Picture it: It’s Friday night, and you walk into Blockbuster, greeted by rows and rows of the latest box office hits. Maybe it’s The Matrix, maybe it’s a Men in Black flick. But you have a mission. Tonight is date night, and you need something to put you in the right mood — something more personal, not buoyed by the ebb and flow of action and water cooler hype.
Finally, you find it: Love and Basketball, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or something like that. You grab the box, still not quite accustomed to the weight of an empty DVD case, though it’s better than the plastic Blockbuster logo paper folded under the VHS case covering. You walk through rows of microwavable popcorn and Sour Punch straws to the cashier and finally, after completing your transaction, drive back home. Your date comes, and you suavely open the case to find: the wrong goddamn movie. It’s fine, whatever — bitches love Corky Romano, right?
Do you miss Blockbuster? In 2018, it appears that many people do. The video chain’s dominance has dwindled to a single remaining store in the continental United States, following the 2018 closure of two stores in Alaska, relegating it to just a curious artifact of a bygone age. There have been a lot of tongue-in-cheek treks to that last Blockbuster, though they haven’t always nailed the details of those Fridays past — the reasons why, for better and worse, video stores have been outdone by services like Netflix. Like many cultural touchpoints from the ‘90s, Blockbuster evokes in many of us a strong and unchecked sense of nostalgia: Movie nights, renewing rentals we love, the excitement everyone felt when the weekend we got for new, popular films got extended to a week, the pimple-faced kid at the front.
That partially explains the the sudden and concerted resurgence of Blockbuster nostalgia this year: a popup in London only offering Deadpool 2, the appearance of a store in the first Captain Marvel trailer (which is set in the ’90s), all those stories about the last Blockbuster (which is located in Bend, Oregon, by the way). There’s always the inclination to pounce on stories about the “last” of things as we suffer and posture through the endless churn of capitalism, though the narrative of the righteous video rental store narrative dates back at least to 1994’s Clerks.
Film isn’t like records, another dying middle-man for cultural products — there’s not much of an argument to be made about a drop in quality, as film equipment has gotten very obviously better over the last few decades. The only way for Blockbuster to remain even a little relevant is for its shepherds to admit it’s a relic — to stay in business by functioning as a living museum, down to the themed beer.
And Blockbuster really is a cultural touchstone, in a way; it’s a symbol of the aggressively normal. What’s more milquetoast than renting a movie to watch with family on a Friday night? What’s more human than looking at an empty box and thinking about the other people who also wanted to watch The Lord of the Rings, instead of blandly scrolling through another algorithmic-generated list of recommendations? In 2018,digital media feels created to show everyone everything as forcefully as possible. Maybe we miss the human element of walking around, feeling like we’re making a choice, feeling like we’re free of the constant thrum of advertisement and word of mouth. Maybe we miss the feeling of ownership, the tangible benefits of just having something for our money. There’s only one Blockbuster left in America — that, by definition, makes it special.