Film Feature: Dial N for Nostalgia


Following the onset of a spate of grown-up kids films such as Toy Story 3, Jon Hozier Byrne looks at cinema’s biggest N-word; Nostalgia. Also, Nerds

Have you noticed something odd about big movie releases recently? If you have, then stop reading, as this article has no new information for you. If you haven’t, keep reading, as it gets pretty good towards the end.

In this time of economic hardship, the film industry is profiting like never before. Major studios are making previously unheard of profits, providing escapism from the otherwise depressing media that surrounds us daily. For the first time in movie history, two films have grossed over $1 billion dollars at the box office in the same year (Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland).

The summer blockbuster has now become a year-round affair, and each studio is carefully considering which projects to green light, for fear of a Heaven’s Gate/United Artists style disaster (an instance whereby a film was so costly that it essentially bankrupted the studio).

The films that are successful, like the two mentioned above, have two elements in common. One, they are shot in glorious, expensive and utterly pointless 3D, and two, they have a whole culture of nostalgia behind them. 3D is a way for studios to make an event movie out of something that most viewers would otherwise end up watching for free on Megavideo, like the excellent Jackass 3D.

3D is nothing more then a cheap trick to get punters off their laptops and into cinemas. And hey, if a bunch of hipsters poke the lenses out of the glasses and wear them outdoors to be ‘ironic’, then that’s just dandy with the studios.

Nostalgia is a much more intangible concept. Sometime in the early 2000s, probably sometime between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, studios grasped on to the fact that nerds like movies. Armed with the knowledge that movies and asthma go hand-in-hand, they begin tailoring films specifically for a market that, paradoxically, only made up a tiny percentage of the movie-going population.

By grasping, however tenuously, onto some obscure nostalgic aspect of nerd culture, studios are able to capitalise on the droves of fanboys who’ll pay to see it again and again.

This realisation effectively forced out blockbusters that didn’t take this specifically nostalgic angle. Studios will cash in on anything the general public might remember, be it old movies, TV shows, comic books, videogames, theme-park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) or even obscure Japanese robot-toys. Why make a new, original, let’s say, horror film, when they can just remake Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street? Or, indeed, why not The Hitcher, Wicker Man, My Bloody Valentine, Amityville Horror or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

They all have recognisable brand names, and therefore, the capacity to be awful and still make a metric ton of cash. Sure, the studios could make, say, a new sci-fi feature, like the independently produced Moon or District 9, or they could just knock out The Day the Earth Stood Still and cut out those pesky original screenwriters.

It’s like a real-life version of that scene from The Player when the snotty studio executive explains how movies don’t need original writing anymore – and that was a hyperbolic parody.

96 per cent of films released by the major Hollywood studios in the past two years have been reboots, remakes, or reimaginings.

Just let that sink in for a second. 96 per cent. Original writing simply doesn’t enter into it (unless your name is James Cameron), and it looks set to continue that way. Studios have a choice; they can make an original, say, space adventure movie, with all new characters and settings, or they can re-make Star Trek for the exact same money. And suddenly, you have an army of teary-eyed nerds queuing outside the Cineplex – and I should know, I was one of them.

Some have read this reliance on adaptation to be indicative of the creative demise of the film industry, and to a certain extent, they’re not wrong. Some of the greatest films ever made would never have been made today, and who knows what great projects will never be brought to screen because of the inherent risk involved in championing an ambitious all-original screenplay?

On the other hand, independent filmmakers are constantly making brilliant original films. Therefore, Hollywood’s reliance on adaptations, rather then remakes, is paradoxically allowing for some of the most creative and innovative films ever produced.

In recent years, graphic novel adaptations alone have provided us with The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Sin City and Scott Pilgrim Vs the World – all of which I personally declared to be “the greatest film ever” upon leaving the cinema. Although there is a certain perceived laziness or lack of creativity in banking on nostalgia to sell movie tickets, it does not rule out the possibility of truly great films being made.

Ultimately, it’s a terrible time to be alive if you’re a screenwriter with big ambitions, but it’s a great time to go to the movies if you were born in 1988.