2015 – The Year of Cinematic Nostalgia
You may have already guessed from that title, but in this article I’m going to look back on 2015 as the year that Hollywood really doubled-down on nostalgia in its tent-pole movies. It is no secret that the cinematic trend for sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots has been growing for the at least the last twenty years, especially when you look at the blockbuster end of the market. The lure of a well-loved title or Intellectual Property (IP) has always been a good way of trying to get audiences through the door, for example, the history of cinema is littered with adaptations of successful books. Now though we seem to have reached a point where Hollywood has realised that it is not just names and IPs that sell tickets, but also nostalgia for the feelings and experiences that we went through the first time we went to see the classic movies that now make up the foundation of modern pop-culture. More than ever before in 2015 we saw nostalgia become the corner stone of both blockbuster films and the marketing campaigns that flooded the airwaves and billboards trying to sell them to us. I am going to use three of the year’s most nostalgia-based films to discuss this trend to see if it is just a marketing strategy or actually something that can make movies better.
The first film that I’d like to discuss is the awfully named Terminator: Genisys. Odd spelling aside this was a film that staked its claim on the market entirely on the promise of revisiting scenes from the 1984 classic with a modern twist. It also marked the physical return of this franchise’s biggest box office draw, Arnold Schwarzenegger. All the trailers made absolutely sure that they showed off as many shots of the aging Austrian Oak, especially when he was busy riffing on the original film’s lines. For a man who is not exactly known for subtlety and mostly made his career off repeating three words, “I’ll be back”, and an imposing physical presence I got the feeling that even Schwarzenegger was probably wincing somewhere with the blatantness of the marketing campaign that accompanied this film into cinemas. Potential audiences were positively pounded with the fact that this movie was revisiting classic scenes from the original film and that was a very good thing. They did show off some of the film’s more expensive action scenes along the way, not to mention the bizarre decision to spoil the movie’s only major plot twist mid-trailer, but overall the marketing was designed to do one thing; hammer home that this was a jaunt down Terminator memory lane. Being a major fan of the first two films myself I was initially quite enticed by the idea of watching Arnie go back to the movie that really launched his career, but after what seemed like months of consistently seeing the same scenes played over and over I was feeling quite tired of the film before I even saw it. When I finally did I quickly came to realise why all the advertising had been so strident about the nostalgia this film was meant to be invoking; it wasn’t a very good movie. Although the scenes that took place back in the “original” were quite good fun and did a great job of recreating the feel of that film, they lasted for all of about five minutes and then the rest of the run time was a mess of poorly executed ideas mixed in with as many references to the previous movies as possible, with the occasional cryptic question thrown in to try and get you excited for the proposed sequels. At this point said sequels appear to be on hold as, even with a box office taking of roughly $440 million, the film did not manage to break even. Overall it appears as though nostalgia alone was not enough to save this film from its lack of plot-cohesion and general quality.
Next we come to what was 2015’s second biggest movie, Jurassic World. This film was marketed on one premise; the park is open! As I have said in my review, that is exactly what fans of the series had been waiting for since the first Jurassic Park hit screens back in 1993, and as such it was an immensely clever idea to play with in order to rejuvenate the series. You only have to look at the box office takings of $1.7 billion, which have currently put it as the third biggest grossing movie in history, to see that it was an idea that worked. The nostalgia for the incredibly well-loved original film that the trailers evoked, combined with the lure of more dinosaurs on screen (it appears that, just like me, everyone loves dinosaurs!) was enough to convince virtually everyone to get into the cinema to watch this film. Once there the ride through Jurassic World was a thoroughly enjoyable one, filled with big things with teeth chasing tourists and fighting soldiers. When I reviewed it, I described it as “a film which suffers deeply from not knowing exactly what sort of story it wants to be”, and I feel that even more strongly now, but not for exactly the same reasons. Back then I thought that it was the convoluted and unfocussed script that was the main problem, now I find myself wondering if it was the constant struggle to pack more nostalgia into the film that hamstrung it? The movie is so over the top and exuberant in its celebration of the fact that it is the descendant of the classic original, packing in references to it at a truly breathless pace, that it feels a bit like an excited puppy bounding around and making a mess of everything, but you can’t bring yourself to shout at it because it is clearly having such a whale of a time doing it. Obviously the seat of the pants ride through Jurassic World and the harking back to Jurassic Parks past was enough to make virtually “all the money”, but I suspect that once that initial excitement and nostalgia is no longer part of the equation the film will not age as well as its beloved predecessor.
The last film on my list is now likely to be the biggest of 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the time of writing it has just passed the $1.7 billion mark worldwide, and it still has yet to open in China, and shows no sign of stopping. No other movie before this, except perhaps The Phantom Menace before we knew the horrors that lay within, has had such a grand and celebrated build up. Star Wars, it could be argued, is the original touchstone of pop-culture. True, Jaws was the first blockbuster, but for the sheer size of legacy and consistent influence on everything that has happened since I do not think you can beat Lucas’ space-fantasy. As soon as they announced the return of the original cast this film was one that could have relaxed completely and ridden the tide of nostalgia all the way to the bank. Instead, JJ Abrams, Michael Arnt and Lawrence Kasdan fine tuned the script to the point that, although references to Star Wars past are positively layered throughout it, anyone could walk in and watch this movie and have a good time doing it. For those of us who are life-long fans the nostalgia it invokes is glorious, but not overpowering. For everyone else it looks and feels like a Star Wars movie, but has enough excitement and joy of its own to make them feel at home without knowing the whole story so far. This is a film that is very familiar to the fans, but also manages to not only stand on its own two feet as a story, but also set up the excitement for further films to follow. I suspect it is also one that will have many people who before now have turned their noses up at the franchise before now reaching for the Blu-Rays of the earlier films to see what all the fuss is about.
So we have a year that was filled with examples of films that used nostalgia to sell tickets. Outside of the three I’ve written about there were, among others, Spectre, The Man From Uncle, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Mad Max: Fury Road, Cinderella, the list goes on. But the question remains; is nostalgia a good tool for film makers to exploit? We have seen how if it is not balanced out with a strong story it can overwhelm a promising film, as it did with Jurassic World. I still believe that this movie would have been utterly fantastic if they had managed to go once more over the script and focussed in on the story they were actually trying to tell rather than how many references they could fit into the run time. We also saw how nostalgia alone does not a good film make with the car crash that was Terminator: Genisys. That is a perfect example of what happens when someone makes a movie just because they have the rights to the franchise, rather than having a good story to tell. And finally we saw how when used correctly nostalgia can add punch to a film that was already a good one in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nostalgia it seems is a powerful tool, but one that needs to be wielded subtly, because with great nostalgia comes great responsibility.