Tom Jolliffe on nostalgia-driven films…
Balance is a wonderful thing. In a recipe, each ingredient plays a part. Sugar is good right? The contentious ingredient has taken the blame for so many modern health issues over the years. Let’s face it, there’s almost no nutritional value, but it’s pleasing. You need sugar to make doughnuts. Doughnuts are nom. Ask Homer Simpson. The point is, even the most ardent of sweet toothed patisserie fiend (me), has a limit to how much sugar should be in a recipe. Just like salt, vinegar, whatever. Too much triggers the taste buds negatively.
This brings us to a humble, often warming element in cinema (particularly mainstream). That is nostalgia. In the most simple terms, you could argue that nostalgia essentially drives a market almost exclusively focused on franchise, reboots, existing IP, and adaptations. It worked once, why not do it again. There’s this strange and almost blinded fascination among studios to perpetually target nostalgia. Film-makers likewise, are tending to indulge their desires to revisit childhood favourites too. It could be a remake or franchise addition to something long established, say Ghostbusters: Afterlife, or it could be another trend within mainstream cinema. It’s the ‘remember this’ gag. Lighter films like comedy and action as an example can constantly make mini-call backs to old TV and films. “Shall we make an A-Team gag?” “Sure, people will like that. ”
I was once given a script note. “Don’t keep referencing other films…” In retrospect it was entirely correct. For one it didn’t fit what I was writing at the time, but additionally, if you throw in reference upon reference you’re essentially throwing in comparison points (especially if you happen to reference an action classic, within an action film). Judd Apatow’s peak era films were renowned for a heavy peppering of retro nostalgic references. Occasionally you can do something that is openly irreverent, where nostalgia becomes a key component of the story for example. This is a good use of what is essentially a creative tool to grab your audience. Edgar Wright has always used homage nicely, with heady doses of nostalgia, but never forgetting to make it more a part of the film’s DNA, and as a brushstroke to add character layers. Hot Fuzz as an example sent up old school action films to good effect, whilst ensuring our characters were engaging and likeable.
Good nostalgia can also be in tapping into relatable era memories. 8-Bit Christmas as a recent example, is to all intents and purposes, an ‘original’ property, though based on a popular, if not pop culture, book. The film plays out like A Christmas Story, with the present story-telling asides of The Princess Bride. What it also did was strike me particularly effectively. Perhaps there’s an argument that nostalgia in its delivery and dosage also differs person to person (my upcoming moans will undoubtedly ring true for some viewers of this film). This particular blend brought to mind so much of my own childhood growing up in the late 80’s/early 90’s. There was everything from the recognisable kids I grew up with (the compulsive liar, the rich kid with the best toys but shitty attitude, etc) as well as recognisable cornerstones of my own childhood (losing the dreaded retainer, the must have, seemingly unattainable toy, the embarrassing clothing items etc). Still, the film had a simple story, engaging characters, seasonal whimsy and just enough individuality to suggest it could become a Christmas viewing staple for many (and can certainly see myself re-watching).
Nostalgia can sometimes be overused however. It can become a crutch or a distractive tool to push your film through its various stages. Ghostbusters: Afterlife always looked like it could go one of two ways. It was either going to balance its nostalgia right, used as a seasoning, or it was going to go overboard, and struggle to find its own place in the cinematic world. Response has been mixed and it would seem for the most part, critics and cinephiles have erred to the side of frustration. A film which begins with earnest, quiet indie aspirations (albeit with a nod to The Goonies, or the recent Stranger Things fascination), not unlike Jason Reitman’s forte, but takes a final act twist into basically recycling much of the original film’s finale. Characters return, recognisable and popular antagonists who would become merchandise gold after the original film proved a hit. This is where nostalgia becomes an issue, when you’re less creating your own legacy, and falling back on something pre-existing. Likewise, when you go nostalgia heavy you have to deliver what fans expect, and one missing ingredient was the self aware, achingly sarcastic humour of the original, which embraced the sheer ridiculousness of these particular characters in this concept. Bill Murray acted as audience conduit in something almost early meta. Afterlife takes a huge inconsistent tonal shift in the final third, having not particularly nailed the familial drama preceding it anyway.
This is my major concern with much of nostalgia cinema however. It’s driven by generational tastes. The main target currently for the nostalgic magnifying glass, is 80’s cinema and pop culture. Something about the decade has at least proven quaintly fascinating to younger folk, but if you’re targeting the people who grew up in the decade, you’re targeting the over 30’s. Ultimately, a film like Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a kids film. There’s an odd dual targeting happening where the studio/production have their sights on the under 20’s, but also the over 30’s (most of whom I feel will succumb to the feeling ‘they’re too old for this shit’). Some films may not have enough about them to attract both adequately. As far as numbers, sure, Afterlife has done well enough, but ultimately feels like it could date very quickly and become disposable/forgettable (a problem about modern mainstream I’ve recently addressed). Is it enough to make new cinema so reliant on material that has a 30 year legacy, and only become a passing distraction until the next passing distraction? In a lot of cases this half-hearted attempt at long term legacy isn’t working. Ghostbusters is so iconic, has picked up so many new fans across the decades, that it has enough current iconography alongside those rose tinted nostalgic memories. As such the box office suggests a good multigenerational grab at the box office (at least for the first week). A lot of lazy reboots, nostalgia heavy mainstream films have likewise fallen completely flat. Terminator’s dire sequels for example, were littered with relentless references to far superior films, or outright retreads. Additionally there’s no real younger audience waiting in the wings to boost the box office, and the old timer fans would rather just watch the classic original two films.
This brings me to Star Wars: The Force Awakens reappraisal. I really enjoyed it first time out. On the big screen it scratched a very big itch. It felt charming and vibrant in a way so reminiscent of the original trilogy, and in a way decidedly missing in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Call it the fan service or cynically used nostalgia, but for me TFA has not dated well. It wasn’t helped by having some of its admittedly hollow character development, completely kicked over the cliff in the contentious follow ups. There were seeds of interest in Rey and more so in Kylo Ren (though in retrospect, so much of this rests on Adam Driver), even the the character John Boyega plays (and the fact the name escapes me is kind of my point). Boyega and Oscar Isaac become ornamental additions from then on, as opposed to being fleshed out. Rey becomes a hollow amalgamation of cyclical traits and arcs that go no-fucking-where. The film rested entirely on repeating the blueprint (almost verbatim) of A New Hope. It rested heavily on a returning Harrison Ford, playing the role like an amiable long lost Uncle who comes for Christmas and brings good presents. Caught up in spectacle, and a lengthy lack of anything marquee level over the Christmas season (TFA felt like the first Xmas ‘event’ film in years), it proved a pleasing escape, but so much of my initial awe was entirely driven by nostalgia. I’d been suckered in, duped. I’d had my pants pulled down, Star Wars boxer shorts on display for the auditorium to see. I fell for the trap. Admiral Ackbar didn’t warn me, ‘It’s a trap!’ Much of the film is dramatically hollow, creatively lazy and disperses into the air like a crisp fart. All instant impact, and at least lacking the skid stain that Star Wars: The Last Jedi left in its own release.
Nostalgia will continue to prove a juggernaut driving force at studio pitch meetings. The Multiverse now becomes a tool allowing producers to stroke fans nostalgic bones. You’re Tobey Maguire’s generation? Good, you’ll like Spider-Man: No Way Home. Andrew Garfield’s generation? Great… You think Michael Keaton is the best Batman (yes…yes I do), well guess what baby! He’s coming back. Ultimately, the problem remains – is this the extent of the creativity that will be displayed? Will the films prove passable and not much more? This is one element contributing to the overriding feeling in auteur filmmakers that comic book films as an example aren’t much beyond the bells and whistles. The CGI set pieces, the fan service, constant tie-ins/link ups, shared universe, multiverse and also the pleasing, dozen box jelly doughnut sugar rush of nostalgia. On a side note too, the continual trend of CGI resurrection for deceased actors is getting kind of creepy and not always with the most honourable of intentions (there are exceptions). It still feels like a trend that should come to a close, just as it’s time to consider just whether mainstream films need a more intense focus on individuality and storytelling. To make mainstream films we might watch again in 5 years, and not rest so heavily on things like nostalgia.
What are your thoughts on nostalgia as a cinematic tool? Is there too much right now? Let us know some good examples and bad, on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.