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How 1980s TV shows and movies are influencing what is produced today

With the release of The Equalizer, we take a trip back in time to look at how the culture of the past is influencing the movies of the present – and the future.
The cast of 21 Jump Street, including Johnny Depp seated. CinemaPhoto / Corbis
The cast of 21 Jump Street, including Johnny Depp seated. CinemaPhoto / Corbis

If Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer looks familiar, that’s because it is. Antoine Fuqua’s action-thriller is a big-screen remake of a classic 1980s American television show.

The original starred the British actor Edward Woodward as a suave former intelligence officer who each week helped to protect the weak and the poor who were at the mercy of villains.

Washington’s version of the character is also a man with a mysterious military past who must draw on his old training to help a young girl who is being controlled by mobsters, as he is drawn back into a life of violence in the name of justice.

The film has certainly been given its own spin, owing as much to films such as Taken as the TV source material, but many critics have praised the way in which the spirit of the original version shines through, despite the 21st-century upgrade.

The film is only the latest in a long line of titles this year that have drawn their inspiration from the 1980s and Hollywood’s love affair with the decade doesn’t show any sign of abating.

We started off the year with The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s true story of excess and double dealing, with Leonardo DiCaprio channelling Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko from Wall Street as an amoral, power-hungry Wall Street player.

Audiences flocked to the film which, for a three-hour black comedy released in January, generated an incredible US$392 million (Dh1.44bn) at the North American box office (by contrast, its awards-season competitor 12 Years a Slave made about half of that amount).

On to the summer, and in one of the worst blockbuster seasons in recent memory, two of the biggest winners were Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, both of which were based on 1980s cartoon and toy crazes.

We also saw 22 Jump Street, the sequel to 21 Jump Street, naturally, which was originally a 1980s TV show starring Johnny Depp.

Even the remake of the 1980s sci-fi classic Robocop found an audience, despite largely indifferent reviews.

So, why this influx of inspiration from 30 years ago? The answer might simply be economics.

At a time when movies are fighting for attention with more avenues of entertainment than ever before – TV series, video games, video streaming, mobile technology – familiarity is king.

Risks can no longer be taken, as Disney’s John Carter and Will Smith sci-fi drama After Earth have proved in recent years. Therefore big, recognisable characters with a built-in audience are needed.

And when you’re looking for big characters, 1980s film and television is a small treasure trove.

A Nightmare on Elm Street, The A-Team, The Karate Kid, the kids from Fame, Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, Conan the Barbarian, Arthur… myriad colourful leads have been exhumed from the TV and film vaults and resurrected on our screens in recent years with varying degrees of success.

Incredibly, some of the best Hollywood movies of that decade – such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Lost Boys, Back to the Future – remain untouched, so far, such is the public’s affection for them and the resistance to tainting the memory of fondly remembered classics. Having said that, there have been recent attempts to reboot the first two ­franchises.

Added to all this is the age range of those going to see the films. The children of the 1980s are the parents of today, meaning the sentimental lure of beloved titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers encourages them to bring the whole family to the ­cinema.

The Equalizer is expected to continue this trend of successful 1980s remakes, with a sequel already being planned.

And even more familiar faces from the 1980s are coming soon.

Tom Hardy is taking over from Mel Gibson in a Mad Max remake from the director of the original trilogy, Sylvester Stallone is planning a fifth Rambo movie, and a big-screen version of the famous Goosebumps series of horror novels is also in the works.

Whether or not all this speaks to a lack of originality in modern movies is up for debate – what can’t be argued is that the era that gave us Rubik’s Cubes, Mr T and Space Invaders (also coming soon to a cinema near you, we kid you not) will continue to influence our cinema viewing for a long time yet.

1980s shows we’d like to reboot

The Equalizer is the latest in a long line of 1980s TV shows and movies to make a comeback. Liam Cairney, a child of the 1980s, takes a look at a few other TV shows that might be ripe for a reboot or a sequel.

Blake’s 7

Created by the writer Terry Nation – who also created Doctor Who’s greatest foes, the Daleks – Blake’s 7 ran for four seasons on BBC1 between 1978 and 1981. Set in a dystopian future, it told the story of the idealistic freedom fighter Roj Blake, who assembles a crew of criminals on a stolen spaceship to battle a fascist federation that rules Earth and much of the galaxy through fear. Envisioned as a sort of “Dirty Dozen in space”, the heroes were all deeply flawed and they frequently were defeated – or even killed. There have been several attempts to get a next-generation-type sequel off the ground and an entirely new American reboot was announced two years ago, but progress seems to have stalled again.

Sapphire and Steel

A rare attempt by Britain’s ITV network to produce a sci-fi rival to the BBC’s Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel – created by the writer P J Hammond – starred Joanna Lumley and David McCallum as mysterious, extra-dimensional agents who are part of a larger group of similar beings, each with distinctive special powers, tasked with maintaining the integrity of time and ensuring that it is not manipulated or compromised by malicious beings from outside the time stream.

Automan

In the early 1980s, video games were booming. In 1982, Disney cashed in on their growing popularity with the movie Tron, in which a computer programmer was sucked into the virtual world of a computer mainframe. A year later, the renowned American TV producer Glen A Larson put a TV spin on the idea with Automan, in which a character from a computer programme is brought to life in the real world to fight crime. The series lasted for only 12 episodes.

Manimal

The late British actor Simon MacCorkindale starred in Manimal, another strange American TV drama from the mind of Larson, this time about a crime-fighter who could change into any animal – although for TV budgetary reasons, he always seemed to choose either a black panther or a hawk. The show was cancelled after only eight episodes in 1983.

Max Headroom

The quirky character of Max Headroom first appeared in a cyberpunk TV movie made by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 network in 1985, then hosted a music-video show. He proved so popular that he got his own talk show and a cult TV sci-fi drama series, based on the TV movie, that ran for two seasons in the United States. Max and his human alter ego, the journalist Edison Carter, were played by the American actor Matt Frewer, who wore prosthetic make-up that made him look like he was a computer-generated character at a time when the available technology was not capable of doing the job. Glitches in his “programming” meant that Max often stuttered and stammered when speaking.

Quantum Leap

Dr Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) spent five seasons bouncing through time after a quantum experiment went wrong, “leaping” into the bodies of people at turning points in their lives, who needed his help to change their destinies and “put right what once went wrong”. In the final episode, Sam gave up the chance to return home, remaining lost in time, helping people forever.

Moonlighting

The show that launched Bruce Willis’s career. He starred as David Addison, a private detective at an agency owned by the former model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd). Moonlighting was groundbreaking, with the characters frequently breaking the “fourth wall” to talk directly to the viewers, and regularly broadcasting experimental episodes such as a Shakespeare-style play based on The Taming of the Shrew, and a black-and-white dream-sequence episode (introduced by Orson Welles, no less). When the series was released on DVD a few years ago, both Willis and Shepherd expressed an interest in a TV reunion, but nothing more came of the idea.

The Fall Guy

Fresh from the success of The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors followed it up with The Fall Guy – created by, you guessed it, Larson – in which he played Colt Seavers, a Hollywood stuntman who, when not making movies, used his skills to work as a bounty hunter.

lcairney@thenational.ae

Updated: September 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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