Consider this a Part II in my ongoing battle against bad remakes, reboots and useless nostalgia. I still like the useful kind.
I was standing there in the lobby of my local cineplex when I realized that Men in Black 3 was coming out. I remembered – remembered! – when Will Smith was a rapper, Tommy Lee Jones was slightly less craggy, and aliens in New York was new-ish. Those were the days, amiright?
We all remarked on the nostalgic nature of this year’s Oscar nods. Those films were mostly nostalgia for days far gone; days that are almost past living memory. The Artist, Midnight in Paris, Hugo, War Horse, The Tree of Life … hell, even The Help turned rose-colored lenses to certain period details. All well and good; I’m not against nostalgia, as I have remarked before. But something else is going on here. The films nominated for Oscars may have been mostly throwbacks to that time when cat-filled tubes of the internets did not exist, but we have not stopped at nostalgia for the long long ago. We’ve now got nostalgia for last year.
OK, exaggeration. It only feels to me like Men in Black was last year. It was 1997, and I was about eleven years old. Men in Black II was released in 2002, which was only … ten years ago. Christ, I am getting old. The point being that this sequel, coming ten years after the last one, is looking to capitalize on two separate demographics: those that remember the original and those who were mere twinkles in their father’s eyes in the 1990s.
Those of us who do remember the original Men in Black will likely go to see this one, just to find out how it does with characters that we loved, then kind of hated because the sequel sucked so much. We’ll remember how much fun the original was and try to recapture that sense of wonder. But our memories are, of course, faulty. We were children, adolescents or teenagers when those films came out. Even now when we see them on TV or Netflix them, they remain colored by our past memories of how cool it all was at the time. Remakes or sequels that attempt to cash in on our rosy memories are doomed to failure unless they provide something new and not a rehashing of the same tired formula, or worse, a total bastardization of something beloved. Which is all to say that I want Michael Bay to keep his grubby little paws off Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Then there’s the reboot. Instead of remaking a popular/familiar franchise, they reboot it, whatever the hell that means. I think it just means telling the same story with more chiaroscuro. The same demographics come into play: those who remember the originals/those for whom it’s all new. But these reboots seem to be coming faster and faster on the backs of the originals. Consider The Amazing Spiderman. I suppose I understand Batman Begins, although I still prefer Tim Burton’s version, but the first Spiderman came out in 2002, and the last one in 2007. So that’s a space of only five years at the least, ten at the most, for them to reboot a franchise that was pretty damn good up until the final installment. And not reboot it a la X-Men First Class, which at least gives us a never-before-seen backstory, but reboot it by telling the same damn story that we already know. I know that Americans have notoriously short attention spans; still, we might remember that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider.
As the 3D re-release of Titanic has proven, repackaging the past doesn’t always pay off. Re-releasing certain films can be marvelous, introducing new generations to old standards. Or it can point out the inherent flaws of the original films. Titanic was a melodramatic piece of hokum, exploiting a past tragedy through a sensitive love story and 3 hours of a boat sinking. It succeeded because it came at the right cultural moment. It did not just appeal to adolescent girls, it appealed to a certain generation of adolescent girls. All adolescents are not the same and a generational shift has happened. Slapping 3D on it insults the people who loved it in the first place by making it seem cheaper, shoddier. It feels too much like George Lucas constantly tweaking the films that we all loved so much and making them just a little bit worse each time. It’s an old product repackaged and stripped of its archaic value. The pleasure of Titanic was dependent largely upon its place in culture and the stars that it introduced to the mainstream. It simply does not play the same way in 2012.
In the 1960s-70s there was nostalgia for the 50s that came in the shape of movies like Grease and American Graffiti, and TV shows like Happy Days. Nostalgia for the 20s-30s appeared in films like The Last Tycoon, Chinatown, The Sting and Bonnie and Clyde. Nostalgic longing can be interesting, it can cast light on the contemporary moment by telling an old story. It can even create something brand new, as in the most recent 21 Jump Street. And although I am a little wary, and a little tired of the same story, I’m willing to give The Amazing Spiderman the benefit of the doubt. What bothers me is not nostalgia, but the re-hashing of something that worked once and that therefore, Hollywood seems to believe, will work again. It’s disrespectful to the audience, and it’s a lazy kind of creativity. What we loved about those movies or TV shows in the first place was the way they made us feel because of the place we were in our lives or in our culture. You can’t repackage sentiment, no matter how pretty the wrapping paper.
*I promised I’d credit Heather Adair for bringing this up a few weeks ago. CREDIT!*