For better or worse, nostalgia is the new currency.
Did you ever think we'd see Terminator, a Jurassic Park film and a Max Max sequel sitting at or near the top of the box office all at once? What decade is this, again? Yes, 2015 has brought us a few fresh sci-fi surprises like Ex Machina, big sequels like Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a few lame duck originals like Tomorrowland (we'll save that column for another day), but it's really been the year of sci-fi classics coming back to life, often with mixed results.
As Terminator: Genisys opened wide last week, trailed by a smattering of mostly negative reviews, we can't help but start feeling a bit of nostalgia fatigue. The first 15 minutes set up what could've been the breakout genre hit of the summer, weaving in deft homages to (and full-on re-creations of) the 1984 original that started it all, with some nice twists to boot. But after that? The whole thing devolves into a paint-by-numbers, PG-13 action film that could be mistaken for just about any other movie on the market. After 15 minutes of nostalgia-baiting, it turns into Transformers-lite and throws in some of the most bone-headed plot points ("We were gonna explain it in the sequel!") to string together the fights and explosions.
They went so far already, the best thing director Alan Taylor could've done was follow that rabbit hole a little further and actually tell a story that respected the original films, instead of just shredding them. Instead, they toss in a contrivance to bring the action to the present day, and you can basically cue the generic action movie tropes. The whole thing feels underdeveloped and, halfway through, you find yourself wondering why this movie needs to exist (see: $$$). Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually a lot of fun as "Pops," but Ahnold was also in the abysmal Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. We already knew he couldn't single-handedly save a dud, and the theory holds true here. When the best part of your movie is the part riffing on another movie, that's a problem.
Though Terminator's opening weekend box-office performance was underwhelming, Jurassic Park's recent revival proved a halfway decent movie can still do gangbusters at the office with enough nostalgia dust sprinkled on it. Director Colin Trevorrow's record-breaking Jurassic World, buoyed by Chris Pratt's unfathomable charm, is one of the biggest movies, monetarily speaking, in history — mostly because we all loved Jurassic Park. Admittedly, Jurassic World isn't all that bad, but good enough to be the biggest movie of movie-dom? Not by a long shot.
The dino-sequel deftly played on our fond memories for Spielberg's classic, to the point at which many people didn't really notice the movie they were watching paled in comparison. Smooth operating, to be sure, but some of World's best scenes are when they bring back the Park. That's no accident. Jurassic World is surgically assembled to make you smile and remember how much you enjoyed watching Jurassic Park when you were younger. It's a fun ride in itself, to be sure, but much of that joy is predicated on emotions from two decades ago.
Don't blame Trevorrow, though. The fact that Jurassic World is continuing to shatter box-office records shows that's exactly what we wanted. We love what we know, but complain when you don't give us something new. We want something both familiar and fresh, all at the same time.
We love Jurassic Park. We love Terminator. Heck, we really love Star Wars (The Force Awakens draws closer every day). But we don't want new movies just for the sake of new movies. We don't want stories that retread on retreads and mine the past instead of building something substantial on top of it.
So, can there be a common ground for these vintage franchises? Like anything, it just takes the rare feat of doing it right. It takes good stories, and finding unique ways to call back to those earlier films in an artful way that isn't slavish. Luckily, we don't have to look very far for an example of nostalgia done right: Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller's long-awaited return to his famed franchise is undeniably a Mad Max movie — and also something wholly original. Miller turned his gas-guzzling apocalypse into a bigger sandbox, then told a story way more interesting than what anyone expected.
Max? Pfft. Fury Road is about Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. Sure, Tom Hardy's silent hero had a role to play, but Miller crafted something with the same vibe as the original trilogy — infinitely familiar — while telling one of the freshest stories of the year. Miller took a franchise that was all but forgotten and made one of the best movies of 2015 out of it. Genre or not. Bar none.
In Fury Road, Miller understood something neither Jurassic World nor (especially) Terminator Genisys could figure out. Those films exist because of our lust for nostalgia, but fail to recapture what we actually loved about those original films. Terminator wasn't awesome because it blew up a ton of stuff and had massive car chases and WTF twists. Terminator was great because James Cameron told a relatively simple story with a manageable budget and some street-level camerawork. Jurassic Park is revered to this day because Spielberg weaved an amazing, smart tale about awe and consequence. Sure, we all still remember those game-changing effects, but the emotional connection with Dr. Grant and Ian Malcolm — and the fact that we still hold our breath when those raptors are sweeping through the kitchen — is what we sticks with us all these years later.
There's nothing inherently wrong about capitalizing on existing properties, but many of these decades-later sequels and reboots are missing the point of why those franchises are so loved in the first place. They're valuable because they did something unique, and trying to mold those beloved stories into something that fits the 2015 blockbuster marketplace doesn't work.
Here's hoping the next time a long-dead franchise comes back to life, they'll follow Max into the (proverbial) wasteland for some inspiration.