Pop Culture

Pop Culture: 1980s homage - why Ghostbusters remake fails and Stranger Things succeeds

Film-makers have to navigate the 1980s with care or risk making flops such as this year's Ghostbusters

The 1980s are so hot right now. A few weeks ago, the lovely coming-of-age dramedy Sing Street came out here. It sees 1985 Dublin through the eyes of teenagers aching for escape.

On streaming service Netflix, there is the equally delightful science-fiction series Stranger Things, about pre-teenagers who stumble upon a government conspiracy.

The story is set in the American suburbs in 1983 and pays homage to Poltergeist (1982) and Stand By Me (1986).

Then, there are the works of pop culture set in the present day, but with roots in the 1980s - the rebooted Ghostbusters, for example, or another recent science- fiction work - Midnight Special, a film filled with references to Stephen King classics, such as Firestarter (1984) and The Shining (1980).

There are obvious reasons for the comeback of the decade when stars wore huge shoulder pads and Flashdance leggings.

Writer-directors such as John Carney (Sing Street) are in their late 40s or early 50s and want to relive the first flush of puberty; much younger film-makers, including the Duffer brothers - creators of Stranger Things - want to remix the films they first saw on VHS tape.

When remixing pop culture from the 1980s, the callbacks must be handled with self-awareness and affection.

It is great with shout-outs to a time period that play well in the market - it validates the artistic vision and proves that others, too, want to take a trip to a time ruled by Michael J. Fox, John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Leslie Cheung and Michael Jackson.

But how do you explain commercial and critical flops such as Ghostbusters?

The reboot, according to the trade press, looks likely to chalk up losses in tens of millions of US dollars, making the chances of a sequel about as likely as a Donald Trump win in the presidential elections in November - that is, highly unlikely.

I have a couple of theories, both of which have nothing to do with how the gender of its leads was changed from male to female.

In fact, the recasting was a bold move that deserves applause. There are enough reboots that stick slavishly to the original - think Total Recall (2012), a remake of the 1990 original which kept genders intact, but which did so-so in global ticket sales (and technically, 1990 is still in the 1980s, so Total Recall belongs in this discussion).

Ghostbusters (1984) was never a great movie to begin with. It might have been good for its day, but it has not held up. Watching it now, you would be struck by its self-indulgence and looseness. It feels like a comedy sketch padded out.

What it did have was a consistently silly tone and actors who committed to that silliness.

For a generation of fans, that was enough for it to become enshrined in the hall of milestone movies, so much so that they would orchestrate an Internet hate campaign against the remake's stars, most notably actress Leslie Jones.

So director Paul Feig jumped into the fight with a foot in the bucket.

He was remaking a movie that did not have strong bones, just a single premise - a team that uses science to fight the supernatural. He failed to nail that 1980s-style of broad farce, of course, but even if he did, I doubt it would have helped. The time for that has passed.

Which brings me to the second point: When remixing pop culture from the 1980s, the callbacks must be handled with self-awareness and affection.

Sing Street, for example, embraces how its songs rip off the styles of Hall & Oates, Duran Duran and The Cure.

Stranger Things is a treasure trove of 1980s references, starting from the typeface in its title card, backed by a throbbing analog synth score.

In contrast, Ghostbusters (2016) hauled the living members of the 1984 crew back for cameos, but their bits stuck out like proverbial sore thumbs, making the attempt feel like an awkward lunge at begging fans for forgiveness.

The 1980s are a tricky period - too recent to be a foreign land, but too long ago to have its style copied without updates.

Its fashion might have been dodgy - Def Leppard hair, anyone? - but for film-makers, it will be a cave of treasures for years to come.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Why Ghostbusters remake bombed'. Print Edition | Subscribe