There’s a general sense, perhaps best explored in Simon Reynolds’ 2009 book Retromania, that the post-2000 cultural landscape has taken an unhealthy interest in its own past.
It’s an argument expressed regularly in opinion columns and comments sections around the world, in which the looming threat of ‘remix culture’ has turned nostalgia into a four letter word. From Kavinsky to Franz Ferdinand and It Follows to The Artist, the miserly amongst us often espouse ennui towards ‘new’ art under the conceit that ‘it’s all been done before’.
This is an issue that has been prevalent in academic debate for a while now. Where ‘the future’ was once a nebulous, exciting concept—best demonstrated by the radical broad-strokes of rock n’ roll, punk, or the French New Wave—it now seems increasingly familiar. Celebrated art now looks inwards, rather than out; caught within a reflexive web of references and influences. Fittingly, The Guardian’s overview of Retromania quotes from Reynolds’ book, in which Reynolds himself quotes from The Mighty Boosh, itself giving reference to its own web of pop-culture references: “The future’s dead. Retro’s the future.”
For many, I’m sure it’s a distressing truth. In the wake of the internet—as remakes, sequels and throwbacks become increasingly common—the ‘mania’ for things long-forgotten is only growing.
As songs from the Top 40 Chart becoming increasingly reliant on hooks and references to ten or twenty year-old tracks, and as sequels to films long-gone begin to break sales records, it’s easy to become instilled with a sense of lingering dread. At the moment, in particular, there’s something unsavoury about our worship of the late 80s and early 90s. Cultural fixations around Pogs and VHS tapes; Ninja Turtles and Hall and Oates, often gleefully delight in the crassest sides of their respective eras, exchanging quality for irony, revelling in the tacky and kitsch ephemera of the time without adding anything new to the conversation.
Perhaps this is why 2015’s Turbo Kid should feel like such a breath of fresh air. Although deeply entrenched in the referential, Turbo Kid is a film that seems to be aware of the disdain for ‘remix culture’, opting instead to splash around in the less-glamorous detritus of late-80s corporate America, in order to present a world plagued by its retro fixations.
In brief, Turbo Kid traces the heroic journey of ‘The Kid’ as he moves through the alternate-history apocalyptic wasteland of 1997. With debts paid to John Carpenter, Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, his journey embraces the headbands-and-synths aesthetic of the 1980s with no shame. The soundtrack evokes Saturday morning cartoons and bad hair-rock, while the visuals exhibit a clear appreciation of late 80s blockbusters, and yet through the frame of the post-apocalypse these elements manage to successfully dramatise the combative divide between the old and the new.
In fiction, the post-apocalypse is commonly a space in which old objects implicitly gain new purpose. For example, books are burned for warmth, or household bric-a-brac stripped and used for parts. In Turbo Kid, these objects are instead kept pristine, old action figures and comic books preserved as if they were divine objects.
The Kid is obsessed with the world as it was before the apocalypse. His bunker home is filled with memorabilia and kitsch, with a particular adoration for a fictional comic book character known as the ‘Turbo Rider’. Saddled with a childhood trauma that has placed him in a state of arrested development, The Kid approaches his surroundings with a fetishistic adoration of the past. In many ways, he is the idealised audience surrogate.
The film’s villain, Zeus, represents the darker side of this adoration. A gross caricature of the moneyed corporate executive, Zeus takes a deadened, assembly-line approach to nostalgia, selling back the promise of the prelapsarian world one body at a time. Where the kid is joyfully blinded by a wide-eyed retro idealism, Zeus represents the grimier aspects of looking backwards: his industry is predicated on violence, exploitation, and reproduction. In his search for new ways to sell old water to the wasteland, Zeus is an apt summary of everything dangerous about retro culture.
I don’t think these parallels are intentional, but rather a happy coincidence, especially considering the extent to which the film dispels the post-Family Guy stigma towards overtly referential media. Turbo Kid’s production team undoubtedly share a love for late-80s culture, and merely want to prove that it needn’t be a mark of the lowbrow.
One the one hand, it’s a film brimming with wink-and-nod-style throwbacks to everything ranging from Tron to Army of Darkness. It takes a comic delight in shameless portrayals of gore and violence that fit snugly into the throwback framework via extensive use of practical effects. It mimics the playful, tactile feel of films like Gremlins and Scanners to a tee. Heads explode, bodies fly, and explosions take place a conspicuous distance from the camera’s lens on a regular basis.
Beyond that however, there’s enough heart here—enough of a sincere creative foundation—that it feels substantial compared to a similarly pitched film like Kung Fury. It’s a film proposed around the one-note joke of nostalgia, but built with a surprising degree of heart. The Kid’s sidekick in particular, an android called ‘Apple’, imbues the film with something beyond the face appeal of the 80s.
Apple seems decidedly modern for a film staged in the past. In a loose, humorous sense, she touches on the recent positive fixation on transhumanism, as seen in films like Ex Machina and Prometheus, giving reference to a trend which has only been substantiated with the recent rise of pop-science ideas like Ray Kurzweil’s ‘singularity’. She often feels jarringly out of place, like an iPhone thrown into a period Victorian drama, bearing only tangential similarities to the period by way of 1982’s Blade Runner.
It’s this uncanny element that makes Apple core to the film’s appeal. Her comic relief (wonderfully executed by Laurence LeBoeuf) provides a vital counterpoint to The Kid’s retro-tinged sensibilities, and together, they form a surprisingly endearing duo; a mixture of the best of old and new.
After all, there’s a certain allure to the idyllic 80s. Behind all of the decade’s political strife and social misfortune there was a candy-coloured backdrop that promised something new and vital. By portraying the ruination of this aesthetic Turbo Kid falls deeply into the self-referential, but in doing so provides a compelling argument for the future as a space for originality through reinvention.
Nostalgia can often seem excessive. Buying a $4,000 cast of Jeff Goldblum’s feet from the 80s on eBay is distressing, sure, but so is relinquishing your stake in the future of popular culture. Something like Turbo Kid reinforces the long-standing argument that the future of nostalgia—dark and scary though it may be—isn’t necessarily such a bad place. By staging the conflict between the grotesque old and the imitative new, it takes a reasoned middle ground and instead asks us to simply have fun in the rubble.
One of the great ironies of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania—and one of which he is aware—is that arguments about nostalgia in themselves are imitative. Where Reynolds strikes truest is in his acknowledgement that ‘remix culture’ can be seen as a rebellious act of creation. Akin to Vaporwave, Turbo Kid proves that finding new in the old is a valid move unto itself; an anti-capitalist statement as well as an entertaining act of collage and pastiche, and one that should be embraced, retro warts and all.