There’s an old Onion article that, like much of the satirical media empire’s archive, has only improved with time. It’s all the more fitting because the joke is about time, and how our collective consciousness lurches back to previous decades: “U.S. Dept. of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past,’” reads the headline. The alarmist report warns that the gap between a given era and our nostalgic appreciation for it in hindsight is shrinking, “creating what leading retro experts call a ‘futurified recursion loop,’ or ‘retro-present warp,’ in the world of American pop-cultural kitsch appreciation.”
Period-set entertainment and recycled styles are facts of how we situate ourselves in a century. We bring a 21st-century lens to the 1960s with Mad Men, for example, and discover a fondness for those suits and hairdos while analyzing how that toxic political climate prefigured our own.
But as we continue to churn out reboots and revivals, TV and movies become less about the distance between historical signposts than our tendency to circle them forever. In 2018, any once-popular network series is fair game for another go-round: Roseanne, Murphy Brown, MacGyver, Party of Five, Lost In Space — if it isn’t already in the works, they’re talking about bringing it back. Corporations see a strong bottom line in leaning on established intellectual property with “built-in awareness,” which helps the new product stand out from a dizzying array of streaming options. An overwhelmed viewer, they assume, will embrace the familiar.
The same precepts undergird nominally “original” content like Netflix’s Stranger Things, or more to the point, the forthcoming virtual-reality blockbuster Ready Player One. The former looks to bask in references to 1980s films by the likes of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg while borrowing plot moves straight out of their playbooks for a narrative uncannily aware of when it unfolds. The latter goes a step further. Based on a novel by Ernest Cline that has been condemned as “the apotheosis of self-satisfied male nerdism,” this adaptation serves as an excuse for Warner Bros. to throw literally every memorable creation the studio copyrighted in the 1980s — from Blade Runner’s dystopian cityscape to the wiseass kids from Goonies — into a glutted CGI stew helmed by Spielberg himself, who’s responsible for a significant amount of the source material.
The preemptive backlash against Ready Player One, acted out via embarrassing masturbatory passages from Cline’s book and mockery of poster ads that bite the look of the various sci-fi classics dragged into this sorry universe, feels like a watershed moment for the growing resistance to an endlessly rehashed geek canon established by the fragile dweebs who complain that their childhood is “ruined” whenever they’re confronted with a Lady Ghostbuster or a morally complex Luke Skywalker. You can see the problem for these guys: They’re firmly wedded to a spectrum of cinematic worlds they consider sacred, and they want to explore these further, yet each time we resurrect the rules and signifiers and themes laid out by George Lucas, Spielberg and whoever else, the brand risks dilution, finally sliding into pastiche.
Meanwhile, the rest of us resent the canon on multiple counts: Firstly, there’s the way in which its devotees insist on the contents as somehow obscure, niche or encylopedically difficult when it’s clear that their beloved space operas and comic book characters have always been for mainstream consumption. Cline over-explains the time-traveling Delorean from Back to the Future like that’s not one of the most popular films of all time, and as if his equally 1980s-addled readers need any such hand-holding. Do we have to go on pretending that you’re some kind of academic because you own the Blu-ray of RoboCop?
Secondly, this constellation of regurgitated matter skews toward white masculine tastes, excluding diverse viewpoints and occasionally elevating films with racially or sexually problematic tropes. Once you realize that your childhood favorites encode reactionary reads on black civil rights and flaunt ethnic stereotypes along with bizarre fantasies of female-on-male rape and ultra-hot women with childlike minds, it’s considerably harder to see them as an inexhaustible wellspring of ideas for these genres going forward.
Lastly, an adherence to the holy nerd texts stifles innovation. It should be obvious that you don’t get fresh genre fare like Get Out or Annihilation by forking over $250 million to make another garbage Indiana Jones sequel, yet as long as a core contingent reliably turns out for opening weekend, we’ll never be rid of necromanced shit that should’ve been allowed to die with dignity 30 years ago.
That commodification of nostalgia — its deployment as marketing tool — isn’t merely a sign of lazy, calcified thinking in an aging, dangerously out-of-touch industry. It also misunderstands the purpose and mechanism of memory. We’ve gone from Proust savoring his madeleines to Hollywood execs enforcing a continuous recollection of their most profitable output, telling us what to keep and treasure when we’ve never had trouble sifting through these artifacts ourselves. When I was 12 years old, I watched my VHS copy of Jurassic Park damn near every night, and I still have access to that young, obsessive joy whenever I happen to catch a scene as an adult. It makes little sense for Universal to approach me now and say, “Hey, remember that thrilling adventure you wanted to relive over and over as a kid? We’re doing it again, but the dinosaurs will look considerably worse. Also, we put Chris Pratt in it.” Except they know I want to watch something, and that the latest reboot is the path of least resistance in a multiplex.
Where does this leave us?
Despite all the eye-rolling for Ready Player One, it may perform, and there’s a slim chance Spielberg could surprise us with a savage critique of his cultural legacy. But I don’t expect producers to jump off the floating island of pre-millennium cinematic detritus after a single major flop; it’ll be a safe haven a while longer. Not until the 2020s and 2030s are we liable to notice the artistic vacuum — the entertainment composed of prior entertainment, the meta-structures and “futurified recursion loop,” as the Onion had it — that defined this stage of media. For when the time comes to steal from the iconic films and TV of the 2010s, we’ll find they rarely had a separate vision, just postmodern dreck, microwaved mashups of what came before.