Nostalgia: Hollywood’s Cheapest Trick

Looking at the photo above should evoke no emotion in you, apart from maybe a ‘naw’ at the cute kid front and centre. Or, if you are the fashion police, you are dialling the cop car now and locking him up for the haircut he is bravely trying to make work.


Point being, apart from a subjective opinion on the subject – you have no intrinsic attachment that would otherwise evoke any kind of emotion in you.

At least I would hope not, as that is a photo of me. (I bet you feel bad about locking me up now huh! HUH!?)

That’s right, 6-year-old Kyle smil -er- grimacing for his mum, who is on the other side eagerly ready to snap a photo of a happy camper and his toy chicken. And while to you, this photo is simply a boy and his toy, to me – it is a trigger release connected to the floodgates of reminiscence into a simpler time of all fun and no pain. Where the only assignments I had to worry about were finger paintings and the biggest dilemmas I faced were the scarce days of disappointing lunches.

A time that brings me the greatest joy to reflect on, but the greatest pain knowing that I will never be able to relive those moments again.



What is this dark emotional sorcery you ask? Nostalgia.

Pretend now, that in the photo frame below there is an image of your younger self. Perhaps, it is one of the childhood photos your mum has proudly placed on the wall at home, or it is the time your dad took you to your first football game. Whatever it is – find the most iconic photo you have of your childhood and put it in that frame.. and now let the nostalgia hit.


Wooden Frame bg

As far as scientists can tell, the Limbic System is to blame, or praise for nostalgia. It stores every emotion and long term memory. That song you danced to from So Fresh 2006, the scent of chai at Christmas, that last day of grade 12 – all of it is stored in the Limbic System ready for the brain to draw on it when it needs to… in the case of nostalgia, it is when we are hit with sensory or emotional triggers that the brain then decides it is a good time to kick the Limbic System into gear.

It’s pretty crazy hey? How one photo – or anything for that matter; a sound, a song, a scent, a taste – can instantly (in 13 milliseconds to be exact-ish) release such a hit of warm, fuzzy reminiscent feels.

(Side Note: How memories are stored, is currently unknown. The theory that the brain takes ‘photographs’ has recently been debunked – perhaps if we were A.I. we could upload .mp4’s to the ol’ Limbic, unfortunately neuroscience if far more complex than plugging yourself into iTunes.)
(The change that occurs in your brain, taking you from your normal thought process and transforming you into a nostalgic state can take as little as 13 milliseconds or 1/75th of a second. To illustrate this, if you can pinpoint the frame that shows the little grimacing Kyle with his chicken toy in the gif above, that is how fast it takes for nostalgia to take place.)
(EDIT: Youtube cannot play videos at the heightened speed of 75fps, so I have attached a photo of 75 images in a row.. try and find grimacing Kyle now 😉 )

*Warning: Rant of a Humble Creative*

It is no surprise then that Hollywood actively relies upon and overly saturates its content with nostalgic themes to reel in the hits at box office. It is, in the crassest way explained; the cheapest, easiest and laziest (cough*drug*cough) creative technique used in film. From blatantly remaking movies from decades past (Jumanji, Star Wars, THE ENTIRE FREAKING DISNEY FRANCHISE RN) to jam-packing their film with nostalgic songs, colours, lifestyles and fashion (Suburbicon, Pride and Prejudice, Greatest Showman) Hollywood is full of it.



Nostalgia is a drug, sure not in the same way the mara-ju-wanas or alcohols work, but more like the gratifying feeling you get when scrolling the social feeds, or hearing the *ding* of a notification.

The Limbic system is partly made up of the amygdala (storer of emotions). When events occur in heightened emotional states, extra surges of ‘feel-good’ hormones are released (like the good ol’ dopamine) and are made far more easily attainable by the brain. Hence, when we are reminded of these times decades later in films – hear a particular theme song, see an old fashion trend – the same hormones are triggered sending us into the same deepened, almost immersive state of reminiscence.

The problem, however, lies not with the use of nostalgia – I appreciate vintage fashion as much as the next creative. But, the sole reliance upon the effects of nostalgia to boost ticket sales is where the line can be objectively drawn.

Though the quality of a film is subjective to the viewer, enough creative critics left with a sour taste in their mouth after watching it is convincing enough of the poor marksmanship.

Movies such as Suburbicon, U.N.C.L.E and Greatest Showman (sorry but its true) have all been deemed some of the worst movies of the last decade by such creative critics. They are movies that seem lacklustre in attention to detail of coherent storyline, scripting and production.

Take this review for example, by Rotten Tomatoes The Man from U.N.C.L.E:

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tries to distract from an unremarkable story with charismatic stars and fizzy set pieces, adding up to an uneven action thriller with just enough style to overcome its lack of substance.”

Their saving grace? Enough nostalgic theming to draw a crowd, only to be blind-sided by a subpar cinematic experience.

expectations nostalgia movie

But hey, perhaps this isn’t all bad? Perhaps it is just my cynicism that thinks blatantly taking advantage of the easily transformed minds of the public is actually a smart move to take? (What do you think?)

Whatever your stance, next time you go to watch a movie set in the 60’s and come out regretting it, remember I warned you.

In the mean time, have a re-created photo of a pre-cynical grimacing Kyle and his toy chicken.


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