by Kira Mesch
art by Eva Sturm-Gross
[originally published July 2021]
If Space Jam: A New Legacy had come out about 10 years earlier, I think I would have liked it perfectly fine. It’s the kind of movie I would have gotten at a McDonalds Redbox for a dollar and watched at a sleepover party and it would have been good enough. It’s the kind of movie my mom wouldn’t have been mad about her pre-adolescent children dragging her to. It’s bright and it’s colorful and it’s genuinely funny sometimes, and Don Cheadle is great at doing what he needs to do. A nostalgic part of me is deeply endeared to the (non-CGI) Looney Tunes and their antics.
I watched the movie on HBO Max, because I was busy when the Apollo Theatre was running it for free on Monday, and too cheap and lazy to leave my dorm room after that. It took me three different sittings to watch it: the first intermission was because I got hungry. The second one was because I got bored and tired about 20 minutes before the end.
It has a plot, which is something. The conflict of the movie is a classic but symbolic one: LeBron James’ old way of doing things, a purist version of basketball, comes into conflict with a newer and shinier way of doing things, represented by his son’s self-designed video game. The father has ambitions for his son, but the son wants to follow his own path. I feel the way about Space Jam: A New Legacy that I do about the Justin Bieber song “Peaches,” which is that it’s well made, if you don’t consider the ungodly amount of money that probably went into making it.
If anything, the movie wants you to know how much money went into its making. It’s money that doesn’t just come from Warner Brothers’ monopolistic power, but from product placement as well. LeBron is clothed in head to toe Nike logos at the beginning of the movie; when he lands in ToonTown, he is launched into the earth in the shape of a swoosh.
In this way, Space Jam signifies a movement in cinema away from plot and towards nostalgia, referentiality, and commercialism. Obviously, the writers of this film know a lot about cinema, respect it a lot, even love it. However, when placed against the marketing spiels for Warner Bros, the enthusiastic references become cynical at best. “Look at Casablanca, Harry Potter, The Matrix! Look at what cinema has been!” If the viewer is unfamiliar or unenthused, the movie is familiar and enthused for them: LeBron James is eagerly clothed in Hufflepuff merchandise; even the algorithm’s pitch to him presents to the viewer, “Warner Brothers, the studio behind all the classics.”
If there is an anxiety that Space Jam: A New Legacy represents, it is about a new wave of technology coming to eclipse old ways of doing things. I am not the first writer to mention how streaming has fundamentally shifted movie viewership, nor the first one to think about how video games have reformatted viewers’ capacity to think about plot. The ability to pause, to rewind, or to act out narratives recursively and eternally stands in stark contradictions to the viewers of 70 years ago seeing Casablanca in theaters. Truly, I think the concept of an algorithm as a character could be done in such an interesting way.
If I saw this movie ten years earlier, I would have been passively delighted, if at times perplexed (who let Porky Pig freestyle? and so on…). However, as I become a more active creator and consumer of media, the movie reflects an anxiety I hold at some place deep inside me: that perhaps, at some day in the future, the people who make art will be gone, replaced by sentient algorithms, and owned by monopolistic media companies.