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The Stranger Things and Ready Player One trailers are the best and worst of nostalgia-driven marketing

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Audiences need more than a few familiar faces

Photo by Jackson Lee Davis / Netflix

At the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con, audiences got their first look at two highly anticipated geek-culture properties. Stranger Things, Netflix’s ode to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, got a second season trailer exploring the show’s expanding mythos, set to the iconic sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” And Spielberg himself took to Comic-Con’s Hall H stage to reveal a teaser for Ready Player One, his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling pop-culture treasure-hunt adventure.

At first glance, they were perfect pieces of marketing for the Comic-Con crowds, both relying on the nostalgic pull that serves as the foundation for so much modern fandom. Stranger Things’ imagery of kids wearing Ghostbusters costumes, set to Vincent Price’s “Thriller” voiceover, seemed right in line with Ready Player One’s parade of DeLorean car chases, Freddy Krueger cameos, and Iron Giant reveals. But sit with both teasers for a while, and it quickly becomes clear that they aren’t the same thing at all. If there’s a right way and a wrong way to use nostalgia, these two trailers exemplify the opposing ends of the spectrum — raising the question of whether the makers of the Ready Player One adaptation even understand why the book worked in the first place.

Starting right at the top, the trailer for Ready Player One frames its world with a bit of voiceover. “I was born in 2025,” Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts tells us. “But I wish I’d grown up in the 1980s. Like all my heroes.” It’s a way to bootstrap the audience into the nostalgia mindset. The trailer is essentially waving both hands and screaming, “Hey, look at all the references we’re going to make!” That isn’t inherently a problem, not in a trailer. There are time limitations, after all.

But in the film itself, Wade spends most of his time in a VR wonderland called The OASIS, where there are apparently a lot of pop culture characters hanging around. And I mean a lot. There’s the aforementioned Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, and Back to the Future DeLorean. There’s Harley Quinn, Deathstroke, and The A-Team van. The motorcycle from Akira shows up alongside the Bigfoot monster truck and the car from Stephen King’s Christine. It’s a geek-cred check, with the trailer rolling out reference upon reference. (Did they just pull from every single title Warner Bros. has rights to?) And the trailer concentrates on those references, not on the story. It doesn’t mention that The OASIS’s creator has died, leaving a series of puzzles and clues behind. There’s no sense of what Wade will actually do in this movie. It’s a trailer targeted solely at those who loved the book, or will love the gratuitous callbacks. Warner Bros. is heavily banking on both those audiences, no doubt. But outside of those references, it’s an empty vessel: a modern-looking action movie crammed full of shiny VR environments and throwback properties, but with no clear identity of its own.

Stranger Things takes an entirely different approach. Last year, the show appeared with almost no fanfare, dropping its first trailer just a month before release. Netflix didn’t overtly hype its period setting; it simply presented the story and aesthetic of the show, and let those elements do the talking. The season 2 trailer follows the same pattern. A brief opening shows the lead characters playing the Don Bluth arcade game Dragon’s Lair — likely a signal that the show will require its heroes to delve into the Upside Down to take matters into their own hands. Then the trailer shows the impact that the dark mirror-world is still having on Will Byers (Noah Schnapp).

“Thriller” is obviously being used to promote nostalgia, but it’s a disassembled and reconstructed version of the song, using the chords of its bridge as a score, then bringing in the Vincent Price voice-over without context. Only then does the song as most people remember it kick in. It makes for a wonderful trailer, but it’s also a handy metaphor for the way the show approaches its inspirations: breaking them down into their core components, selectively picking the elements that work, then remixing it all together into something that feels entirely fresh.

The vital difference between the Ready Player One and Stranger Things trailers comes down to story. Stranger Things is all about it, counting on the idea of the Upside Down bleeding into our own world, and the effects that causes, to keep viewers intrigued. (That’s to say nothing of the — trailer spoiler! — Eleven reveal at the end.) The music choice and the Ghostbusters costuming let us know what time period we’re in, but they’re not the focus. Ready Player One, on the other hand, rejects the notion of story entirely. It’s a trailer created almost exclusively to highlight the endless references that made Cline’s novel resonate for many readers, but it gives the unshakeable impression that the finished product is just going to be a soulless reference-machine.

Obviously, the marketing isn’t the movie. For a first impression, it’s smart to focus on the easy hook. The Ready Player One trailer is suggesting that, as with Wreck-It Ralph or The Lego Movie, the film will let audiences revisit fan-favorite characters and vehicles in a different context. Both of those films succeeded precisely because they did have clever stories and engaging characters, and it would be foolish to think that Spielberg, of all filmmakers, is simply interested in playing movie-reference whack-a-mole.

But for better or worse, modern marketing is key in establishing how films are received, and in this case, the footage suggests that Ready Player One’s mashup world is seen as nothing more than a sales tool. It’s laid out most clearly by the choice of cameo characters themselves. In the book, Wade dives head-first into ‘80s pop culture because that’s the best way to understand the mind of The OASIS’s creator, and to solve his madcap puzzles. References to WarGames, Back to the Future, and Infocom text adventures are actually motivated, tenuous though that motivation may be.

The trailer instead introduces a character who apparently just really loves stuff from the ‘80s — but as my colleague Kwame Opam brought up during Comic-Con, the references showcased here seem most directed at appealing to millennials’ 1990s nostalgia. The Iron Giant, Harley Quinn, and Duke Nukem (he appears in the same shot that features Freddy Krueger) are ‘90s icons. That shift changes the context of these references, replacing insight into The OASIS with the most obvious of marketing hooks. It makes the trailer (and by extension, the film) feel relentlessly cynical, and has already brought similar criticisms of the book back to the forefront.

While Cline’s Ready Player One has its problems, the book did resonate with many readers for reasons besides its geek cachet. Some readers saw Wade as an everyman they could project themselves into, and the story itself was in the mold of an Amblin-style ‘80s film, evoking the era not just in imagery, but in form. Ironically, that’s what Stranger Things has been able to do so effortlessly from the very beginning. References are easy. A movie or TV show that evokes wonder, with a style and characters audiences care about, is hard.

We’re still eight months away from Ready Player One hitting theaters, and we will see plenty of additional trailers and footage in the months to come. But the movie will be arriving at a time when the meta-allure it’s pitching has already become common rather than exceptional. In the inevitable mega-hype lead-up, the team behind the film would be wise to look behind the most obvious hook, and see what other nostalgia-heavy properties like Stranger Things are doing. The world doesn’t need another shiny CG action movie, no matter how many familiar faces pop up along the way, and there’s a good chance they’ll stay away if that’s all they think they’re getting.

What audiences need are stories that resonate, with characters they care about on their own terms. That’s what let Netflix’s show use more than just references in its latest trailer. Audiences are already invested in Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas. They care about Eleven, and what Jim Hopper is doing to help her. Though the series may get painted as a nostalgia machine, it’s a story about family and the power of friendship — just like so many ‘80s movies. Steven Spielberg was once the master of that form. Hopefully with Ready Player One, we’ll eventually find out he hasn’t forgotten that.