Air, Tetris, Mario Bros: Making sense of cinema’s latest 1980s moment

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In case you hadn’t noticed, the movie business is having an ’80s moment right now. Big time.

Super Mario Bros has just clocked the biggest global opening for an animated movie ever, its $US376 million Easter weekend gross surpassing Frozen 2’s $US358 million in 2019.

We made how much? Super Mario Bros has recorded the highest gross ever for an animated movie.

On Apple TV, Tetris – an espionage thriller revolving around the international rights to the computer game developed by Russian Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 – has just dropped. Ben Affleck’s Nike drama Air, meanwhile, is pumped full of nostalgia for the decade that style forgot, from the shell-suit-and mullet combos that count as fashion choices, to the soundtrack that encompasses everything from the Violent Femmes to Dire Straits via Run-DMC. Oh, and the odd bit of Michael Jordan too.

There are some odd overlaps between these films – Mario and Tetris are both about computer games developed in the infancy of the medium, which went on to become the number 1 and number 2 games of all time, while Tetris and Air are both principally concerned with the arcana of contract negotiations. But the real common thread between them is the moment in time they and their throwback soundtracks conjure. The ’80s are back, baby, yeah!

So, why this sudden burst of nostalgia?

One of the simplest explanations is that the people who are creating these movies – and just as importantly, the executives who are greenlighting them – are of an age that understands the enormous nostalgic appeal and potential cross-generational audience of such material. If the studio exec gets a warm glow when hearing the elevator pitch, chances are Joe Punter will too.

Taron Egerton stars in Tetris, an unlikely (and somewhat fictionalised) espionage thriller about the battle to secure international rights to the Russian computer game.Credit: Apple TV+

Matthew Fogel, writer of the Super Mario Bros movie, has said “everyone who made this movie are just crazy Mario fanatics”. But the key thing here is that the game’s appeal is not restricted to people of 42-year-old Fogel’s generation. The Mario Bros games are still being churned out, and with more than 826 million sold since the little plumber’s debut in Donkey Kong in 1981, it is the best-selling computer game franchise of all time.

Given the game’s “four-quadrant” appeal (young and old, male and female) it’s probably more surprising that it has taken this long to crack the code of Mario as a cinematic property (the less said about the 1993 live-action version the better) than that it has finally happened.

Air and Tetris (the latter inspired by the second-most successful computer game of all time, with around 520 million sales) play in a slightly different space, each taking the viewer back to a time and place that seems simultaneously familiar and alien rather than to a warm and fuzzy recalled experience of a virtual gaming world. They invite us to remember the 1980s, to laugh in embarrassment at some of the excess and naivety of the time (don’t worry, the 2020s will have their moment one day, too), and to revel in an edge-of-the-seat tale of derring-do and … copyright. Seriously.

Ben Affleck as Nike founder Phil Knight in Air.

Both stories take place at cusp moments – Tetris in a world in which the technology of computer games is evolving faster than the contracts that determine who will profit from them, and Air when the notion of a sporting professional’s image rights having value is startlingly new. Each manages to tell a story that is gripping in its particulars while also pointing to the tectonic cultural shifts that are underway but will become apparent only in retrospect.

Of course, not every 1980s-themed movie has such grand aspirations. Much of them are born simply of that heady mix of nostalgia for older audiences and the sense that a dormant property to which a studio owns the rights has the potential to be reimagined for a younger one. And right now, Hollywood is blissing out on the ’80s.

The year ahead is full of throwback titles: there’s a third Guardians of the Galaxy, a franchise not set in the 1980s, but whose success has been fuelled by its retro soundtrack choices; a new entry in the Evil Dead franchise that started in 1981; a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, Disney’s 1989 animated hit; a new CGI entry in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise that first emerged from the sewers in 1984; another Ghostbusters movie (spooks first sighted in 1984); and of course, the big-budget, big-screen Ryan Gosling adaptation of the 1981 TV series The Fall Guy, now in production in Australia.

It’s not just that these properties tap the nostalgia of the all-important studio executives, though. They also appeal to their innate conservatism and risk aversion. The suits, generally, would far rather take a punt on a proven piece of IP (intellectual property) than stake their careers on a new idea because if it fails, they can at least say they were only following the research. In a world ruled by data, intel usually wins over instinct.

Of course, the nostalgia jag isn’t confined to the 1980s. But there’s no doubt that decade is so hot right now, as Derek Zoolander (first sighted 1996) might say.

Speaking of whom, isn’t it time for a revival?

Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.

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