Amid a summer movie season notable for its deafening thud, Generation X remains Hollywood’s favorite audience.
Towards the end of the 1980s there was a popular saying about the 60s that if you could remember that decade then you weren’t really there. It was meant both as a half-subtle reference to the era’s heady drug culture and a wry comment on the insincere nostalgia that became widespread as the Baby Boomers reached middle age. There’s no similar saying about the 80s yet, though two decades since its conclusion Hollywood continually returns to the decade’s nostalgia well again and again. For better or worse, you don’t have to remember the 80s because in many ways they’ve never truly ended.
This weekend two of the summer’s biggest releases arrive in theatres, and both are based on properties not just a part of the Me Decade but inextricably associated with it. The A-Team and The Karate Kid both premiered around the decade’s middle, the point which was arguably the 80s-est segment of the period: certainly the ground zero for the fashions, music, and pop culture that modern media turns to when oversimplifying the era’s zeitgeist. Both properties are fondly remembered, if not critically appreciated, by members of Generation X old enough to remember their airings on, respectively, NBC and later reruns on USA and showings on cable movie channels. (Honestly, “fondly remembered if not critically appreciated” describes the bulk of Gen X’s cultural heritage.)
Probably Hollywood recognizes that the concepts and premises of many of the decade’s most enduring or best-remembered properties then lacked the technology to maximize their potential. Certainly this is true of Transformers, the mid-80s toy line and accompanying cartoon series (which were serialized informercials in all but name) that took on an entirely new second life, for better and worse, once combined with the CGI wizardry and narrative buffoonery of Michael Bay. The inevitable third installment of that franchise is already underway, minus Megan Fox but featuring the fan-favorite Decepticon villain Shockwave in a prominent role. Other decade mainstays, including The A-Team, need only a little updating and tweaking to adjust their premises to modern audiences, but the substantially larger budgets give them the time and money to up their special effects ante as well. Against such practical matters the lure of Gen X nostalgia may seem only a bonus.
Still, some updates and adaptations run into trouble when they stray too far from what the original property’s fanbase recognizes as loyal or true to the original. Last summer’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra made money for Paramount Pictures but won few fans, with a lukewarm reception at best even from the comic- and toy-collecting communities who ought to have represented its profit base. Aside from a few and far between cosmetic similarities in costume design, the film didn’t look true to the 80s toy line and cartoon, taking instead a high-tech, glossy approach that contradicted the original’s somewhat realistic approach. A cursory search of IMDB shows no announced plans for a sequel.
Getting past toy lines and comic books, the DVD and Blu-Ray markets have found a steady steam of income by releasing the decade’s television series in reasonably priced collections. With most of the era’s landmark series already at least partially collected, as well as some of its most critically dubious, many of the more obscure or less successful series have begun to emerge. The perfect example may be ABC’s Tales of the Gold Monkey, a 1930s-set adventure series that ran for just a single season following the juggernaut success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though calling the series a “cult favorite” may exaggerate, it’s nevertheless fondly remembered for its location photography and colorful characters, and notable for a dearth of syndicated rerun offerings. The DVD box set arrives in stores next Tuesday. Meanwhile a Blu-Ray release of Caddyshack, sort of that era’s equivalent to The Hangover, has just been made available.
One connecting thread to the more successful Gen X adaptations comes in part from the youthful appeal that each original property enjoyed. The most common remakes and updates come from shows and films that appealed to the 80s’ youth, a demographic now circling 40 but holding significantly more spending power than the era’s grown-ups, who are today retiring. The A-Team, like Knight Rider, the original V and other shows of the Brandon Tartikoff era at NBC, was marketed to adults but in reality enjoyed primarily by older children and younger teens. (I am focusing on Tarktikoff because the lion’s share of shows associated with the decade were developed during his tenure as NBC head of entertainment programming.) The Karate Kid was aimed at teens but also absorbed by their slightly younger siblings who encountered its heavy rotation on cable movie channels. Both properties were modernized and brought to theatres with comparative ease, while the far more successful – and older-skewing – 80s soap Dallas has had its film adaptation languishing in development for years.
There’s also an insulating effect to drawing from Gen X’s collective memory. Adapting its favorite premises shields their updates, to an extent, from the adverse publicity garnered by negative reviews and to a certain extent from adverse word of mouth; people seldom dismiss a fond memory because someone says something unflattering about its inspiration. Audiences may decide to see the film to revisit the happy memory of their youth regardless of reviews or public reception. For that matter, neither of this weekend’s updates held grand artistic ambitions, nor were they warmly received by the critics of their day. And because they were targeted, somewhat half-intentionally, towards younger and less refined audiences the critics’ response didn’t matter as much.
Eventually, the cycle of Gen X dotage will probably yield to the next era in pop culture, with the films and television series of the 1990s – a decade itself waterlogged with too much nostalgia – getting the update treatment. If the prospect of a Baywatch movie seems strange, we may as a public not be quite removed enough in time from its heyday to feel ready for their return. Remakes of shows still fresh in the public’s mind tend not to fare so well – witness the underperformance of the Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place reboots - while shows that are fondly if not quite clearly remembered continue to get remade. This fall both The Rockford Files and Hawaii Five-O get modern revisitations, and both benefit from stemming from older source material. Their networks have high hopes for their smash success, at a time when all four broadcast outlets desperately need a Next Big Thing. They may not be disappointed. As viewers, it’s likely best if we can forget a little before we like to remember.
- Michael Kabel