Serious corner: Why nostalgia is stunting Hollywood's growth


11th June 2013

Yeah, this is a long one. If you want a TL;DR, then I guess I can sum up this article by saying 'Wah wah waah'. Also spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3.

Nostalgia! We love it. It reminds us of a time we weren't so close to dying; it takes us back to when everything was brilliant and not rubbish like it is now. Space hoppers! Spangles lollies! Bushy female pubic hair! Nostalgia is an entire industry in itself: a constantly-churning affection engine, forever regurgitating pop culture like some mad Human Centipede of entertainment. Though it might seem harmless to indulge in a little rose-tinted past-gazing, this constant need to be coddled by the familiar is stunting the growth of the blockbuster industry. Almost every high profile movie released nowadays is based on, or adapted from, an existing – and usually beloved – property of the past. In ten years time, there's not even going to be anything to be nostalgic about – we're all going to be going gooey-eyed over that time we went gooey-eyed over the 80s.

What this is not is an editorial on how Hollywood lacks originality. There are exceptional filmmakers making miracle movies every week – firebrand directors who not only work within the system but with the counterculture who routinely make mini-masterpieces. As a film fan, I am largely satisfied with the quality and quantity of film available to me: my 'must-watch' list only gets longer the more methods of delivery (Netflix, Mubi, Curzon on demand etc) are made available to me. If you think Hollywood lacks originality, I would suggest it was probably never the right place to go looking for it in the first place.

This post is also not an excuse for me to bemoan sequels. My thoughts on sequels can be summed up thusly: people like sequels. There really isn't much more to the discussion than that. By and large the law of diminishing returns applies to all sequels and remakes, but that's okay, because until studios begin deleting the originals and coming round your house to personally snap your DVDs in half, no one is doing you a real disservice.

It's going to be the new big thing after inflated ticket prices for 3D.

No, my problem is one that exists within the not-especially hallowed grounds of franchise cinema, and the lack of ambition within. It's not the done thing to train a critical eye on blockbusters (you'll almost always end up with a shiner) but it's a billion-dollar industry that seems to reject any real growth or chance to mature. Maybe I expect more from my blockbusters than most (the phrase "leave your brain at the door" is particularly patronising) but I am troubled by the lack of risk-taking I see in today's most popular franchises. All I'm asking for is a blockbuster with the balls to try a new spin. All I get are superhero movies, TV adaptations and sci-fis that hug their existing source material like comfort blankets, terrified they won't get their trilogy if they strike out trying something new.

My point is this: would it really be such a terrible crime to create new, exciting mythology for these franchises? Do screenwriters and producers really fear the wrath of internet fanboys so much they're not willing to roll the dice and tread even a few steps of new ground? The fear of failure is what stifles true creativity, the unsanctioned break from the norm – why try X when Y has been proven to work? – but it'd benefit everyone to create new characters in established franchises. If it works, you get your sequel, your spin-off, your toy range – a NEW property to milk to death.

To be clear, I don't have a problem with studios basing movies on existing properties per se. It's obvious why it's done: brand recognition. If painfully clichéd punter Steven P Everyman decides he's going to the cinema for his night's entertainment (alternate options: sinking a few 'beers' with the 'lads'; jostling the 'lads' for a home 'sesh' on the 'Xbox') and he's going to pay £12 for the privilege, then chances are he's going to opt for the movie with the recognisable title over the obscure-sounding film he can't even pronounce. Maybe he knows it from a TV show, or a book, or a board game, or a bag of crisps. It's okay, Steven P Everyman. You just want to be entertained. No one is judging you here. (Except we definitely are, we're just pretending we're not).

Let's reel off some examples. Sci-fi is in rude health right now, safe in the hands of the likes of Alfonso Cuaron, Neill Blomkamp and Rian Johnson. These directors bless us with unique films like Children Of Men, District 9 and Looper – single-serving movies that are unique and wonderful. But in the realms of franchise cinema, the two largest science-fiction series have become stale, bordering on mouldy. Given their vast popularity with audiences the world over, how is is that both Star Trek and Star Wars have come to feel so directionless?

Surely only a matter of time.

JJ Abrams pulled off one of the all-time greatest reboots with Star Trek. This was a property beloved not just by millions of people, but millions of nerds – in other words, the kind of fan base that would throw a hissy fit and blog blue bloody murder if they felt Abrams' reboot had slightest them. The law of Hollywood necessitated Star Trek's resurrection: it was a dormant franchise but one with huge potential in the right hands. Not only was it a series that already had established canon, but it had bona fide cultural and cinematic icons at its core. Making Star Trek young and sexy – and, more importantly, profitable once more – was a no-brainer, but JJ Abrams was cautious about running before he could warp.

Abrams' Star Trek was a huge success: not only did it appease the hardcore faithful, it opened the franchise up to new fans too. Make no mistake – this was not an easy balancing act. The movie had its flaws (Eric Bana being most of them) but the genius of new Star Trek was in the script by Abrams and Damon Lindelof – a respectful homage to the Trek canon of old which, over the course of two hours and twentysomething minutes managed to honour the existing Trek timelines while simultaneously forging its own path through the universe. Thanks to that old escape route of time-travel and alternate timelines, Abrams gave a nod and a wink to the Kirk and Spock of old, but crucially, made a bold statement: Star Trek is dead, long live Star Trek.

And then came Star Trek Into Darkness, which undid all of Abrams' hard work. The director spent the entire running time of his first movie apologetically backing out of the existing Star Trek chronology, only to nosedive right back into familiar territory for the sequel. Not only does borrowing liberally from The Wrath Of Khan muddy the already cloudy Trek timelines, it's a depressingly predictable regression to the comfort blanket of existing canon. A franchise whose sole purpose is to seek out new forms of life and to boldly go where no man has gone before has pulled an about-turn before it even got to the end of the street.

Star Trek is but one example of how studios are playing it safe with their tentpole franchises, but it is perhaps the worst offender in recent years – possibly because Kirk's closing credos rang so hollow so quickly. Attention now will turn to that other great sci-fi fantasy series, Star Wars, as JJ Abrams attempts to pull a similar trick: kicking another sleeping giant back to life. If possible, Star Wars fans will be even more difficult to appease than Star Trek fans, which raises a red flag: if JJ Abrams was so reluctant to break new ground with Into Darkness, how far will he retreat into familiarity for Episode VII?

Pre-production is obviously still in the early stages, but Kathleen Kennedy has gone on record as saying that Episode VII will "honour the origins" of Star Wars. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and grumpy git Harrison Ford are all on the verge of signing deals to reprise their iconic roles (depending on who you believe). All signs point to a chapter that's not so much a new hope than it is old rope.

Judging by the number of nods and callbacks to Star Treks of old in Into Darkness, not to mention the fact that Abrams wrote and shot an entire film, Super 8, as an homage to bum-chum Steven Spielberg's adventures of the early 80s, is it unreasonable to suggest that a JJ Abrams Star Wars movie will spend more time slavishly honouring its origins than it will actually telling a new and original story? It's early days, as I said, but fan clamour seems to support this retro approach, and Star Wars has more than enough classic characters and iconography to warrant reprisal. Besides, the last time someone created a new central character for the Star Wars universe, they created Jar Jar Binks. No one wants to be the guy who Binks their franchise.

The more you realise how prevalent this regurgitation of pop culture is, the more you see it. It's there in X-Men: Days Of Future Past: a sequel to a prequel that's moving Heaven and Earth to bend time back in on itself to re-introduce old faces. It's there in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: a sequel to a reboot that's a raid on the comic-book archive. It's there in Man Of Steel: another origin story for a character whose origins are approximately as well known as Jesus Christ. It's there in Prometheus: an Alien prequel that isn't an Alien prequel... but wait, come back, it isn't a new IP either!

All of these big franchise movies, all written by the usual suspects (Simon Kinberg, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci), all featuring tried-and-tested heroes and villains and plotlines and situations. There's hardly a new face among them, nor a story you couldn't spoil for yourself by flicking through a comic. How much of this approach is due reverence, how much is caution and how much is laziness? I hope the former, I fear the latter.

We neverrr saww himmm commminggg.

Iron Man 3 is an encouraging example to the contrary. Yes, it draws predominantly from the comic-books, particularly Warren Ellis' Extremis run. But the reveal of The Mandarin as Just Some Actor Guy is exactly the kind of tweak I'm talking about: a tacit admission that tips a hat to the character's origins but nonetheless admits he is not suitable for the medium of film. This is Shane Black and Drew Pearce having their cake and eating it. You hope that this signals a new beginning for Iron Man: Tony Stark has broken free of the shackles of his comic-book origins. Fans would follow Robert Downey Jr's iteration of the character off the page and into uncharted territory.

I'm arguing that hungry young screenwriters like Pearce should be chomping at the bit to create their OWN Mandarins, their OWN Electros, their OWN Darth Vaders. Who could resist crafting a character that's unique to the films that will then go on to have a life of its own, in comics, TV, lunchboxes and beyond? To stamp one's authority on the world, to ensure their own creation is worshipped in years to come?

All of which brings us back to Star Wars again. There isn't a writer, an artist or an actor alive who wouldn't jump at the chance to create something in that universe that would resonate as loudly and long as the characters that George Lucas created. Will Episode VII allow this growth? In the time it's taken me to finish this up, this feature has already taken on a nostalgic tint of its own, and JJ Abrams has indirectly addressed my concern:

"I think that [Star Wars] is so big and so massive to so many people that the key to moving forward is honouring but not revering what went before."
That's promising. The Star Wars universe is huge, boundless, already populated by thousands of characters, storylines, planets. It is absolutely riddled with source material to cherry pick, but it is also a storyteller's dream. The temptation to play it safe must be overwhelming, but that must be resisted, because once this cycle of nostalgia has passed and we find out this generation of Hollywood blockbusters is almost entirely empty on inspiration, the machine is going to roll to a stop.

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