This has been, more than any year in recent memory, the year of Nostalgia. Yes, with a capital N. Given the enormous success Nostalgia has had this year, it deserves a little added respect.
Steven Spielberg cashed in the Nostalgia chip this year, producing the record-breaking Jurassic World in a move that at first looked a bit hammy and then suddenly seemed like utter freakin genius (from a monetary standpoint, though sadly not an artistic one). The fact that the movie sucked hippo weenies only made the general point more clear: Nostalgia rules.
Spielberg was certainly sitting pretty, at least until Disney rode in on the Starship Star Wars and tipped Spielberg outta the high seat. In the world of Nostalgia, there is no bigger franchise than the (once but not anymore) George Lucas saga of the Skywalker clan.
In fact, most betting men (and women) are placing the safe bets now: The Force Awakens will break the all-time record currently held by Avatar (to the tune of $2.8 billion-plus).
Jurassic World and Star Wars are but the tip of the iceberg. What is James Bond but a perpetual nostalgic look backward, and what was Spectre if not a film laced with constant references to earlier (and better) movies? The surprisingly brilliant Creed reinvigorated the Rocky franchise…and connected with fans who still haven’t gotten enough of the Italian Stallion. On television, the end of the Mad Men era brings to a close the most Nostalgia-drenched TV series in modern culture.
Nostalgia trips can go either way. On the one hand, you can get clunkers like Jurassic World, which actually rehashed Jurassic Park in almost every way imaginable except in creativity (poor Michael Crichton, once said his biggest mistake as a writer was agreeing to write The Lost World, must be rolling an endless spin in his grave). To call the characters cardboard cutouts would be a real insult to cardboard the world over. To say there were glaring plot holes would…well, you get the idea.
Side Note: Crichton was a real movie lover, although many people have missed out on the Forgotten Movies of Michael Crichton.
The Force Awakens lands pretty squarely on the other end of the divide. Disney brought in the modern master of Nostalgia, JJ Abrams (who not only rebooted the Star Trek franchise but directed that wonderful, nostalgic paen to Goonies: Super 8). Abrams walked a fine line between milking every nostalgic moment possible while also introducing (mostly) new characters, (somewhat) fresh storylines, and an (almost) bold new direction (this is, in the end, the problem with Nostalgia…it shackles you).
The irony about Star Wars Nostalgia, is that Lucas originally crafted A New Hope as a nostalgic homage to the movies, shows and stories he loved as a kid (the fabulous writeup by Slate columnist Forest Wickman is well-worth reading in this regard). Thus, the older fanboys and fangirls who ache in their hearts for Star Wars are waxing nostalgic for Nostalgia itself.
It’s a kind of borrowed Nostalgia, channeling Star Wars which channeled Flash Gordon. Is that even a thing? Can you really be nostalgic for a piece of art that was itself nostalgic for an era in which you didn’t even exist?
Or is Nostalgia really only about childhood, simpler times, a mythical world of the past in which decisions were easy, pleasure was uncomplicated, and the good guys were always white and spoke with the smoky, gritty confidence of black and white Bogie (here’s looking at you, kid)?
There doesn’t seem to be much wrong with Nostalgia, at least if you don’t let yourself get lost in it (many of my own short stories are homages to stories I loved as a kid). But one wonders about a culture in which all of the major artistic achievements seem to point continually back to the past. Is that a sign that the culture has lost faith in its own future? Or is it nothing more than an economic reality?
After all, the wipeout of the secondary movie market has forced Hollywood to make the majority of its money on opening-weekend revenues. With no more video stores, you either make it all up front or not at all. Clearly, the safer move is to invest heavily in what has worked in the past.
Perhaps the Nostalgia boom says nothing at all about our world today. Or perhaps what is more important than the Nostalgia is the way in which new elements are being introduced. Abrams did, after all, center his new trilogy around a female lead, as well as a black man.
Either way, The Force Awakens is a fun time at the theater, definitely worth the price of admission. And as it marches towards the all-time record, you don’t really want to be the only person on the planet who didn’t see it.