This weekend sees the release of “Poltergeist” — no, not the 1982 horror original, but a souped-up remake. Last weekend an even older series, “Mad Max,” finally got its fourquel. In the coming months we’ll have “Jurassic World,” “Terminator: Genisys” and “Vacation” — all hailing from franchises launched between 20 and 35 years ago. (Meanwhile, the “Mission: Impossible” films, about to get a fifth, are a sprightly 19 years — although they originate from a TV show nearly half a century old.) And by year’s end — nearly in time for its 40th birthday — we’ll all have a new “Star Wars” movie, which is in fact the first in a brand new rash of them, including sequels and spin-offs that will, like Marvel’s slate, survive and replicate themselves forever, presumably even when humankind has died out or evolved into something completely different.
There are a couple original movies coming out, every great now and then. But for the most part this is all we get: an endless stream of the same-old-same-old — an infinity loop where all is familiar, all is a brand, and all of it reaches back into the 1980s and beyond. Very little of what hits theaters is a one-off, and if it is, and if it makes money, we can be assured it will be regurgitated, either as a sequel or, years down the line — even less than a decade down the line — repackaged for more, similar adventures. There is, in short, a startling lack of original ideas, even more than the last time someone complained about the same thing. It is all the same-old-same-old.
Not that complaining about sequels and remakes and reboots and quasi-reboots and semi-sequels is anything new. The art of pillaging successful entities has existed since the early days of the movie industry. Hollywood in its Golden Age could actually crank them out even quicker than now. Between 1937 and 1946 there were 15 of the Mickey Rooney-starring Andy Hardy movies. That’s nothing: the “Blondie” films, based on the comic strip, coughed out 28 films from 1938 to 1950. As for that dreaded paragon of laziness — remakes — even filmmakers as revered as Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu and Michael Haneke have redone their own pictures themselves.
That said, those filmmakers and studios tended to mix up the familiar with the original. We now live in a culture devoted, since the days of “Jaws” and the first “Star Wars,” to the idea of “high concept” — not just easily-described plots but, as per scholar Justin Wyatt, films turned into product, made easier to sell because they could become brands. Wyatt was talking about studios, which began absorbing and being absorbed by other conglomerates in the 1970s, going so far as to tie in films with other mediums: albums, TV shows, plus ye olde product placement. “Saturday Night Fever” could become an even bigger phenomenon than it would have been as a mere movie because there was a soundtrack that could become one of the highest ever selling records, thus creating a dance craze, thus blinding viewers to the fact that it was actually a gritty, downer film about a troubled bro in a go-nowhere Brooklyn neighborhood.
But this approach has evolved over the decades. Time enough has passed that the films themselves can be that other sellable entity, creating brand familiarity and brand loyalty out of old movies. “Poltergeist” only has two, decreasingly useful sequels, the last made in 1988 — but it has name recognition. Even if you’ve never seen any of the original films, you likely know the name; if you have seen them, you’re probably consciously or unconsciously nostalgic for something that scared you as a kid. It’s easier to redo “Poltergeist” than it is to make a simple ghost movie. Like “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park” and endless comic book movies, it’s a brand.
This is, of course, our fault; Hollywood only gives what we want, or what they think we want. But what we want is more complicated than that. What we want is a combination of the familiar and the sprawling, if not endless. As we’re endlessly reminded, we currently live in a new Golden Age of television, where people don’t just binge-watch several episodes in one foul swoop but stew in these worlds, emerging only to talk about it on social media and sometimes IRL. This has inevitably bled into the movies, where studios finally have an excuse to create elaborate intertwined worlds, and stories the size of “Breaking Bad,” all while making billions doing it. Every film is connected in the Marvel films, and soon the same will go for the DC-verse, who’ve reached back to an old marketing gimmick — the “Vs.” picture — to mash together Superman and Batman.
Speaking of mash-ups, sometimes TV boldly crosses over into the movies, as with the forthcoming “Entourage” film and — for those who can remember a show that hasn’t been on the air since 1968 — “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” That film, out in August and co-starring Superman himself, Henry Cavill, is a rarity; most revivals tend to reach back no further than the 1980s. In this landscape, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” almost qualifies as an original idea.
It can be reactionary to complain about people only wanting the familiar. But it’s still a problem. It ties into that old canard about the infantalization of America, and maybe the rest of the world, who too feast upon our country’s cinematic wares. We are now two generations into people who’ve lived their entire lives not knowing a world without “Star Wars.” Now that it — and much else from our collective childhoods — is coming back, we have no reason to resist or act like we’re above it. The moment the trailer for “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens” hit the Internet in April, you could sense a collective, worldwide gasp. Grown, professional adults, with mortgages and children and debt and adult responsibilities, reverted to childlike wonder at the sight of old Harrison Ford hanging with a still youthful-looking Chewie. Even the famously grouchy Ford rocked a childlike grin. We are all allowed, encouraged, even, to be what the scholar Jacopo Bernardini called “kidults.”
Speaking of “Star Wars,” even superfan Simon Pegg — a nerd who’s made a pretty penny on making nerdism mainstream — recently told Radio Times that he worries nerd culture is infantalizing us all. “Now we’re all consuming childish things,” he said. “It’s a kind of dumbing down in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about…whatever. Now we’re really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”
This isn’t entirely true. At its best nerd culture connects these seemingly frivolous entertainments to real world issues. The smartJenna Busch contributes a weekly column to us that explores the feminist issues that crop up in this world, and there are many who do likewise. At the same time actual serious (and sometimes “serious”) fare used to have more seats at the table. The stirring, hit courtroom drama of the 1990s is now the VOD miscellany that may or many not be found by couch potatoes trying to find a streaming copy of the last “Hunger Games.” The audience and especially the budgets for non-blockbusters have plummeted; Rob Reiner, who once turned “A Few Good Men” into a monster hit, has spoken to us about the pains of trying to cobble together tiny movies with a combination of financiers and overseas pre-sales. If you want to do serious, your best bet is TV; movies are for giant green men, who were created well before you were born, smashing things up.
If this sounds bleak then it doesn’t have to be, and it might not be. The forthcoming “Star Wars” movies, for one, have new blood in them. Directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, who’s directing the eighth “episode,” are both iconoclasts. Abrams previously updated “Star Trek,” for better as well as for worse, for a new era and audience. Johnson made eccentric originals like “Brick” and “Looper.” One of the spinoffs will do the unfathomable and revolve around a female protagonist, played by Felicity Jones. They don’t look like mere slavish recreations of the original; they look similar but different. “Similar but different” may be as close as the future will get to an original idea, though it would be nice if, just to mix it up, Hollywood went full-stop different. After all, original films would be great to one day remake, reboot and revive.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge