Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Nostalgia

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

After there was Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Made by three guys from Mississippi over the course of the 1980s, the film is as close as kids their age and in their time could come to recreating Raiders shot for shot. Despite all of that effort, the film was basically unseen until 2002, when it was screened at a film festival, and since then it’s taken on a cult appreciation that’s maybe grown a little too intense for it to remain a truly cult piece of art. It’s been featured in multiple documentaries, including one based on its creation, on sitcoms, and has, here’s the real shark-jumper, been picked up by a movie studio to make a movie about the kids making a movie. (Whether or not that film will ever actually get past development is irrelevant; it’s the thought that counts.) The unearthing of The Adaptation is the toast sandwich of nostalgia. There’s the nostalgia for a time when, to recreate dialogue, you’d have to go into a movie theater and record the whole thing and transcribe it later. There’s the nostalgia for seeing Raiders for the first time, preferably as a young enough person to be totally swept up in the picture and able to see it on the big screen again and again and again. And on top of that, Raiders is famously a nostalgic movie on its own merits. The film means to inspire visions of Errol Flynn swinging about, transformed by time into Harrison Ford, or, for those in the know, to take us back to the 1910s and 1920s and mimic the episodic nature of serial movies from that bygone era.

The rollout of multiple sequels, two in the same decade and one almost thirty years later, have only cemented the importance of nostalgia to understanding Indiana Jones fandom. (This is to say nothing of television adaptations, video games, novelizations, theme park attractions, the works.) It’s true that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lacks much of the magic that makes Raiders a great movie, but then again, that’s true for almost every other movie ever made. Crystal Skull was doomed to failure because its intended audience, i.e. people who saw one of the three previous entries as kids, were overwhelmingly not kids anymore. Yet they must have walked into the theater believing that they could be sent back in time like Marty McFly. Make no mistake, Crystal Skull is certainly not any worse than Temple of Doom, a movie where even more improbable and significantly more racist events than alien intercession come to pass. But the difference between 1984 and 2008 is long indeed, and nostalgia, which can play tricks on even astutely cynical viewers, emphatically has its hold in the viewing culture. Raiders is, with its never-say-die attitude and endless parade of romantic escapades, the kind of movie that is perfect for young people and perfect for anyone who wants to get a few sips at the Fountain of Youth. Forty years later, certain flaws have been rubbed threadbare, some for better reasons than others. The mind still reels at how seamlessly perfect the adventure is in Raiders, though, and I say that as someone who saw this movie first as a performatively grizzled teenager.

The thought of fans of a Lucas-born franchise getting mad at later entries for not catering to their every whim and doing things which no longer adequately feel like said franchise to them segues all too neatly into The Last Jedi, and if this blog had a wider reach I would hesitate to say anything more about the film than that. Yet The Last Jedi takes so much of its power from being able to speak the name of the thing that it lives in the shadow of. It points at nostalgia and unmasks it in a compelling fashion, calling our attention to the stories most Star Wars groupies came to as children and asking for a sign of good faith from a cantankerous audience: move along. When Star Wars came out, it was roundly criticized by serious cinephiles and filmmakers for trashing the more morally complex ethos of earlier ’70s films in favor of a black-hat, white-hat story. Ironically, when The Last Jedi restored flaws to Luke Skywalker worse than whininess, when it told us that Rey came from nothing and nowhere, when it took its cockiest character and humbled him in front of two women rather than exalting him over them, the people loudest in defaming it were the ones most desperately calling for Star Wars to be exactly what their most pointed critics had always said the franchise was. The Last Jedi rubbed nostalgia’s nose in the dirt and presented an alternate future for the franchise which, alas, was Gamergated into oblivion when The Rise of Skywalker reversed that course in every way a couple years later.

Occasionally, nostalgia can be basically harmless. While I don’t think calling The Sting or Mission: Impossible “sweet” is necessarily appropriate, both of those films have a fondness for the past which is almost palpable. MI is the more obvious candidate here, given that it’s literally based on a TV program that ran for the better part of ten years. For people who grew up on the show or who soaked in the reruns, there’s an easy way into caring about the updated adventures of this group of secret agents. For people like me who saw some later iteration of the series before they ever came across this film, MI has a pleasantly retro feeling. No climbing the Burj Khalifa or hanging onto an airplane in this one, just cool, self-contained stunts on a set somewhere. The relatively streamlined setpieces in this film, such as they are, are reminiscent of another mod classic in the Sean Connery Bond movies; Tom Cruise is a more physically gifted actor than Connery ever was, but we’re meant to sort of nod along like we’ve seen all this before, even if cabling Ethan Hunt into that clean room is still a great thrill. The Sting is ahead of its time in terms of the twisty ending, yet the film is set in the 1930s rather than taking place in some more modern setting. In the late ’60s and ’70s, movies about crime or other desultory lifestyles like Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection had already been hits and won Best Picture, and they did so by emphasizing a gritty, barely civilized New York City. The Sting transposes itself to Chicago, the home of the old gangland violence, and in so doing creates a lighter version of the gangster movies which killed in the 1930s. Paul Newman and Robert Redford, smooth doll-like versions of itchier past stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, get involved in crimes which are significantly less hairy than the massacres and mob kingmaking that dominated those influential films. Familarity gives a little grime to the con artists of The Sting which I can’t imagine they’d otherwise be able to indulge in, and the film does for Scott Joplin what Platoon did for Samuel Barber. The Sting is clever, like MI, in approaching us first with something nostalgic and then updating it just enough to make it feel fresh all the same.

Churlishness and nostalgia are not separated by so thick a line, and in the animated kids’ movies that fill this category, that line is victim of some pretty serious tapdancing. Toy Story 2, Up, and Shrek each confront this idea of nostalgia; for the Pixar films, the idea is diegetic, where in Shrek the concept itself is the proof of this nostalgic perspective. The Shrek backlash, which I’ve heard in many places but which I think is done most cogently by Griffin Newman on the Blank Check podcast and by Scott Tobias’ briefly reviled article at The Guardian, tends to focus on the film’s apathy-as-coolness approach. (No one ever seems to blame South Park enough in these retrospectives.) In Tobias’s review, he refers to the poor balance that film strikes between “a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time” and relying on stuff like “Hallelujah” to go for a saccharine jugular anyway. I liked the Tobias article—heaven knows there’s no need to make more of Shrek as an artistic triumph—even if that section gets a little closer to a call for an old-fashioned canon than I can endorse myself. He has, however, gotten to the root of the nostalgic paradox in viewing Shrek. It’s made for people who want to show how beyond their childhood and their immature years they are, people who can identify a staleness in fairytales. It’s also made for people who think that identifying that staleness means more jokes about loosing gas from one end or another of one’s body. And Tobias is right; in the end, Shrek is even more hopelessly romantic than any of the fairytales that it spoofs, engaging in a huge pity party for Shrek and Fiona before barfing up a message about how it’s what’s inside that makes you beautiful. The idea of a fractured fairytale is in itself a nostalgic perspective to take, especially when it has a moral at the end as loud as the one in Shrek. It wants to make you laugh, feel good, engage with the stories from your past; over and over again, the film uses visual callouts to other fairytales or well-placed lines (“This cage is too small!”) for quickie laughs. Down to the happy ending, nostalgia is the guiding force in making Shrek amenable for audiences.

It’s probably more interesting that Shrek has that kind of effect on people, but as films themselves, Toy Story 2 and Up are significantly more invested in questioning why their characters are using nostalgia as a placeholder for a much stronger feeling about death. In Toy Story 2, it takes only so much convincing to get Woody to come with the rest of the Roundup toys to a Japanese museum. A few episodes of the TV show, a room full of memorabilia, and a very sad song sung by a very sad cowgirl doll move him to leaving behind Andy and Andy’s toys in favor of making the move to an entirely different part of the world where he will, in Stinky Pete’s words, “last forever.” This is a double-edged nostalgia that compels Woody to make that decision. On one side of the blade, there’s a nostalgia for a time that he doesn’t actually remember on his own, an early ’60s moment almost four decades before the contemporary setting of the film, and most importantly a time when Woody (or someone very much like him) was a Star. On the other, there’s a nostalgia for a happier time, maybe even a pre-Buzz time, when Andy was willing and able to lavish attention on Woody as a hero; in choosing to go to Japan, Woody is vainly hoping to relive that irretrievable time. What Woody’s nostalgia is covering up here is a fear of death. Woody couldn’t decompose before a new ice age began, but he is terrified of dying, and his nostalgia for those two pasts functions as his means of temporarily warding off the inevitable. As for Carl, his nostalgia for that terribly happy time with Ellie is a fragile shield for his own grief. His decision to balloon his house to Paradise Falls might be set in motion because he’s set to lose the ol’ homestead, but it’s a choice he makes because he would rather tread the past than swim the future. What’s beautiful about Up is that when he lightens the house and leaves behind so many of the objects which reminded him of his past, he’s rejecting nostalgia for memory. It’s not that he wants to cozy up to the moments anymore, but that he wants to live again, fighting another old man atop a zeppelin, with those moments strengthening him for something new.

There is no nostalgia as potent as the nostalgia for childhood itself, though, and it’s rare to find two blockbusters that appeal to that species as E.T. and The Avengers, the biggest hits of 1982 and 2012, respectively. The Avengers appeals to the kind of authority that makes us feel secure in the back seat of a minivan. No matter how bad things get, no matter how scary the monsters are, there are adults who can take things for us. In the words of noted supervillain Samuel Byck via Stephen Sondheim, “We need to believe—to trust—like little kids, that someone wants what’s best for us.” When the Avengers appear in a circle together in New York City, the first yet final line of defense for the city/the planet against an invading army, the protection they provide basically becomes infantilization. No matter how old or how experienced the people in the streets are, they are children on the run in the face of a force more powerful than any of them can adult through on their own. Tony Stark can blithely tell Loki that “we have a Hulk,” but it’s a “we” that’s limited to the grown-ups with their supertraining, supersuits, superweapons, and superpowers. Some mommies kiss scraped knees all better, and some of them team up with other highly trained agents to scissor kick and pistol whip bad guys.

For all the tsuris about the single mom raising three kids, the feds busting in to vivisect your buddy, whatever, E.T. still possesses some of the purest moments of cultural nostalgia that I’ve ever come across in a film. Henry Thomas never really caught on as an actor after Elliott, but that doesn’t take away from the wonder in the performance. He’s raw and vulnerable, as you’d expect a preteen to be in that kind of situation, and protective and a little odd. That scene where the connection between boy and alien is played out with such clarity—E.T. landing on The Quiet Man is a sign that our squat botanist friend has film taste which is, ahem, out of this world—is lovely because you can spot such a blithe awkwardness in this kid even in his state of abandon. Nothing beats the nostalgia that comes from memories of riding your bike around the neighborhood, trying to jump it off of plywood and concrete blocks. I may not be the world’s biggest E.T. stand, but even I can recognize that the scene where Elliott takes his bike where no kid has ever been able to take his bike before is a singular one expressing the imaginative joy of childhood.

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