Why Cinema’s Nostalgic Obsession With Itself Is Boring

1280 800 Joseph Coupe

With the first photographs emerging from Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, the buzz surrounding the live action remake of the 1940s classic is growing.

Striving to recapture the distinguished magic of it’s progenitor, the return of the proper-sounding Nanny, continues the trend fully realised by Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book and Alice Through The Looking Glass. Critical acclaim and runaway success at the box office has made clear space in Hollywood for old-is-new nostalgia; making Disney Studios’ decision to develop a further eight live action remakes one of basic logic. Yet, while the films were, inherently, as enjoyable as their originals, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed by the nostalgia culture they helplessly pined at and concerned as to the creative future of a major player in the cinematic landscape.

Take 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, despite being a massively entertaining film, – understandably – seemed to rely on a tried and tested formula, holding back on the groundbreaking innovation which fans are used to. The end result was a blockbuster nostalgia trip which was a charming reintroduction to the Star Wars universe, but ultimately undermined by it embodying a CGI-reliant Groundhog Day.

Or take T2, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, which is a film explicitly about nostalgia.

Having heard mostly positive things, I expected it to be a vehicle for the problems of modern man as was portrayed in the trailer; ‘choose life, choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.’ As the first film was an exploration of Thatcherite underclass culture, I expected the sequel to similarly be an exploration into the absurdity of current equivalents, but was critically disappointed.

Sick Boy presents his philosophy of life in the original “you’ve got it then you lose it”. And to develop a sequel on the back of such a perspective is not only hypocritical, but is hypocritical of the explicit pessimism of your own characters. Thus, the development of a sequel is an intense disservice to the original. The film acknowledges the problems of, but completely succumbs to, nostalgia in all respects; its characters, its creators and itself.

This nostalgia, detached from realisation, production or consideration, is not inherently bad or offensive. Some of the greatest directors and producers are artistic pioneers who push the boundaries of cinema or TV. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson or Gaspar Noe for instance, all push their work to be uniquely and distinctly original and their own. But a problem comes when the nostalgic mind tampers with the innovative.

Netflix are one of the biggest emerging names in TV and film production, with their originals gaining refreshing critical acclaim. Yet, the subscription service is somewhat reliant on their revival of past successes (see, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Fuller House, Gilmore Girls; or their current focus on re-making documentary films like Dear White People). However, considering their means and conglomerate budget, they could be doing considerably more to offer a platform to emerging artists of the innovative kind, rather than rehashing our old favourites. And incidentally, no, Colleen Ballinger’s Haters Back Off does not count. Stranger Things is the biggest thing to come from Netflix Studios yet, and sure, it’s an enjoyable ride, but essentially it’s an amalgamation of our generations most sentimental sci-fi flicks. There is a time, place and calling for such a product, but there is something frustrating about artists finding greater comfort in well-made homage than art.

Historically, the idea of ‘nostalgia’ has been apparent during social upheavals or times of rapid advancement. The Romantic era of the 19th century was in retaliation/response to the Industrial revolution and the movement of arts and crafts was more than likely a response to mass production. As a society we are currently undergoing a similar rapid advancement, albeit one which is more technological than industrial, promoting a sense of “artistic nostalgia” which, paired with the growing economic inequality and political instability of both the UK and U.S.A., may mean that people are more inclined towards nostalgia.

Yes – nostalgia sells, but this lack of ambition in film making brings about another issue, as it seems the marketability of a film is seen as second to the quality. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has raked in just shy of $1billion domestically thus far and with Beauty and the Beast delivering an estimated $500million since its release, it’s clear that films which tap into the sentimentality of the our childhoods make a huge profit. John Carpenter, director of The Fog and Halloween, said in a 2016 interview  that “remakes in general are popular now because of the amount of money a company has to spend to get people into the theatres, and one way to cut through the clutter of advertising out there is to come up with a title that they’ve heard of.

Disney, the main perpetrators of this nostalgia farming, have had a fair few box office bombs in recent years – originals The Lone Ranger, Mars Needs Moms and John Carter to name a few. Remakes and sequels are a safe bet, and following the subpar quality of their recent original films, I kinda get it. But safe bets aren’t the best approach to excite audiences time and time again.

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