In December, I went and saw Spiderman: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections. Both were full of attempts to drum up fan nostalgia. One movie did it well. The other used it for a cash grab. Guess which one was which.
My teenage years and young adult life have been full of reboots and stories that draw their power from the nostalgia for old stories. It's the nature of TV and film these days. There's plenty of reboots and remakes being produced, enough that the grumpy old woman inside me goes, "Doesn't anyone create anything original anymore?"
The Hobbit trilogy. Man of Steel. The latest Star Wars trilogy. That ghostbusters remake in 2016. Dark Phoenix. The most recent Home Alone remake.
I think there is a place for stories that fit into the same vein as previous stories. There's even a place for reboots. Granted, this is coming from someone who actually liked the entire Matrix trilogy and enjoyed Dark Phoenix for all its flaws. So, take what I say with a grain salt.
But outside of this appropriate window, there are many ways to do remakes and even sequels wrong. And done wrong in a way that leaves the audience dissatisfied and longing for the original. This is where the concept of using nostalgia appropriately comes in.
My theory is this:
Nostalgia is a spice. It can make your story better when it's used in appropriate proportions. But you can't have a meal of nostalgia. No one will be satisfied with that.
The American Heritage Dictionary provides the following definition for nostalgia:
(Noun): A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.
Obviously, these feelings of longing don't just pop up when we watch movies. I visit the lake where my grandparents used to live, and I long to go back to my childhood and the summers I spent with them. I walk past the building where my friend's grad student office used to be, and I long for the simplicity of when my greatest problems were unsolved calculus equations, and the SI instructor asking my out on a date.
But in movies, filmmakers drum up nostalgia in the audience by harkening back to previous films.
It can be in the form of characters or recreating certain scenes. In The Hobbit, it was throwing in the characters of Galadriel and Elrond and making a reference to Strider. In the recent Star Wars trilogy, it was Han and Chewie finally coming back to the Millennium Falcon. It was Luke and Leia getting to see each other again.
How to fail at nostalgia: The Matrix Resurrections was a flop.
The Matrix Resurrections was closer to a reboot than anything else. But it took away all the substance that made the first film great. It was self-aware enough that it was almost comical. Almost. Comical and disappointing.
To its credit, the film acknowledged that it was grabbing at money and trying to add on to a masterpiece. The storyline follows an older Neo who is once again trapped inside the Matrix. But this time, it's different. He's the creator of the The Matrix videogame, and his employer is forcing him to create a newer version, even though he doesn't want to add to his completed work of art. See the not-subtle parallel there?
The film goes far enough in its recreation that it uses footage from the original movie, recreating the classic red pill/blue scene. Yeah, talk about a moment that made me want to just go back and watch the original, because it was way better than this fake recreate.
Then they made everything worse by not using a lot of what made the original good. I mean, we couldn't get the original actors for Morpheus or Agent Smith, and that was sad enough. But Neo just force pushing people instead of doing lots of epic kung fu? A bit disappointing.
Finally, they removed the substance that created the heart of The Matrix. The original asked questions that made people think. What is truth? Isn't reality something worth fight for? Isn't the true struggle better than the comfortable lie? There was the tension between the choices we make and fate.
"What happened, happened and could not have happened any other way."
Sacrifice. True love. Faith. I like to think of this way: the Matrix trilogy is a philosophy class with fight scenes to help you take time to digest the information. For all their flaws, it was profound.
The Matrix Resurrections lacks all depth, so you're left with a film that will probably keep you entertained for a few hours. It's certainly not something I need to watch again. I'll stick with the originals, thanks.
It was like the filmmakers expected its audience to love the original trilogy so much that it would swallow a whole reboot. The film wouldn't be left with a leg to stand on without the original work. If you hadn't seen all of the original trilogy, you were pretty much lost. It lacked a story of its own. It was a copy, a shadow of everything that came before it.
How to use nostalgia well: How Spiderman: No Way Home got it right.
There is a place for nostalgia. It's helpful because it allows you to draw in old audiences to a new film. Filmmakers want to create nostalgia to draw back fans who watched their previous work. It's their way of saying, "Here is the familiar. This was good the first time. This movie is like that one, so it will also be good."
But the past is not enough to carry the present. Spiderman: No Way Home drew out the nostalgia and happy feelings a lot for me, enough that I teared up at certain points throughout the film. What can I say? This is the sort of movie that makes me cry, not romances or stories full of unnecessary drama.
The film honored the past, acknowledging the great versions of Spiderman that came before Tom Holland's Spiderman. There were plenty of easter eggs to find and moments that helped us remember what we loved about the previous Spiderman films.
"With great power comes great responsibility."
But they knew the past wasn't strong enough. They had to create a story, a good and beautiful story, with characters and a plot that made sense. And it involved incorporating the old and present characters to make something new. It drew from what had happened before and built on it. For example, Andrew Garfield's Spiderman getting a moment of affirmation and his saving of MJ acknowledged that he had to deal with a lot of pain, but that his character could heal and move forward with time.
A new threat that involved the villains of the older films? Brilliant. And aside from how the movie degraded Dr. Strange a bit, I was delighted with it.
So, the film made people laugh, smile, and cry as we remembered the old, but it took us forward too. They used the spice of nostalgia just right. I knew it had worked because of my mom. My mom didn't watch the Amazing Spiderman films and has only seen pieces of the Toby Maguire films.
But she has seen all of the Marvel Tom Holland Spiderman films. Despite not catching every reference to the older movies, she could still enjoy the story. The film brought together new viewers and hard-core Spiderman fans to make something successful.
So, when the next movie night rolls around, The Matrix Resurrections won't be on my watch list, but Spiderman: No Way Home? Oh, yeah. Let's make some popcorn and get rolling.
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