This article contains spoilers for Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys.
Nostalgia is one of the most bankable commodities in Hollywood right now. Referencing back to our fond filmic memories is right up there with comic book adaptations and live action fairytales on the list of studio executive favourites at the moment. And when it works well, audiences sure do love it.
The numbers proved this more than ever with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some of us went and paid to see the movie multiple times, collectively forking over more than $2 billion worldwide (and counting) for the thrilling experience of seeing Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon once again. Of course, there were other factors to the film’s success, but that nostalgia was a core element.
The same goes for Jurassic World – it wasn’t all about the air of familiarity, but you can’t deny the fact that it helped. And you can throw Creed into that comparison, too. Terminator: Genisys also tried its hand at the nostalgic revamp in the last twelve months, but without the same levels of success as the others. Even that, though, grossed over $400m worldwide.
We had a look at these movies to try and gauge when nostalgia works best, and why it sometimes falls flat…
Whenever a filmmaker is approaching a pre-existing franchise, fan service holds a certain amount of importance. In a way, they’ve got to prove to the audience that they’re up for the challenge of making a movie in this world. If the filmmakers can prove that they are fans of the franchise, the target audience are bound to be pleased.
To get the audience on side as quickly as possible, a film with nostalgic capabilities will often chuck a nod to the classic iteration of its franchise into the trailer. For Creed, the most memorable trailer-teases of nostalgic elements were the shot of Adrian’s grave, the ‘chickens are slowing down’ line, and the shot of Michael B Jordan running down the middle of a road with his hoodie on. Not too much, but enough to remind us of the heritage.
For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the very first trailer showed us the Millennium Falcon whizzing around so erratically that Abrams’ camera could barely keep up with it. Seeing that clip for the first time was a great experience. And when ‘Chewie, we’re home’ landed in the second trailer, I’m told by trustworthy sources that grown men were reduced to tears.
In both films, these pre-teased segments slotted in very nicely to the finished slice of entertainment. They offer a good amount of fan service, providing a few select nods to what’s come without overshadowing the new story at all.
Jake Johnson’s character Lowery from Jurassic World fitted this bill, offering just the right amount of fan service to raise a smile – in the form of his old school T-shirt and claims that the original park was far more ‘legit’ than its modern day corporate equivalent – without detracting from the adventure at hand.
In Terminator: Genisys you could argue that this welcome level of nostalgia was provided when we first saw the impressive recreation of young Arnold Schwarzenegger. The effects here were great, and the subsequent young-versus-old fight was a nice way to reimagine how the iconic arrival of the T-800 from The Terminator could have played out differently.
Importantly, all these scenes were relevant to the story as well as offering adequate fan service. For instance, Han’s return to the Falcon in The Force Awakens served the purpose of showing how far his character had come in some ways (he totally believes in the Force now), while highlighting how he hasn’t changed at all in others (swindling everyone in the galaxy).
Similarly, Sylvester Stallone’s return to the role of Rocky Balboa was greater than any had hoped for. He was wise, tortured and reluctant, but nurtured a genuine-feeling repartee with Jordan’s Adonis Creed throughout the film. The chicken joke gets a laugh every time, while his visit to Adrian’s grave is one of the most touching moments in the entire series. And by the time that Donnie runs around in his hoody, you feel that the film has earned the apparel parallel.
This much nostalgia we can handle. That lovely little amount where the past is nodded to but not plastered all over the new film to the point of distracting us. But sadly, sometimes films don’t know where to draw the line…
Let’s deal with one of the obvious questions, then. Did The Force Awakens need Starkiller Base? Could there not have been a different threat for the Resistance to face instead of another, bigger Death Star? This is a question that my pub discussions about The Force Awakens keep coming back to. “So, it’s big” and “there’s always a way to blow these things up” are memorable lines for Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, but they’re also symptomatic of the problem.
We know how easy it is to destroy Death Stars, so introducing another one was never going to feel like a true threat to main characters. Han seems lackadaisical at the prospect of another X-Wings-exploiting-a-silly-weakness third act showdown, and it’s easy – especially on a second or third viewing – to agree with him.
The veterans of the franchise have done this before, twice, and succeeded in both cases. As a result, there’s no tension when the redesigned X-Wings eventually approach Starkiller Base. The nostalgia’s gone too far here, in my eyes, and it has somewhat overshadowed the movie itself. Instead of an opportunity for the new characters to shine, the space battle at the end choses to reshoot what we’ve already seen.
In Jurassic World, you could argue that the arrival of the T-Rex to save the day has a similar chime to it of laurels being rested on. Instead of coming up with a way for the new characters to overcome the problem that they’ve made for themselves, Colin Trevorrow brought in an iconic creature from the classic film to see off the Indominus Rex. It’s a cool moment, admittedly, but was there a chance to develop the characters there instead of chucking in more nostalgia? Definitely.
Devastatingly enough for the ebb and flow of this article, Terminator: Genisys doesn’t actually make this same mistake. In fact, Alan Taylor’s Terminator reboot would probably have been better if had stuck to the blueprint of the original film a bit more. We may have enjoyed a nostalgic closing showdown with one solo T-800 a la James Cameron’s The Terminator, instead of witnessing Emilia Clarke halting an app launch and driving off into the sunset.
In my view, out of The Force Awakens, Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys, none of them quite mastered the necessary mix between fan-pleasing nostalgia and solid, engaging, character-driven writing. Creed, on the other hand, really nailed it. It’s a damn good script from Ryan Coogler, it must be said.
As I touched upon earlier, Creed holds back on certain nostalgic elements until the franchise’s new protagonist has earned them. We don’t hear the iconic blast of familiar music until Adonis Creed is heroically returning to his feet despite being half blind in the twelfth round of the film’s final fight, for example. That’s the moment when he truly proves his worth as the new hero of the series, so it’s only fitting that the score/soundtrack represents it then and not before.
This is a character-driven moment, when Donnie’s efforts are rewarded with the iconic music of Rocky. Coogler didn’t just chuck the song in during an earlier training montage for the sake of it, he found a moment in the film that truly warranted it and worked it in. And once the fight is done, we get a sweet little coda where Donnie walks with Rocky up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Again, Coogler held off on this revisiting this iconic moment until the time was right and it actually meant something to the characters. It would have been so easy to stick the steps into a montage earlier on. But Coogler opted to reimagine the steps scene in a way that’s fresh and interesting, rather than just plonking it in wherever like a Death Star or a T-Rex.
By the time that Rocky and Donnie climb those iconic steps together, it means a lot to both of them. For Rocky, he’s proving he can still do it. For Donnie, getting to the top provides an opportunity – prompted by his mentor – to consider the future. You can see your whole life from there, apparently, which is a nice way to work it in.
So, there’s certainly space for nostalgia in a movie, but it’s wiser to weave it into the plot in character-relevant ways rather than just sprinkling it throughout the entire the film. The Force Awakens, in particular, took criticism for including allusions to the original trilogy at almost every opportunity.
Instead of this approach, the results are better when filmmakers really put some thought into it. The Jurassic Park T-shirt in Jurassic World is a tiny part of the movie, for instance, but it signifies the thematic undertones of the film (Weren’t we more enthusiastic about things in 1993? Weren’t parks more legit?).
Nothing’s more important than a solid script and good direction, though. We can forgive a few too many references to old films if the finished new product still provides strong entertainment. That’s why The Force Awakens gets so much love, because it’s a stellar piece of moviemaking despite the reheated elements of things we’ve seen before. I’d certainly rather see a million films like that than sit through Terminator: Genisys again, where the allusions to the past were scarce but the rest of the script was sloppy.
Arguably, it’s all about remembering what made the franchise you’re revisiting popular in the first place and trying to recreate that while blending familiar elements with interesting new ideas: Star Wars was an escapist fantasy, so the new film reflected that, chucked in some new elements and most of us were happy; Jurassic Park was the euphoric theme park experience gone wrong, so Jurassic World reimagined that with modern people in mind; and The Terminator was a scary sci-fi thrill-fest, meaning that Genisys’ attempt to make a 12A time-zapping blockbuster out of it wobbled disastrously.
Creed does this better than any at finding this balance between the old and the new. Coogler takes the time to make sure we like Donnie and care about his story before introducing him to Rocky, and then he builds the young Creed up into a worthy successor for the franchise before rewarding him with iconic music and a trip up those steps.
This is how revamping a franchise should be done. Not with needless nods or shoddy scripts but with clear passion for the source material and solid idea for a new story within that world. Let’s hope the makers of the 105 reboots and 155 sequels currently in development keep that in mind.
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