Nostalgia Glasses: How the current trend of nostalgia fuelled film-making is overtaking cinema and ruining franchises.

December 19, 2019

 

What is nostalgia? In dictionary terms, at least, it's identifiable as an affectionate feeling one has for the past. It's a personal, almost emotional thing, and is pretty subjective, since you can only feel nostalgia, really, for something you yourself have experienced. I have no great nostalgia for the sixties, for example, because I wasn't there. I have no great nostalgia for the nineties, for example, because I was.

 

But recently nostalgia has begun to mean something else. At least, we're supposed to think it means something else. In reality nostalgia is nothing more than an abstract concept we project onto things, regardless of whether they're trying to provoke that emotive response of not. But in the world of the modern cinematic landscape, nostalgia has become a weaponized tool within the big studios' toolbox. Almost every major movie released in the last... I'll go out on a limb and say eight years, has been designed to, above all else, appease to a certain subsection of the movie going public's nostalgia.

 

Netflix's Stranger Things is a prime example, drawing on tropes and aesthetics, and even actors that people recognise as wholly "80s" in an effort to draw people in to what is, in all honestly, a relatively by the numbers, although admittedly fun, homage. But we see it present in other, far less obvious places. We see nostalgia used to sell entire films. Take the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It, which drew not just on nostalgia for the mini-series starring Tim Curry, deliberately drawing parallels between the two with its storm drain opening sequence, but also for the 80s nostalgia made popular by the aforementioned Netflix show, and for Stephen King himself.

 

Doctor Sleep, another King adaptation, would take a similar approach. Purposefully reworking the finale of that book to enable the film to fit into a nostalgic view of Stanley Kubrick's Jack Nicholson starring classic, The Shining.

 

To be clear, nostalgia isn't always a bad thing when used this way. In fact there are plenty of examples of it working excellently. Doctor Sleep pulls off its blend of new and old with success for the most part, while films like Skyfall, the third entry into Daniel Craig's tenure as James Bond, utilised callbacks and a nostalgia tinged want for that iconic car in a way that was enjoyable, but also worked in tandem with the themes and ideas present in the story.

 

And there are plenty of other examples of nostalgia being used by studios in this way to varying degrees of success. Blade Runner 2049, while boring as hell, built on the nostalgia people have for the original in a way that fed into the film nicely, while things like the TV series Castle Rock use nostalgia to great effect when constructing its plot lines and visual style.

 

My favourite series of 2019 was probably Netflix's Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and that whole series wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the sense of nostalgic love people have for Jim Henson's original classic.

 

But, there's a downside to all this, as I like to call it, nostalgia-bait, and in recent years it has started to become more and more prominent, and more and more of a problem.

 

See, while it can be fun when used well, nostalgia in this context also seems to encourage the worst of movie fandom. It encourages an almost blind devotion to an existing property, or a period of time, or a style, and it means that the discourse around these things can become toxic really quick. As if there is no room for critical analysis, or no room for change. Anyone who doesn't fall within the party line, declaring love for the property in question, becomes target for harassment, and any hint of change, or move away from what fuels that sense of nostalgia, is also met with hostility.

 

We saw it happen with Sony and their 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters. Of course, we all know that there was a rather vocal minority of sexist man-babies crying over that movie for no reason other than that the central four had boobs, but there was also another section of the fandom that turned against that film solely because it failed to provide the, as they deemed it, appropriate fix of nostalgia.

 

I'm not saying Ghostbusters 2016 was a good movie, it wasn't. It was an unfunny, drawn out, CGI stuffed mess. But it also failed to meet fan expectations, promising to deliver on the nostalgia people have for the first two movies with its marketing campaign, and then failing to do so with the film proper. The nods are there, but it's pretty much, for the most part, its own thing. And people didn't like that.

 

In fact, people didn't like that so much that there was outrage, and Sony, a major Hollywood studio, responded by doubling down on the nostalgia. They appeased these outraged fans, opting to reboot the franchise again, this time with a film that directly follows on from the first two, and, based entirely on what I've seen of the marketing material, is built around a nostalgic love for that period of time, and for those characters.

 

Whether or not that will payoff in the long run remains to be seen. But there's something slightly insidious, I think, about the idea of a major Hollywood studio bowing down to the pressure of a small group of vocal fans who just want to be fed the same things over and over again. I mean, my daughter, who is eight, really likes the 2016 Ghostbusters. She's not wrong for liking it, she's just the target audience. Is she not allowed to have that movie because it didn't please middle-aged fanboys?

 

And nostalgia undercutting and straight up spoiling a franchise isn't a Ghostbusters specific problem. Skyfall used its nostalgia well, and people responded, so the studio behind Bond doubled down on their own brand of callbacks for its sequel, Spectre. And looks where that got us. What began life as a genuinely exciting, modern take on 007 with Casino Royale, has now descended into over-the-top, nonsensical plotting, and unnecessary, meaningless reveals where someone has a name certain people in the audience might recognise but no one in the film would.

 

There was a similar sort of problem with J J Abrams' 2013 sequel to his own Star Trek reboot, Star Trek into Darkness. The plot was forced into a hole whereby it contrived situations that were nothing more than excuses to appease fans.

 

"Look, guys! It's Kahn! Look, guys! It's a sacrifice, but this time it's Kirk, not Spok! Aren't we clever?"

 

And this will forever be a disappointment because, while I'm not the biggest fan of his 2009 Star Trek reboot, the most interesting thing that movie did was separate itself from the existing timeline, thus releasing itself from the burden of needing to follow what came before. It could have been something new and original, but instead it became nostalgic pandering.

 

All of which brings us to Star Wars.

 

Star Wars, the grand jewel of bullshit nostalgia for toxic fanboys. The Force Awakens, when it was released in 2015, may have been what people felt like they needed from a Star Wars movie, but ultimately it is just the movie equivalent of a covers album. A series of greatest hits, strung together with a recognisable plot, and not much to offer. A "previously on" that allows for the introduction of new characters, but is nothing more than excuse for fans to see the things they love on the big screen once more. Nostalgia in a can.

 

By the time we got to 2017's The Last Jedi, any straying from that path was doomed to fail from the off. People had been told, by Abrams' fan-appeasing trip down nostalgia road, that this was going to be safe, boring, and more or less exactly what you'd expect. And while The Last Jedi does admittedly have a few dumb moments (Leia doing her best Mary Poppins, for example), for the most part it dares to do something a little different.

 

It expands the universe beyond that small-minded, inward looking approach of The Force Awakens. It shows us new worlds. Introduces new ideas. And, perhaps most importantly, it takes us to a new place in terms of plot. It toys with themes. It tries to make a point about the nostalgia that plagues cinema as a whole. And it was maligned as a result. It didn't mean expectations because the expectation was set to be more of the same. The Last Jedi, instead, was something different.

 

And now, with the release of The Rise of Skywalker, we find Disney playing the game Sony played with Ghostbusters. Here they are, appeasing the fanboys above telling a coherent story. Rise of Skywalker is a bad movie, but people will love it, because it has a bunch of stuff they recognise, does a bunch of things they expected, plays out in its final third like an exact rerun of Return of the Jedi, and ultimately is just... well, boringly predictable.

 

I fear this path is one that will only further the lack of creativity and lack of originality coming out of the Hollywood studio system. We've reached a point now where films are actively going out of their way, like Rise of Skywalker, to rewrite any moment vocal fanboys didn't like. There are big swathes of this years Star Wars release that are designed for the sole purpose of undoing what The Last Jedi did, because the fans didn't like it. I don't like that.

 

Ultimately, The Rise of Skywalker winds up sending a bad message through the whole of this new trilogy. If The Last Jedi taught us that everyone is human, idolising people is bad, and that everyone is capable of great things no matter who they are, The Ride of Skywalker teaches us that actually, only a select few are special, bad deeds are forgiven in exchange for being seen with popular icons, and if you kick up enough of a fuss you'r behaviour will be rewarded.

 

I dunno... Maybe I'm suffering from my own brand of nostalgia, where I'm nostalgic for a time when every mainstream release wasn't designed to remind us of some other piece of pop-culture.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018