Jurassic World has been a massive commercial success, smashing opening weekend records and looking like it could even reach the lofty box office peaks of Titanic and Avatar. All this from a film that is basically a rehash of its predecessors with some hokey GM science thrown in for good measure. The film shamelessly cashes in on its audience’s nostalgia for the original Jurassic Park, revisiting locations from the film, playing the familiar music, and reproducing its iconic images. A large part of its success comes from this blatant revisiting of the past, because it fails to stand alone as a good film, as I’ve previously written. But this is nothing new. Hollywood is full of sequels and reboots, making a lot of money from our desire to experience the delights of our collective childhood one more time. Despite my cynicism, even I’m not immune – I’m looking forward to Star Wars: The Force Awakens as much as anyone. It’s clear that film studios have hit upon a winning formula: the endless regurgitation of the past.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the role of nostalgia in films. Disney’s upcoming film schedule looks like a veritable celebration of pop culture iconography. But people are beginning to notice. A recent article at The Independent examines how time travel as a narrative device has been exploited in recent movies to enable Hollywood to feed our obsession with the past. Nostalgia has even become a subject within films: Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland had the chance to offer a critical statement about our obsession with the past, but it failed to meet the challenge.
One of the more interesting voices in the debate has been the actor Simon Pegg, who came under criticism for an interview he did with Radio Times in which he basically suggested that “Nerd culture is the product of a late capitalist conspiracy, designed to infantalise the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control” (his words, not mine!). Pegg wrote an eloquent and thought-provoking response in his own blog, where he laughed off the sensationalist quote, but questioned the role of nostalgia and the market forces that drive the endless number of sequels and reboots. He raises some interesting points about the infantilisation of consumer society, and how these mindless sequels often distract us from critical engagement with more pressing social issues. (I’d encourage you to read Pegg’s post – he makes a convincing argument.) Despite my fairly cynical view about Hollywood and the economic forces that drive production of pop culture, even I can’t swallow the idea of a capitalist conspiracy that is designed to keep the population docile. I think it’s a more akin to a feedback loop, with fans demanding more from film studios who are happy to deliver, thus fuelling further demand. Power is shared between film studios and fandom.
But I do think there’s a danger in this slew of sequels and reboots. Film studios know that they can make money from our nostalgia. They know we’ll pay to return to the world of Jurassic Park. They know we’ll pay to see the Terminator appear in LA in 1984. They know we’ll pay to see Han Solo pilot the Millennium Falcon, or James Kirk lead the crew of the Enterprise. These are safe bets. But the real danger is that film studios prioritise these sequels over original, non-franchise genre films. With the success of Jurassic World, it simply confirms that audiences don’t want to see something new – they are happy to consume the same old stuff. Studios are more likely to invest money in sequels, rather than taking a risk with a bold new concept.
There have been some terrific original science fiction films in the last few years: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, Predestination, Gravity, etc. Some of these have offered fresh perspectives on old ideas, others have broken new ground. Unfortunately, there have also been some fairly poor films: Chappie, Jupiter Ascending, Oblivion, Tomorrowland, and the infamous John Carter. It saddens me when these films don’t live up to my expectations, or achieve commercial or critical recognition (even when they’re pretty crap), because it’s just another reason for Hollywood to stop investing in original projects.
There’s a myriad of good reasons to keep making these original films. They inject fresh ideas into the popular imagination, preventing cultural stagnation. The best of them reflect on current social trends/ideas, offering a critique of our society. And, most importantly, supporting these films means that we remain engaged in evolving social ideas, preventing (or at least mitigating) the infantilisation of consumer culture that Simon Pegg wrote about.
Sadly, I don’t think Hollywood is listening. The consumers have spoken, and sequels and reboots are in demand. Nostalgia is now a commodity, something that can be transmuted by Hollywood alchemy into piles of gold. What’s the point in making something new when the past is endlessly profitable?
Update: Less than an hour after posting this, I read that Lucy is getting a sequel. Really, Hollywood?