I remember being in the theatre to see Star Wars, Superman: The Movie and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They were eagerly anticipated and we sat and felt the excitement. The idea of something getting to the level of a film was significant. It was in the title to make sure that you didn’t confuse it with something that would be on tv. These were meant to be epic and especially in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it took the ideas of the series and made them more serious and cinematic. They took some chances, didn’t always work and they mostly were a surprise when we saw them as we didn’t have detailed analysis of photos or posters storylines for months or years in advance. There wasn’t as much to see, so it was fun, but then years later you may start to think that the films weren’t as good as you thought they were.
Nostalgia is something that everyone has. We remember things from the past as being better than they were. That’s human nature. History puts a saint in every dream as Tom Waits sings. That could be why it seems that movies were better in the summers of our youth. Sometimes you do go back and see films and they hold up. That is wonderful when it happens. Most of the time there is a disconnect between the memory and how the film is. In recent years the fun of the summer movie seems to fade a lot more quickly. The mechanics of the films are more obvious as is the product placement and the sheer quantity of information about films that start trickling out years before the film has even begun shooting.
The nature of film distribution started shifting in the late 70s and early 80s. With fewer theatres and staggered release schedules, you couldn’t count on seeing popular films right away. In Fredericton where I grew up there was only one movie theatre, so if a film was popular it could be there for a month or two. I read about Star Wars in Famous Monsters magazine and imagined it in my mind before I saw it. Then I loved it and had the chance to see it again a few more times as it played for a couple of months. It was the only film you could see in a theatre in the city at that time. Stunning to think about now as films will appear and drop out of all of the theatres so quickly in the multiplex world.
Summer movies now feature a lot of anticipation with stories about posters, teaser trailers, and endless speculation about casting and story arcs of the films. There was writing and speculation before, but now the sheer quantity and speed of information about films means that it is a vastly different world. A big part of this for me has to be related to aging. We all talk about how much better it was when we were young. But now it seems that the films that people rave about at the beginning of the summer become the ones that we talk about as being not that great by the time the leaves start falling from the trees. The next year it’s a struggle to remember which year a film came out.
Summer movies kicked off this year for me with Iron Man 3. While Iron Man 2 was a bit of a muddle, I was looking forward to the third film since it was being directed by Shane Black who did some really interesting stuff with genre and expectations with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang along with Robert Downey, Jr. So that could be something good. But when you have hundreds of millions of dollars at stake there are only so many chances that you can take. There were flashes of interesting things, and it was fun, but there was a lot packed into the film and the product placement and links to other films or future storylines bogged it down. So it was fun at the time, but over the next few days it started to fade. Much of the pleasure of the film comes from a twist (which I won’t spoil) related a bit to the casting and previous history of a character.
In Star Trek Into Darkness the plot revolves around a secret also related to a character and casting. For those who know the story there is a gasp in the theatre and for those who don’t they wonder why everyone is reacting to that moment. Part of the experience with summer movies now and movies in general is related to being an analyst. Will the film make a lot of money? Was the choice of director right? Who would have been better in that part? Will they make more? These are producer, studio and industry questions, not audience questions. We like to feel like insiders, but in these discussions something is lost. It’s about money and not about having fun.
While the analogy of popular culture and junk food has been around for a while, it really makes sense to me with the recent summer movies. I consume them and there is a sugar rush, but I don’t want to keep eating them. Fresher, more locally produced films that reflect where they are from like local apples of various sizes, or beer made in small batches with delicious quirkiness. There is more flavour and texture in them. Not uniformity and consistency.
Hollywood is struggling to figure out the new world and what people want to spend money on. They’re not taking chances, so there is an explicit appeal to nostalgia for characters and films that we’ve seen or even just heard about. Stereotypes and easy assumptions abound. So Star Trek and Iron Man and Man of Steel and The Wolverine redefine the characters a bit, but mostly colour within the lines that we expect. We’re more excited and talk more about the casting than what actually happened in the films or how they work as films. It’s a game where we try to predict the outcome, not a story that we are wrapped up in.
Despite this there were some moments that I loved in the summer on a deeper and more nostalgic level with one big budget film and two smaller ones.
The first truly fun time in the summer movie theatre this year was with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. Inspired by the tradition of Japanese giant robot stories and giant monster movies, it really clicked with me. The effects are an important part of the films (and they’re flawless) but it’s really about the characters and how they relate to each other. Working together is explicitly at the core of the relentlessly optimistic premise of the only way to save the world is to work with each other by putting aside any personal conflicts. It also featured a rare, strong, and more complex female character with Mako Mori, which has been sadly lacking from summer films for a long, long time. I loved the film and as opposed to the other summer blockbusters, it stayed with me and seeing it a second time I enjoyed it even more. That’s whatI remember from seeing the films I loved in the 80s.
Secondly the indie film Frances Ha grabbed me from the first frame and held me to the last. Directed by Noah Baumbach and cowritten and starring Greta Gerwig, the black and white film was nostalgic for indie art films from the 80s. I’d seen them in rep theatres in Montreal, and it brought me back to the joy of watching characters on films interacting in places where I wanted to be. Simple and small stories about complicated characters.
Finally, The Worlds End from director Edgar Wright and cowriter Simon Pegg reassembled much of the cast from their previous two films (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) in the so-called “Cornetto” trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost acting at the core of the fun. Much more explicitly referencing the nostalgia for blockbuster movies, the trilogy ended on a darker and more mature note still with effects and humour, but with a darker and more realistic core. It’s about growing up and aging and how you relate to your friends (and the end of the world and consumerism). It could have been like the other two films, but it pushed things a bit more and I really appreciated that. It’s a fitting start to the autumn when the films become more serious and it gives me hope that we’ll see more great filmmaking that can be nostalgic and original while most of the screens are filled with superheros, sequels and reboots.