The past is the present is the future

Myths and legends and fairy-tales. They’re the stuff that traditions are born of; the sort of stories that provide a familiarity that we find compelling and even protective. That’s one of the appeals of fairy-tales, they provide comfort. The very nature of art – from cinema to theatre to poetry to prose – depends on numerous iteration of things we are familiar with. But at what point does our relationship with the past move from informative to stultifying? For a few major movie studios, I fear the answer might be now. For me, it was this past week when I saw three movies in 24 hours—Kong: Skull Island, Power Rangers and Beauty and the Beast—which have become emblematic of how our nostalgia-gilded invocation of legend and myth might not be helping movies, or us, as much as we’d like.

The 1933 RKO picture gave us Kong, the giant movie monster; 1993 gave us the premiere of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; and in the 18th century France gave us the fairy-tale about the Beast who loved Beauty. All three stories have endured in multiple iterations over time and this week in the movie theatre it was the past vs the past vs the past.

To be fair, this scenario ought not to be notable on its own terms. The current popular cinema landscape is notable for its promulgation of these “types” – new adaptations of studio-era films, new film adaptations of action films and new adaptations of children’s literature.

Call it serendipity or call it a steady descent into cynicism, but the coincidental release of these three films in such a short space of time brings into focus something that’s long troubled me about the worst aspects of big budget cinema: turning and turning and turning but remaining the same throughout; Ouroboros at its apex.

My fears began to congeal last March when the teaser for Beauty and the Beast premiered and lined it up side by side with the 1993 animated film version it remakes. The filmmakers seemed to be taking pride in showing just how much they could skew to the original so that Beauty and the Beast was immediately sold as “just like the original animated film,” but just in live-action. Like Malefecent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book before it, it’s part of Disney’s self-reflexive push to make up for its inability to succeed with original live-action films. The publicity line on the films were that they presented “updated” versions of the originals, and although they are all inferior to their animated counterparts in their best moments, they could be taken as sincere at face value.

Beauty and the Beast, though, is never interested in a marriage of the contemporary with the past but seems immediately inhibited by the spectre of its predecessor. By the first song, it’s clear we are witnessing a film that takes great pains to hew close to the original film in sycophantic deference.

Kong and Power Rangers, at least, opt for some modicum of autonomy although it’s notable how both iterations are inextricably, even laboriously, dependant on the past. This new Kong occurs at the tail-end of the Vietnam War, for reasons that are never clear beyond some muffled attempt at tying the journey to Kong with the horrors of war. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose feature film debut was the warm and exciting Kings of Summer, is interested in making nothing more than a monster movie so the film is just marking time before Kong shows up. And though he may try for enthusiasm, the build-up is rote to the point of being perfunctory. For all of Samuel L. Jackson’s glorious hamming, the film has scant interest in any of the human characters, who are all “new” creations in the context of the myth of Kong. Try to remember the name of any character a day after, and you probably won’t. You’re not supposed to. The film saves all its emotional panache for Kong’s appearance because it knows as well as we do that the only thing keeping it significant is its dependence on this wondrous Kong – the legend, and not even the one in the film itself.

Oddly, it’s Power Rangers which most seems willing to give up the ghost of the past, although you would be hard pressed to call it a great film. The story comes across as dutiful and buckles with a cast that though winsome never seems particularly united. In a pivotal moment, though, Zordon (the rangers’ mentor) makes a pronouncement on the need to let the new generation continue the work those in the past could not. It’s a deft touch as the film’s own thesis seems to be letting new generations make their own triumphs and mistakes. Unfortunately it comes across as humorously hollow when the very best moment in this new film is a 20 second battle sequence where the original Power Rangers theme is played to a big fight with the requisite villain. Go, Go Power Rangers? Ummm, not really

Is my cynicism too much? Probably. Movies are not dying and retreads and sequels are not the only things being made, it’s just that retreads and remakes are the films that end up with the biggest budgets. Studios remain concerned with risk and opt for the protective cloak of what they know. What rankles is that these big budget releases shroud the more sincerely new work coming out from filmmakers. Further, and more worryingly, they coddle the audience, which, faced with foreknowledge of how everything will turn out, is forced to talk (or sing) along to what comes before them.

My Beauty and the Beast experience was amusingly marked by a moviegoer singing along to key moments with nary a care in the world. A scene in Power Rangers where we are led to believe a main character has died was met with a gleeful but scoffing rejoinder from a fellow attendee (You know he ain’t gon’ kill off just like that.) Perhaps that’s the comfort. We are robbed of the pressure to pay too close attention or care too much when we already know what’s going to happen. The over-reliance on myth and legend and the things we’re already familiar with gives us a chance to perform postmodern detachment with finesse as we chomp away on our popcorn.

Welcome to the future, it’s a tale as old as time, it seems.

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