There’s a sweet little moment in The X-Files Season 11. Titled The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, the giddy yet beautifully enigmatic Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) anticipates the first sweet taste from her past. The cherry flavoured Goop-O A-B-C (which might as well be an X-File for defying the odds at how a small packet of jelly can fill a giant-sized bigfoot mould) symbolises everything Scully remembers about her childhood – her mother, 4th of July weekend, vacations, God, love, America!
But she stops herself at a crucial point. Mulder, bewildered yet gazing at Scully wonders why she hesitated. This jelly which culminated in a decades-long search was finally in front of her. The truth was within grasp.
Her response took my breath away:
“I want to remember how it was. I want to remember how it all was.”
The sentiment behind that beautiful line becomes a triple meaning thanks to fan favourite Darin Morgan. Considering season 11 is most likely the last time we’ll ever see The X-Files on our screens, it’s a solemn goodbye from the writer and director to a show that re-shaped the TV cultural landscape. Shows such as LOST, Alias, Supernatural, Breaking Bad, 24, Homeland and even procedural crime dramas owe a huge debt to what The X-Files established. Secondly, it was Mulder and Scully overcoming their fractured differences to continue their romance as life partners once again. Lastly, it’s Darin’s witty and out-of-this-world observations at politics, the truth and fan culture. Specifically, with fan culture, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat playfully examined memory (The Mandela Effect) and our subjective recollections of the “good old days”.
In other words, fan culture has become like the episode’s subject Reggie Something (Brian Huskey), a character who obsessively believed in Mulder and Scully’s quest that he imagined he was a crucial member of the team!
The X-Files Season 11 was a high dosage of nostalgia, pumped-up and injected into the veins of the fandom to restore that feel-good buzz of the glory days as if we were all Mr Burns from The Springfield Files cheating death every week. Overall it worked and despite a few contentious issues, Chris Carter and co. delivered an entertaining season, a feat which hasn’t been seen since season 8.
But it is fascinating how that feeling can perform in that way. Nostalgia is like comfort food that you have now and again to make you feel better. Nostalgia is like sneaking into the kitchen like a “secret lemonade drinker”. Nostalgia is like an addictive drug that you refuse to kick the habit. Whatever the connotation, nostalgia will forever be an emotional experience.
It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with popular media using nostalgia as a self-referential mechanism. It’s an everyday occurrence. It’s how we identify with a product, brand or character. But the very idea of it has become contentious, especially how there is a growing cultural dependency on it within remakes, reboots and sequels.
Now due to time constraints, I was unable to review Solo or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom but it quickly dawned on me how both films entertain nostalgia as part of its plot. Coincidentally, they both encounter the same problems.
Both films utilise nostalgia as a validation. Whether it’s Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) receiving his iconic blaster gun or Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) staring thoughtfully at John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) painting, it becomes an Easter-egg treasure trove of memories for you to emotionally acknowledge. It has an unhelpful and frequent habit of stopping the film momentarily just to recognise its significance as if the film was purposely releasing a Mr Meeseeks out of its box.
On some desirable level, both films deliver everything its audience ever wanted – adventure, thrills, fun and entertainment. So how come there was a feeling of emptiness as soon as the end credits rolled?
A lot of excuses have been thrown towards Solo for example for its under-performance at the box office. Some suggested it was fandom backlash after Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Given the ferocious divisiveness, it would seem some voted with their feet, going as far as launching a fan site to remake the film (which I won’t share because they don’t deserve the increased web traffic). Some noted that releasing a Star Wars movie in between Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 was not a great move by a studio that has complete dominance over its competitors. That may be true but I don’t buy it or any commentary about a ‘Star Wars fatigue’. Star Wars is Star Wars. It has a global and enthusiastic reach. You would have to be living under a rock if you didn’t know what it was. Some have argued that a movie about the adventures of young Han Solo was unnecessary, which sadly I agree. Those same questions will be asked if the Boba Fett and Obi-Wan movie eventually moves forward. But annoyingly, some have childishly blamed current head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy. If 2018 will be remembered for something other than the toxic, blame culture and entitlement then it will be fans suffering from acute short-term memory loss. Kennedy’s IMDB page might as well be a series of cinematic mic drops, producing films from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to Lincoln as well as lending support to the English translation versions of Studio Ghibli films. Now that’s hardly someone who fans have claimed she has “ruined their childhood”.
But what should be acknowledged is the quality of the product. Solo was a stale and forgettable film.
For all its potential vastness that the Star Wars franchise possesses, Disney and Lucasfilm decided to make the universe smaller. Unfortunately, Disney and Lucasfilm can’t escape the cynicism in emulating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, replicating that ‘connect the dots’ formula to keep the franchise going. But it only serves as a miscalculation. Star Wars is not on the same level as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Iron Man was first released back in 2008, no-one, not even Marvel anticipated where it was going. But thanks to a collective vision in creating an episodic format within its cinematic universe, meant that fans could participate together at the same time. Avengers: Infinity War was a $1 billion dollar success story at the box office. Star Wars has crossed far too many generations to have that same field, constantly battling the nostalgia of its past, the innovation of the present and its future success.
But in its bid to satisfy its rabid fan base who have been desperate for new material, this constant jostling has laid the groundwork towards the increased use of fan service.
That was my problem with Solo. It’s easy to cut it some slack for its troubled production or positively comment on its stylistic visuals. But it wasn’t enough to justify its existence. Instead of an exciting crime caper, we get a film that rolls out each significant moment as a checkbox of convenient circumstances. Han was always in the right place to perform those familiar moments instead of genuinely influencing the stakes.
Sometimes the mythos of a character is more powerful than its visualisation. When you have a character that is charismatically distinct like Han Solo where his ‘smuggler to hero’ story has a tragic and completed arc, confirming what we already know is not a story worth telling. Solo comfortably regurgitates every Stars Wars trope without taking any risks. When you don’t add anything new, it becomes boring, hence the feeling of emptiness.
It’s the same feeling with Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a bible of geekdom that lost momentum due to its generic character development from its young leads. Star Trek didn’t escape the nostalgia bug when writers Kurtzman and Orci decided to give Kirk (Chris Pine) his Wrath of Khan moment in Star Trek into Darkness. Despite its good intentions, Kirk’s death scene doesn’t have the same emotional resonance that the original encapsulates. Ghost in the Shell (2017) copied moments from the original anime film which only served to paper over the cracks for a directionless film.
Nostalgia is a complicated quandary because it desperately wants to invest in those emotional and personal connections, but its over-reliance often means a disconnected experience. Fans want to feel that deep-rooted connection of the past yet continuously reject any changes because it disrupts their comforting memory. It’s natural to feel disappointed when it doesn’t live up to expectations, but the growing backlash has turned into an ugly vice amongst fans.
It doesn’t help when fans remain indecisive and contradictory about their expectations. But the studios’ overindulgence in pleasing its fan base means the story is ultimately sacrificed. It is a misconstrued notion that nostalgia equals profitable success when a film needs substance to hold it together. Getting everything you want will never have the complete satisfaction because it leaves you with nothing to gain afterwards. Its lack of bravery becomes an endless loop that acts out in fear of change or re-invention.
Perhaps there is a better way to utilise nostalgia as a storytelling convention. Nostalgia works when the call back feels genuine and warranted and not something designed to artificially move you. Nostalgia works when it has a controlled purpose and not included just for the sake of it. Nostalgia has to have a balance and understanding of what made that moment iconic, but also enough authority to make it identifiably unique.
The best example of a film living up to those principles is Ryan Coogler’s Creed. The Rocky franchise is not as big as Star Wars or Star Trek for example, but it has its own rich and emotional history.
Everyone loves an underdog story, and in Creed, Coogler was able to use the nostalgia to his advantage, using Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) as the gateway. He tackles it culturally, moving from a recognisable Italian-American boxer to a young African-American man. He undertakes a social change using Adonis’ upbringing through different environmental structures (foster care, privileged home to living a boxer’s life in a new city) to highlight the difference between Rocky’s eventual “rags to riches” storyline. But Coogler also delivers an emotional change. Adonis feels burdened by the past and yet actively seeks out that connection. His relationship with Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) rises above teacher/trainer but father and son, drawing parallels of Mike Tyson’s partnership with the legendary Cus D’Amato. But crucially, the film uses the legacy as a positive reaffirmation. This film is about Adonis and not Rocky thanks to Coogler’s distinct imprint and Ludwig Göransson’s rousing score. As Rocky passes the torch to his young counterpart, it’s not just a symbol of the franchise but a significant life metaphor. Don’t be afraid of the past. Chart your own future.
I think we can all learn from Dana Scully. Scully doesn’t lament her memories. She treasures them. Yes, she could have indulged it like how the Cookie Monster eats cookies or snapped it for Instagram with its multitude of layers that rivals the mysterious Goop-O A-B-C. But she makes a balanced choice on the possibility that it might not be as good as she once remembered but understanding that it’s OK to let go. You can still remember the past with a sentimental fondness (which will always be there, untainted and untouched) but still being present to enjoy what is next to come.
That is what nostalgia should be, that negotiated balance that uses the past as an inspiration, but doesn’t feel the pressure to abide by it. It has the confidence to chart its own destiny. There’s no need to get upset especially when nostalgia is an unstoppable trend. You can’t stop time but a franchise can only be judged by how far it has come.
So the next time you wonder whether something is going to “ruin your childhood”, be like Scully. Pause, reflect and remember how it used to be.