The Blockbuster Goes Retro
X-Men, Super 8, and Captain America attempt to reboot the past.
Prepare to dip your madeleines, as the blockbuster is experiencing a Proustian rush. If the movement of last summer's movies was solipsistically inward, probing such deep epistemological matters as whether we are—or are not—a figment of Leonardo DiCaprio's imagination, this year's crop jumps backward, their plots o'ercast with the amber hue of retrospect.
On June 3, we have X-Men: First Class, an origins story set in the 1960s. * Magneto and Professor X are in college, duking it out over who gets top bunk while the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out in the background. This is followed a week later by J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a touching ode to being 10 in 1979, when aliens from another planet were greeted with Spielbergian wonder and not a full pat-down and cavity search. On July 22 we have Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a 90-pound weakling steps into a science lab and emerges big enough to bounce Nazis off his bicep. A week after that, we have Cowboys & Aliens, which pretty much speaks for itself.
If this keeps up, we can presumably look forward to a new Superman movie in which the caped crusader is returned to his Depression-era roots to do battle with moonshine bootleggers, and the new Terminator movie, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger travels back to the roaring '20s to protect Zelda Fitzgerald from character assassination by future biographers of her husband.
What the deuce—or blue blazes, depending on period—is going on? The summer is not traditionally the time when Merchant Ivory trot out their picnic hampers and cucumber sandwiches. Not that you could mistake any of these films for the latest Henry James adaptation, exactly—no film called Cowboys & Aliens is intent on cleaving too hard to the historical record. On the contrary, the anachronism is the point, just as the appearance of blackberries in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes was designed to send the pince-nez flying from the noses of Conan Doyle fans. We live in the era of the movie mash-up—in the salad bar that is the head of the modern movie executive, the past is ripe for tossing.
In some ways, pictures like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunterconstitute the sweetest of compliments, there being no greater attribute we can bestow on historical personages than an ability to smush the undead. Even Roland Emmerich, king of the disaster zone, is making a picture about Shakespeare, for heaven's sake, which tells you something about the shifting loyalties of today's audiences: We've seen how the world ends, and, frankly, it's getting a little samey.
Have you been back to the future recently? If the last installment of the Terminator franchise was anything to go by, the future has long since succumbed to terminal rust. That film, like so many others, gave us a darkened, battle-scarred plainland of mud browns and post-apocalyptic taupes, in which the haggard bark orders at the hoarse beneath skies the color of vengeance. Buck Rogers would fall into a dead faint.
The present is scarcely much brighter. Ever since Chris Nolan turned The Dark Knight into a scowling disquisition on Bush-era justice, no self-respecting piece of popcorn cinema has felt complete without a salting of war-on-terror subtext, whether it be the responsibilities that beset a lone superpower (the Spider-Man series), the threat of the illegal arms trade (the Iron Man series), or the virtues of diplomacy versus boots on the ground ( Transformers 2). Even the last Harry Potter sank to a profound, late-stage Imperial gloom. "These are dark times, there is no denying it," intoned Bill Nighy, while the forces of darkness encircled our heroes, shivering, in a tent. I always thought pop culture was supposed to be about fake uplift—a draft of Leithian forgetfulness to ease the pain of our cramped late-capitalist existences with a cheerful blast of false consciousness?
Alone among recent blockbuster franchises, only the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek has dared stoke the high spirits of summers past, with Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura making out in much the same spirit of multilateral co-operation that buoyed the original TV series. * Abrams continues the nostalgia trip with Super 8, an attempt to effect a Vulcan mind-meld with the work of the young Steven Spielberg, and also roll back the clock to a time when Americans still looked to the skies with something like wonder. The mixture of kids and bicycles is right out of E.T.—Spielberg's love sonnet to suburban America, caught in the glow of dawn and dusk—but Abrams' film owes even more to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg's junk version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with its vision of America roused from its slumber by an array of whirring toys and runaway washing machines. "Its better than goofy golf!" urges Richard Dreyfuss. "It's like Halloween for grown-ups," whispers Melinda Dillon.
Or July 4th for moviegoers. The one thing the whole aliens-arriving-from-outer-space really resembles, of course, is a blockbuster movie opening. "They were invited" insists Francois Truffaut—but nobody points this out, for back then, in the fall of 1977, blockbusters were still things that arrived once a generation, not every week, piling up like buses. If Close Encounters is Spielberg's most magical film, it's because he still had no idea what "Spielbergian" meant: That was all being mapped out for the first time, the flying toys and spilled fridges, sprinkled lawns and roiling clouds. He could still reach for a child's toy and not be in any danger of it being one of his own.
This summer, Spielberg is everywhere; his name is attached as producer to three films (Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Super 8), but that tone he struck in 1977—benevolent, playful, utopian, childlike—is long vanished. Spielberg and Lucas were scrawny beta males, making movies for the little guy. Michael Bay and his ilk now make top-dog movies, heavy-metal hymns to American hard power. You knew the UFOs were about to arrive in Close Encounters because the crickets stopped chirping. You know that something big is about to happen in a Michael Bay movie because your eardrums are being pounded like timpani.
Tom Shone is film critic of Intelligent Life and the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
Still from Super 8 Courtesy of Paramount Pictures © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.