This holiday weekend, like most holiday weekends, involves many traditions including beach trips, cook outs, and one of my personal favorites, TV movie marathons. After a long day out in the hot sun BBQing or splashing in a pool, few things are quite as enjoyable as coming home, flopping down on the couch and turning on the TV to see that some cable network is running an all day long marathon of your favorite movie series. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I’ve seen Star Wars, I am always willing to spend a few hours sitting around watching Han, Luke, and Leia as they battle the evil Galactic Empire. As Mom’s mac & cheese or meatloaf is comfort food for the stomach, so favorite movies are a sort of comfort food for the brain, making us come back to them time after time. A true “comfort movie” is well made, universally understood, and has been watched over and over.
These movies speak to us in ways that other movies don’t and take us to places we’ve only seen in our imaginations. Although there are plenty of movies the tap into our imagination, these particular movies give birth to fully realized universes, completely self-contained and yet ever expanding, of such a sweeping scope that they blow us away. They tell us stories of action and adventure on such an epic scale that even the most adventurous of us find it difficult to fathom. For a few hours we can travel through the galaxy fighting evil aliens or go on missions as the most elite of secret agents only find ourselves still on the couch at the end of the escapade, satisfied, but no worse for wear.
Not only do comfort movies speak to our imagination, they also tap into something deeper. The use of mythological archetypes in Star Wars is well documented. George Lucas was a student of the late mythologist and author Joseph Campbell and Campbell’s influence can be seen throughout the original trilogy. By using these archetypes, Lucas made Star Wars, both plot and characters, instantly recognizable and relatable. Although it was told in a new and different way, the story felt familiar, like ancient lore that just hadn’t quite been able to take form until this movie. With Campbell’s help as a consultant, Lucas tapped into those shared cultural ideas that speak to us all, regardless of our personal backgrounds. Many of the characters in the movie are mirror images of figures that can be found in myths from around the world. It is amazing that Star Wars still resonates just as strongly with new viewers thirty six years after its release as it did when it first came to theaters. It inspires them, just as the myths that Star Wars was derived from inspired countless generations before.
It’s not just the cultural significance of these movies that make us love them. They also look fantastic. Who doesn’t remember watching Indy trying to swap an idol for a bag of sand or seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s T-1000 walk right through the metal bars of the mental hospital’s security doors to get at John Connor. These movies are made with love and care, and their creators obviously put more than a little bit of themselves into them. It shows. From casting to special effects, each element was carefully thought out and the best choices made. Often, these choices pay great dividends as the film holds up long after other contemporary films look like complete garbage. Twenty two years later the T-1000 still looks amazing, and yet similar effects, such as the Silver Surfer, don’t hold up even a few years after the movie’s release. It’s the high level of artistry and care, pushing the boundaries of available technology, and a bit of dumb luck that sets certain movies above the rest. For Star Wars, George Lucas had to create a whole special effects studio and they in turn had to build all their equipment from scratch. It was over a year before they were able to shoot any of the effects scenes, but despite Lucas’ continual updates, the original film still looks great.
Even a film’s score makes a difference. Who doesn’t know the “Imperial March” from Star Wars and doesn’t understand its evil undertones? More than once I’ve started humming the theme when a menacing someone walks past me at work. Everyone around me understands what is going on and the significance of the melody without my having to say a word.
Comfort movies are also enjoyable because they are familiar. Like a favorite pair of jeans, they are broken in to fit just right and feel great. We’ve watched them dozens of times and can quote their entirety by heart. Even though we know exactly what is going to happen we still watch eagerly. We love these movies because we know them so well. We can sit around with our friends and have an in depth conversation, packed full of minutia and quotable lines and not get bored.
Kevin Smith really hit on this familiarity in his movie Clerks, when Dante and Randall discuss the contractors who were working on the second Death Star when it was destroyed. At face value, a conversation this serious about an invented scenario in a made up world is absolutely ridiculous and yet I know I’ve had more than my fair share of discussions just like this. In fact, the ability to have this type of conversation with others who also know them by heart adds to our enjoyment of our favorite films. We know there are aspects that make no sense or have no bearing in reality and yet we choose to accept this as part of the movie’s charm and instead use it as fuel for these colorful exchanges that only enhance our enjoyment of and our connection to the universe in which they are set.
The right mixture of these elements gives these movies a certain “X” factor—something we can’t quite analyze quantitatively and yet we know exists. Comfort movies fill an important spot in our lives that isn’t contented by anything else. They are the reliable entertainment that we can turn to like an old friend to make us feel at ease. This is why we love them so much.