The 30-year cycle: nostalgia in the film industry

In a memorable Mad Men scene, advertising extraordinaire Don Draper gives a pitch to a client who is struggling to sell an old-fashioned product. The ticket, he tells them, is not the glimmering lure of technology, but something more powerful: nostalgia. “It’s delicate, but potent.”

This sentiment speaks to state of the film industry as it exists today. In between the wild success of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, Netflix’s Stranger Things in 2017, the revival of Stephen King lore (It in 2017 and It Chapter Two in 2019), and Wonder Woman 1984 in 2020, the 80s are being reimagined on-screen in ways that feel both familiar to people who lived through that time and exciting to those who only wished they did. But these stories don’t merely recreate the decade, they invoke its essence: a culturally ingrained association of the 80s with Spielberg-esque escapism, childhood antics, and a society not yet pervaded by technology. This kind of sentimental bond is not foreign to pop culture. In fact, some of the most iconic 80s films like Back to the Future, Dirty Dancing, and Stand By Me were set against idealised 50s and 60s backdrops. This is an example of what video essayist Lindsay Ellis refers to as “the 30-year cycle”: the rough number of years it takes for people who were consumers of culture as children to become creators of culture as adults.

You can see this phenomenon play out in Disney’s decision to reboot their most iconic tales in live action, with The Lion King and Aladdin being released in 2019. But if, at best, these films promise a “Hey, remember this? Well now it looks real” sort of experience, why bother? Remodelling childhood classics with a new coat of CGI paint is bound to be extremely profitable; however, our failure might be in presuming that these remakes are an upgrade. Even the best CGI is doomed to age poorly, because, from the moment it’s produced, it’s already overshadowed by what lies ahead. We’ll see it in Disney’s Marvel products, and we’ll see it in these classic remakes, too. In a Forbes article, author Dani Di Placido notes that those treasured Disney characters, presented to us in 2D animation, were identifiable with audiences. They had familiar expressions, recognisable relationships, and relatable problems (for children and adults alike). It was, as Di Placido says, “never about replicating a photorealistic lion; it was about replicating humanity.”

The fact is, at a time where even major production companies are struggling to get people to actually go to the cinema (an issue which pre-dated but was exacerbated by COVID-19), familiarity is key. And while the 80s storylines might be on the way out, the vibrant colours and campy aesthetics that were popularised during that time remain prominent on our screens – just look at Marvel’s upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder and DC’s The Suicide Squad, both of which are due for release in 2022. Ultimately, enough distance from any time or place allows us to imagine it was better there, we were better there. In that sense, nostalgia is low risk because it sells memories, and in Don Draper’s words, “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

Tagged in What messes with your head, Film, TV, Opinion