art cultural criticism

How Star Wars Proves Nostalgia Sells

4:50:00 AMJoseph Anderson




We live in an era of change. For many of us, this fact touches deeper than the giddiness we get over the fact that internet means instant messaging, collaboration and social networking. It means that the old ways of doing things are forever gone. We feel like the old cowboys before barbed wire was accepted throughout the West. After that, it no longer paid to be a cowboy, no matter how pleasing the idea was that you could make your living driving cattle from the Rio-Grande to San Francisco.


I'm a cowboy —maybe you are too. There's a lot of things I'd like to still be in existence just because they make me feel safe and familiar. Things like the typewriter —that ancient thing our parents wrote their college exams on. I like to picture the silent, quiet writer at his desk, sweat pouring down his face as he strains to clack away at those old, metal keys.


The world is changing, and the things we grew up with are relics of the past. We move onward and upwards, entertained only by bigger and better, newer and sleeker. We are a generation of nostalgic dreamers. We bury the last of our veterans from WWII. We place flowers on their caskets and we say goodbye to the sound of a gun salute, and we feel the burden that they left behind. We have no great struggle, no unifying war against evil. Instead, we know chaos. Gone are the Gameboys, cassette players, radios, CD-Roms, books held by hand, and an idea that when we grow up we can change the world. Because nobody changes the world —that's for people who go to the top schools —the people whose daddy's somebody, who was born with the right set of genes, given the right nose or hair color. That stuff's not for us. 

We wonder when the world will be blown up —gone are the green pastures we cowboys played in when we were children. Gone are the familiar cattle prods, the soft leather of the saddle, the smell of straw and hay and the knowledge that work is never done because each day is the same as the last. 
But just because things are gone doesn’t mean they can’t be profited from. Just sitting through the fifteen minutes of trailers before any major motion picture will show you that nostalgia is not only something that we all feel, it sells pretty well, too. We see reboot after reboot coming out, because the big movie companies know that they are the surest way to make them money.


There is a reason why a rebooted movie like Star Wars the Force Awakens appeals to us. The science of why nostalgia sells goes deeper than brand recognition. Nostalgia is a neurological phenomenon that exists within our brains to create sympathy. We experience this when we hear stories —it’s how we share experiences and memories. It can help us cope with other negative human emotions that are just as universal as nostalgia.


People may not be aware of this when they go to their favorite new rebooted series. They sit in their theater seat eating popcorn and think they are just there for the show. But movie makers are actually delivering a form of catharsis to their theater audience. The theater room becomes a conduit for emotional cleansing —a place for memories to be shared and relived.

“The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie." —Walker Percy, The Moviegoer.

Star Wars is a particularly ironic case for this because the movie itself is futuristic in its atmosphere, but apparently George Lucas knew that something about the movie’s attraction would be nostalgia when he came up with those opening words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” If anything, Star Wars and movies like that show us an image of our past—an image of a future which is nostalgic because it depends upon our knowledge of what past minds hoped for in the future. Real life forever proves the optimistic mind wrong. 

And it begs the question as for why now, perhaps more than ever, we are obsessed with a need for nostalgia? Have things gotten so much worse that we need this cleansing, movie going experience more now than we did in decades passed? Or is something else going on? Has the world really grown less and less innocent, so that more and more we lose hope for the future, and as we become increasingly advanced in “cutting edge” technology we realize the extent of what has been lost by it? 

"There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief" —Aeschylus, Agememnon.

The people producing these movies are smart. They’re smart like how we need to be smart, because they’re taking advantage of our changing world for their profit. And although the future may be uncertain, we have the chance to either morn lost ways, or embrace the new, and profit from it just the same. 

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