In Back to the Future Part II, while Marty McFly surveys the strange landscape of Hill Valley in 2015, he comes across a marquee poster advertising Jaws 19 in 3D. The advertisement produces a giant hologram shark from the “Max Spielberg” film that threatens to consume Marty, already overwhelmed by the kinetic stimuli of public space 30 years removed from 1985.
When it was made, this moment was tailored as a not-so-subtle jab at the Jaws franchise which, by the mid-1980s, seemed to show no signs of stopping despite diminishing returns and an association with the now-indomitable Spielberg that was in-name-only. Yet Back to the Future Part II is a strange place to level a joke at a Hollywood attempting to manufacture things into perpetuity. While not an entirely original idea, it was relatively novel in the late 1980s for a Hollywood franchise to produce back-to-back sequels, organized in a serial format, as the series’ second and third part did – an output strategy that, with sections of best-selling novels regularly adapted into films, has since become regular practice in contemporary tentpole filmmaking. And Robert Zemeckis himself has proven no stranger to the type of gimmicky spectacle and creative recycling sent up for parody by this moment.
While Back to the Future Part II’s 80s-fied take on 2015 – including hoverboards, mesh-plastic chic, and megamalls – unsurprisingly bears little resemblance to our actual 2015, its brief vision of this year’s movie culture manifested an insightful summation of the familiarity-loving Hollywood that the film itself helped perpetuate.
Of all the recent years seemingly overflowing with sequels and reboots, 2015 looks almost to be a parody of the blockbuster mentality, a slate of promised spectacle and accelerated hype in the form of familiar and seemingly endless series of films. This year, franchises that began in the ’00s, the ’90s, the ’80s, the ’70s, and the ’60s will release heavily anticipated entries that number beyond three. And that’s not even counting the superhero movies.
Despite the fact that much of Hollywood’s current practice has roots in the early 1980s, we are far removed from that era’s assumption of the trilogy as the natural arc of the film series. With ever more concentrated reboots and annually released sequels, titles can exist into perpetuity, passing the baton from director to director or star to star until they persist as an entity all their own, a node so central to the commercial design of a greater system of filmmaking that contemporary Hollywood is unimaginable without them. “New” films bearing titles related to Jurassic Park, Mad Max, Star Wars and James Bond reveal how relatively insignificant and fleeting particular talent behind or in front of the camera is compared to the autonomous force of the name itself.
J.J. Abrams might inject a much-desired (and corrective) lifeblood into Star Wars, but along the greater timeline, Star Wars is hardly reducible to J.J. Abrams.
By 2015, these franchises are not simply a post-New Hollywood “mentality” as I (and others) have made a habit of describing contemporary Hollywood and its origins, but as intrinsic to the commercial logic of filmmaking as movie theaters. New talent in front of or behind the camera can lend these franchises prestige, insight, artistry, relevance and the anticipation-driving sheen of newness, but it is a given that these franchises exist despite whatever particular elements bring them into being and render them appealing. Perhaps Chris Pratt’s name is obscured on that Jaws 19 marquee.
But there is another element to a cinema of the future imbued with the recent past, one that’s not so cyclical. Where the content of Hollywood operates on familiarity (as it almost always has, just not in this particular way), the technology of making, distributing and watching films has undergone a dramatic shift in which commercial filmmaking straddles an uncertain divide between its inevitably digital future and its material origins.
2015 might be the year in which film has not quite died yet – a qualified distinction to be sure, but not an insignificant one. As Gavin Smith points out in his editors’ note of the November/December issue of Film Comment, celluloid film is still alive despite apocalyptic declarations of its quick an inevitable death knell. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is shot on 70mm, and the new Star Wars films will be shot on 35mm, a subtle affront to George Lucas’ absolutist digital futurism.
Says Smith, “The manufacturers are scaling down and disappearing, the labs are closing, but these artists’ love of film has only increased, as has their dismissal of its ‘inevitable demise.’”
This is coming off a year in which the following occurred during its final two months: the nation’s IMAX screens were not dominated by a new Hunger Games, but by a one-off sci-fi odyssey that incorporated minimal digital effects and was shot (and selectively exhibited) in 35mm and 70mm; Jean-Luc Godard released a digital 3D movie that encountered difficulties in distribution because its format did not conform to the capabilities of most US indie havens; and a widely promoted holiday release (inadvertently) became the first major studio film to have day-and-date release on various VOD outlets.
It would be too easy and fallacious to say we live in a cinematic era in which anything is possible. We don’t. But we have somehow arrived at a year in which an incredible variety of means of filmmaking, vessels for viewing, and formats for experiencing cinema are available all at once. They don’t exist in an even harmony of choice for filmmakers or consumers, or in a battle for supremacy, but as an awkward and uneven matrix of possibilities, filled with intersections of cinema’s past and possible future. Film is becoming a fetishized object and a rare commodity for dedicated cineastes as studios and exhibitors stress digital standardization, while cable companies and multiplexes seem to teeter on an eve of irrelevance in the face of streaming’s easy-going challenge to appointment viewing.
But we’re not there yet. And the nuts and bolts of commercial filmmaking and filmgoing at this moment exists in a curious liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow, in which past and future coexist without a standard, uniform, or universal definition of what making or watching a movie means, even as so many of the movies themselves feel so comfortingly familiar.