Hollywood's Summer of Retro Sci-Fi

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The new blockbuster formula: recreate the past, add aliens or superpowers

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Universal

This is shaping up to be the summer of alternate-history lessons. From June's Super 8 to Cowboys & Aliens, opening this Friday, Hollywood has rolled out a surprising number of films that combine the seasonal spaceships-and-superheros subject matter with a dose of nostalgia for bygone times.

These de-facto period pieces fondly recreate the past while safely quarantining their mayhem from the here-and-now.

Meanwhile, the films that feature passages set both in past and present (like Transformers 3) show that the dire problem at hand—say, the robots warring overhead—isn't unique to the present day.

Of course, real-history-steeped backstories have long been a staple of the comic book, as well as the comic-book film (Bryan Singer's original X-Men film opened by recounting Magneto's concentration-camp origins, as does Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class; a recent Atlantic piece by Dominic Tierney touches on Captain America's selectivity when it comes to the comic's playing on recent history). But this summer's films appear to be interested in an even tighter braiding of comic-book-ish legend and our national mythos. There are precedents—remember the gargantuan, shambling spider-bot of 1999's Wild Wild West?—but this latest crop may just constitute a trend.

Why? Perhaps these films' revisiting—and more-often-than-not wholesale retooling—of American history lends a ready-made air of gravitas to the fantastic material. Or else they just allow viewers to imagine a world beyond their uncertain present, without forsaking their beloved CGI havoc in the process.

Below, a closer look at the six titles leading the way in cross-breeding nostalgia with future-shock:

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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