With the release of season two of “Stranger Things” right around the corner (October 27th), it got me thinking about nostalgia. You know, that warm and fuzzy feeling you get while thinking about pleasant past experiences. Those who have watched any of “Stranger Things” know that it is a show steeped in nostalgia. It’s heavily influenced by classic ’80s movies, and takes inspiration from Spielberg, Carpenter, and the like.
This has become a common theme recently. Many forms of media…be it books, movies, or video games…have steeped themselves in this wave of nostalgia for the 1980’s. In fact, the game “Stories Untold” which I wrote about earlier this year has an ’80s veneer over it in the form of old text-based adventure games. Now, I don’t hate this nostalgia…although I do feel that sometimes it becomes overbearing. That’s something “Stranger Things” did really well with during its first season. Despite the obvious ’80s influences, the show never went out of its way to point them out, relegating them to things like movie posters hanging on the wall in the background of a scene or taking story cues from said movies (like the van chase scene near the end of the season which is clearly inspired by “E.T.”). The most obvious it gets is a scene where the school’s science teacher is explaining to his wife how they did some of the special effects in the movie “The Thing”.
However, there are times where I feel like the ’80s nostalgia is used like a crutch. The book “Ready Player One” almost falls into this trap. The premise of the story is that, in a dystopian future setting, kids like Wade Watts spend most of their time in a humongous virtual reality world. As the book begins, we learn that the creator of this massive virtual reality passed away recently, and with his death left behind an “Easter egg” inside the game. Whoever finds it first will inherit the creator’s massive wealth and legacy. Because of the fact that the creator grew up in the 1980’s, this leads to a massive resurgence of ’80s pop culture as players pour over anything they can get their hands on to figure out the clues and find the Easter egg.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. And the book explains the origin of a lot of the ’80s references, especially the ones that are critical to the main plot. But it teeters dangerously close to the edge of the nostalgia hole, and risks alienating younger readers who have no real connection to ’80s pop culture. Having grown up in the ’90s, a lot of the references in the book didn’t really do it for me. The text-adventure game “Zork” is referenced at one point, which I do have a passing familiarity with. But most of the things I either have only a vague recollection of or I know it in passing. Having never been steeped in that ’80s culture, part of the appeal was lost on me.
If the book wasn’t well-paced with likable characters and a fun story, the ’80s charm would have been completely wasted on me. That being said, “Ready Player One” is definitely worth a read. It’s a dystopian science-fiction story that manages to avoid falling into that cliché trap of lamenting the dangers of technology.
However, there is one modern instance where I really noticed the nostalgia crutch. And that instance is…”Rogue One”.
I talked about “Rogue One” before and how I feel like the movie is a mixed bag. The storytelling is jumbled at times. Most of the characters aside from Jyn have very little development and aren’t memorable. It’s part war movie, part Star Wars movie but doesn’t really nail either of those…at least until the second half of the movie. But one thing that grated on me more than it probably should have was the fan service. The biggest example of this was early on in the movie. Our heroes are making their way through the holy city of Jedha when they run into those two guys from the Cantina in “A New Hope”.
You know the guys. “I don’t like you. My friend doesn’t like you either.” Those guys. They have a random ten-second cameo that adds nothing to the movie aside from making people go “hey I remember that!”
But then like twenty minutes later the entire city is destroyed by a test-firing of the Death Star’s laser. So how did those two guys escape exactly? Did they just happen to have a ship they flew away in just before everything was vaporized?
The movie doesn’t stop there either. There’s a random cameo by C-3PO and R2-D2 later on. There’s a not-so-subtle reference to Obi-Wan. And there’s a scene with Darth Vader on Mustafar (the lava planet from “Revenge of the Sith”) that adds nothing to the plot and just regurgitates stuff we already.
And also Vader makes a pun. So that’s cool…I guess.
My biggest gripe with all of this is that “Rogue One” was often subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, implying that the movie was meant to be standalone. Except it isn’t, because it very clearly binds itself hand and foot to “A New Hope”. It kind of makes sense, considering the movie is about stealing the Death Star plans, which helps the Rebel Alliance destroy it in “A New Hope”. But at the same time, there’s so much stuff in “Rogue One” that feels like it was put there merely to appease the super fans.
Why did Obi-Wan come back to help even though he was in hiding from the Sith? Because his friend Bail Organa asked him to of course!
Why did the Death Star have a super critical weakness that caused it to blow up from one proton torpedo? Because Galen Erso purposefully designed that flaw of course!
(To be fair, I actually did enjoy the explanation of the Death Star’s weakness. It was a nice little detail that filled a plot hole from the older Star Wars movies.)
Honestly I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene with C-3PO and R2-D2 getting on the blockade runner with Princess Leia, just to explain why they’re on the ship at the beginning of “A New Hope”.
At times the movie feels less like its own thing and more like a forced justification for everything that follows. I could go on and on about “Rogue One”, and I would still say it’s a good movie. It just isn’t the great movie it should have been. It relies a bit too much on nostalgia and not enough on its own original content. And in the end, that makes the movie feel lopsided.
Nostalgia isn’t inherently a bad thing. It can help us cope with bad periods in our lives by remembering good times and reminding ourselves that things can and will get better. But nostalgia can also be blinding. It can blind us to the flaws in our past. It’s like whenever people reminisce about the 1950’s as the “good ol’ days”, but fail to remember that they were only the “good ol’ days” if you were a straight, white, Christian male. If you were anything else, your memories of the 1950’s were probably a bit different.
Perspective is a funny thing. It can grow distorted, showing us things that have been exaggerated or blown out of proportion. And sometimes it can show us things that weren’t even true. Perspective is fickle. And that’s why nostalgia can be dangerous. Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses is pleasant and fun, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.
If anything, it just lets them sneak up on you and cause more harm than they rightfully should.
Thanks for reading. Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.