I’m delighted to welcome back guest writer Ricky Manson, who this week discusses his thoughts on whether Nostalgia is having a negative effect on cinema, and what can be done differently.
I recently finished Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ ahead of the release of the film adaptation. I found it to be extremely entertaining, witty and easy to read, and enjoyed the light social commentary running on the surface. Of course the main selling point, and the reason I decided to read the book in the first place, is the abundance of references to 1980s film, television, music and video games that litter the pages.
Since putting it down and waiting with baited breath for Spielberg’s stab at transitioning it to the big screen, I have found myself pondering over and over; would I still have read this amazing story had it not featured any of the 80s imagery?
Nostalgia sells. There’s no denying it.
When you look at all of the highest grossing movies from the new millennium, the ones that we know everyone sees and talks about, nine out of ten of these films are adapted from something we are already familiar with; comic books, toy lines, video games, even pre-existing franchises have sequels and remakes (I recall the early 2000s as a time that was chock-a-block with remakes). They all feature imagery we remember fondly and know we enjoy, and are therefore guaranteed to pull in a crowd and make a safe amount of money. The same can be said for actors. How many people flocked to see “Mr Popper’s Penguins” because they thought it would present a fascinating case study about animals acclimatising to different environments?
Come on. You saw it because Jim Carrey fronted it.
Even on the small screen there are TV shows that are too heavy handed with nostalgic references, to the point that they replace actual humour or jokes: “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” now rely solely on poking fun at whatever happens to be popular at the time as well as throwing in shot-for-shot “homages” to old movies (I’m looking at YOU “Blue Harvest”), and half of the jokes in any episode of “The Big Bang Theory” are just the characters mentioning something in popular culture (and the other half are how nerds can’t function in social situations).
The main example that jumps out at me from the last five years is the return of Star Wars to the cinemas. Every Star Wars fan is aware of how derivative “The Force Awakens” was, more or less hitting all the same plot points of the original “Star Wars”. But not only has Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm provided us with a continuation of a beloved forty year old story, bringing back Luke Skywalker and chums for us to catch up with like old school friends, but they are also filling in the blanks with anthology spin-offs such as “Rogue One” and the upcoming “Solo”.
Coming out of “Rogue One” in particular I didn’t feel like I had taken anything away from it: Having seen “Star Wars” I knew the outcome of “Rogue One” before I reached it, and the rest of the runtime proved to be nothing more than a showcase of Easter eggs and nods to elements from the original trilogy (“Oh look! The pig nosed guy from Tatooine! Oh look, Grand Moff Tarkin! Oh look, Darth Vader!”). I couldn’t even tell you the names of any of the new characters, who didn’t nearly get the same level of focus. I have no doubt “Solo” will deliver exactly the same result when it releases this year, though I would love to be proven wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not preaching that we shouldn’t be watching these films. I am aware that entertainment is an extremely subjective thing: Any piece of media you derive any kind of enjoyment from means something; even if the film is critically panned (Howard the Duck remains to this day one of my all time favourite films). Also, on a personal level nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we’ve enjoyed something from our childhoods (be it an actor or something we read or saw when we were young) it’s perfectly normal for us to show continued interest in it.
My main concern is simply the same one that has plagued the film industry since the turn of the century; we have become too dependent on the familiar. There are an abundance of high-quality, strikingly beautiful pieces of art coming out in our cinemas every month, but the general public will sooner flock to see something we recognise (regardless of quality) than we will take a chance on something new and unfamiliar. With this stream of conscious I’m pouring out, I am simply putting forward the question whether we are truly encouraging film to be at its best if we continue to play it safe and fork over our cash into the next big blockbuster over the art-house masterpieces.
So what should be done differently?
I’m not the first person to say this, and I probably won’t be the last, but I implore the film industry to take even more risks. Nostalgia is a sure-fire way to get people to see their content, but it can’t be their only ace in the deck. Maintaining a consistent level of quality, creating characters and stories we care about, and providing your audience with something new, is the best thing they can do for the industry. Studios like Pixar and Marvel have mastered this, reaching a point where audiences are comfortable enough with the brand that they can expect varied but consistently good content to come from them; each film a flavour different from the last. Even Fox tried something different with R-rated, mature turns on some of their popular characters like “Logan” and “Deadpool”. Change, when embraced and done right, is good.
In short, as “Ready Player One” has shown me, artists can use the familiar as a starting point to present something new. And if the film adaptation contains the same nuances and care that Cline’s original book did, serving not as a mere list of references but a love letter to them, then that’s good enough for me.
Author: Ricky Manson