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Smells Like Nostalgia: The Retro-Cinema of J.J. Abrams

Smells Like Nostalgia: The Retro-Cinema of J.J. Abrams

Justin Baillargeon

“Chewie, we’re home!”, says Han Solo as he makes his first appearance in thirty-two years as the mythical character of the Star Wars cult film saga in the seventh episode entitled The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015.) This highly anticipated comeback means much more for Captain Solo and his Wookie sidekick Chewbacca than getting back their famous ‘Millenium Falcon’, one of pop culture’s most popular icons acting here as a true Madeleine de Proust moment for a horde of ‘fanboys.’ It is rather in this case a way for the public to reconnect with a certain familiarity, to recapture a warm and nostalgic reunion with old memories still present. Harrison Ford, the famous actor who embodies the likable smuggler, and who is also known as some of the most iconic characters such as Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Rick Deckard, has been bringing them back to the big screen since 2015 in order to revisit popular film franchises. One could argue that we are now living in an era in which the ‘retro’ is in its most glorious days. For some years, most notably since the 2000s, we are witnessing a film culture of the past from which its most recent arrivals are made of ‘re-’: re-edition, re-vival, re-boot,- re-make, re-take, re-direction of franchises. Nicknamed “retromania” by Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, this actual retro tendency “refers to a self-conscious fetish for period stylization […] expressed creatively through pastiche and citation”.1 Filmmaker J.J. Abrams, whose popularity is built around this theme, is intended as one of the major standard-bearers of this nostalgia wave of the 1970s/1980s in the film industry of the 2000s. Growing up as a Steven Spielberg fan, the latter entrust Abrams, then 16 years old, with the task of repairing the splices of his 8 mm short films after being noticed for his precocious filmmaking talent in a Super 8 film festival.2 After experiencing major success on television with series such as Felicity (1998-2002), Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010), Abrams truly reaches glory on the big screen where he initiates his career based on nostalgia.  Mostly known as a producer and a screenwriter, he went on to direct his first feature-length film in 2006 with Mission: Impossible 3, the film adaptation of a cult television series of the 1960s-70s. It is with his reboot of the Star Trek saga with the films Star Trek (2009) and its sequel Star Trek into Darkness (2013), and concretely with Super 8 (2011) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) that nostalgia firmly establishes in Abrams’s filmography and becomes his trademark. This theme, while centered on the wish to rediscover a former aesthetic, also has a purely commercial function. As David Church states it:

“[…] nostalgia grounds the subcultural ideologies and capitals of film fandom by providing an imagined time and space in relation to which one’s fandom can be mnemonically located. Much as nostalgia allows past time periods to be envisioned like spaces that can be imaginatively inhabited, past spaces of consumption can be nostalgically linked to particular time periods and audiences”.3

In the light of this statement, could we affirm that this ‘retromania’ with its numerous past thematic and visual references, is in reality just a marketing strategy? Could we then discuss about a ‘retro-marketing’ of the cinema? Based on Umberto Eco’s theory of repetition from his article “Innovation and Reception: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics”, an analysis on the question of nostalgia in films through reflections exclusively made on J.J. Abrams’s filmography which films are at the center of this tendency, will be put forward. Questions on intertextual references in the film Super 8 will be addressed, followed by an examination on the filmmaker’s efforts to rejuvenate iconic franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Finally, the last section will explore the retro-marketing phenomenon through an analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. By renewing these pop culture classics for today’s public, one can notice that this type of post-modern cinema links certain films among them and plays with references and intertextuality.4

Back to the Past, or the ‘Eater Eggs’ Hunt

Throughout his filmography, J.J. Abrams does not miss an opportunity to pay homage to a cinema he is very fond of. Normally situated inside the 1970s/1980s, the films of his childhood and adolescence periods have estheticism he maintains in his own productions. It is then very common to find in Abrams’s films an atmosphere, whether visual or musical, that reminds of a bygone era from which he keeps hanging on from film to film. This aesthetical initiative is presented to spectators in the form of an “intertextual dialogue”, to use Eco’s theory, which signifies that an artwork reflects previous ones.5 These references are nevertheless very subtle and only relate to a certain type of spectator from which the topoi6, more commonly referred as ‘Easter eggs’ that “are recorded by the ‘encyclopedia’ of the spectator; they make up a part of the treasury of the collective imagination and as such they come to be called upon”.7 It is not surprising to find on the Internet various articles and videos such as “10 references from such filmmaker in such films” or “The references you missed in such films,” recounting in the best possible ways the multiple references in each of the films of a nostalgic nature. In Super 8, Abrams’s third films with a strong homage to Steven Spielberg, his spiritual father, also acts as a producer, from which the film’s marketing is exclusively built around their names and cinematographic heritage, as the film’s poster shown on the right illustrates and highlights both artists’ names, that is the mentor and his disciple. Designed by illustrator Kyle Lambert, the poster’s distinctive style strongly reminds those of Drew Struzan, the veteran illustrator behind multiple hand-drawn cult posters of films of the likes of Spielberg and George Lucas. Besides the drawn characters, other key elements of this Spielbergian homage can be found on this Super 8 poster. The ‘lens flare’ that emanates from the Super 8 camera objective as illustrated on the poster is a visual phenomenon “wherein light is scattered or flared in a lens system, often in response to a bright light, producing a sometimes undesirable artifact within the image”.8 Spielberg frequently and deliberately uses it in his first films such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) in order to bring a realistic feel to the image, which went on to become one of his many artistic signatures. The family name of this famous filmmaker, almost a trademark in itself, is enhanced by a lens flare on the Super 8 poster, which brings at the same time a greater weight to his valuable contribution and to his idolized artistic influences on Abrams. The group of teenagers in Super 8 reminds of the one in The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), another Spielberg-produced film, just like the numerous scenes in which they ride in bicycles in the streets of a small town in E.T., not to mention their wish to make a Super 8 short film, a film format worshipped by Abrams in his youth.

Super 8 (2011)

It is important to mention the film extends beyond Spielbergian intertextual references. It also refers to the inception of post New-Hollywood blockbusters, as well as a whole slice of Hollywood cinematographic pop culture from the Universal Monsters, to the zombies of George A. Romero, up to the 1970s slasher films. The bedroom of the Super 8 protagonist named Joe serves as a hideout to all these characters that decorate its walls, as well as his office that becomes in a certain way, the place in which the spectator’s “intertextual encyclopedia” is located.9 All of this cinema merchandizing refers to this new film era of the end of the 1970s led by Spielberg and Lucas, an era where, as stated by Peter Biskind: “It woke up the studios to the potential of merchandizing, showed that the sale of books, T-shirts, and action figures could be a significant profit center […] adding an incentive to replace complex characters with simple figures that could be turned into toys”.10

J.J. Abrams, surgeon master of Hollywood cinema?

On top of paying homage to filmmakers he fondly admires, J.J. Abrams seems to have set himself the ambitious task of rebooting several film franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars. The rejuvenation of former writing elements from which Abrams devotes himself for these two franchises are part of categories such as the retake, the remake, as well as the saga, which is put forward by Eco in his article. This “repetition”11 undertaking to which the filmmaker submits himself is made to modernize these two cinematic universes appreciated by numerous fans. In order to please both a former and a new public, Star Trek and Star Wars are initially planned as retakes since they “recycle the characters of a previous successful story in order to exploit them, by telling what happened to them after the end of their first adventure”12. Regarding Star Trek, the story transports us at the very beginning of the formation of the future USS Enterprise crew that being the first official mission of both characters James T. Kirk and Spock. It is the occasion for the fans of the 1960s television series and the original films to reconnect with their favorite characters during their youth, and for the new generation, to accompany new characters while making connections and conquering the cosmos with them. Nonetheless, it is in reality both a retake and a sequel to the original adventures. This eleventh episode is indeed presented in the form of an alternate reality, which “was created in an attempt to free the film and the franchise from established continuity constraints while simultaneously preserving original story elements”.13 This screenwriting technique is used not only to refresh this popular series that blends both television and cinema that stretches for almost four decades, but also, as Eco mentions:

“It is a matter of considering how to keep the series alive, of obviating the natural problem of the aging of the character. Instead of having character put up with new adventures (that would imply their inexorable march toward death), they are continually made to relieve their past […] Characters have a little future but an enormous past, and in any case, nothing of their past will ever change the mythological present in which they have been presented to the reader from the beginning”.14

During the announcement of the start of the production of the new Star Wars trilogy by the Disney studios, which has been since 2012 the owner of Lucasfilm who had the rights of popular film franchises such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, no one seemed surprised to learn that none other than J.J. Abrams was chosen as the director of The Force Awakens, the next chapter of the famous saga. This new trilogy, which continues the narrative timeline of the two previous trilogies, maintains a thirty-two-year interval that separates the sixth episode, The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), from the seventh released in 2015. In this way, as Eco stresses, “The saga differs from the series insofar as it concerns the story of a family”, in this particular case, the Skywalker, “[…] and is interested in the ‘historical’ lapse of time. It is genealogical. In the saga, the actors do age; the saga is a history of the aging of individuals, families, people, groups”15. The Force Awakens cross roads with protagonists from the previous trilogy Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca, with those from the new one such as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron. At the contrary of the new Star Trek version by Abrams which necessitated the inclusion of new actors to embody the iconic characters at a younger age, those of Star Wars maintain the same three actors from the original trilogy at an advanced age and mix them with younger actors in brand new roles, with the exception of Chewbacca who is played at certain moments by the original actor, but for health reasons, is most of the time replaced by a younger actor hidden under the furry costume, which does not disrupt the narrative continuity. While Abrams’ two Star Trek films distinguish themselves for their alternate realities, Star Wars’s new chapters continue to focus on the Skywalker family line even through Luke and Leia have been out of touch between the sixth and seventh episodes. Their family heritage, on the other hand, continues to shake the entire galaxy. It is indeed still about the Force, the Jedi and about Luke as the last living Jedi knight who disappeared without a trace when one of his disciples turned to the dark side of the Force. Since then, his sister Leia, who became a general of the Rebel army, attempts to find him.

Even though Star Trek and Star Wars are two very distinct cinematic universes, Abrams still succeeds to indirectly connect them through one of their respective main heroes: Spock and Luke. The filmmaker uses a film technique with a strong emotional impact inciting nostalgia: a camera shot that I suggest naming a ‘revealing shot’. This revealing shot consists of setting the camera behind the actor in order to not reveal his face. When the latter is well framed, he/she has to slowly turn around in order to progressively reveal his/her face to create a powerful and emotional effect. In Star Trek, such an example occurs when the ‘young’ Spock, played by actor Zachary Quinto, meets the ‘old’ Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, during his return to Earth. We notice the back of the ‘old’ Spock who walks and then turns around to ‘young’ Spock, revealing on the same occasion, a surprise appearance by the veteran actor who is strongly indivisible from his role of Spock in the original television series and films.

Such an event also occurs during the Force Awakens’ conclusion while Rey, who went to the encounter of Luke Skywalker after his lair was found, gives him his light saber after being herself chosen by the Force as a ‘Jedi heir’ and wishing to be trained by the last Jedi. Luke, who stands at the top of a mountain, from behind, hidden by his habits’ hood, slowly turns around to finally reveal his face to Rey and to the public. At the same time, a melody from the previous trilogy who is associated with his character, builds up into a crescendo while provoking an emotional surge to the nostalgic spectators who reconnect with the famous hero.

Retro-marketing, a secure value?

While the pre-sale tickets for The Force Awakens are breaking selling records and fanboys are becoming more and more impatient, critics reproach the film its forced retro feel and are disappointed by this ‘false’ remake. The references to the fourth chapter of the saga, A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977), are indeed quite substantial, as well as the plot points that only seem to be slightly modified for the new generation, the one who accompanies parents and grandparents wishing to see their favorite characters meet again on the big screen. It is in fact possible to reproach to the seventh episode a certain lack of surprises, even some foreseeable narrative moments from the writers who seemed to have recycled old themes. But could this repetitive method that Umberto Eco nicknames “postmodern aesthetics”16 be in reality a marketing strategy to sell a product, a film in this particular case, to different generations at the same time? It is not surprising that products of the past draw a lot of attention from consumers. As mentioned during a discussion on the subject by Damien Hallegatte, a marketing professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi whose researches are based on nostalgia commodification: “Normally, marketing means innovation and novelty. We figure out now that it does not only rely on using the past in publicity to remember the past and a brand’s legacy, but to really use the past as a central positioning element”17. This method used to link different generations through the reutilization of themes approached inside the same cinematic universe seems effectively a part of this pop-culture movement nicknamed ‘retro-marketing’. Retro-marketing is defined by Stephen Brown as “the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards of performance, functioning or taste”18, and more precisely “combining the old with the new, usually in the form of old-style styling with hi-tech technology”19.

 

The main objective of The Force Awakens is in its double intention. Firstly, to familiarize an already existing public in order to make sure they accept the changes, as well as guaranteeing a greater emotional reception from them. Then, making the public want to share, to transmit this emotion to the next generation who is already captivated by the monumental action sequences and the cutting-edge special effects. To add even more nostalgia to the experience, the film is seasoned with references from the fourth episode, which is in reality the first film from the original trilogy. Among them, it is possible to find a droid carrying a top-secret message, a base called the ‘Starkiller’ which is nicknamed the ‘new Death Star’ by Han Solo himself. Other Easter eggs such as the presence of a ‘cantina’ with an all-alien orchestra, as well the same holochess game that continues right where Chewbacca and R2-D2 left off in A New Hope is found inside the ‘Millenium Falcon,’ the famous ‘piece of junk’ still functional after all these years.

Conclusion

After such an analysis, it is definitely relevant to note that by turning to nostalgia and by touching directly cinephiles’ knowledge, J.J. Abrams avoids taking risks in order to relaunch film franchises with a strong commercial potential such as Star Trek and Star Wars, or even an original feature-length project like Super 8. It is also interesting to see that even though Abrams continues to be involved with the ongoing Star Wars trilogy, though the filmmaker has handed directing duties to Rian Johnson on the eighth episode entitled The Last Jedi (2017), he signed on to return to the director’s chair for the ninth and final episode of the intergalactic saga. When looking at The Last Jedi, it becomes clear that the character of Rey follows the same path as Luke in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), the fifth chapter in which he receives extensive Jedi training from the elderly and only surviving Jedi Master Yoda. In the eighth chapter, Luke takes on the Jedi Master role, while Rey becomes the Padawan apprentice. As shown in the Star Wars saga, the Disney studios seem to pursue an artistic direction based on intertextual strategies in order to gain public confidence. Whether chronological or alternate, the narrative elements of these cinematic universes that are decades old need to find new ways to maintain the public’s attention in order to not lose their popularity. The idea behind the passing of the torch to a new generation of actors, without forgetting to pay tribute to the original characters, seems at first narratively interesting from a dramatic point of view. This technique can sometimes involve, as in the case of the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens mirroring Obi-Wan Kenobi’s passing in A New Hope, could serve as a motivation for the new generation to further to narrative. Also, this type of method is even more interesting from a financial point of view since the public seeks to recapture with their past when seeing again their favorite heroes, despite aging, crossing swords for a final showdown. Similarly to the tomb raider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989) who, after being impressed by the courage the young Indiana Jones, gives him his Borsalino as a sign of encouragement for his future adventures, the young J.J. Abrams, then a filmmaker in the making, who receives from the hands of his idol Steven Spielberg his first film efforts in Super 8, demonstrates that ‘passing on the torch’ to the next generation can sometimes be stranger than fiction.  

1 Reynolds, Simon. 2011. Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., p. xxi

2 Longwell, Todd. 2011. « Gerard Ravel and the Super 8 Festival that Launched J.J. Abrams ». Filmmaker. Accessed online http://filmmakermagazine.com/.

3 Church, David. 2015. Grindhouse Nostalgia – Memory, Home Video and Exploitation Film Fandom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 5

4 Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5).

5 Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5). p. 170.

6 Topoi are recurrent themes of an artistic genre (e.g. filmic, literary, musical)

7 Ibid, p. 170.

8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lens_flare

9 Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5). p. 172.

10 Biskind, Peter. 1998. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. p. 341.

11 Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5). p. 161

12 Ibid. p. 167.

13 Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5). p. 169

14 Ibid. p. 169.

15 Ibid. p. 169.

16 Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5). p. 179.

17 Médium large. 2015. ICI Radio-Canada Première. Accessed online http://ici.radio-canada.ca/emissions/medium_large/

18 Brown, Stephen, J. Sherry and R. V. Kozinets. 2003. “Sell Me the Old, Old Story: Retromarketing Management and the Art of Brand Revival”. Journal of Customer Behaviour. 2. p. 20.

19 Brown, Stephen. 1999. “Retro-marketing: yesterday’s tomorrows, today!” Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 17 (7), p. 365.

Justin Baillargeon

Contributing Writer

Justin Baillargeon is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at York University and holds a doctoral scholarship from the SSHRC. He is the author of the book “Entre réalité et virtuel: La captation de mouvement au cinéma,” published in 2021 by Éditions de L’instant même, which was subsidized by the Ontario Arts Council. His research, published and presented in both English and French, focuses primarily on virtual and mixed reality, digital cinema, as well as motion and performance capture. He is also the host of the podcast “Dr. VR,” where he conducts interviews with virtual reality developers from around the world. He teaches Film Studies at Sheridan College and is an Adjunct Professor at the Digital Cultures Studies and Research Center at the Université de l’Ontario français in Toronto. www.justinbaillargeon.com

Biskind, Peter. 1998. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Brown, Stephen. 1999. “Retro-marketing: yesterday’s tomorrows, today!” Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 17 (7), pp. 363-376.

Brown, Stephen, J. Sherry and R. V. Kozinets. 2003. “Sell Me the Old, Old Story: Retromarketing Management and the Art of Brand Revival”. Journal of Customer Behaviour. 2. pp. 133-147.

Church, David. 2015. Grindhouse Nostalgia – Memory, Home Video and Exploitation Film Fandom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Eco, Umberto. 1985. « Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics ». Daedalus. 114(5). pp. 161-184.
Longwell, Todd. 2011. « Gerard Ravel and the Super 8 Festival that Launched J.J. Abrams ». Filmmaker. Accessed online http://filmmakermagazine.com/.
Médium large. 2015. En ligne. Présenté par Catherine Perrin. 15 janvier. ICI Radio-Canada Première. http://ici.radio-canada.ca/emissions/medium_large/
Reynolds, Simon. 2011. Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber Inc.

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