[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 10 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Beginning Again.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Year after year, Hollywood churns a host of sequels, reboots, and remakes on a quest to find Eden, because embedded deep within our souls is a nostalgic quest for a lost paradise—and film is often where it leads us. Some fear “Hollywood has run out of ideas;” it is a common belief. You have heard those exact words before. You’ve read them in blogs and in a movie reviews. You’ve made the claim yourself and with good reason. Most new movies these days are sequels, prequels, reboots, or just straightforward remakes. Consider the top-ten grossing films of 2014. Five of them were either a sequel or a prequel: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Of the remaining five, four of them are based on source material produced or popular during the adolescent years of many a contemporary moviegoer. Even this year, the top-three grossing films are sequels: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Furious 7.
We say we object to Hollywood’s production pattern, we say we want original content—yet the old stories continue to be the most popular films. We accuse executives, producers, and screenwriters of lazy moviemaking, yet we affirm their choices with every ticket we purchase. Theatrical film production is a 40 billion dollar industry. If we all suddenly stopped paying to see sequels, reboots, and adaptations, they would no longer be made. The reason Hollywood seems unoriginal is because when it comes to films, we prefer nostalgia to novelty.
C. S. Lewis provides a beautiful and succinct eschatological explanation for this phenomenon. In Mere Christianity, reflecting on human desire, he says:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.
For Lewis, our desires and the things satisfying them are an essential part of human life. Nostalgia is a desire, not unlike a baby’s desire for food, a duckling’s desire to swim or person’s desire for sex. However, nostalgia is unique in that it is, “a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy.” This is because each of us, as creations of a providential God, has a built-in desire for heaven. In a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis puts it this way:
Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.
According to Lewis, nostalgia, rather than a longing for better days or bygone memories, is a desire for how things are meant to be, how they once were, and how they ultimately will be.
The biblical concept for this idea is shalom. Philosopher of religion Nicholas Wolterstorff describes shalom as “harmony and delight in all one’s relationships—with God, with other human beings, with culture, with nature, with oneself.” God created the world for shalom, and the first two chapters of Genesis describe the garden of Eden as a state of harmony and delight between mankind and God, mankind and others, mankind and nature, and mankind and self. The Bible concludes with a similar view of harmony and delight, when God inaugurates a new heaven and new earth in the last two chapters of Revelation. However, in our current sinful state, shalom is only a distant half forgotten memory, an unfathomable hope. Augustine expressed a similar idea when he wrote to God in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Every human has a base desire for harmony and delight, a desire for how things are actually meant to be. However, this ideal is perverted by sin to the extent that, more often than not, our desires themselves are wayward.
By recognizing our desire for the good things of our past as a deeper desire for a lost perfection, we can surrender it to God for spiritual renewal.The reason sequels, reboots, and remakes become mixed up in this desire is because our broken world is deficient to satisfy our hunger. Instead, we attach the desire to something more tangible, but still vague enough to provide an ineffable hope, like memories of feelings we have had in certain times in our past, when things seemed just right. If Lewis’s assessment is correct, we can expect evidence of this reality when we go to the movies. We are drawn to sequels and prequels because they promise to take us back to a place we remember enjoying. We are drawn to reboots and remakes because they promise to recreate encounters with characters and stories that once gave us comfort. We love these films because they promise to give us something we remember being perfect. It is not surprising that Jurassic World could break worldwide opening weekend box office records by reminding us of a love for dinosaurs we had as children.
Yet, our desires are even more misplaced. We intuitively assume our memories are static snapshots of how things were; in reality, they have a tendency to change over time, often becoming distorted, causing us to recall experiences as worse or better than they actually were. Which is why nostalgia films—sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes—falsely promise new beginnings. They tell us we can start over or go back to how things are supposed to be. Of course, C. S. Lewis can describe the experience better than I:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.… The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
This is what makes nostalgia films so tricky. If the film does not deliver just the right amount of newness with just the right amount of familiarity to temporarily fulfill our nostalgic desire, we feel betrayed. Our hearts are broken.
Star Wars fans experienced this when the Phantom Menace was first released after years of anticipation. Droves of fans packed theaters the opening weekend with hopes of reliving cherished memories. However, a storyline revolving around a dry trade federation concept, the revelation that the mysterious power of the force was reducible to a not-so-enchanting organism called Midi-chlorians, and the out of place and cartoonish Jar Jar Binks seemed contrary to the whole spirit of the original trilogy. It was not the same far, far away galaxy, from a long time ago that fans had spent years remembering. As we anticipate another Star Wars sequel later this year, it is not at once clear how a new sequel or prequel could live up to the kind of expectations we put on our most beloved films. If we are trying to fill a hole in our hearts the size of heaven itself, it is absurd to think any Star Wars movie will ever be good enough.
The most well-received nostalgia films succeed, not by fulfilling our desire for heaven, but instead by creating and fulfilling a different desire. It’s a type of distraction from the real thing. Sometimes this is done by providing adequate closure to an epic story or by reinventing source material that would otherwise seem anachronistic. A prime example of the former would be The Return of the King, the final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which won an Oscar for best picture and was the most financially successful of the three. The Return of the King was not successful because we all just loved seeing Middle Earth so much. As a novelty, that may have contributed to the first installment’s success. Rather, the film reminded us of our investment in the characters and fulfilled our desire to see their journeys come to a satisfying completion. In other words, it was far more than nostalgia and familiarity that made the film so popular; it was closure for our friends, knowing their stories were complete to our satisfaction.
The surprise-hit 21 Jump Street is an example of another way filmmakers can divert our nostalgia. Based on an earnest and moralized dramatic television series from the 1980s, the 2012 film was revitalized as an action-based comedy, featuring well-known contemporary actors and up to date situational comedic devices, like the ubiquity of social media, the normality of sexting, and the social cachet of nerdom. Despite being based on nearly twenty-year-old source material, one film critic wrote, “21 Jump Street feels like it’s doing something new with the teen genre.” Successful nostalgia films have to provide some kind of newness. After all, if we could satisfy our nostalgic desire by seeing the same film again, we could stay home with our DVD collection rather than spend $10 at the movie theater. We know that when we simply go back to the same exact experiences, we inevitably will find a well run dry.
This should not be an indictment on our love for nostalgia films, or nostalgia in general. There is no reason to believe C. S. Lewis would not himself be captivated by some of these contemporary films. We shouldn’t abstain from sequels and reboots just because they are poor substitutes for heaven. The Bible doesn’t tell us to eschew all earthly desire and wait for the eschaton. Rather, by understanding where our desires come from, and what their proper ends are, we can derive an ethic. Our yearning for shalom should spur us to recreate shalom here and now. By recognizing our desire for the good things of our past as a deeper desire for a lost perfection, we can surrender it to God for spiritual renewal. When nostalgia directs us to the next summer blockbuster, it should also direct us toward Christ.
In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis outlines five promises from Scripture concerning what heaven will be like, or how our desire to be “reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off” will be fulfilled. He says, we will be with Christ, we will be like Christ, we will have glory, we will have some sort of official vocational position in the universe, and we will in some sense be fed, feasted, or entertained. There is reason to believe that sequels, prequels, and reboots will not be apart of that entertainment. Rather, the past will be remembered by the glory of the cross, and the original garden will be celebrated with not one, but 700 miles featuring the Trees of Life. Our deepest desires will be met as we come into the most true and real new beginning. Heaven is our reboot.