Nostalgia Films: A New Breed of Film

Defining the nostalgia film as a sub-genre.

Amidst a raging torrent of smarmy self-aware postmodern / post-postmodern film, a new sub-genre has been emerging in recent years: that of the “nostalgia” film. I posit that “nostalgia film” is a distinct sub-genre and can be separated from both postmodern / post-postmodern film and reboot / franchise film.

What is “nostalgia film”?

Plainly put, nostalgia film is film which directly or circuitously references a previous incarnation of the same larger epistemic system in an attempt to connect with a viewer. Nostalgia film is no longer content simply to imply a sense of nostalgia and self-reference, but instead relies on those qualities in an attempt to deliver a certain level of emotional content.

Films have been stealing subject matter from each other for as long as there have been films, and remakes / reboots have been recycling the same basic plots in different packages. The differences between nostalgia films and remakes are the level of exposed self-awareness in what they’re doing and an attempt to capitalize off of that self-referential nature, either monetarily or artistically.

Television series like “12 Monkeys” (a lackluster attempt at rebooting and expanding Terry Gilliam’s dark feature-length remake of “La Jetée") are content to simply reboot – or in modern film/television parlance, “reimagine” – without explanation, whereas nostalgia film relies on that very connection with their target audience.

Some modern examples

  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) (Director: Jonathan Liebesman)

    It is somewhat interesting to look at the genesis of the original TMNT franchise, as it was originally meant as a sort of pastiche of Cerebus, Ronin, and Daredevil, and in its original film adaptation hosted two relatively tame sequels, as well as a multi-season animated television show, comic book line, and untold hoards of plastic action figures and merchandising of all kinds.

    The new film mainly capitalized monetarily from the original nostalgia behind the TMNT franchise, as there are no explicit references to any of the original properties (although there are some inferences, peppered throughout, for more avid fans of the franchise). This could be considered an example of an “inherent or implicit nostalgia film” – the most subtle of the nostalgia film types.

    It should be noted that this is the only way I’m referring to this film as subtle in any way. Please take with a large grain of metaphoric salt.

  • Jurassic World (2015) (Director: Colin Trevorrow)

    Even though the Jurassic Park universe hosted a series of three canon films before this one (and completely discounting the lost message of environmental caution which author Michael Crichton had written into the original Jurassic Park novel), Jurassic World is the first of the films to explicitly expound upon nostalgia built in the earlier films – we can categorize this as an “explicit nostalgia film”.

    Characters in the film seem in awe of a park which had never opened. We are expected, as fans, to gaze with wonder upon vehicles which would make no sense to someone who had not watched the previous films. If there was any doubt that this was included exclusively for fan service (and not just a callback to epistemic information presented in an earlier portion of this film universe), one only has to look at Jake Johnson’s shirt. Remember, the park on his shirt never opened and was considered a secret.

    This isn't the epistemic system you're looking for. This isn't the epistemic system you're looking for.

    There are, as with most explicit nostalgia films, “callbacks” to the original. These are emotional leverage, designed to evoke the same feelings which we experienced when we saw the original film/films – and, by association, the innocence and wonder of the nostalgia for that time period when we originally watched it/them. This is one of the reasons why I believe that certain age groups are generally more susceptible to this from particular films, as it tends to coincide with a more ideal period in their developmental phase.

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) (Director: JJ Abrams)

    It may seem as though I’ve gotten to the party a little late by choosing The Force Awakens as an example of a genre film, especially after George Lucas beat the genre almost to death during its naissance with his insanely terrible and derivative prequilogy. I’m including The Force Awakens because it actually does this so much better than any of the three Lucas-helmed films ever did – by telling a story that you’ve essentially heard before, but just different enough that it can be a different film. The prequilogy wasn’t a work of postmodernism in any meaninful way, but was more of a color-by-numbers attempt to work backwards to create a backstory – so I feel perfectly rationalized in ignoring it for the purposes of this discourse. To somewhat paraphrase a take on the similarities between A New Hope and The Force Awakens, which go far beyond simple Campbellian monomyth:

    A poor orphan on a desert planet who is unaware of the Force finds a droid that carries a secret galaxy-saving message involving a legendary Jedi and includes plans that must be delivered to the rebel forces so they can disable the shields of a celestial-body-sized weapon and utterly destroy it by X-Wing fighters targeting a small, overlooked utility port. The Millennium Falcon, despite being ridiculed and laughed at as junk is far faster and more agile than anything that goes up against it, including much newer TIE fighters. And a black-clad Force villain with daddy/mommy issues.

    I can’t fault a film for relying on a working formula; the more interesting aspect of this is how the characters seem completely aware of the nostalgia which is being projected onto the viewer. For example, Oscar Isaac’s “Poe Dameron” is utterly fascinated by the legends of the rebel pilots who preceded him, Daisy Ridley’s “Rey” idolizes the legends of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and Adam Driver’s “Kylo Ren” gives extensive fan-service to Darth Vader. These are very explicit manifestations of the type of rabid Star Wars fandom which exists in the real world, projected into the film’s epistemological system for the benefit of the fans. These characters want to be their predecessors as badly as their fans wanted to be them when they first watched the original Star Wars trilogy.

    Sidebar: I drew some interesting parallels between this film and the television show The Sopranos, specifically because of the role that fandom played for some of the characters in concert with how it interacted with the show’s fanbase. The characters are constantly seen watching The Godfather films, and attempting to model their lives after Puzo’s characters, assuming that they are emulating real people. This illusion is somewhat shaken when they visit Italy, only to discover that what they believe to be the basis for their behavior and the reality underpinning it does not resemble their Italian relatives and their daily reality. Even their pronunciation of the Italian slang word for mistress, “cumare” (which, interestingly enough, derives from ‘cumulare’ which means ‘to hold concurrently’) as “goomar” shows that every level of approximation moves them further away from what they are trying to approximate. Their fan-based reality, in an attempt to replicate something, produces a completely different result.

  • Ghostbusters (2016) (Director: Paul Feig)

    Though much maligned, the reboot of the original Murray/Ackroyd/Ramis vehicle from the 1980s (which more or less ignores the relatively awful sequel, which made the mistake of attempting to simply repeat everything that everyone liked about the first movie, but with an evil painting and a baby thrown in the mix instead of Gozer the Gozerian) isn’t as intrinsically awful as its critics would have you believe. Many of them believe that it is bad simply by the virtue of corrupting the same nostalgia which it has been playing to.

    Disclaimer: Much like the internet trolls who have been saying awful things about this film, I haven’t seen it as of the writing of this post. I’m basing everything I know about it off of the analyses of those who have seen it, the trailer materials which have been available via streaming video services, and basic knowledge of theory.

    Besides the obvious nod to Ghostbusters' fandom through the internal references to the characters existing in the same universe as the original 80s film, there seem to be several formulaic story/plot reproductions from the original film, even down to what appears to be the delayed introduction of the Winston character analogue.

    It would be careless to omit the interesting reaction to this film, as it is one of the reasons why I included it in my list of examples. Even though it seems to tick the same basic boxes as the Abrams Star Wars remake/reboot/sequel, it has been experiencing a relatively heretofore unseen level of pushback and vitriol from certain portions of the fan community, ostensibly due to the gender-swapping of the principal characters. Although there has been a fairly high level of gender bias in superhero films, it seemed odd that a simple gender-swap could provoke this level of disdain – especially when essentially every tenet of nostalgia films had been fulfilled.

    I attribute this to an uncanny valley effect for nostalgia films – and nostalgia in general. Nostalgia requires some difference from the original property/properties, otherwise it wouldn’t be nostalgia. It additionally requires a level of similarity for the ameliorative effects of familiarity to allow the new property to be assimilated into the typical fan’s internal representation of canon. Overcoming an inherent gender bias may be too much for some; this would result in pushing the new property outside the arbitrary limits of what would be acceptable in the overall epistemology of the larger system and make it seem foreign / repulsive to that segment of the fan population.

Explaining the emergence of the sub-genre

I have a few theories which may explain the increasing popularity and emergence of this particular sub-genre.

  • Postmodern / Post-postmodern films and increasingly incessant winking.

    I attribute this to a desire for us to be “in on the joke” at all times. One of the central tenet of the new crop of postmodern / post-postmodern film has been a level of awareness, which was a possibility of the genre, but not necessarily a necessity. Films like The Avengers: Age of Ultron spend so much time winking at their audience that you might think they had developed a metaphoric facial tic – yet these are insanely popular films, despite (or perhaps because of) this propensity.

    At some point, this self-awareness expanded into the conflation of epistemic systems between the real world and the canon of the series. Much like any other device used in film (think Michael Bay-hem, all credit to Tony Zhou), it can be overused or abused if not allocated thoughtfully – which explains exactly why it has been overused and abused, in my opinion. To ironically paraphrase: "[we] were so preoccupied with whether or not [we] could, [we] didn’t stop to think if [we] should”.

  • A play for money from the newly cash-heavy generation X.

    In much the same way that the Boomers were exploited by large companies in an effort to boost consumption of nostalgia related properties (every Beatles re-release ever made, properties like Bewitched (2005), which, oddly enough, falls into this sub-genre rather nicely, and similar reboots of major franchises from their heyday), there have been moves by major media companies to attempt to consolidate the ownership of seminal childhood memory properties. (This has been made possible largely in part to the loss of the Commons due to the perpetual extension of copyright law.) The most egregious of these allocations, in my estimation, have been made by the Walt Disney Company.

    Disney, along with purchasing rights to the wet dreams of thousands of lightsaber-wielding and whip cracking fans with the acquisition of Lucasfilms for the paltry price of nine billion dollars, has been riding nostalgia for their properties for quite some time, including remakes of relatively terrible 1980s movies like Adventures in Babysitting and at least one too many sequels to Toy Story. They’ve also been engaging in “live action reboots” for many of their more notable properties, knowing that the fans of the originals will pour into the theaters, forgiving any and all flaws in their products for the sake of attempting to recapture some lost innocence.

    They had an interesting pseudo-entry into this sub-genre with Tomorrowland. Besides being a relatively color-by-number Disney film, it made reference to an older Tomorrowland attraction at one of Disney’s parks, along with a fictional plot about it being a gateway to a future full of invention. This could be seen as a call to nostalgia for Disney’s parks, if not their films.

  • Lack of faith in new properties.

    In an era when studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on what my brother used to affectionately refer to as “special effects bananas”, a flop in those budget ranges would be devastating to a major production company. The furthest they seem willing to extend themselves is hiring relatively unknown or indie directors to helm those projects.

    Known bankability has been responsible for the vast majority of film sequels and other multi-film properties, and it would be foolish to fault the major studios for trying to recoup their investments by ensuring that a certain amount of their ROI is virtually guaranteed by the participation of an existing fanbase. The larger migration from simple sequels to nostalgia films for them seems to be a relatively predictable move, in that sense.