13 July 2015

Screw Love, Nostalgia's the Drug

I’ve not always been hyper-supportive of the superhero revolution spurred on by the continued success of Marvel Studios. Whether it’s Iron Man in 2008, The Avengers in 2012 or last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy the studio have been at the forefront of almost a decade of summers, saturating the market with their brand of playful yet familiar blockbusters. This Friday they’ll unleash Ant Man on the global market and the word is, well, they’ve done it again. Good fun, nothing new, enjoy your two hours and don’t forget to buy a soda going in. I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t qualify that position with any genuine authority, but having sat through the entirety of Marvel’s back catalogue; such a consensus sounds believable. Ant Man will doubtlessly play well into August, make its production budget back several times over and arrive on Blu-Ray just in time to act as a prime stocking filler. That’s the way Marvel does things, and there’s no (at least fiscal) reason for them to alter it now.

Except this year, Marvel isn’t the summer’s hottest brand. Avengers: Age of Ultron performed in sync with expectation, but has now been comfortably overridden by Universal’s Jurassic World as the season’s mac-daddy. I recently had a conversation with a woman, in her 30s, who has a young son. I asked her why she’d taken him to see Jurassic World not once, but twice…

Her answer?

Witnessing her son gorge out on scaly, prehistoric eye-candy reminded her of seeing the original picture for the first time in 1993. The word she used? Nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the selling point of 2015. No doubt about it. It’s not Jurassic World that’s jeopardized Marvel’s stock, it is nostalgia. The whole planet is in an insane rush to re-experience their youth, and we should probably be more concerned about that than we currently are.

Let me be quite clear. I thoroughly enjoyed Jurassic World for the same reason as the woman in question. Objectively it’s a problematic movie. I’m a firm believer that people who pick logic holes in blockbusters rank pretty low on any intellectual food chain, but some of what Colin Trevorrow’s dinosaur thriller asks you to swallow is beyond outlandish. The entire inciting incident, in which a carnivorous hybrid breaks out of containment, is entirely predicated on the most ridiculous chain of cause and effect you’ll see on screen this year. A film definitely ranks as imperfect when its very storytelling motor can be called so effortlessly into question. And yet, I had a blast. From the start, right through to its breathtakingly silly finish. I’m not alone either.  To date Jurassic World has cleared $1.4 Billion worldwide, and will probably complete its run as one of the most successful, non-James Cameron directed movies of all time. People must be returning for rounds two and three with the beasties, and why not? It makes them feel good.

Or does it?

Because if it is nostalgia that’s driving the movie’s colossal presence, I’m not sure we should be indulging quite so ardently. Nostalgia used to be seen as a sort of illness, a longing for a better time, when things were, you know, how they were meant to be. It makes the future feel hopeless in comparison to an unblemished bygone era (and if Jurassic World is the embodiment of that era, unblemished is not the word), and stifles progress. A little nostalgia is no bad thing, it can be quite charming, and in the right moment (such as the recent passing of James Horner) even appropriate.  But as a means for driving the centre-pieces of mainstream, commercial culture, nostalgia is a radical stumbling block. How can we expect to define and create new experiences, when we’re slavishly fixated on reliving touchstones from ’77, ’93 and even in some cases (if you’re lucky enough to consider it part of your youth) ’03.  It won’t work.

Other films playing on that same sentiment this summer include the dismal Terminator Genisys (the worst in a storied franchise that like its star, has allowed nostalgia to become its ultimate foe) and Warner’s upcoming (and amusingly promoted) reboot of the Vacation franchise. Whether Vacation is any good is another matter (and I really hope it is), but there’s no doubt that in reanimating a brand so specifically entwined with the experience of growing-up in the 80s/90s, that the studio are fully committed to plugging the nostalgia angle. The theatrical trailer spends more time reliving scenes from the original series than it does emphasising some of the reboot’s more contemporary assets, including the presence of Charlie Day (genuine reason for excitement in any capacity) or even a schlong-tastic cameo from Chris Hemsworth (okay, the film-makers really celebrate Thor's dick). They believe you’ll want to watch Vacation because it’s symbolic of a better time, of a better cinematic experience. The final gag even relies on your awareness of a joke from a previous entry, a joke designed to scream “We’re doing it again, isn’t that glorious!”

A new (not fresh) Star Wars saga commences at the year’s end, and even the most conservative estimations have it making a credible stab at Avatar’s 6-year streak as the most commercially successful movie of all time.  I don’t know that’ll do that (breaking the $2 billion mark in and of itself seems a stretch), but I have no doubt Jedis will perform as they always have,  which is to say exceptionally well. And that’s regardless of quality.

So, what’s truly getting movie-goers into auditoriums come December?

I don’t think there are many of us who feel culturally a new Star Wars adventure is necessary, but most of us will journey to absorb the spectacle regardless. Because maybe, just maybe, it’ll all make us feel 8-years old again. We’ll exist in a mind-set where our juvenile metabolisms eradicate the need to be conscious of the calories in popcorn, in which a theme tune can rouse genuine ecstasy in the fibre of one’s being and where there is no Harrison Ford, just Han and Chewie. I imagine it’ll be a ton of fun.

But what’s the cost?

What feature won’t be seen as a consequence, just because it failed to incite some unspeakable fluffiness in your stomach? Will cinema remain rooted in a skillful regurgitation of a style that hasn’t felt dynamic since the 90s? And will we choose to consume it again and again, reminding ourselves, that film, just like everything else, isn’t what is used to be.

I don’t know. Nor do I pretend to. But as Jurassic World continues to chew through the globe’s wallets like a T-rex coming off a diet, you’ve really gotta wonder.


Ant Man, anyone?

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2015


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