Remember when being a nerd was uncool? If you were born in or after the 90s, the answer is likely no. That was the decade when the geeks dusted themselves down, de-wedgied their underwear and claimed popular culture as their own, filling our cinema and TV screens with a generation of icons whose real-world inspirations needed little decoding.
Quentin Tarantino’s movie gangsters bickered about gangster movies. Kevin Smith’s clerks squabbled over Star Wars. Both film-makers shot to overnight prominence. All of a sudden, films took place not in movie-world but in ours, and any screenwriter looking for a hit had to lay their cultural credentials on the table – the trashier the better. The dead-end video-store job was transformed from a red-flag of loserdom to an essential qualification on the path to Hollywood glory.
On the small screen, Buffy’s crew of suburban crimefighters called themselves the “Scooby Gang” and could be heard quoting everything from The Untouchables to The X-Files, while Seinfeld, whose characters’ principal obsession was the Superman comics, mined its own format for laughs by devising a sitcom within a sitcom.
But one film stood out above all its meta-competitors: Scream, the slasher movie whose characters frantically dismantled the slasher-movie formula with a nod and a wink. The film was a postmodern triumph: Kevin Williamson’s screenplay sent up the genre’s rulebook with equal parts fondness and ferocity, inspiring a million earnest undergraduate essays in the process. It might just have been the coolest movie of the decade.
But that was a quarter-century ago. Last week saw the release of a new and rebooted Scream, and as a certain murderous supervillain once said: “There’s nothing more pathetic than an ageing hipster.”
Perhaps that’s slightly harsh on the new film, which is a perfectly decent slasher in its own right and contains some standout moments of hugely innovative ultraviolence. But what was pioneering and smart about the original – the quickfire meta-commentary delivered by its central cast of teenage movie nerds – is exactly what falls flat in the new one. We’ve seen this movie before – a few too many times. Postmodernism got old.
It’s not the only recent film hamstrung by the compulsion to bludgeon its way through the fourth wall and wink crudely at its audience: No Time To Die was littered with shots, lines and entire scenes that hark back to previous Bonds films; at two-and-three-quarter hours, it was also badly bloated.
At least that one was watchable. Less so The Matrix Resurrections, which devoted an entire five-minute montage to characters laying out various popular interpretations of the original Matrix film. Worst of all, it featured a scene in which a besuited bad guy tells us that “our beloved parent company Warner Bros has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy”. The first Matrix had us questioning our existence; this one is only interested in justifying its own.
Bizarrely, each of the new Matrix and Scream films begins with a knowing, hall-of-mirrors rehash of the original movie’s iconic opening scene. More bizarrely still, both manage to crowbar in a moment when the original movie (or a barely fictionalised stand-in) is watched within the new film, by the new characters. Sure, it’s all very self-aware. But it’s mainly just self-indulgent. Two films that struck gold by picking apart the world around them are now only able to look inward.
Maybe this is a symptom of the bleak state of Hollywood today, where franchises rule the roost and manufactured nostalgia – or “fan service” – is top of every producer’s priority list.
But there’s another problem, too. Back in 1995, the self-awareness that marked out Scream was a real maverick move. It positioned the film – and by extension its audience – as the savvy outsider, wise to mainstream conventions and scornful of the trash that followed them.
But it wasn’t long before self-reflexiveness had itself gone mainstream. After Pulp Fiction, every movie hoodlum was a pop-culture savant. On TV, the mockumentary became the go-to format for whip-smart comedy, and there was an explosion of sitcoms starring comedians as fictionalised versions of themselves, not all of them any good. As if to confirm it all, the Scream films themselves were carved apart for laughs by the Scary Movie series. Horror films about horror films have since become a dime a dozen.
The meta-movie’s slide into mediocrity has not been helped by the fact that many of those 90s trailblazers failed to recapture the genius of their early years. Smith’s work quickly fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. Tarantino’s films have become laboured monuments to his own fetishistic movie obsessions. Williamson’s revitalising brand of wry high-school horror had burnt itself out before the decade was up.
There is an outlier here. Joss Whedon, the showrunner who dreamt up Buffy and her vampire-slaying bookworms, saw his star continue to rise over the next two decades to the point where his was perhaps the most sought-after signature in Hollywood. He has also, over the last couple of years, undergone the starkest fall from grace, his failings moral rather than artistic.
But the time before that had been spent winching himself into place – via various prestigious script doctoring, screenwriting and directing assignments – as the key figure behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has built its brand on the same nudge-nudge irreverence popularised all those years ago. And at $25bn and counting, the brand is a lucrative one.
His wisecracking Scooby Gang, it turned out, were merely the precursors to the smart-arse superheroes colonising today’s box-office charts. Two decades on, the ironically raised eyebrow, once the preserve of the acerbic outsider, has become the tone adopted by the biggest and most cynical cash cow in movie history.
The life cycle has come full circle. Sadly for Scream’s hot new crop of would-be villains and victims, self-awareness is no longer commenting on the Hollywood formula, it is the formula. Now there’s an irony.