This past week was been pretty exciting in terms of trailers and announcements. Trailers dropped last weekend during New York Comic Con for the new incarnation of Power Rangers and for John Wick: Chapter 2 – whose new poster needs to be framed on my living room wall ASAP. Later in the week, we got the final trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, new details on Doctor Strange (and a short 15 minute IMAX preview some of you may have been lucky to catch this past Monday) alongside news from J.K. Rowling herself that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be the first film in a new five film series (!).
And that’s not to mention my own week where I had the opportunity to see a new 4K remastered theatrical print of Martin Scorsese’s highly influential Taxi Driver, I was crushed by a 13-year-old family member who had no idea that last fall’s Point Break was a remake or that Keanu Reeves was not some “hot chick”, and I finally found time to start reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child while sitting in a hospital waiting room.
After all this time, the best they could do was a riff on an idea that was last half decently used in an Ashton Kutcher movie? In the immortal words of Joey Gladstone: Cut. It. Out.
I mention all of these completely unrelated things (including my ludicrous nod to Full House of all things) because they each are heavily steeped in what is referred to as nostalgia. This is a word we hear thrown around a lot, especially when it comes to cinema, and we all have some idea of what it means. We all have fond memories; it should come as absolutely no shock that Hollywood studios have been mining through old franchises and series’ to find the next big thing, but only in recent years have they really begun honing in on things we have become nostalgic for.
Disney would have never invested in Lucasfilm and Star Wars if they did not already know fanboys and fangirls would line up around the block to see new films based on the holy and not quite as holy trilogies. Better yet, they wisely banked on these groups buying up crates of expensive collectibles too.
Warner would have never planned five films in their fledgling Fantastic Beasts franchise if they did not already know Harry Potter fans would eat up each new film and subsequent book. And they needed a genuine reason to postpone filming on Cursed Child until Daniel Radcliffe is at least vaguely the same age as Harry is supposed to be in the play.
Lionsgate knows Power Rangers is still very much a thing after all this time, and knows there’s big money in recreating the story that powered the original series. And somehow they figured it was a great idea to remake Josh Trank’s Chronicle at the same time. (Two references in two weeks? Maybe Trank will resurrect and show up like Beetlejuice if I mention him again in my next column?)
But as great and powerful as nostalgia is, it has gotten to the point of being dangerous and downright reckless. Studios are planning out years and years of films well in advance, and setting sky high expectations for themselves and the fans. So what’s the problem?
I’ll let Linda Hutcheon, a Professor at the University of Toronto, tell you through an excerpt from her essay “Irony, Nostalgia and the Postmodern”:
“[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire…Simultaneously distancing and proximating, nostalgia exiles us from the present as it brings the imagined past near. The simple, pure, ordered, easy, beautiful, or harmonious past is constructed (and then experienced emotionally) in conjunction with the present–which, in turn, is constructed as complicated, contaminated, anarchic, difficult, ugly, and confrontational.”
Now, I know there are some heady ideas in that loaded quote, but it signifies exactly what is wrong with mining nostalgic ideas to help create new ones. When we are watching these new films, we are always going to be thinking of the old films and TV shows that inspired them. These memories are fragile at best and may not actually reflect the whole truth. I remember Power Rangers being awesome as a kid, but I also know now that it was nonsensical crap – something I feel like even the additions of powerhouse talent like Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks cannot fix. These memories are going to feed into how we think about this new content, and will directly influence how we feel about it after seeing it.
And I can already tell you, most of this new material is not going to be anywhere as great as our memories of the old stuff dictates.
So when the studios are announcing new franchises before these new films even come out… I think we can all agree they are jumping the shark. They can plan quietly and internally, but announcing it publicly is a high-stakes gamble. Expectations and reality are two very different things, and as we keep on seeing, audiences are not always willing to latch onto any new franchise or reference to films from their past.
Terminator Genisys was a decent attempt to reinvigorate and transform that franchise, and was meant to be the start of a new trilogy. While it did great in China, the majority of audiences rejected it and now it is doubtful we will see the next two films.
Ghostbusters tried desperately to capture the spirit of its predecessors and was the launching pad for a new franchise of films related not-so much to the all-female cast, but entirely different casts and stories as well. It’s doubtful it will be continuing any further after failing to meet expectations.
And Independence Day: Resurgence…well, we saw how that worked out.
These are just some of the worst recent examples of how studios have banked on nostalgia to fuel future franchise endeavors, only to watch it all perish in flames. Now obviously there is higher risk/reward in mining new franchises from the likes of Star Wars and Harry Potter, but they both face the same uphill battles. Will audiences receive Rogue One the same way they did The Force Awakens? I showed my Mom the new trailer, and she was completely confused about who the characters were and why they had no relation to Rey, Finn or Kylo Ren. And she did not even notice Darth Vader prancing around. Will she be the exception, or will the rest of the non-geek audience feel the same way? Will these same audiences understand the same things about Fantastic Beasts and how those films will only vaguely refer to Harry Potter? Isn’t it a bit too soon to bank on five films without even seeing the reaction to one?
So with all of that in mind, I wonder who the bigger idiots are: the studios for gambling on these properties like they are at a Las Vegas high roller table, or the audiences who will eat up whatever the studios put in front of them. I asked a few weeks ago about where originality and boldness has disappeared to in Hollywood. I got a short answer during TIFF – it went to movies that major audiences will completely ignore and may only notice randomly while surfing Netflix on a rainy day – but I am still looking for the bigger answer. I want to embrace these films, but I fear that nostalgia will compromise their very existence. And since I will not willingly let go of the past, how can I even begin to think I will watch them fairly?
How will anyone?
Recommendation of the Week: The Thing, John Carpenter’s spectacular reimagining from all the way back in 1982. The poster showed up a few times this past summer during Stranger Things and Scream Factory has just dropped an incredible remastered version on Blu-ray that better find itself under my Christmas tree this December. If you have seen it, then you know exactly how terrific it is and why you should be re-watching it. If you have not, then go find a copy immediately, turn off all the lights and prepare for one of the creepiest, scariest, bloodiest action-packed thrill rides of the 1980’s. It may fail every category of the Bechdel Test (mostly because it’s made up of an entirely male cast), but the effects work on this film is simply astounding and I would be hard-pressed to find a better performance from Kurt Russell. And dammit, Wilford Brimley is in it. How often can you actually say anyone recommends you a must-see movie starring Wilford Brimley?!