How Hollywood (mis)uses nostalgia in modern cinema to make it big at the box office
Do you remember watching the trailer for The Force Awakens for the first time and gasping in excitement when Han and Chewbacca jumped out at the end and Han proclaimed “Chewie, we’re home”? That was a very strategically placed shot which was deliberately meant to provoke an emotional response from the audience – a feeling of nostalgia.
The recent Hollywood trend of mass-producing reboots, remakes, prequels, sequels, adaptations and shared universes has been enforcing the use of nostalgic imagery as a means to evoke certain feelings. When we see such images in film or TV, our minds immediately associate them with something that we saw in the past, and very commonly in our childhoods. That may not always be a bad thing, but it seems that Hollywood has recently been using nostalgia as another means of making money.
Of course, that Han and Chewie shot had to have Han standing on the right and Chewie on the left, with Han holding his blaster and Chewie his bowcaster. It resembles the iconic shot from A New Hope that is imprinted in the minds of all Star Wars fans. It might seem like a harmless nod to the previous series, which would be absolutely fine, but more often that not, Hollywood uses this kind of nostalgic shots and references and pieces of intertextuality to cash in. That is where it turns wrong.
We associate our childhoods or the days of our past with positive things. We tend to idealize it and to usually think of it as better than what it actually was. Nostalgia shapes the way we think, and the shows and movies that we saw back then, the toys that we played with and the music that we listened to reminds us of what seems like a happier, more peaceful time. Nostalgia is an extremely powerful feeling, and Hollywood knows that.
And because of that, in today’s market, where original stories just don’t gross as much money as the companies would like, the filmmakers are largely dependent on stories that have already been told. In other words, Hollywood is afraid of creating new, original content because it poses a larger risk factor than, say, filming yet another explosive sequel of Transformers. People are going to see Transformers no matter what. Because they saw the previous films when they were younger, AND because they played with their transformer toys when they were kids. It’s all there already; it’s safe.
Even when by some chance you DO manage to create a high-grossing original movie that is not a sequel, a prequel or a remake, you can never be sure that you will be just as successful the second time. If you did succeed to do that, however, you can consider yourself one lucky bastard in Hollywood. Take James Cameron’s Avatar, for example. Upon its release it managed to become the highest-grossing film of all time and broke numerous box office records. So what does Cameron do then? He announces that Avatar will become a massive film series, that now has at least 4 more films planned in the future. It doesn’t even matter if those films are not as critically acclaimed as the first one, frankly. People are going to see them in theaters anyway.
Of course, this is not only the case with our childhood movies, but with toys as well. Besides Transformers, we have seen live action films made about Ouija, G.I. Joe, LEGO and Battleship, to name a few. And of course, who could forget childhood cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Smurfs? These and others have been made into live action films recently because Hollywood knows the value and emotional strength of nostalgia, and knows how to cash in by appealing to our childhood memories. In this case, nostalgia becomes a weapon or a currency that big film companies use in exchange for millions of dollars.
Wil Wheaton brilliantly exposes this phenomenon in his mocking video about nostalgia in Hollywood:
And it goes even further with the new trend of shared universes – Marvel Studios started it with their Avengers universe, and DC soon jumped in on the bandwagon with the Justice League shared universe. We already knew these superhero characters either by reading comics when we were children, watching cartoons or older films about them – these characters are decades old. So once again, it could be assumed by the companies that it’s safe to produce new movies about these characters; people are going to see them no matter what. And having a massive, sprawling shared universe means that you can pop out a movie or two every year for a long, long time. They are banking on that. In 1996 Marvel and DC Comics published a four-volume crossover series, with heroes from both universes fighting each other in numerous battles. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if the movie studios did the exact same thing in the future.
Other film companies are also following the superhero example and have various shared universes in the works: the Activision Blizzard studios are planning the Call of Duty cinematic universe, Sony has big plans for Ghostbusters. We are also sure to see cinematic universes of classic horror characters, Hasbro toys, LEGO, Valiant comics among others.
But is nostalgia always weaponized? Perhaps sometimes nostalgic value can be used in a non-exploitative way? Television seems to have been more successful than film in taking classic works or characters and using them in a way that is new and original.
Smallville was a TV series that ran from 2001 to 2011 and featured various DC characters as teenagers in high school. Like the new DC films, it also pays homage to the popular characters such as Clark Kent and Lex Luthor but it does so in a more subtle way and offers something new. Lincoln Geraghty puts it this way in his book The Smallville Chronicles: Critical Essays on the Television Series: “the aesthetics of cult television series reference and pay intertextual homage to previous series”, and adds that “in its use of innovative production methods and generic styles, cult television experiments with form to attract new viewers and offer greater textual pleasure to fans”. In other words, Smallville takes elements from the Superman myth and makes an attempt to create something of their own. A good example is Clark and Luthor’s relationship, which is subverted in a way that it begins as a friendship. The nostalgic value, in this case, is not commercialized and is but a nod to the loyal fans.
Another good example of fair use of nostalgia or classical works is Penny Dreadful. Although it may not directly use nostalgic childhood content, most of us have read the stories of Frankenstein, Dracula or The Picture of Dorian Gray while growing up. Penny Dreadful takes these popular Victorian literature characters and plays around with them, sometimes subverting them (Dorian Gray having orgy parties) or adding more depth (Dr. Frankenstein wanting to create himself a woman, and realising that just because he created her doesn’t mean that she belongs to him). In the case of Penny Dreadful we can see the creator’s love for the Victorian literature and the way it inspired him, but we also see uniqueness and originality never seen before.
So what does it all add up to? We can rest assured that Hollywood will keep making bank from the nostalgia of millennials, and I, for one, will go and see most of those movies no matter how much I’d hate it. But it can also be seen that nostalgia does not always have to be used as a weapon or currency – when used in the right way and in the right context, it can enhance the viewer’s experience and add extra flavor to the work. In the end, it all depends on the creators’ intentions.
Image credits: Lucasfilm Ltd. / Paramount Pictures / Marvel / Warner Bros. Entertainment / Showtime