“Smells Like ’10s Spirit” takes a look at the decade in movies through the lens of success stories only made possible by unique trends that emerged. This series explores ten films – one from each year of the 2010s – and a single social, economic or cultural factor that can explain why it made an impact or lingers in the collective memory. Each piece examines a single film that tells the larger story of the tectonic forces reshaping the entertainment landscape as we know it. In this edition: Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow, and Derek Connolly.
There’s a reason director Colin Trevorrow took a trick from Steven Spielberg’s playbook when introducing the audience to the new theme park in Jurassic World. You probably remember the shot, if not from Jurassic Park than from any number of Spielberg’s films. A character, in this case Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler, stops dead in her (or his) tracks to observe something fantastical. We the audience can’t see it – at least, not yet. The shot not only builds suspense, a classic Spielbergian technique, but as the camera slowly pushes in on the highly emotive character, it also replicates the same feeling as the character in the viewer. That’s not just wishful film writer rambling, by the way; it’s backed up by science that the portion of our brain that reads emotions of fear in the faces of others also replicates the same feeling in ourselves. (If you want receipts, I’ll gladly send you a college research paper where I connected the neuroscience to film theory – but there’s no one link to explain this connection!)
But beyond the shot’s hard-wired effectiveness, Trevorrow also summoned another cognitive process for a large portion of Jurassic World‘s audience in 2015: nostalgia. Dern’s expression of shock and awe became an image that endured for over two decades, and for those who saw the film in the early ’90s, Trevorrow’s homage (or mimicry, depending on how generous your interpretation is – and the film’s repeated Easter eggs don’t inspire much magnanimity) instantly recalled the moment at which they first saw photorealistic dinosaurs on screen. Since the advances in CGI graphics do not tend to excite in nearly the same way given their present ubiquity, harkening back to a moment at which they were truly jaw-dropping helps Jurassic World cover off for any disappointment in wow factor.
Our world has come a long way from nostalgia’s original categorization in 1688 as “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer. It’s now essentially the default currency of big-budget Hollywood productions. Trevorrow’s remake (reboot? sequel? who really knows…) of Spielberg’s dino franchise was far from the first film in the 2010s to trade on warm feelings of the past to generate massive box office receipts in the present. Yet its smashing success, far exceeding any projections set by business prognosticators, portended what was to come in the rest of the decade: an increase reliance on revitalizing intellectual property as a way to motivate audiences into theaters with relatively little marketing effort.
By 2015, the streaming revolution had become undeniable, and Netflix had fired its first warning shot at the theatrical feature industry by acquiring Cary Joji Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation for release. Attendance at theaters was coming off a 19-year low. Audiences were becoming costlier to reach with advertising, all the while their attention spans for messaging were dropping. It’s in this context that you saw studios reach back to generate value from their back catalogue of material.
Ironically, the force behind Jurassic World, Universal Studios, drew praise in 2015 for a diverse slate of films that was not overly dependent on franchises. But take a look at the strategy of Disney, the decade’s content behemoth, and witness the embrace of nostalgia become even more naked. The Mouse House had already begun reaching into the storied “Disney Vault” to dust off some of their animated classics at the outset of the decade. In 2010, Tim Burton took Alice in Wonderland out for a new adventure, bringing back popular characters like the Mad Hatter and Queen of Hearts but charting entirely new narrative ground. Response was mixed, and Disney went in a different direction with their remakes. Fidelity to the source material was a matter of fealty. The numbers validated their approach – the 2016 Alice sequel flamed out with only $77 million in domestic box office, while a feebler re-interpretation of Cinderella topped $200 million in 2015.
The current reigning nostalgia champion, Disney, quickly figured out what Jurassic World beat them to the punch on in 2015. The most important piece of marketing material for a reimagined classic already exists – it’s the source text. Making unmistakable allusions to the 1993 film in the leadup to Jurassic World‘s release proved a boon for Universal in motivating fans of the original entry in the series, many of whom sat out the sequels, to give the franchise another chance. Trevorrow, to his credit, at least expressed some desire to separate Jurassic World from the original. As he told The Verge, “I would say it on set: I want to hold Jurassic Park in our hands, but not too tight.”
Disney has all but abandoned that subtle approach, nakedly throwing out red meat in the form of obvious signifiers in their marketing of live-action remakes to excite audiences. Take the teasers for recent releases. The first trailer for 2017’s Beauty and the Beast constitutes little more than a tour through live-action recreations of animated sets, familiar piano notes and lines from the original, and then the reveal of the film’s famous symbol – the rose. Remarkably, Disney does not even reveal the film’s title at the end, instead simply using a slogan “Be Our Guest,” and acting under the assumption that all their allusions mean they will not have to spell it out. Similarly, the teaser for 2019’s The Lion King drums up excitement by restaging a few famous scenes from the original, most notably the “Circle of Life” sequence. It actually does say the film’s name and also ends with a quick succession of the voice cast – who, notably, do not speak. Only the voice of James Earl Jones, reprising his role as elder statesman Mufasa, bellows through the trailer. It’s a reassuring sign that signals not the thrill of the new but rather the comfort of the old.
The back half of the 2010s has borne witness to the rise of what a popular video essay by Nerdwriter coined as “weaponized intertextuality.” Of course, all language – written and visual – exists in conversation with past uses. But he identified a troubling trend of intertextuality’s deployment as a “dramatic substitute.” There’s a cynical view of this development from a purely commercial standpoint. A 2014 report in the Journal of Consumer Research found that nostalgia made people spend more money. Consumers asked to think about the past, one study found, exhibited a willingness to pay more for a product than those asked to think about the present or future. Nostalgia, as a feeling, also knows no borders. The pioneering researchers of nostalgia at Southampton University found that it served “a crucial existential function” with similar defining features across the world. As studios began to rely more heavily on worldwide markets to compensate for losses in the United States, nostalgia made sense from a business standpoint to sell films on a global scale.
This helps explain why the 2010s feel mired in nostalgia despite many indications that conditions are in a persistent upswing. Given the inherent delayed nature in the filmmaking process from greenlight to release, the early years of the decade were marked by relentless looking backwards for better days. Take a look at the Best Picture winners for an indication: 2011’s silent film tribute The Artist (which beat out similarly nostalgic nominees Hugo and Midnight in Paris) and 2012’s paean to ’70s cinema Argo. Even 2014’s Birdman, a screed against contemporary filmmaking’s vapidity and a plea to return to pure artistry … although writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu does not quite describe what exactly that is.
Even as the economy picked up – for some, at least – the nostalgia stuck around. Some of that is also undeniably attributable to the regressive messaging of Donald Trump, who announced his candidacy for the presidency in the very same week that Jurassic World rode nostalgia to what was then the highest opening weekend of all-time. Trump and a wave of populist politicians rode into power by harnessing trepidation over the perceived risk of globalization threatening customs and traditions, as research firm Eupinions explained. Yet the resilience of nostalgia as a defining feature of 2010s cinema suggests a conscious perpetuation as a business strategy.
The results were not foolproof, though, as the forces behind 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot would tell us. Trading on warm feelings for the past while also trying to rewrite them or suggesting their impurity led to backlash, which put a damper on box office results. Instead, nostalgia adapted for the back half of the decade as studios promised, to use a slogan from Veep‘s fictional president Selina Meyer, continuity with change. As box office guru Paul Dergarabedian put it, “You can’t just market your movie based on nostalgia alone. You want to definitely draw upon the legacy of the movie and the history of the franchise, while at the same time, try to appeal to a whole new audience.”
Films like Jurassic World kept fan-favorite elements of the original, primarily by replicating the basic narrative framework and paying dutiful homage to indelible images, while adding just enough of a new spin on the material to avoid being labeled a rip-off. At its core, Jurassic World still subscribes to the basic premise of a man and woman, defined primarily by their professions and not by their familial relationships, who must become surrogate parents by virtue of a stressful situation. Oh, and that watching dinosaurs on the loose is awesome.
Trevorrow’s new element of choice, though, was a meta-commentary on the film’s production. In Jurassic World, mayhem in the world of the film ensues when a new dinosaur is unleashed ahead of schedule in order to satisfy the park’s corporate overlords. Fans who followed the franchise’s 14-year ordeal following Jurassic Park III might recognize the relation to the real-world tribulations of the franchise. “Make no mistake,” Trevorrow told IndieWire, “Derek [Connolly, Trevorrow’s co-screenwriter] and I wrote about what was going on at the time, which is that a corporation had a release date set and they were going to make this movie whether it was a good idea or not.”
Disney, meanwhile, often hid behind technological advances, such as the virtual reality that made The Lion King possible (just not particularly believable outside of the uncanny valley), or incremental progressivism, like the much-discussed, blink and you’ll miss it “gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast to add contemporary flavor. The peril in not updating dated elements was on full display when Jurassic World opened itself up to criticism from many, including Avengers director Joss Whedon, for perpetuating what some saw as “70’s era sexist” gender dynamics.
Balancing past and present made for some of the decade’s most successful movies. 2016’s La La Land put a present-day spin on the classic silver screen musical, making a compelling case for the genre’s enduring relevance. The new Star Wars movies brought back the original trilogy’s heroes while also forging paths for a new set of heroes who were more inclusive on the basis of gender and race. These films, like Jurassic World, excelled by constituting audiences into what Kathleen Loock dubbed “media generations.” For people with more knowledge of the texts to which these films refer, they become the elders. The films flatter their intelligence, knowledge and recall by allowing them to explain the reference points to a younger generation experiencing them for the first time.
Media generations make for a crucial part of Jurassic World‘s success given the centrality of parental maturity and childhood innocence to the series’ enduring appeal. The people who saw Spielberg’s original film in the ’90s as children most likely identified with the two young characters, simultaneously fascinated and imperiled by the park’s dinosaurs. By the time Jurassic World roared into theaters, many of these viewers had children of their own or, at the very least, had reached prime parenting age. Trevorrow’s film allows them identification with the adult figures, the cavalier dinosaur round-up man Owen (Chris Pratt) and the slightly uptight but highly protective corporate shill Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Yet the film’s stroke of genius is to both allow them fond memories of once identifying with children in a similar situation to Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) while sharing that identification with children of their own. Jurassic World becomes a way for the film’s first captive audience to show, not tell, their history to the next generation.
“They [the Jurassic Park films] are more than movies,” Trevorrow told an Italian media outlet in 2015. “They are our modern fairy tales. They are our Oliver Twists, our Peter Pan, our Dracula. Stories that will remain alive even when we are all just a memory. Cinema is the language of our time and these are stories that will be handed down and rewritten again and again.” Critics can quibble about whether these prehistoric romps deserve mentioning in the same breath as Dickens or Stoker, but it’s hard to deny that cinema has long assumed the role of modern mythmaker since it demonstrated the capability of projecting our dreams and fantasies. Passing down these myths is hardwired into DNA, so retelling movies only makes sense as a human process. But the reliance on these older stories ought to give us all at least some pause, lest we doom ourselves to fulfilling a prescient 1997 Onion headline: “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past.”
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.