to put so much color in the frame, plus the 3D was actually really cool (Something I’m not normally able to say). The film isn’t without its faults, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would going into it.

However, if asked to compare the two, it isn’t even close. Stranger Things is miles better than Ghostbusters, in pretty much every way. In fact, of the countless reboots of the last decade, I can only name a few that could really compete with Stranger Things*. It’s really anyone’s guess as to what the reason for the disparity is. But since this is my essay, it seems only fitting that I present you with mine.

You see, those established fanbases Hollywood executives love so much are somewhat of a double-edged sword. These pre-existing fans are passionate, to say the least. Their love for the films they grew up with, whether they be Ghostbusters, or Star Trek, or Jurassic Park, or Star Wars, or any other movie, is unwavering and strong. These people buy merchandise, go to anniversary midnight screenings, dress up as characters for Halloween; they are everything profit-motivated movie executives dream of!

gb1When execs can get these fans overwhelmingly behind a reboot of their franchise, that’s when you see massive successes like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens happen. However, if you anger the fans, it’s incredibly hard to recover (See: Terminator: Genysis, or Fantastic Four, or A Good Day To Die Hard, or Independence Day: Resurgence, or RoboCop, or Conan: The Barbarian, or The Karate Kid, or Indiana Jones 4, or, you know what that seems like enough, but you get the point, right?). So the opinion of these hardcore fans is of the utmost importance when rebooting a beloved story.

The problem with Ghostbusters, and a majority of Hollywood reboots, is that they are so desperate to live up to their predecessors that they fail create a legacy for themselves. Or in other words, they are so intent on getting these pre-existing fanbases on their side that they forget the importance of creating fanbases of their own. These reboots contort themselves constantly to pay tribute to the old films, despite a lot of the nods being completely unnecessary plot-wise, and oftentimes end up hurting the overall quality of the movie. Part of the reason Ghostbusters feels so uneven is because it pauses it’s own narrative momentum every once in a while to check in on Dan Akroyd in a cab. In the mind of Hollywood, not catering to the fans means increasing the risk of failure.

stranger-things posterBut Stranger Things is free from this obligation. At no point does the show have to convince the audience of the merits of its own existence. At no point does it have to pause it’s own narrative momentum to service a potentially angry fanbase. Most importantly though, at no point does the cast and crew have to be concerned with anything other than telling a good story. That freedom gave the Duffer Brothers and company the ability to cast pitch-perfect actors, to create a riveting and engrossing visual style, and to write a show that could captivate audiences the way Stranger Things does. To put it bluntly, instead of catering to the whims old fanbases, the show worked tirelessly to earn one of it’s own.

Essentially, where films like Ghostbusters aimed not to fail, Stranger Things aimed to succeed.

And that’s why it did.


Stranger Things is currently Streaming On NETFLIX.

Ghostbusters is in theaters everywhere.

*Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek (2009), The Jungle Book, and Casino Royale. With Jurassic World, Godzilla, and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes a couple steps behind. Comic book films excluded, cause that’s a whole other story.

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