As the type of person who regularly finds himself being spoon-fed cable movies as a result of a remarkably sedentary lifestyle, I’m frequently revisiting beloved movies of my youth with curiously mixed results. If one was to take a sampling of the movies I enjoyed from my childhood and teenage years, only a fraction hold my interest today. Of course, many of the rejects can be attributed to the fact that my tastes in films have changed. This is an easy, answer. Too easy, in fact.
It’s dismissive to assume that a film that fails to hold up after twenty or ten or two years is the result of a change in the viewer. Many of these films were not designed to hold up. Sprinkled with popular references, dated soundtracks, and borderline-retarded notions of what the future had in store for us, some films have a cultural shelf life that’s about as long as an episode of Access Hollywood.
The durability of films from this era is a curious phenomenon. One movie that completely exists in its time, like Clueless, holds up extremely well, having made the transition from “topical” to “charming,” while a movie like Wayne’s World captures a similar point in time and a similar niche, also developing its own weird vocabulary for its characters. I use these two examples because a) they act as an example and a cautionary tale, respectively, and b) both of these films were extremely well-received and regarded as “important” in their day.
These are just two examples of films that either fight or give in to the ravages of time. Comedies seem especially prone, as does any film that tries to tell us what the future will be like. The recipe to make a film popular at the time of its release is by no means the same one used to insure it’s popularity a decade, or even a few years later.
The touch-points required to last aren’t exactly rocket science, but striking the balance between contemporary relevance and durability is bit trickier. In order to ensure that I can sit around like a beached whale on Sundays while enjoying the highest caliber of entertainment from the past 20 years, I’ve compiled a definitive guide of how things should be done so that I may enjoy your film in 2017 as much as I enjoyed it in 2011.
You’re welcome in advance, Hollywood.
Before I go any further with the categories and examples, it warrants mentioning that a bad movie, no matter how much it sticks to these magnificent guidelines I’m laying out, won’t stand the test of time. It won’t be popular or “good” when it’s at its most relevant, so don’t expect it to age from vinegar to wine as time marches on. Bad movies will always be bad, whereas good movies can remain as such, or lose their luster over time.
Bad Examples: Disclosure, The Lawnmower Man, The Net, Hackers, Jurassic Park
Good Examples: You’ve Got Mail, Sneakers, Enemy of the State, Back to the Future 2, Jurassic Park
Make reasonable assumptions about the future of technology. When you make huge leaps forward, at least do them with enough creativity that they seem like an inspired inclusion (powerlaces, hoverboards, dinosaur cloning) rather than some half-assed stab at what the future might bring (any scene from 1991-1997 that involved virtual reality, hackers with nose rings).
If your cool characters are “techies,” make them cool people that happen to be techies, like in Sneakers, rather than people who are cool because they’re techies, like in Hackers or that obnoxious little girl Lex from Jurassic Park.
Move forward simply and no one will get hurt. You’ve Got Mail, while not a personal favorite, added simple logical elements (email, internet dating) to staid concepts (pen pals, blind dating). While AOL might as well be making buggy whips these days, the genetics of the concept nonetheless read as quaint, rather than ephemeral.
If you’re going to dabble in technology, think long and hard about how this will look in one short decade if you’re wrong. Don’t worry about what happens if you’re right. It happens so rarely, it’s not really worth considering.
Bad Examples: Austin Powers 2, Dodgeball, Friends with Benefits
Good Examples: Singles, Wayne’s World, Zoolander, Happy Gilmore, Jerry Maguire
If you want to allow your viewers to watch the film without being ripped out of its universe, don’t toss in some flavor-of-the-month that people will have to rack their brain to understand the significance of years after it occurs. Having your characters resolve their problems on The Jerry Springer Show wasn’t particularly inspired when Austin Powers 2 did it in 1999. It seems downright lazy and unfunny now, just like the Springer show itself. Same with Shaun White in Friends with Benefits, Ryan Seacrest in Knocked Up, and Tabitha Soren (or anyone from MTV) in Black Sheep’s painfully dated “Rock the Vote” scene. (Shame on you, Mudhoney. Shame on your eyes.)
Topical cameos can be funny, so long as they’re absurd or relevant enough to hold up. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Billy Zane didn’t pop up in Zoolander, nor Pearl Jam in Singles. The fact remains that, in these universes, Zane was supposed to be at that fashion show and walk-off, and Pearl Jam were supposed to be dicking around at a coffee shop in Seattle in 1992. Dr. Evil and Scotty weren’t supposed to be on Springer, but they were there nonetheless. And it doesn’t feel right.
Bob Barker wasn’t supposed to be beating the living hell out of Happy Gilmore, but the absurdity of it sells it, because Bob Barker is so not supposed to be in the film, let alone punching Happy. That it’s ridiculous enough to swing back around to durable.
Further: No reality television star references or appearances. Ever. No one in 2025 will be happy that Omarosa or Evan Marriott appeared in an Adam Sandler film. You probably don’t even know who those people are, which solidifies my point.
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