Our Past-Obsessed Culture: Does Hollywood’s reboot obsession point to a more pervasive cultural trend?
Photo taken by Flickr user Garry Knight.
By James Orbesen
It’s hard not to feel like Kyle Reese, of The Terminator fame, a man out of time, when he screams at an LA cop, “What day is it? The date! The year!” Of course, it’s 2015, but one wouldn’t know it from the cinema marquee. Last year, seven of the ten highest grossing films were sequels (Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay—Part 1, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is actually a sequel to a reboot). Of the remaining three, only Interstellar was an original concept. Maleficent (a remake of the Snow White tale) and Guardians of the Galaxy were all based on existing properties with an established history.
Our history has returned and it’s here to make money. Remakes, reboots, and sequels dominate the silver screen. Transformers: Age of Extinction, which is technically all three (the fourth Michael Bay helmed film, a remake of the original cartoon series, and a reboot featuring an entirely new cast and setting) earned over $1.104 billion, an amount of money not far from the GDP of a small nation. Furthermore, 2014 broke box office records with fifteen films taking in over $500 million. Not surprisingly, the additional five films (aside from American Sniper, which was based on a memoir) are all sequels, remakes, and reboots. With that amount of money on the table, it’s no surprise that so many contemporary films steal from a past we remember far more clearly than our present.
None of this is news. Cinema, because of its need for to make magic for audiences, has always chased the dollar. Remakes, reboots, and sequels have been with us since the dawn of cinema. Victor Fleming, director of Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, remade Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars from 1964 is a straight remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo, though in a thoroughly different setting. Even Cecil B. DeMille remade his own films, doing it in 1921 with Forbidden Fruit, an update of 1915’s Golden Chance. And you thought the turnaround on Spider-Man films was quick.
Rand Paul recently rebooted his sagging presidential campaign. Anthony Weiner tried to reboot his career, but it failed to stick. The reboot drive is culturally pervasive.
However, the speed at which films are being spun-off, remade, or rebooted, and the quantity of films we’re offered, has increased. Sequels (and prequels) are understandable regarding the logic of the market. People want more of what they liked the first time around. Remakes are also easy to spot and fairly straightforward, a spin on or redux of a film’s central premise. Some are actually quite good, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing spring to mind, schlocky concepts turned into genuinely enjoyable films.
The real tricky one, and the one Hollywood seems to bank on more and more is the reboot, franchise bait, resulting in sequel after sequel. What makes a reboot different? Unlike a sequel, it is intended as a ground zero, This Is Where It Starts, so to speak. Differing from a remake, it is not taking the original premise and spinning it into something new. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was radically different in tone and execution from George Romero’s, but the narrative still focused on a mall full of survivors.
What a reboot does is what a discerning person does when buying produce: picking and choosing the best bits to take home. It’s a rummage sale. A reboot is something that comes solely from an established franchise and that’s why theaters are currently overrun. It forms both a connection to the past while promising a more profitable present and future. This tendency to reboot isn’t limited to film, though it might be the most visible. Chicago’s Lollapalooza is just a 2005 reboot of Perry Farrell’s tour from the 1990s, only centralized, making it predictable and easier to control. Physical space can be rebooted (think of gentrification in areas of Brooklyn, Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit) a purposeful reclamation of place passed over by the onrush of time. Even political careers and campaigns are rebooted, periodically. Candidate X shakes off a scandal, gaffe, or low poll numbers, ready to emerge as the new and improved voice of the people, such as Rand Paul, who recently rebooted his sagging presidential campaign.
Anthony Weiner tried to reboot his career, but it failed to stick. The reboot drive is culturally pervasive.
This summer is the reboot summer. Jurassic World has made more money than anyone could have conceived of, being the first film to earn $500 million its opening weekend, and the fastest to secure the $1 billion brass ring studios increasingly chase. And this is from a film that purposefully appropriates the past in service of the present and future. Of course, the basic premise (a theme park with dinosaurs) is recycled but, again, a reboot is about separating wheat from chaff, picking what was iconic and leaving what wasn’t.
Remember that iconic Jurassic Park logo? It appears on a character’s t-shirt. The poison-spitting Dilophosaurus, famous for snacking on Wayne Knight’s Dennis Nedry, has a cameo as an educational hologram. Putting two siblings in danger heightened the tension in the first film and is deployed in the reboot. The breakout dino-star of the original, the T-Rex, roars with gusto, appearing as a last minute savior, just as it did before. Even the original park equipment, overgrown but functional, is trotted out. From sound effects to music cues, locations and themes, Jurassic World recycles its past with verdant efficiency and urgency. Why not? Half the work of a reboot is done before filming begins. The real effort is mostly devising a way to string these pearls of the past together.
Jurassic World, despite its auto-cannibalism, isn’t the prime example, however. One film embodies the reboot mentality to the hilt, complete with a clever workaround to sauce audiences into justifying its existence. In fact, this film might be the apex reboot, the keystone, the definition of how a reboot is done, emblematic of all their shortcomings and promises. As such, it represents the lengths studios will go to raid the past.
Terminator Genisys is that reboot, a franchise founded on time traveling cyborgs attempting to adjust the future by altering the past (our present). When one considers that all reboots are attempts at time travel, changing the past to suit the present, it makes utter sense that this franchise lends itself to this schema. This perfect match between form and content isn’t a way to say Terminator Genisys is a good film, or even a tolerable film (it isn’t). What this registers as is an almost self-aware reboot, one with its arms dug so deep into the past there’s no way of not noticing.
Yet, unlike other franchises subjected to the reboot treatment, Terminator Genisys is organic, grown into the filmic narrative from the get-go. In a way, The Terminator is built to be rebooted and the most recent entry into the franchise capitalizes on that. The narrative tacks back to James Cameron’s first installment, set in 1984, then to 2017 via further time traveling. 2029, as the narrative emphasizes, intrudes on the past, altering 1974, 1984, and 2017. But, really producers from 2015 are the ones knocking, not killer cyborgs. This entry scrambles the timeline, both rebooting the narrative and enabling current audiences to indulge in the nostalgia of scene recreation and catchphrases rendered new.
The self-awareness comes from the amount of time dedicated to time itself. Again, reboots are attempts at time travel and the central conceit of the Cameron birthed franchise is Skynet, the villainous AI responsible for humanity’s destruction, looking to the past and thinking, “lemme make this better.” Terminator Genisys’ plot is convoluted to the extreme, involving multiple time jumps, locations, and Schwarzeneggers. While past reboots recycle, few are brazen enough to recreate entire scenes, even whole performances. A stand-in bodybuilder is slathered with digital trickery to bring back Arnold in his mid-80s prime. Even the arrival of Schwarzengger’s terminator in 1984, his confrontation with three punks at the Griffith Observatory, is a shot for shot recreation, as is Kyle Reese’s nighttime chase through a department store.
We are all now terminators, routinely sent back in time. Arnold, whether as the aged performer or the digitally altered simulacra, radically altered our present with the reboot.
Attention to these details constitutes a deliberate and self-aware act of rebooting. Coincidentally, these recreations are the best parts of Terminator Genisys, only because they’re lifted from better films. Yet, the movie gets away with this because, ultimately, this is a time travel story. We should see these events again because that’s the way they transpired. This cover deflects larger, systemic criticism of reboots in general. Studios can say it isn’t the creative bankruptcy of the writers, or the greed of producers, but a re-representation of an already established time line. It’s a reboot by way of a remake, yet still doing the temporal shoplifting required of a reboot. In other words: a shell game.
This has been coming for quite a while. The Terminator might have, unconsciously, developed the filmic vocabulary of the reboot via its highly quotable, and recyclable, lines, now deployed to describe current commercial cinema. Honestly, what is the impact of “I’ll be back,” without the promise of an imminent return? We crave that line, and get it in Terminator Genisys, multiple times. It did say it’ll be back. The classic, “come with me if you want to live,” is equivalent to the demands of a commercial studio system. Make more of these films, if you want a career. That is, if you want to live. And, certainly, the steely “get out,” exists as a cautionary totem of playing by the game money engineered or, otherwise, hightailing it for the prestige zones of Netflix, HBO, or indie cinema, cute places made by money that doesn’t necessarily guarantee money.
This potential in films has existed from the start but we live in a world that feeds on the past to birth the future, both in music, art, cinema, and technology. It’s the ouroboros, the snake swallowing its tail.
We are all now terminators, routinely sent back in time. Arnold, whether as the aged performer or the digitally altered simulacra, radically altered our present with the reboot. While Kyle Reese was sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, insuring John Connor’s existence and victory over our machine overlords, we’re made to see this conflict enacted, again and again, for our purported delight. It’s the bar song conceit: screaming I love this song at 1 a.m. is really saying I recognize this song.
This potential in films has existed from the start but we live in a world that feeds on the past to birth the future, both in music, art, cinema, and technology. It’s the ouroboros, the snake swallowing its tail. Under a different name, we might call it capitalism, the instinct to flatten and make uniform that which is profitable. There’s Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s and Chili’s, but what’s the difference between them, really, and the artisanal stuff is just as beholden to doing what we’ve been given before: Five Guys, In-N-Out, Shake Shack, M-Burger. This drive to provide the safe and familiar is structural, a constant need to raid the stores of our memory for profit.
Do we want to sit through another rendition of Ben-Hur, The Jungle Book, or Frankenstein, a Ghostbusters reboot, a sequel to Independence Day come twenty years late? Do we want to see our classics redone, rebooted, and spun-off, refreshed for a new generation, but losing something in its drive to contemporize? Is that what we want from our art? Looking beyond film, do we really want the same people in power, the same candidates, incumbents, and dynasties pulling strings both political and financial? These are the necessary questions worth asking when the past is appropriated.
James Orbesen is a professor from Chicago and author of the forthcoming book GUD DOG: Examining Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3 (Sequart). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Jacobin, PopMatters, and elsewhere.