Editor’s note: This is the second in a short series of essays on nostalgia in the arts.
Not long ago, a film came out about a misanthrope who was misunderstood and wanted only solitude. It was filmed a little unconventionally, but cast impeccably. That film was Hulk. Four years later, that same film was “re-booted.” It was as though Marvel Studios didn’t acknowledge the first attempt at film adaptation and started afresh. Both films had only moderate success.
Hollywood has a history of self-referencing, homage and flat out cannibalization. As one looks through the catalogue of recent movies, one finds re-made television shows (remember Starsky and Hutch or the televised Miami Vice); “updated” action flicks with the inexplicably age-defying leads (think Rambo 4 and Live Free or Die Hard); or straight-forward remakes (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a hit in Sweden, as was Let the Right One In, both now “transcribed” for North American consumption). What is the purpose of this? Is it audience demand or studio driven?
One branch of re-made movies are those appealing to a certain audience, eager to relive their past. Transformers and G.I. Joe were both cartoons from the ’80s — came to the silver screen in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both were made by fanboys for fanboys (or ultimately for fanboy money). These sorts of remakes are a nostalgic goldmine. What technology is capable of now is what was “lacking” from the original shows. Despite the fact that the original shows were commercial tie-ins for the toys, what drew audiences in was action, CGI, sex appeal and most importantly — memory.
Instead of playing in the backyard, making sound effects or watching the DVD collection of the ho-hum quality show, the Transformer fan could pay $9 and see this movie large and loud. Moreover, the avid fan would then see the film again and again, generating much revenue for the franchise. What was sold to the audience was only a new episode in the television show — with the same stilted storyline, only looking cooler. Transformers itself is a rather shallow pool to draw on, and looking for insight in a film with rather large space robots that change into vehicles of a normal size is a long shot.
What might be more of a nuanced approach to mining childhood memories would be the Toy Story series. Using archetypes such as plastic army soldiers, the cowboy doll, a dinosaur toy and a rocket man — such tropes could appeal to a far larger audience. With Playskool as perhaps the only product placement in the film (however appealing as that company might be) there is still an anonymity and relatable quality to the toys in Andy’s toy box. They all look like toys we’ve played with. But where the concept changes between Transformers and Toy Story is what their message appears to be.
Transformers is a not-too-subtle message on good and evil fighting in a largely destructive fashion, while hiding in the form of cool and expensive vehicles. Sure, parallels can be drawn from a military industrial complex run amok or one could make broad strokes to American foreign policy. But these messages have been done before and the only thing different offered by Transformers was gloss. Toy Story, as nostalgic as it is, speaks broadly about letting go and moving on. If the toys are emblematic of childhood memories or of happiness, then it makes sense that they are hard to part with. The three films make a statement that it is necessary to move on and it is ok to grow up. So where Transformers uses nostalgia to sell its audience its past back to itself, Toy Story does so to tell its audience to grow up.
Where does that leave the Hulk debacle? Cashing in on the past, mining the depths of the already-made does not always work. In the slew of superhero movies on the market, not all will be exciting, good or profitable. It will become white noise. Hulk was an unfortunate overreach on the part of the studios to force-feed our own past back to us. As one sees more and more of these remakes, reboots, and reruns of old ideas, it becomes important for the consumer to be critical. You don’t need to pay someone else to relive your past.