Friday, January 01, 2016

Nostalgia and the Anxieties of Empire: Toward a unified theory of American sci-fi movie nostalgia

Whether it’s a Noah Berlatsky to the left or a Ross Douthat to the right the complaint has been that American sci-fi seems plagued with a lack of imagination of a different kind of future. We keep coming back to the same stuff and reviving or rebooting the same old franchises.  Some franchises, like the Terminator franchise, have never even really been allowed to go dormant.  For those who only heard of the Michael Bay films the Transformers franchise has been rolling out in one form or another since the first Reagan administration. Sure, Scooby-Doo’s been running from guys in monster outfits since the 1960s but it seems bitter pill for film critics and cultural pundits to swallow that our “science fiction” seems so warmed over.  We’re talking about a Star Wars revival and not the Flash Gordon that inspired it.

However, instead of just lamenting that we keep telling the same stories over and over in Hollywood (as if Hollywood ever had its own ideas to begin with), why don’t we ask why we keep coming back to the particular franchises we keep coming back to?  Has anyone else noticed there tend to be clusters?  Take Planet of the Apes and Star Trek, these date from the 1960s. Star Wars and The Terminator franchises date chiefly from the 1980s.  It can seem as if the clusters of endlessly retooled science fiction franchises come from the Kennedy/Johnson decade and the Reagan decade.  These were eras in which fear of America sparking a global nuclear war and ambitions of ushering in a new era of prosperity ran high, depending on which party you were for. It can seem as if the franchises we come back to cluster around the decades in which we were alternately confident and terrified of our capacity as the world’s global superpower to make or break life on earth as we know it.  We keep coming back to the sci-fi franchises that most explicitly explore our anxieties and aspirations as a nation that can change the planet for good or ill.  Think of it as nostalgia not merely for sci-fi franchises but for the franchises as cultural emblems of mythological red-state and blue state Camelots and the respective aspirations and anxieties of partisans from those eras. 

But let’s consider a few opinions on the recently awakened Force, shall we?

Terry Teachout summed up his not-very-impressed-and-didn’t-have-fun experience of Episode 7:

Over at the Atlantic Monthly Ta-nehisi Coates (who’s working on stories for Marvel’s Black Panther) has an understandably more generous take: “I think this assessment doesn’t spend enough time considering three very important phrases. Those phrases are: Episode I, Episode II and Episode III. However one feels about The Force Awakens, it is—in fact—a film. The aims of the heroes are coherent and accessible.

Teachout, of course, has noted how derivative Episode 7 is and that it’s a remake of a film that was a derivative homage back in 1977. But if Star Wars is a franchise that truly embodies the post-modern era and was always pastiche, perhaps we should bear in mind it has a weakness which could also be a strength that reflects the time and place in which it was made. If the sins of contemporary cinema are that films are derivative now that film is a century old, the sins of older generations of film included adaptations of books that were bought a place on a NYT best-seller list, like the John Wayne vehicle True Grit.

Even if Episode 7 is a derivative nostalgia trip with a sentimental nostalgia a case could be made that at least there are worse ways to rig the game in advance for a film than literally rigging a spot for the source book so the film has a bit more prestige.  Everyone, by now, has some idea who and what George Lucas was cribbing from when Episode 4 came out.  We may be witnessing a generational gap between film critics and moviegoers old enough to remember what Lucas cribbed from firsthand and those who aren’t.

Let’s bear in mind that feature-length cinema is now more than a century old, folks. The likelihood that things will get repeated is high.  As author, pastor and film reviewer James Harleman put it in his book Cinemagogue, the problem with saying Hollywood has run out of ideas is making the mistake of thinking they ever had their own ideas to begin with.

Still, it’s worth asking why we keep coming back to the franchise we keep coming back to. I would propose that in the case of Star Wars its pop culture wealth comes from a tension between its text, subtext, and the metanarratives we, as audiences, impose upon the franchise.  Lucas used to say the Empire was the United States and that the Rebellion was the Vietnamese military fighting against the United States.  If that was the intended subtext for what has become Episode 4, it probably couldn’t last longer than it took for Ronald Reagan to refer to the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire. It could also scarcely withstand American self-mythologizing on the matter of a rebellion against royal empire.

And yet we can have College Humor make a joke on Storm Troopers talking about the destruction of the Death Star in Episode 4 as if it were the twin towers from 9/11/2001. It would appear that at a dark, jokey level we CAN see ourselves in the Empire and it may be that the aspirations and anxieties of empire are why America can’t give up on Star Wars just yet. To say that that story is over is, in some strange cultural way, to admit that our story is over.


But it’s not just Star Wars we keep coming back to.  Let’s consider Star Trek, the franchise Abrams may or may not have successfully revived a few years back.  A central criticism of Abrams’ handling of the franchise was that he betrayed the spirit of the franchise.  But what was that spirit?  It may help to understand Star Trek as mid-20th century American optimism about the inevitability of a secular liberal democracy being the paradigmatic approach to all of human society.  One day we would move beyond waves of nuclear dread into an age where money is no object and we can breach the barrier of light speed.  To the extent that Abrams’ rebooted franchise imagined that beyond the evil of Khan Noonian Singh was an evil general in the Federation Abrams did betray the optimism of Star Trek by revealing we live in a post-Cold War era, an era in which we are less sure we can believe in the indisputable rightness of the empire we have.  Star Trek depends on assuming that the way modern progressive Western thought sees things is the one right way.

But some franchises have never quite gone away.  Take the Terminator franchise.  The first film emerged in the wake of the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative.  James Cameron’s dystopian sci-fi film could imagine that the super-weapons invented during the Cold War could become self-aware enough to war against humanity. Cameron decided to make a sequel in defiance of the inexorable logic of a narrative in which John Connor could only be born, paradoxically, because someone impregnated his mother who came from the future to stop Skynet from killing Sarah Connor—John Connor can only exist in a time-loop where there is already a Skynet. But Terminator 2 featured John Connor declaring “There’s no fate but what we make!”  Whether the sci-fi franchise we come back to is Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, or Robocop, we come back to the anxieties and aspirations of empire, we come back to an America that is determined that whether it’s to light or darkness that ultimately nobody but us makes the fateful decision.

 It can seem that the common thread in all the sci-fi franchises America keeps coming back  to is that whether the future is a utopia or a dystopia there is no fate but the one WE make. 


As a playful contrast/comparison consider James Bond and Doctor Who as genre franchises dedicated to exploring the self-awareness of an English empire in undeniable decline, helpless to ultimately change the fate of the world or the British empire, but perhaps still able to do some good somewhere along the way.  It may be the thread for the West in keeping Cold War franchises alive is that we're clinging to a self-understanding. 

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