When Harry Met Movies: Breaking Out the Nostalgia Goggles — Column
I remember going to see Ex Machina with my parents, and pointing to a standee in the movie theater lobby. It was Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle with a pack of velociraptors flanking him. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but it might have been something like this. I was excited, not just because I was about to see Oscar Isaac get his disco on, but because in a month, Jurassic World was going to take me back to Isla Nublar, a place where I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time cavorting about.
I am speaking figuratively, of course, but I’m sure toddler Harry would refute that statement. Donning my Alan Grant fedora — I never called it an “Indiana Jones hat” — I would spend untold, infinite hours on that island taming (plastic) dinosaurs, watching them fight and sometimes feeding them Batman and Han Solo.
If you couldn’t already tell, Jurassic Park has always had a special place in my heart. It’s one of the first movies I ever remember watching, as evidenced by the chewed-on, mostly destroyed cardboard sleeve that barely houses my VHS copy of it. Why my parents let their three year old watch a movie featuring Samuel L. Jackson’s severed arm, I’ll never know, but they’re awesome because of it.
Fast forward to November 25, 2014, and I was a senior in high school. I was in the midst of college applications, one of which was destined for the University of Chicago, where I was hoping to take Paul Sereno’s (more or less, Alan Grant in real life) paleontology class, go on a summer dig, discover some new and fantastic species of dinosaur and make all those hours spent in Isla Nublar worth something. But at the moment, none of that mattered, because I was trying to hide the fact that I was watching the Jurassic World teaser trailer in class. There it was, at 2:12, Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle next to freaking velociraptors. For a hot second, I was three again.
Actually watching Jurassic World was a different experience entirely — I wasn’t three years old with a too-big fedora on; I was a crotchety old man waving his fist in the air, smelling vaguely of prune juice, yelling at Colin Trevorrow to get off my lawn. The film didn’t resurrect dinosaurs as much as it did nostalgia for dinosaurs, and if anyone was going to buy into it, it would have been me.
And yet, the nostalgia goggles didn’t make the film’s characters seem any less two dimensional. Moreover, there’s an insidious cynicism that such nostalgia inspires, as if to say remember the good ol’ days? Great! Because it’s not going to get much better than that. Nostalgia makes progress impossible, setting standards so far back in time that the laws of physics and the fictionality of a time-hopping DeLorean make them impossible to achieve.
Yearning for glory days long past, rather than imagining ones still to come, makes Jurassic World seem like the guy that hangs out in the high school parking lot next to the football field, futilely trying to retain some tenuous grasp on a history that will never be repeated. And somewhat frustratingly, nothing sells quite like nostalgia — the current cinematic landscape thrives on it.
Of course, not every film that looks fondly on the past is doomed to mediocrity. It, steeped in 80’s culture, is proving to be one of the biggest critical and commercial hits of the year, and later this week, Blade Runner 2049 promises immaculate, mind-bending sci-fi. But it’s worth remembering that nostalgia also gave us the MAGA cap.
Nostalgia shouldn’t be something to eschew completely — I’ll always look back fondly on my childhood obsession with Jurassic Park, but I’m not going to bust out my Alan Grant hat, and start lassoing plastic dinosaurs. I’ll write about it instead.
‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a bi-weekly column from Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic Harrison Tunggal about movies that shape us and why we love them.
Featured image via Universal Pictures.