A Critic’s Phrase

A word kept recurring in the discussion: nostalgic.
on Aug 12, 2020 · 4 comments

I didn’t pay much attention when Rise of Skywalker was released. I had already decided, skipping the trouble and expense of actually seeing it, that the movie was better than The Last Jedi but not exactly good. There was, of course, too much talk about the movie to entirely miss it. A word kept recurring in the discussion: nostalgic. It rang critically, and even people who had liked the movie sometimes used the word with an air of apology: It was nostalgic, but … Implicitly and explicitly, the nostalgia of Rise of Skywalker was put in contrast with the subversion of The Last Jedi. The movie wasn’t new, wasn’t different, didn’t try to be revolutionary. It tried to be like the original Star Wars movies – you know, the ones people actually liked.

It was at this time that I realized that I took nostalgic in the opposite sense that the critics meant it. I understood that I was meant to take it as a bad thing. I thought instead that it was, or in any case might be, a good thing. I’ve reflected since that there are other popular critics’ phrases to which I gave a different connotation, and sometimes a different meaning, than they do.

One of these is gritty realism. Somehow this phrase evokes a mental image of dirty concrete, which is not attractive but neither really relevant. As far as I can tell, gritty realism means something along the lines of “entertainment that you probably could not comfortably watch with your grandparents”. It is, perhaps, gritty in a moral sense. But as always in entertainment, the realism is optional and, even when existing, qualified. Much of the violence so lucidly presented by Hollywood is not, thank God, realistic. Gritty realism is generally used positively. But I don’t believe the assertion of realism, and the grit is not in itself impressive.

Feel-good is another well-worn shorthand. Often the term itself is criticism. Even when not exactly derogatory, it is usually condescending. A feel-good movie is well enough in its place, the attitude goes, but it’s not a very high place. Feel-good entertainment is not serious, not deep, not art. I am wholly in favor of that stern, clear-sighted moral point that many things that feel good are, in fact, bad. Yet I can’t agree with the negativity associated with the feel-good label. I don’t see why art that makes people feel good should be any lower than art that makes people feel bad. And do you know, I sometimes watch movies with the deliberate object of being made to feel better, and I do not dismiss entertainment because it is “feel-good”.

Here’s another one whose promise never moves me: action-packed. This has been used as a recommendation something like a million times. And I believe it. I also believe that being action-packed is the leading flaw of many action movies. I am not going to fault action movies for having action, but I think they could leave more time for the characters to do other things, like think. In some movies there is barely enough plot to string the chase sequences and fight scenes together. Action-packed? Yes. Always, these days. But is there anything more?

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. nulligravida FTW says:

    But does Rise of Skywalker have anything other to recommend it than nostalgia? Last Jedi at least had some interesting new ideas to mull over, but it seems like the committee that made Rise couldn’t commit to any ideas to introduce for more than 2.34 seconds.
    Somebody called Forrest Gump “Boomer catnip” and that helped solidify why I don’t like that movie as much as the public at large seems to like that movie. That, I think, is the pitfall for nostalgia movies.
    But I also like me some trendy trash isekai stories. I guess it depends on how we rate the value of stories. Is longevity the only “true” factor? Probs not. Does the value it generate warrant the costs of a multi-billion-budget movie production? It does make me feel better about my digital light novels and internet fanfic. Much less waste involved.

  2. princesselwen says:

    I think the negative associations with nostalgia comes because of the trend in films these days to rely on it as a marketing tool. (Hence, all those remakes/reboots.) So when reviewers end up seeing the film and being disappointed by its lack of quality (whether they think it had a poor script, or bad acting, or any number of other flaws), they end up being cynical about the nostalgia that was used to promote it. Because to the reviewer, it can appear that they are being asked to overlook genuine flaws in storytelling for the sake of nostalgia, which can make the nostalgia itself seem cheap.

  3. Travis Perry says:

    Hey I really enjoyed your take on these terms. “Gritty reality” in particular has so often struck me as totally unrealistic. But I liked your thoughts on the others terms, too.

  4. The biggest problem with TROS is that it was “nostalgic” for the Original Trilogy in a way that made no sense for the Sequel Trilogy characters or in the context of the Star Wars saga as a whole. When Rey went to Tatooine (a planet she has no personal connection with, Luke himself couldn’t wait to get away from and where Leia’s only experience was being enslaved and treated as the plaything of a monstrous slug), to bury Luke and Leia’s sabers (at the ruined homestead where Luke’s adopted parents were brutally murdered by the Empire, no less), it made absolutely zero sense as something Rey would naturally think to do, let alone anything Luke or Leia would want. But the scene was meant to fill middle-aged OT fans with warm fuzzies anyway, simply because it hearkened back to the original STAR WARS. That’s the kind of “nostalgia” that comes at the expense of characterization, continuity, and good storytelling, and that’s why critics were using the term in a negative sense. But I’ve seen it used positively in reviews of other movies, so it really depends on the context.

What do you think?