In a recent post on RogerEbert.com, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz described what he misses the most about moviegoing during his childhood.
When I was a kid I used to get excited about seeing films that I thought showed me a grownup world, and made me think about how big the world was and how complicated it was. Now everyone gets excited about seeing films that make them feel like little kids again, uncritical and giddy. There's something deeply screwed up about that. It makes me worry about us as a society.
There is perhaps no better way to sum up the current state of the film industry where sequels, reboots, and franchises are rampant. It's no secret that studios would rather sink their money into a surefire hit than an original idea and it's paying off in spades. But just imagine if studios had the same frame of mind when films like Star Wars were a big risk. This film is just one of the many blockbusters from the 70s and 80s that are considered instant classics and had no prior devoted audience. Even franchise sequels like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (a follow-up to an original story) did more than just satisfy the lowest common denominator. Instead, these films pushed the bar for filmmaking and explored themes that appealed to wide audiences.
Today, it seems that films can't be made unless they are catering to an established fanbase or follow the formulas of other successful blockbusters from the past. Seitz's statement about audiences being uncritical and giddy, while it may come off as pretentious, seems to ring true of the filmgoing population as a whole. Take the top three films of the year so far in terms of box office: Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Furious 7. All of these films are part of franchises, and none are exactly revolutionary or original in terms of filmmaking. They offer a fun escape for audiences, but that doesn't mean that they should be held up on a pedestal as classics. Rather than daring creative works that challenge an audience, these films combine shallow thematic material and slick special effects, coming off as pieces of product.
We should all be having fun at the movies, but at what cost? At what point does fan service turn into exploitation?
More so than the other two films, Jurassic World can be accused of being the most exploitative, following the same basic story beats and interweaving callbacks to Steven Spielberg's classic film from 1993. It is also one of the biggest box-office successes of all time. It is without question a fun movie, but doesn't offer anything new when dealing with the central theme of Jurassic Park, namely that man cannot and should not control nature.
Like Jurassic World, films that rely on exploiting our feelings of nostalgia don't offer anything except an escape from hardships that we face in our daily lives. Making a habit of watching films that take us back to our childhood, while delightful, is sacrificing new and challenging experiences and like Seitz says, it also makes us less critical. Nostalgia acts as a pair of rose-colored glasses that we see these type of films through, blinding us to what makes an exceptional piece of filmmaking. The greatest films don't merely entertain, but transport us to another place to explore the deeper meanings of life, to contemplate and learn lessons, or reinforce values that are self-evident in human nature.
One of those films is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, an original work which explores the notion of nostalgia on a very amusing, but poignant level. It urges us to live in the present (no matter how difficult it is) and forge our own golden age. Like all great films, it's lessons can be applied to our zeitgeist. While it's a thrill to travel to the time when life was "better," we don't truly grow or experience greatness unless we demand that films start once again to surprise and inspire us.