In the modern era of filmmaking, ushered in when Steven Spielberg accidentally created the summer blockbuster with Jaws, cinema has become increasingly linked with nostalgia. For example, the early films of Spielberg and George Lucas were inspired by their childhood love of 40’s and 50’s adventure serials, yet directors from the next generation (most notably JJ Abrams, whose Super 8 is effectively a love letter Spielberg and whose next film is a sequel to Lucas’ beloved sci-fi classic) tend to go full circle and wear their childhood influences on their sleeve, creating effective pieces that are nostalgic about what was already a piece of nostalgia to begin with. Yet audiences are beginning to reject the idea of nostalgia. This summer alone, the two movies that have been trying to sell audiences nostalgia for the 80’s, Terminator: Genisys and Pixels, have both flopped at the box office, as audiences prove to be indifferent about movies that directly deal with the pop-culture of the past.
Yet the highest grossing film of the year is Jurassic World, itself a sequel to a two decades old franchise, from a director who grew up watching Spielberg movies; instead of being made solely for nostalgia purposes, director Colin Trevorrow has used his love for the films of his childhood to update a flagging franchise. Whereas Arnold Schwarzenegger and Adam Sandler are deemed relics of the past by audiences, Chris Pratt is a modern box office star who is being used to overwrite the franchise history of Jurassic Park, in the same way Spielberg and Lucas overwrote the memories of the adventure serials they were inspired by. Jurassic World isn’t a particularly good film, but it is interesting as it shows audiences are moving towards a new type of nostalgia- one that respectfully pays tribute to the films (and in other cases, lifestyles) of their childhoods, whilst simultaneously overwriting their nostalgic memories to create new ones from the same source material, that future generations will be looking back and feeling nostalgic towards. Any young director in twenty years who claims to be directly inspired by Trevorrow’s films, assuming he becomes an influential household name, is essentially being directly influenced by films from decades before they were born that they may have never seen, creating an endless circle where imitation breeds imitation, with increasing ignorance of the original source.
This isn’t a trend exclusively linked with Jurassic World, as a cursory glance at this year’s blockbuster releases shows a worrying obsession with updating nostalgia. The most blatant example is the retro-futurist stylings of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, which is attempting to reimagine the pre space-race science world as a Disney utopia; Disney are equally trying to reinvent their own back catalogue of princess movies by updating Cinderella with a live-action remake little different to the original, but is more likely to become a new favourite of young audiences by being the newer take. In fact, with an increasing number of remakes and sequels every year, filmmakers are trying to overwrite audience’s love of the originals with new takes, with varying results; a film like Poltergeist 3D won’t replace the original, but that hasn’t stopped it being made, trying to cash in on the duality of nostalgia and increasing ignorance of the source material by younger audiences. You may argue that sequels aren’t necessarily trying to overwrite the memories of the original- but then, why else would every director of a 2015 tentpole from Joss Whedon to Elizabeth Banks declare that their latest effort is “bigger and better” than the last?
Then there are non-sequels or remakes that wear their influences too nakedly on their sleeve. San Andreas overwrites the memory of seventies disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, using Dwayne Johnson’s box office prowess to do so, an example of the Chris Pratt-style of using a modern box office star to renew films from a director’s childhood for young audiences. Then there is Kingsman: The Secret Service, an attempt to update the Roger Moore era of 007 films when espionage wasn’t taken too seriously in cinema, complete with regressive gender politics and a tone-deaf view of the British class system that (rather worryingly) didn’t anger my fellow British audiences in the way it should have done. Both of these movies have firm places in the top ten highest grossing films worldwide in 2015, yet it isn’t just films cashing in on nostalgia for past pop-culture that are successful. Pixar’s new masterpiece Inside Out is directly related to the idea of childhood memories, to the extent that its deep emotional themes are best appreciated by older audiences whose childhoods are a distant memory.
Inside Out isn’t directly influenced by any pop-culture of the past, but the fact it concerns youthful memories more directly than any of the other films listed makes it more of a nostalgia piece in many ways. It has a lot in common with the current preoccupation with nostalgia in independent cinema, where the theme is equally, if not more, prominent. With indie filmmakers relied on to be boundary pushing, the fall back on direct influences and films clearly evocative of childhood sounds initially regressive. Yet more so than the mainstream, where the only updating is a slightly different plot and a modern star leading the action, they are using childhood memories to create distinctively modern tales, that like so much of our modern culture, is heavily indebted to the past.
Setting aside obvious 2014 examples such as Boyhood, nostalgia is being evoked in interesting ways by filmmakers who couldn’t care less about whether they are representing authentic representations of todays society, as long as they are true to their own childhood. Director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has been dubbed by many as a boundary pushing horror- yet despite the present day setting, it has all the hallmarks of a more innocent time, free of everything from modern technology to multiplex cinemas. In Mitchell’s world, kids still hung out and played in the streets without fear (even with an STI demon on the loose), attending repertory cinemas instead of multiplexes; it makes you yearn for a childhood you never had, whilst presenting it as a portrait of today’s youth. In stark contrast, Sundance favourite Dope is a film very distinctively of our time, with characters who worship Donald Glover and have active social media presences- yet they also idolise old school hip-hop and the outdated fashions of the early nineties. Dope is a film that could only be made in the internet age, as new generations are discovering the culture of previous generations online, reappropriating it as their own. In fact, there are few differences between the outlooks of the directors of both films, despite an initial lack of parallels- a filmmaker like David Robert Mitchell yearns for his childhood and sets his nostalgic memories in the present day, whilst the characters in Dope yearn for a childhood that they didn’t have, opting instead to bring back fashion and culture they weren’t alive at the time to feel nostalgic for. Both films are representative of the changing face of nostalgia, as both films evoke the memories of older audiences, yet are populated by young characters- meaning that both are films that younger generations will be equally nostalgic for too, despite not fully resembling modern culture or society.
Yet in the same way we look back at a John Hughes movie and instantly can connect it with the 80’s, the current wave of nostalgia means that for the first time in filmmaking, future generations may find modern cinema too indistinct to pinpoint the era of release. It’s not that nostalgia for films of the past can’t help create movies distinctively of their time- after all, Quentin Tarantino’s love of 60’s new wave and 70’s exploitation was channeled into films distinctively of the 90’s. The problem is that as this era of modern cinema rushes to update the past, it still sees it as a burden to overcome; last year’s best picture nominees were either period pieces, biopics or films distinctively concerned with memory (Whiplash’s protagonist was obsessive of the jazz drumming of the past and was partially based on its director’s own experiences in music college, whereas Birdman’s protagonist was obsessive over his previous Hollywood stardom). There is no reason for this to change, as a quick glance at the highest grossing films of 2015 shows only two films synonymous with our modern era; the unashamedly sex-positive Fifty Shades of Grey, which coincides with Western audiences increasingly opening up about sexuality, as well as Dreamworks’ Home, which feels distinctively 2015 due to having an EDM-tinged score. Neither film will be looked upon fondly by future generations, if remembered at all; instead, the biggest and best films made are about nostalgia and childhood.
As audiences are rejecting films that are bluntly cashing in on these themes, the wave of “new nostalgia” (films that exist solely because of nostalgia from filmmakers, without becoming overtly linked to the past to alienate young audiences) continue to get produced and continue to become successful. If future film historians try to determine the era of Hollywood filmmaking synonymous with 2015 and the decade at large, they will find it hard to argue against anything bigger happening than the new nostalgia, releasing multiple updated versions of childhood memories to cinemas every week. So, if you want to check out any new movies at the cinema this weekend, why not check out 60’s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E., 90’s throwback Straight Outta Compton, or Mistress America, directly inspired by the screwball comedies of the Hays Code era, modernised to fit in with the hipster generation?
– Alistair Ryder