Everything Old is New Again

Hollywood’s fascination with sequels has never been questioned: when a movie is successful, the studio may order another installment. The studio will generally expect that audience recognition of the brand will boost ticket sales higher than they would climb on a new and untested property. However, the current onslaughts of “revivals” don’t exactly follow the traditional blueprint for a standard sequel. By examining three of the most popular franchises to be revitalized – Jurassic World, The X-Files: Season 10, and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – certain trends unique to these restarted franchises become evident.

Jurassic World, The X-Files, and Star Wars each pick up the thread of a story that had been begun in their previous installments. Set in the same world as their predecessors, each of these projects recognizes the earlier entries in the series as canonical to the narrative (or, in the case of Star Wars, most of the entries in the series are recognized as canonical, since Star Wars books are no longer considered canon). This serves to differentiate these movies from more straightforward remakes: like the upcoming Ghostbusters movie, a remake is a fresh start or retelling of the story, which does not consider earlier entries in the series to be canon.

Given this continuation of narrative, however, why not simply consider any of these projects to simply be considered a sequel? First, a lapse in the public consciousness of the property seems requisite. This may arise from a poor reception of previous entries, a reality for all three of these franchises: Jurassic World comes after 2001’s poorly received Jurassic Park III, The X-Files: Season 10 comes after the fan-least-favorite Season 9 (concluded in 2002) and a lukewarm reception for a 2008 theatrical sequel, and Star Wars Episode VII follows 2005’s widely derided Episode III.

In each of these cases, the respective franchise was absent from the pop culture scene for an extended period, following a disappointing performance of a previous entry. This lapse may be necessary in order to allow the bad taste left in the audience’s mouth after a recent poor entry in the series to be eventually replaced with nostalgic feeling for the earlier, better loved, and more often re-watched earlier entries.

After acquiring the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas, and in the months leading to the December 2015 release of Episode VII, Disney began a conscious marketing blitz to ensure the target audience had all but forgotten the much-maligned prequel trilogy. Products adorned with characters, spaceships, and imagery from the Original Trilogy flooded every retailer imaginable. While some of these characters would appear in Episode VII, other characters – like Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and Yoda –featured prominently in advertising materials and merchandise despite making no appearing in Disney’s new movie. Furthermore, characters exclusive to the prequel trilogy – such as Jar Jar Binks, Anakin Skywalker, or Count Dooku – were nowhere to be found. The message to the target audience was clear: we know which Star Wars films you are nostalgic for, and we will gladly acquiesce to your demands.

The movie itself continued to fulfill this promise: by featuring a slew of familiar faces alongside new characters, utilizing iconic fan-favorite space ships, and by allowing the new characters to engaging in a calculated “passing of the baton” from the popular established characters. By incorporating beloved characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia into the narrative of Episode VII, the audience is sure to associate the new movie with the Original Trilogy, rather than the prequel series (which featured few of the Original Trilogy characters, and still fewer portrayed by the original actor). Furthermore, by depicting developing relationships between the new characters and beloved established characters, the audience is more likely to embrace the new additions alongside their pre-existing heroes. While series creator George Lucas derided Disney for choosing to reuse existing iconic ships for the movie, the nostalgia for vehicles like the Millennium Falcon or X-Wing rise to an affection that parallels the affection the audience possesses for the living characters that appear alongside them. Furthermore, by relying on a plot that heavily echoes the first movie in the franchise (in the same way Lucas’s original Star Wars echoed archetypal mythology), director J.J. Abrams codifies the plot into a mythological journey. This allows the new characters to experience a Hero’s Journey similar to their predecessors alongside the heroes that came before them – while simultaneously laying the groundwork for them to advance to new (and hopefully more distinct) adventures in the sequels to come.

Jurassic World, meanwhile, opted to tell a story involving mostly new characters. While a supporting role features a minor recurring character, and the events of the original movie are referenced, the story here is largely self-contained, albeit essentially the same as its predecessor: technological arrogance results in revived dinosaurs wrecking havoc on an island theme park. Despite this, the lead characters – a scene-stealing (but two-dimensional) dinosaur expert, an all-business genetic scientist, a pair of children in need of rescue, a villain that wants to capitalize on the carnivores – are effectively the same archetypes we saw in 1993’s Jurassic Park. Furthermore, the movie obviously seeks to evoke feelings of nostalgia in the audience, especially during an early sequence in which the audience is introduced to the park through the wide-eyed perspective of on the lead children.

In addition, and like Episode VII, Jurassic World also relies on previous-established non-human elements to share the screen: namely, the Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus, the two dinosaurs have prominently defined the series, again deserve top billing here. However, in addition to these previously seen dinosaurs, Jurassic World features a genetically engineered, all-new, fictional dinosaur: the I. Rex. However, the movie expects the audience to protest from the start, and as a result, incorporates criticism of the dinosaur into the narrative. In order to avoid spoiling the climactic battle, the specifics will not be described in this review, but suffice to say that the movie ultimately pits this shiny new dinosaur against the established, nostalgic species – and unequivocally sides with the latter.

The X-Files: Season 10, meanwhile, differentiates itself by focusing exclusively on the two lead characters from the original series. Although a few new characters are introduced over the course of the 6 episodes that comprise the season, Mulder and Scully remain the two leads for this revitalization. This is undoubtedly a wise decision, especially considering negative fan reaction to Season 9, which featured different agents in the lead roles. In addition, The X-Files incorporates many plot elements from the original narrative into the ongoing mythology for the new season.

An additional element common in all three revivals is a self-aware acknowledgement of the story as a continuation of a previous, lapsed narrative. In Episode VII, this takes the form of offhanded dialogue (as when returning to the Millennium Falcon prompts Han to sigh, “We’re home”) as well as elements of the narrative (one major plot thread concerns the search for a character who has vanished). The X-Files follows suit, opening with an episode explaining how Mulder and Scully must “return,” and including lines like Scully cooing, “I forgot how much fun these cases could be.” In Jurassic World, however, the concept is personified in a chatty computer technician sporting a t-shirt with the original Jurassic Park logo. Providing commentary on the events of the movie from a safe vantage point, Lowery provides the skeptics in the audience with a mouthpiece, criticizing new developments (like the aforementioned genetically engineered dinosaur) while singing the praises of the original. Ultimately, Lowery’s commentary leads nowhere, but it provides the movie an opportunity to broadcast self-awareness of its status in order to assuage resistance on the part of the audience.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the burgeoning “revival” sub-genre is its willingness to commit to the flavor of the source material so wholeheartedly that the flaws of the original are preserved just as well as the achievements. In Jurassic World, the characters are immediately upstaged by their extinct GCI counterparts. In Star Wars, the pacing of the narrative supersedes any concerns of character, and elements like outer spacial relation are completely neglected. In The X-Files, the voice-over filled mythology episodes seem like filler until the Monster of the Week shows start. While the magic of the originals may have been rekindled, the imperfections have returned as well, raising the question of whether or not these revivals might eventually transcend the shortcomings of their predecessors, or if they are bound by nostalgia to intrinsic imperfection.

After Jurassic World and Episode VII shattered records at the box office, and with X-Files having garnered impressive ratings for the Fox Network – to say nothing of critical darling Mad Max: Fury Road’s performance at the Oscars – more revivals are sure to be on the horizon. By thoughtfully analyzing what made the properties successful to being with, this needn’t be a bad thing. As these stories move past their initial revitalization, however, one nevertheless hopes that they will proceed into uncharted territories, and provide fresh exciting in addition to nostalgia.

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