I had no context to recognize this at the time, but I came of age in a golden era of fantasy cinema. Some of my earliest theatrical experiences included Superman II (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), and Back to the Future (1985). Movies like those were made, by and large, by a generation of filmmakers—notably but not exclusively Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—that had been raised on the sci-fi and fantasy offerings of 1950s B-movies and comics, and later became the first students to major in cinema studies and filmmaking; when that formal training was fused with their pulp passions, the contemporary blockbuster was born: first with Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977), and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Superman: The Movie (1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Goonies (1985). That cornucopia of imaginative fantasy—hardly an all-encompassing list, by the way—was my first exposure to the movies. Is it any wonder I was hooked for life?
A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…
The heyday of Lucas and Spielberg coincided with the advent of home video, which made those filmic wonders, like only comic books had been up till that point, available to relive on demand. We watched them with our friends, over and over again, and thrilled to the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Marty McFly. Then we’d head out into the street and pretend to be Ghostbusters or Jedi or time travelers until the sunlight dimmed, at which point we did the only thing we had the gas left to do: return home and load the VCR once again. We grew up with those characters; we learned our values from them: Luke Skywalker taught us idealism; Indiana Jones, determination; Axel Foley, self-confidence; the Ghostbusters gave us a model for teamwork. Their musical cues, often courtesy the great John Williams, became our musical cues—the “soundtrack of our youth,” to borrow a clichéd and sentimental turn of phrase. They are the cinematic heroes of my generation.
It should be noted that, with the exceptions of Jaws (which began as Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, though Universal acquired the film rights before the manuscript was published) and Richard Donner’s Superman (which was groundbreaking in its own right in that it was the first big-budget comic-book adaptation, and it treated its subject matter like a myth, not a goof), all of those movies were based on original screenplays. Sure, Lucas was famously inspired by the old Saturday-matinée serials, and Spielberg the Amazing Stories magazines of his youth, but that’s where the creative debt ended and new, previously “undiscovered” fictional worlds were conceived.
RETURN OF THE JEDI (AMONG OTHERS)
My generation, it turns out, doesn’t know from inspiration. We’re the ones more or less running Hollywood now, and all we’ve done so far is recycle. (Well, “all” might be overstating it a bit, but we definitely haven’t ushered a silver age of original fantasy.) News broke last week that Melissa McCarthy has been cast in the Ghostbusters reboot, and Chris Pratt, with his apt scruffy charm, is under consideration to assume the role of Indiana Jones. And chew over this sampling of titles either on their way to theaters or in active development: Jurassic World; Mad Max: Fury Road; Terminator Genisys; Jem and the Holograms; Escape from New York; Masters of the Universe; a belated Blade Runner follow-up; a third Tron; a fifth Transformers; yet another iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; one more excellent adventure for Bill & Ted; a Rocky spin-off; Rambo: Last Blood; Top Gun 2; Beverly Hills Cop IV…
“There’s something very familiar about all this…”—Old Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) struggles to put his finger on why Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) hoverboard escape evokes youthful memories in Back to the Future, Part II (1989)
Now, some of those are remakes and others direct sequels; some are pure fantasy while others, like Rocky and Jem, are more of the “wish-fulfillment” variety. But, they all have origins in the same era. And it makes me wonder: Why are we selling today’s kids yesterday’s dreams?
I’m not naïve, mind you—I fully understand the corporate impetus to do so. And this isn’t a proprietary thing: I love sharing the fictional heroes of my upbringing with my nieces and nephews. But, what kind of cultural contributions are we making when all we can seem to do is trade in the very fantasies that were given to us?
Take J.J. Abrams. Supremely talented filmmaker. Considers Spielberg a personal hero. I get that—so do I. Now consider Abrams’ directorial résumé: Mission: Impossible III. Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens. Those aren’t his visions; they’re Bruce Geller’s, Gene Roddenberry’s, and George Lucas’, respectively. I thought Spielberg was Abrams’ role model? Because it seems to me that Spielberg went out and forged new cinematic territory: He gave us these incredible cultural treasures we all share, like Jaws and Indy and E.T. What are we giving the next generation, exactly, except warmed-over second helpings?
Full disclosure: I will be first in line for The Force Awakens this December, so I acknowledge that studios and filmmakers are very much meeting a public demand for “more of the same.” Hell, I’m looking forward to a number of the aforementioned offerings—Mad Max and Terminator and Creed among them—but that is exactly my point: The forthcoming Star Wars, with its eagerly anticipated Hamill-Ford-Fisher reunion, is a love letter both made by and for fans of my age, and not an all-new creative enterprise designed to inspire the receptive imaginations of a new generation—to gift them, as we were gifted, with their own playgrounds to nurture their own dreams.
True, we’ve given them Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which are arguably as “big” as the ‘70s and ‘80s blockbusters, but don’t pat yourself on the back just yet, Hollywood: Those are literary adaptations, not pure cinematic creations; they were proven entities in one medium with a preexisting fan base at the time they were commissioned as big-budget films, whereas movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future were, hard as it may be to believe now, risky undertakings, both creatively and financially. It took vision to produce those projects, whereas any half-assed executive could’ve seen the enormous earning potential in movies based on sure-thing literary properties like Harry Potter and Hunger Games. See, that was part of the pleasure of Star Wars and Raiders and Back to the Future: We couldn’t have anticipated what we never saw coming; we discovered those films together.
A NEW HOPE
The custodians of pop culture have a responsibility to do better—to dream bigger. To facilitate the evolution of our collective cultural fantasies to their next innovative permutation (which does not include so-called “reboots” of aging intellectual properties, a term I can only imagine was adopted to allay the artistic affront implied by “remake”?). That’s not to say that inspired new interpretations aren’t possible in the right creative hands—I’ve written at length about characters that have managed to transcend their fictive origins to achieve immortality in the form of perennial folkloric reinterpretation—but, really, content creators ought to spend more time creating content, not recycling it.
That’s not going to be so easily done in corporate Hollywood, I realize, but there are emerging technologies—self-distribution platforms like CreateSpace—that offer opportunities for forward-thinking filmmakers to utilize them responsibly (meaning, you’ve got to know your craft). It won’t be easy—the act of creation never is, and doing so in the shadow of corporately funded mega-franchises is daunting—but it is worth trying. Every generation deserves its own particular set of fantastical heroes to inspire its imagination; mine was blessed with an embarrassment of riches, but the best we’ve managed to do thus far is reinvest the wealth rather than create new product. Sound familiar? So should this: Our children deserve better.