It's no secret to anyone that we live in an Everything Old Is New Again age of pop culture. Remakes are nothing new, certainly, nor are re-imaginings of old concepts, but there's a density to it right now that I can't remember seeing before. Everything from The X-Files to Twin Peaks to Full House is coming back to TV. We're getting our third movie Spider-Man. The Star Wars universe that exists between the films is being rewritten before our very eyes. Oh yeah, and Star Trek is coming back to TV.
Now, you can chalk some of that up to the standard Hollywood "If something works, keep doing it ad nauseam" mentality, but we can thank ourselves for a good bit of this. Fans love a good callback. I know because I teared up when Han Solo said, "Chewie, we're home" in that trailer for The Force Awakens, and there's a good chance you did, too. Even if we know we risk tinkering with perfection, even if we believe that it's better to burn out than fade away, we can't help ourselves when we find out Mulder and Scully and Agent Dale Cooper and Admiral Ackbar are coming back. We love it, even when we hate it (how many people can't stop talking about The Phantom Menace even as they profess to loathe it and never watch it again?), and so Hollywood is quite happy to oblige us. Which brings me to the new James Bond film, Spectre, which hit U.S. theaters over the weekend.
SPOILERS for Spectre Follow!
If you know anything at all about classic James Bond (by classic, I mean the Connery era), then you know that some of the surprises the characters encounter over the course of Spectre aren't surprises to you at all. The very title of the movie betrays that this will follow a worldwide organization bent on terror, the same organization that so dominated the early years of Bondian cinema. This was exciting for fans, particularly when Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) was cast as the apparent head of the organization. Could this Oscar winner be the next incarnation of Bond's great nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld? No, the film's marketing told us. Waltz was playing a man named Franz Oberhauser. Fair enough. Maybe Oberhauser is some kind of Blofeld predecessor, or even a front for the real power behind the Spectre throne. Still, suspicion persisted. We kept asking, and the filmmakers kept saying, "No, he's not Blofeld."
Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah ...
Yes, we fans suffered through the same PR obfuscation with Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that repeatedly insisted Benedict Cumberbatch wasn't playing Khan, right up until the moment he says "My name is ... Khan." Spectre features a similar moment of revelation, one in which Waltz declares that Franz Oberhauser is dead (the character faked his death years before) and tells Bond he is now Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a name he adopted from his mother's family. Both moments are shot with a great deal of cinematic weight. We're meant to believe they're thick with meaning.
And they would be, if it weren't for the fact that these names carry no meaning to the heroes of the respective stories. Why should Chris Pine's Captain Kirk care about the name Khan? He doesn't know until Leonard Nimoy's Spock explains the issue. Why should Bond care about the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld when he's never encountered it before? He shouldn't, and he doesn't. These are scenes written entirely so certain members of the audience can go "Ahhh," and nudge the person sitting next to them to prove that they're an OG fan who knows these characters and saw the "twist" coming all along. Oh, and by the way, if you're not one of those fans, the twists carry no meaning for you at all. They're just names.
Whenever you participate in some kind of pop culture revival, there's always an element of giving the fans what they want. There simply has to be if it's going to work at all, because you need to prove to the loyal crowd that you get it, that you love it as much as they do. That's why "Chewie, we're home" works. That's why you need the "I Want to Believe" poster in the X-Files trailers. That's why "Bond. James Bond" must be said in every single one of that character's films. It's also why the Bond franchise wanted to bring back Blofeld, and the Star Trek franchise wanted to bring back Khan.
So, why do the former examples work when the latter examples don't? Because these twisty little bits of fan service don't also serve the story. It doesn't matter one lick in Spectre that the guy's name is Blofeld, yet so much of the film hinges on that twist that, once the twist comes, it falls apart (and I say this as a guy who actually liked big chunks of the movie). The same goes for Khan, only in that case it might be even worse because that film then spirals into a weird remix of Star Trek II that ends with a ridiculous superblood contrivance. The stories don't actually gain anything.
On the other hand, the first film in the Star Trek reboot continuity is packed with little callbacks that both work as part of the story and amuse fans. You've got Chekov's inability to say the letter "V," and Kirk sleeping with a hot green alien, and the origin of Bones' nickname, and even the actual moment when Kirk cheats the Kobayashi Maru test. Then there's Casino Royale, the debut of the current Bond continuity. It's a different, darker Bond story, one about an assassin still finding his cold heart, but you've still got the Aston Martins and the cocktails and the suit that looks almost exactly like what Sean Connery wore in Goldfinger. The callbacks and Easter eggs and little remixes are all still there, but they're nestled in a story, not ostentatiously masquerading as a weighty plot.
So if you're working on a massive pop culture remake/reboot/revival, and you want to serve the fans, make sure you do it with an eye toward breaking new ground, not just dredging up greatest hits.