Nostalgia Is A Drug

It really bugs me that there is now a backlash over being a film that upends series mythology when so many Star Wars fans were critical of The Force Awakens being too derivative of A New Hope. I mean, fandoms are a fickle bunch, but… for real? You’re going to toss this particular baby out with the bathwater?

Okay, then.

I’ve already stated how I feel about The Last Jedi. I liked it. I don’t particularly like the Star Wars franchise, nor do I think The Last Jedi is a perfect film, but I can recognize the work of a skilled screenwriter and director taking on the unenviable task of pushing a series in a new direction. And Rian Johnson does that with enough reverence to what came before, all the while making a very intelligent (and beautiful!) film about our cultural obsession nostalgia… from within a gigantic and monolithic corporation that profits off our cultural obsession with nostalgia. That’s impressive.

The Last Jedi is a film that is very self-conscious about its own legacy, and that daringly suggests that self-mythologizing of the previous generation actually played a role in current conflicts. This isn’t about the bad guys or the good guys, but about a complex system that is fundamentally flawed, and the need to move forward by shifting the template and breaking the cycle.

Unfortunately, the film got released into a cultural climate of dystopian anxieties masquerading as nostalgia. Reboots, revivals, and sequels are the name of the game because studios don’t want to take a risk on brands that aren’t tried and true. This is a world of Will & Grace, The X-Files, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, Fuller House, Arrested Development, and American Idol. It’s Jurassic World or Jumanji or Power Rangers. Hell, even our brand new entertainment is actually sorta old, with Stranger Things and Ready Player One and Castle Rock all examples of clever (or not so clever) repurposing, reassembling and sampling.

As digital technologies have proven to be isolating, increasingly expensive, and somewhat terrifying, we’re desperate to revert to our simplistic analogue childhoods. We even prefer our futuristic sci-fi to look old, and cling desperately to obsolete forms of technology. That Marshall McLuhan was sure on to something, huh? 

So a film that asks you to interrogate your heroes or question your fond memories is going to irritate all the people hellbent on things staying the same. Our heroes can’t grow old and imperfect. The rules of a fictional universe can’t evolve. And, perhaps most annoyingly, women and PoCs don’t belong in main roles because it wasn’t that way forty odd years ago.

(I just wish we’d stop humouring anyone considering bigotry as a reasonable element of film criticism. For whatever flaws there are in how Disney has shepherded the Star Wars franchise, casting POCs/women in central roles isn’t one of them, and it also isn’t an “agenda” so much as a reflection of the increased diversity of our world. It’s 2017, for god’s sake. If someone is unable to enjoy a character in a franchise solely because of the actor’s race or gender, that’s not really a reflection of the film, y’know?)

To put it bluntly, nostalgia is a drug. And with the dominance of fandoms and the endless string of comic book adaptations, sequels and reboots, the film and television industry is consciously utilizing these well-known properties as a means to profit off of our nostalgic associations. And while this is all very lucrative for a studio system lacking in imagination, it also has some negative repercussions:

  1. The first is that nostalgia prevents us from moving forward as a culture. We don’t evolve or grow because we are continually attempting to relive the past.
  2. Nostalgia is a collection of half-truths that are, by their very nature, disappointing. The desire to feel the same feeling as if it were the first time eventually rings hollow because what we remember is never a truth. Moreover, what we do remember simply cannot be recreated without ultimately feeling inferior or derivative. It’s a law of diminishing returns.
  3. The potent and terrifying mix of emotional associations and the echo chamber of the internet. In being so emotionally attached to these various franchises, people become incapable of listening to any form of criticism and/or dissenting opinion and end up taking it all very, very personally. Critics or creators are threatened. People are harassed, etc. Backlashes are mounted that are designed to hurt or possibly extinguish projects. And is any of that worth it for a creation that was first designed to entertain and *maybe even* encourage empathy between people?

So who is to say what any of this means for the industry, popular culture as a whole, or the Millennial generation. As long as people keep turning up and speaking with their wallets, studios will continue to exploit nostalgia, and we’ll continue to be trapped in this endless loop of references and reconfigured memories.

But despite the backlashes, hopefully filmmakers like Johnson will continue to make subversive texts like The Last Jedi from within that very system — laying the groundwork for the next generation of storytellers by suggesting that the real future is in a story yet to be told.

 

 

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