The comforting revisionist fantasies “Yesterday” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” were nothing compared with the sheer blippitude of “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which begins with a clever high school video breathlessly describing not just the “blip” that explained why Peter Parker and his pals were still teenagers five years after the last installment, but invoking the “snap” in the last two “Avengers” movies that got this whole mini-trend started.
Hollywood has always relied on the trope of the sudden, random event — the blow to the head, the newly discovered wormhole, the accidentally activated DeLorean — to get the action going. But snaps, blips and other glitches in the Matrix feel particularly plentiful lately, not just to explain the inexplicable, but as reflections of the collective mood and, unintentionally, the dramatic vagaries currently buffeting the movie business.
The blips of this summer are actually a subset of the season’s larger theme, which was one of flagrant nostalgia: If studios weren’t trotting out remakes and sequels of their greatest hits, they were offering original films that were steeped in the sense memories of vividly remembered eras. No sooner had “Rocketman” relived the heyday of Elton John than “Yesterday” lulled audiences with lovely Beatles covers — only to be elbowed aside by “Blinded by the Light,” a delightful coming-of-age musical featuring the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed revisiting the Leonard Cohen tunes in the documentary “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” you were suitably primed to sing along to “David Crosby: Remember My Name” and “Echo in the Canyon,” each of which celebrated the Laurel Canyon music scene in 1960s Los Angeles.
While aging hippies reminisced about Woodstock on the 50th anniversary of three days of peace, music and mud, Quentin Tarantino put his own spin on that pivotal time, romantically resurrecting the L.A. of his childhood and insisting on a happy ending for an episode that has become a metonym for the demise of ’60s idealism. Amid the hazy, ambered tenderness of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — give or take the odd bloodbath — the echo in the canyon isn’t the screams of the innocent, but coos of reassurance that order had been restored.
There are moments of loveliness in Tarantino’s portrait of his hometown, even as its willful rewriting of reality feels self-indulgent. At a time when most Americans are desperate to believe that the current political era is its own bizarre historical blip — and everyone else is on some kind of physical, mental or economic edge — it’s understandable that we’d look to movies for relief. Still, the fact that so many of the most successful summer movies were remembrances of things past doesn’t bode well for the cinema of the future — or one that’s responsively engaged with the present.
Sequels and remakes have become summer staples as reliable as sunburn and snowcones, of course. And let’s not forget that one of last year’s biggest sleeper documentary hits was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a gently uplifting remembrance of national surrogate father Fred Rogers. But in recent years, we’ve had surprise crowd-pleasers such as “Girls Trip” and “Crazy Rich Asians” to help us snap to. This summer feels more obsessed than ever with wistful looks back.
A glance at the top performers tells the story — or, more accurately, retells it: “Avengers: Endgame.” “The Lion King.” “Toy Story 4.” During a summer that was a couple of percentage points down from last year at the box office, the sure bet was comforting filmgoers with the familiar and unambiguously branded. While original comedies, including “Booksmart” and “Late Night,” never fully found the audiences they deserved, it was rare to see a non-sequel break through. Although Lulu Wang’s beguiling family comedy “The Farewell” was a welcome exception, the summer’s biggest original successes were “Rocketman,” “Yesterday” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” each some form of self-soothing nostalgia trip, albeit the latter served up with a Tarantino edge.
The outlier, strangely enough, was probably the most endearing of the bunch: “Blinded by the Light,” about a Pakistani British teenager finding himself through the music and lyrics of the Boss, failed to ignite the box office, a blip Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian attributes to a crowded August marketplace and, perhaps, viewer fatigue with the genre. If someone had just gone to see “Yesterday,” for example, they might have felt that “Blinded by the Light” was too close to the same thing. “Familiarity is good, because people like the tried and true when they’re plunking down their hard-earned dollars,” Dergarabedian says. “But too much familiarity can make it harder to get them back in with a similar movie.”
One place where there’s no such thing as too much familiarity, it seems, is Disney. It’s no accident that the sentimental escapism that defined the summer also happens to describe the house style of the studio that now controls a Lion King-size share of the movie business.
Having released half of the highest-performing movies of the year so far, Disney is sitting on the fat end of a seesaw that seems to be getting only more wildly disproportionate. It’s a rich-get-richer world, and if the company has learned anything from shrewdly exploiting its back catalogue, it’s that one rarely goes broke indulging the fondest soft-focus memories of people who still buy tickets to see movies.
Past isn’t just prologue anymore. It’s our future.