Nostalgia is a polar kind of thing. Those of us who get it, really get it. Those who don’t spend much of their time haranguing the first group, wondering why we continue to hang on to the gift card from that TCBY in our college town when we haven’t been back there in years, and who ate TCBY after 1997 anyway?
Hollywood is among those that get it. Or, at least, wants us to get it. Remakes have been around for a long time, with movie studios really parking themselves in our memory about a decade ago; in 2005, some of the biggest releases included “Bewitched,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Bad News Bears, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “King Kong” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” the last one carrying the most quaint notion of all, that of Lindsay Lohan as a reliable commodity.
But entertainment nostalgia is cresting in a new way this spring and summer. Not the vogue for rapid-fire sequels or shared-universes – those represent a whole different, X-Men-ian problem. I’m talking about characters and properties that have been absent from screens for a decade or more — this weekend’s “Independence Day: Resurgence” is but the tip of the spear – yet are suddenly here, hand outstretched, seeking our time and money like an alumni pledge drive. Come support us, or live for all eternity with the guilt of denying your past.
By the time the calendar turns to Labor Day, we will have had an utterly eye-glazing number of these throwbacks: “Ghostbusters,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Finding Dory,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” Ben-Hur,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” “Barbershop: Back in Business,” “The Jungle Book,” “Zoolander 2" and of course Roland Emmerich’s “ID2.” Add in titles whose heyday came in another era (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows”) or simply feel as though they came in another era (Steven Spielberg’s kiddie-adventure “The BFG”) and you realize how much of the multiplex circa 2016 is meant to remind you of another year, or maybe just that you’re really old. It’s like the creaky knees of cinema.
The simple explanation is that these new films are easier to greenlight because studios don’t like taking risks. And what could be less risky than a familiar name — especially if you’re now able to layer on all bells and whistlers the effects era? (“I remember writing the first one…and I would say, ‘No, no, no. We can’t do that,’” Emerich recently said. “Today, with time and money you can do anything.”)
That’s all part of it, of course--But only part. Film executives also intuit that these movies possess another virtue: nostalgia. It’s one thing if an audience member already knows a title. It’s quite another if that title once caused a flooding in the brain’s pleasure centers. That presents an idea far more potent than awareness – it offers the power of association.
The upside to this, if you’re an executive, is it gets people to see your movie. The past always seems a little better than the present, so who wouldn’t want to take a trip in the wayback machine?
Constantine Sedikides of England’s University of Southampton, a pioneer in the field and creator of what’s known as the Southampton Nostalgia Scale, has done extensive research, concluding that such reflection can trigger a wide range of benefits. Psychologists have found that about half of all people marinate in nostalgia several times each week, and that it usually brings warm feelings. (They say this is particularly true if the event being reflected upon happened when you were in your teens or 20s – part of a so-called “reminiscence bump” in which differences in memory storage from that phase can lead to brighter associations.)
The chancy part, if you’re an executive, is it doesn’t get people to like your movie. In fact, the opposite can often happen. The past often turns out actually to have been a little worse than we remember it, and confronting this can cause some ruptures with the present. It’s a phenomenon researchers call self-discontinuity, though many people will know it by the simpler term of “I just saw ‘Zoolander 2.’”
Of course, not every such film is bad or shunned. Trading on our memory may not work for the majority of movies (tracking for “Independence Day” this weekend looks to offer one more data point). But when it works, it can work big.
The two most popular movies of last year operated firmly on the nostalgia principle. “Jurassic World” last summer was massive — its $1.6-billion haul made it the fourth-highest global earner of all time. Maybe it was the way the film executed various elements, offering a fresh spin on a classic tale. Or maybe it just landed in a nostalgia sweet spot — the original was not so far away we’d forgotten it, but it was far enough away to be cloaked in the soft fuzz of the past.
The 1993 release of “Jurassic Park” was just the right amount of far away – in part because many of the older adults now deciding what movie to take their families to were in that nostalgically impressionable teen and twentysomething window when it came out. That marketing for the new film called back to the original — right from the trailer’s haunting strains of the John Williams score – only drove this home.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” functioned in a similar manner. The J.J. Abrams film became the highest-grossing domestic movie of all time in part because anyone between 35 and 55 who grew up with the first trilogy was stirred by the same feelings watching this one that they had as young people viewing the original.
Not that originals are always inherently great either. As a general matter they can be pretty flawed; they just found a way of slipping past our sensors. Will Smith, no stranger to nostalgia cinema with 2012’s “Men In Black 3" and the upcoming “Bad Boys 3,” spoke earlier this week at the Cannes Lions advertising festival about how much has changed in the film business since many of these originals came out.
“Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s you had a piece of crap movie you put a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was [garbage],” Smith said. “But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting, ‘This is …, go see Vin Diesel.’”
Smith is fondly looking back at a different Hollywood era – you could say he has nostalgia for a time of less nostalgia. And he’s raising a worthy point. Back when many of these properties began, we were, as a group, less skeptical, for the simple reason that it was a lot harder to communicate that skepticism. These originals may not always have been that great (and if you’ve watched “Independence Day” lately, you know what I’m talking about). We were just less capable of reinforcing our negativity by constantly talking about it.
Incidentally, Fox Pictures is relying on this sort of naive fondness for its new movie, which Smith is not in. The studio has not screened “Independence Day: Resurgence” for critics, whose reviews could help get people to theaters. Instead, it’s simply counting on people remembering what a good time they had in 1996.
These films aren’t operating in a vacuum. Technology has shrunk the distance between past and present in many ways. There’s the Spotify song that easily transports you to a teenage crush. Or that streaming service that has kept alive the likes of “Friends” and “Full House,” in the latter case prompting its reboot.
Nor is nostalgia simply an entertainment phenomenon. It infuses areas as diverse as economic identity, such as the Brexit campaign’s promise of a golden pre-globalized time and American presidential politics, what with both Donald Trump’s rosily backward-looking “Make America Great Again” or the very idea of another Clinton presidency. “Things seemed pretty good in America the first time we had one,” we might think of the latter. ”I mean, it was a period of ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Jurassic Park.’”
Maybe it’s the dark present that elicits such a pining for another time. Nearly every one of these new movies draws on a film from an era before ISIS, frequent mass shootings and catastrophic climate change. We remember these movies pleasantly in part because when we first saw them our lives seemed more pleasant.
Or perhaps it’s just about what those of us in the segment of the population that engages in nostalgia have long argued: The past can be a pretty nice place to hang out.