The last instalment of Welcome to the ‘80s discussed Will Gluck’s Easy A, and the way it emulates and alludes to many of the classic ‘80s films considered in this series. This time around we take a look at contemporary films which revive or capture the spirit of their ‘80s predecessors, be it through music, production design, narrative or characterisation, or, in the best cases, all of the above.
On its release in 2011 Super 8 was termed ‘a fan letter to the spirit of early Spielberg’ by Ian Nathan of Empire Magazine. Set in 1979, J.J. Abrams coming-of-age/alien invasion flick shares both its period setting and its content, literal and thematic, with Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Aliens aside, Super 8’s meticulous sets assimilate those of E.T., both in terms of the level of detailed, authentic clutter and the objects included: model rockets and action figures, for example.
Beyond aesthetic and narrative concerns, Super 8’s treatment of its pre-teen characters marks it out as a descendant of ‘80s classics. The central characters are four boys intent on shooting a monster movie with a super 8 camera, plus the token female (Elle Fanning) they recruit to star in it. The boys take their filmmaking deadly seriously, particularly director/producer/writer/dictator Charles (Riley Griffiths), who hilariously and repeatedly spouts about the virtues of “production value”. For Nathan, the ability of the young actors in Super 8 is key:
Thankfully, the kids are more than alright. They’re fabulous: yearningly fresh-faced and infantile, effortlessly colliding with the Brownian motion of a boyhood of in-jokes, flash sulks and bike-rides through the balmy sunlight of possibility (a mood as much redolent of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me as Spielberg).
Nathan’s nod to Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) is right on the money; Super 8’s protagonists make amateur movie making their mission, just as Stand by Me’s characters determinedly set out to find the body of a dead boy.
Moreover, Abrams’ protagonist, Joe (Joel Courtney), is a floppy-haired sensitive boy with an absent parent, not a million miles away from E.T.’s Elliott (Henry Thomas), but even closer to the narrator of Stand by Me, Wil Weaton’s Gordie Lachance, a shy and under-confident boy wounded by the death of his beloved older brother. From Steven Spielberg to John Hughes, directors who did great work in the ‘80s took young people and their problems seriously. Rob Reiner’s film is particularly sensitive in this regard, dealing not only with Gordie’s grief, but also the difficult lives of Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Chris (River Phoenix), and provoking questions as to whether the boys’ teasing of their overweight friend Vern (Jerry O’Connell) verges on bullying.
The boys’ back stories no doubt owe much credit to Stephen King’s “The Body”, the short story upon which the film was based, yet, as with Super 8, the casting of capable child actors was make or break for Reiner’s adaptation.
In Abrams’ gang, perhaps partially culled from his own childhood, characterisation also appears to take further cues from Stand by Me. The audience are given most insight into Joe’s story, while the plump Charles battles not to be the Vern of the group, aided by Gabriel Basso’s Martin, who seems to have inherited the ‘scaredy-cat’ qualities Vern exhibited in Stand by Me. Cary (Ryan Lee) provides a less unbalanced version of Teddy’s crazy energy, but the underwritten Preston (Zach Mills) simply melts into Martin’s shadow. Save Joe and Fanning’s Alice, Abrams’ characters are not as fully formed as those manifested in Stand by Me.
Super 8, though, evokes the feeling and fabric of the 1980s and its youth cinema so strongly that it does for the ‘80s what Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) did for the ’70s – Abrams has crafted a film which feels almost like it was made in the era it recreates.
Stand by Me’s themes of male friendship and young people’s desire for independence are also at the centre of The Kings of Summer. In Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ wonderful debut feature Joe (Nick Robinson) escapes the awkward discomfort of living uncommunicatively with his single father (Nick Offerman), persuading his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso again) to join him on an escape to the woods. After being joined by the eccentric Biaggio (Moises Arias), the boys construct a makeshift house to live in for the summer. Despite the modern day setting, the natural environment and the boys’ pared-down existence gifts the film a timeless quality. As with the boys of Stand by Me, who similarly build a space for themselves in the form of a tree house, the outside world provides freedom for Joe and his friends. But, as is also the case in Stand by Me, it’s not without its dangers.
The Kings of Summer certainly fits into that coming-of-age genre the ‘80s did so well, with the boys’ solitude in the forest providing the final solace before adulthood unmistakably announces itself. The complications which arise when a girl enters the picture demonstrate that the problems of young adulthood cannot be alleviated by retreating to an elevated form of childish adventure.
Childish adventure is king at Adventureland, the eponymous lo-fi theme park of Greg Mottola’s 2009 comedy Adventureland. Jesse Eisenberg is James, a trust-fund kid facing the ultimate first-world problem; his Old-Fashioned guzzling father has had his salary reduced, so James must – gasp – work to fund his Ivy League education. Cue the bright colours, dodgy corn-dogs and disco tunes of Adventureland.
Adventureland works hard to reproduce the 1980s; wardrobe choices include dungarees, acid-wash jeans and leggings, and Lou Reed is incorporated as a plot point rather than just a frequent reference. But it’s not the retro typeface, Bowie’s “Modern Love” or Bill Hader’s moustache that recall the spirit of older films; it’s the melancholia of the main characters.
Though the eccentric characters who make up the park’s workforce provide much humour (particularly Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), James drips teen angst and Kristen Stewart’s Em is reeling from a painful past.
Adventureland’s largest similarity with the 1980s teen canon, however, is the fact that it puts ‘alternative’ kids front and centre, and makes them the ones to root for. For example, when James’ Russian-novel-reading, beat-poet-resembling colleague Joel is cruelly cold-shouldered by a more typical ‘popular girl’ Em comes to his defence. Add to this a soundtrack of Crowded House and The Cure, and if it weren’t for all the famous faces you could almost believe you’ve found a lost Harold Deutch movie.