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If we asked a philosopher to explain the 1980s nostalgia boom of 2017, he’d tell us to consider the simplest explanation: That the ’80s have been brought back to popular culture by the children of that era, now grown up and creating products inspired by the trappings of their salad days. Seems logical enough. James Gunn spent his teens and early 20s absorbing ’80s media, and he positioned his version of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill as an ’80s kid, too. The brothers Duffer, creators of the Netflix series Stranger Things, were both born in 1984, and their show reflects childhood in a 1980s mirror.
And Andy Muschietti, director of the new and long-gestating adaptation of Stephen King’s It, ate up ’80s horror movies as a lad living in Argentina, much as the story’s villain, Pennywise, eats up children and the occasional teen. Muschietti, of course, isn’t responsible for shifting It out of the 1950s, the period backdrop for the first half of King’s novel, and into the 1980s; the screenplay, after all, passed hands from one author to the next, from Cary Fukunaga and his co-writer Chase Palmer to Muschietti and Gary Dauberman. The change in decades was Fukunaga’s decision. He also made that change three years ago, before Stranger Things became a must-binge-watch, and before Guardians of the Galaxy opened in theaters, and since Muschietti wound up steering the ship for Warner Bros., the burden of It’s ’80s accoutrements falls on him.
Funny thing, though: Those accoutrements are surprisingly few and far between. Sure, there’s a recurring gag about New Kids on the Block; yes, movie titles appear on the marquee for the lone theater in the film’s small town Maine setting, Lethal Weapon 2, Batman, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. But if you can’t tell ’80s fashion from fashion of any other point in time in American history, and if you aren’t paying attention to the obvious Easter eggs or blatant references to ’80s pop culture, It doesn’t read like an ’80s story the way that Stranger Things, for example, reads like an ’80s story. It’s a 1980s movie in name, title cards and texture only. We’re told that the year is 1988, and then, later on, after the death of poor Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), 1989.
This distinguishes It from other recent ’80s-set films and TV shows, which go out of their way to highlight their ’80s-ness with upfront nods to the decade’s sights and sounds. Stranger Things is all about reminding us of ’80s horror classics even when there isn’t a good reason to; a poster for The Thing appears on a wall in a character’s home and immediately reads as out of place for that character, a teacher whose purpose in the story is to, well, teach. He doesn’t figure into the lives of the Duffers’ kid protagonists in any other capacity than to indulge their love of AV equipment. It’s not that he can’t dig The Thing; it’s that he’s secondary to Stranger Things’ overtones of ’80s fixation. That Thing poster only shows up in his house because Stranger Things is that devoted to celebrating its time and place.
The Guardians of the Galaxy movies, by contrast, drop a handful of terrific songs from the ’60s and the ’70s onto their soundtracks and filter them into the ears of their audiences by way of the Walkman, first sold in Japan in 1979 before arriving on U.S. shores in June of 1980, when it immediately became a fixture of 1980s media consumption (see: mixtapes). They also mention Heather Locklear and David Hasselhoff by name and make undisguised nods to Space Invaders and the Indiana Jones franchise. Gunn and the Duffers aren’t interested in muting their love for the ’80s. Their work wears that love proudly. You’d expect It to follow suit. To a limited extent, it (It!) does.
But Muschietti treats the ’80s as fabric to manipulate with his aesthetic. When his film ratifies itself as an ’80s narrative, it’s either for authenticity’s sake (as in the movie theater marquee), or for the sake of character development folded up in a punchline (as in that New Kids on the Block joke). His intention isn’t simply to invoke the ’80s by repeatedly featuring ’80s paraphernalia, the adornments of that moment in time; instead, he means to invoke the ’80s through recollection of experiences common to ’80s youth. This was before smartphones, before the internet, before we all watched TV at our leisure instead of on the same schedule. You whiled days away by throwing down quarters at the local arcade, or by running amok in nature, swimming, biking, getting your hands (and the rest of you) dirty, or, yes, by basking in the glow of the big screen as Batman and the Joker duked it out.
That puts It in the same category as its peers, and yet the film exists in a category of its own. The film is assured enough that it never needs to rub the ’80s in our faces; Muschietti shows us rather than tells us, allowing the period to hang around the edges of the frame and not at the center, for the most part. Not that there’s anything wrong with that formula’s reverse. Stranger Things is a worthy enough nostalgia exercise, if you’re into that; if you aren’t, it’s still a superb sci-fi horror joint. Guardians of the Galaxy, meanwhile, is loaded with so much non-’80s material that every note of ’80s embellishment balances out. But It proves that films don’t need balance if they don’t lean so heavily on prompting our memories of the ’80s.
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