Nostalgia is a Greek word that means, “Pain from an old wound”, and although our American culture has shifted the meaning of the word to a more positive connotation, the pervasiveness of the idea in our culture is influenced by darker underpinnings of things that all of us share. We all want to go back, we all want to be kids again, we all want to share a warm hand on a cool fall day and not worry about the election, ISIS, and the inevitable heat-death of the universe.
The easiest way to reflect on a simpler time is to let our entertainment do it for us, and certainly the movie landscape of the past five years has done just that. Year after year, the most popular movies are reboots, remakes or sequels of features that came out years ago. The prodigal son of this particular phenomenon is Star Wars, which has, not unlike its main antagonist, been revived from being a burning corpse on the lips of a volcano and resuscitated into a robotic, sterile, and lifeless version of its former self.
Eight out of ten movies from 2015 were sequels, remakes, reboots or adaptations from another medium. Comic-book movies dominate, but Star Wars, Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, and a Cinderella remake all made the list as well. This shows tremendous risk averseness and lack of creativity by the major studios. Currently, major tentpole blockbuster releases are the big money-makers, and studios can only afford to put out a handful of these a year, and it helps them fund smaller, independent films (usually under a different studio label). But it seems like studios are missing out on something.
Most of the movies that subsequently produced giant franchises (with spin-offs, merchandising opportunities and fan clubs) started out as films with a medium-sized budget. They were fun, creative, and weren’t afraid to take chances, much like the independent films of today, but they weren’t so small-scale that a silver screen treatment didn’t really do them justice. Who cares if the latest Woody Allen movie is playing in your local theater, watching it at home on your 50-inch display is going to be very much the same experience. 90% of the appeal of the original Blade Runner is seeing it on a huge screen, with the fantastic Vangelis soundtrack filling the giant Dolby 7.1 system. Much of that is lost at home.
Films like Star Wars would never be greenlit in the high stakes environment we find ourselves in today. How are we going to find the next big thing if studios aren’t willing to take a risk on a middle budget thing every once in a while? That’s where the big hits come from. A movie with a $200m budget has to be so focused tested to make sure that it isn’t a failure that by the end you’ve cooked anything that was still alive out of the movie. Sure the new Star Wars looked and sounded like Star Wars, but it was like a Ken doll. At first glance, it’s got arms and legs and hair and a face…but it’s missing the essential element.
Beyond the realm of movies though, this obsession with nostalgia and looking toward the past is influencing our culture in a larger way. The 2016 election has come down to the two most unpopular candidates in the history of American politics, and both of them are throwbacks to varying degrees of time. Clinton has the name recognition of her husband, and Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is lifted from an identical Reagan/Bush campaign from the 1980s. I’m absolutely convinced that, while there are many reasons to find Trump (and Hillary for that matter) despicable, there are just as many reasons to understand where a voter may be coming from when voting for him. They are scared at the world changing around them, and their way of life that they’ve known for the better part of seventy years now is eroding. Their defense mechanisms are coming online, and it’s the exact same mechanism that guides us all to the box office when the new Star Wars eventually comes out.
There’s an episode of the Twilight Zone called “Walking Distance”, about a man who gets burned out, and stumbles back into the past, to his childhood hometown. I’d like to end with the closing monologue…
“Martin Sloan, Age 36, Vice-President of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives. Trying to go home again. And also like all men, perhaps there will be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there wil flit a little errant wish that a man might not have to become old, never outgrowing the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant little wish…some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghost that crosses a man’s mind.”