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10 movies from the ’80s that need a digital-age reboot

The year might be 2016, but the spirit of the 1980s is everywhere.


Chris Osterndorf


Posted on Sep 30, 2016   Updated on May 25, 2021, 9:45 pm CDT

The year might be 2016, but online the spirit of the 1980s is everywhere.

From Lethal Weapon to MacGyver to Son of Zorn, network TV’s prime-time fall lineup is peak ‘80s nostalgia. And this year’s most popular streaming series, Netflix’s Stranger Things, is both a tribute to and pastiche of of ‘80s genre fare. Including copious references to the likes of Spielberg and King, Stranger Things exists as emphatic proof that those in the cherished 18-49 demographic crave content that reminds them of the entertainment they enjoyed as children and young adults. And it’s not just ‘80s properties that we’re obsessed with either; Netflix’s own Fuller House and Fox’s upcoming The Exorcist are reminders that anything from the ‘70s-’90s is potential fodder for the streaming landscape.

But while Netflix has gone all in on the nostalgia strategy, plenty of ‘80s reboots in recent years also went off the rails. A sad parade of movies from the past decade that either bombed or failed to live up to their inspiration have shown us the limits of ‘80s nostalgia. On television, canceled and unaired series like Uncle Buck and Beverly Hills Cop demonstrate that perhaps not every ‘80s hit deserves to be resurrected.

Which begs the question, which ones do? 

In a noteworthy development this month, TV Land (already a network built on nostalgia) announced that it would be producing a series based on the Winona Ryder film, Heathers. What makes Heathers a potentially interesting property to reboot is not that it’s based on a beloved film, but that something about it feels increasingly relevant to the world we live in today. Given national debates around bullying and school shootings, it will be fascinating to see how the material translates in 2017.

Rebooting anything pre-Internet is a challenge, considering how much modern technology has changed the way we live. Some TV reboots live or die based on involvement from the original writers and performers, with others succeeding because of their willingness to branch out from their source material. Either way, it doesn’t hurt if your reboot has a reason to exist in 2016. With that said, here are 10 movies from the ‘80s which deserve a reboot for the digital age.

1) Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie is a true classic, often ranked near the top on lists of the greatest American comedies. If anything, Tootsie doesn’t go deep enough in its exploration of gender identity and workplace double standards. In the film, Dustin Hoffman’s lead character decides to masquerade as a woman because he can’t get acting work as a man. The irony of this is palpable, as Hollywood still continues to give its best roles to men. But the cultural implications of a man dressing as a woman aren’t what they used to be, and a modern adaptation of Tootsie could be a worthy opportunity to explore what it means to be a straight man who chooses to live his life this way—especially if the lead character is eventually forced to confront this decision over multiple seasons. And since women in the entertainment industry don’t (unfortunately) have it much better off than they did in 1982, television’s Tootsie might also be a chance to examine the ongoing struggles of being a Hollywood actress.

Why streaming? Unlike other hokey drag comedies, Tootsie has the capability to explore something deeper. As a premium cable show, without the constraints of a 22-episode network season, or the mandate to cram as many jokes into 22 minutes as possible, the conceit could really flourish as a premium cable/streaming dramady.

Current status: Nothing yet.

2) WarGames (1983)

It’s amazing that WarGames received Oscar nominations not only for best cinematography and best sound, but for best screenplay as well, considering how remarkably cheesy the whole thing seems today. Starring Matthew Broderick as a teenager with a knack for computers, the movie’s concept of hacking is so arcane it’s somewhat laughable. But in 2016, when we actually know something about hacking, the idea of a kid stumbling into a game with a military super-computer is just ridiculous enough to work.

Why streaming? The ability to update the film’s graphics and technology without losing its comedic touch is too good to ignore. Think Mr. Robot—with a sense of humor.

Current status: In development as a movie.  

3) Trading Places (1983)

John Landis’s Trading Places is essentially ‘80s, spoofing Wall Street just before it reached the apex of “greed is good” mentality. But the Reagan-era politics which helped inform the movie never went away either. One needs only to look at the campaign of Bernie Sanders to see that people have caught on to this, making now the perfect time for Trading Places the TV show. In the movie, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd (a tough act to follow, no doubt) play an investor and a con artist who, well, look at the title. But what starts off as a sick bet between two millionaires becomes a lesson in empathy, and although the film is certainly looking at class and race struggles through rose-colored glasses, a dose of reality combined with the original film’s warm humor should be a surefire bet for any savvy network.

Why streaming? Two hours isn’t really enough to explore the disparate dynamics the film is dealing with. But over several seasons, there’s a real possibility for some lasting insight, along with some laughs.

Current status: Nothing yet.

4) Scarface (1983)

Al Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana is so iconic, at the onset the suggestion of anyone else stepping into the role seems like borderline sacrilege. On the other hand, as memorable as this Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone-penned film is, a reboot might get the casting of a Cuban actor in the lead role right, especially given the current conversation surrounding diversity in Hollywood. And while the original film was very much a product of its time, a reboot might also be able to incorporate America’s changing relationship with Cuba.

Why streaming? The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Narcos; gangster stories work well on TV. And Narcos in particular also shows an increased interest in content aimed at non-English speaking, international audiences.

Current status: In development as a movie.

5) Amadeus (1984)

Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning drama about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the jealous Antonio Salieri is often forgotten when discussing the best films of the 1980s. It shouldn’t be. Forman’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play may look initially like your typical, stuffy Oscar bait, but its story of creativity pitted against convention is timeless.

Why streaming? The best route here is to go for a prestigious (but not stuffy, the story is far too interesting too be told too pretentiously) period piece for the BBC or HBO. As a miniseries, Amadeus would be the exact kind of catnip that tends to clean up at the Emmys.

Current status: Nada.

6) Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Everyone is tired of nerds, right? And between The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley, it’s not like we need another TV show about this entitled, ever-present, increasingly hard-to-define demographic which have so thoroughly taken over our world. But what happens when the nerds have already gotten their revenge? Spawning a franchise that would extend into the early ‘90s, Revenge of the Nerds both predicted and preceded a culture where the nerds have risen to their current power. Yes, the film is a pretty typical campus comedy, but if the The Social Network taught us anything, it’s that there’s a dark side of college nerds to explore too.

Why streaming? Again, there’s so much about the underbelly of nerd culture that has yet to be delved into by mainstream entertainment. Revenge of the Nerds might be a strange vessel to launch this exploration, but in reboot-heavy 2016, it’s as good an avenue to launch a great dark comedy as any. If Battlestar Galactica can turn a campy sci-fi classic into a thinkpiece on humanity and post-Iraq war politics, whose to say that Revenge of the Nerds can’t also be an unlikely launching pad for lofty ideas.

Current status: Nothing yet.

7) Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Based on the 1960 Roger Corman creature feature and later a musical of the same name, 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors is simply the most wonderful musical about a man-eating plant you’ll ever see. We’ve come to a point now where musicals both on television and in popular culture at large appear to have made a lasting comeback. If you’re going to resurrect one, Little Shop of Horrors is an excellent and too often neglected candidate.

Why streaming? Just put Neil Patrick Harris in it and make this the next FOX or NBC live musical, please.

Current status: Nothing yet.

8) The Running Man (1987)

Reality television has wreaked such havoc on what we deem acceptable entertainment, if anything The Running Man remake is overdue. This 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle based on the Stephen King book finds its lead character forced to compete in a game show that publicly executes criminals for America’s viewing pleasure. It’s a familiar premise, but one that continues to feel satirically relevant in a culture which can’t get enough of bloodthirsty entertainment. Not to mention that with the advent of the internet, the amount of actual violence and death we’re all able to watch on a daily basis has gone up at alarming rates.

Why streaming? King’s novel is an excellent execution of a simple idea, and its simplicity also lends itself to multiple stories told across multiple seasons.

Current status: Nothing yet.

9) Akira (1988)

A seminal and for many indoctrinating piece of anime, Akira is a transcendent work of art that influenced just about everything that came after it. It’s an essential Japanese story, grappling with the effects of the United States’s decision to drop the bomb in WWII. But it’s also pervaded American popular culture like almost no other film animated or otherwise since. Furthermore, it’s a sprawling, epic story that deserves the prestige TV treatment.

Why streaming? Besides the point mentioned above, Akira is also a good fit for a world where premium television need no longer be all about and geared toward white people. Narcos is the most notable example of this, but Amazon also recently greenlit a Korean drama about K-pop, in a move which will hopefully herald the rise of more non-Western and non-English shows on TV.

Current status: A film adaptation has been in development forever, though with plenty of white people attached over the years, let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t pull a Ghost In the Shell on this one.

10) They Live (1988)

For fans of John Carpenter’s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper-starring cult satire, this one probably is going to sound like blasphemy. But as is the case with Trading Places, the politics that inform this film have only become more entrenched in our culture since it came out. They Live is about paranoia. It’s about the idea that behind everything we watch, everything we buy, everything we do, there are unforeseen forces (aliens, being the film’s chosen metaphor) controlling our every move. Heavy stuff, but with a flare for the absurd, They Live is a treat for conspiracy theorists and skeptics alike.

Why streaming? A good conspiracy deserves a good multi-season arc.

Current status: In development as a film, though technically the plan is to get back to the movie’s source material. 

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*First Published: Sep 30, 2016, 6:30 am CDT