This year has brought with it a huge number of (incredibly) long-awaited sequels. We’ve just witnessed the reopening of Isla Nubar in Jurassic World, next month we’ll go back in time for Terminator Genisys, and last but not least we’ll return to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars Episode VII.
All of these films are going to make an absolute ton of money at the box office, because they’re all being driven by a powerful sense of nostalgia, and nostalgia is heroin for old people. But is there such a thing as waiting too long for a sequel? The best stories in any medium are the ones that have a finite ending, after all, and for every triumphant return like Fury Road there’s a movie like The Phantom Menace, that ends up being the most awful thing that ever happened in the history of cinema.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. There’s plenty to respect, if not love, in The Phantom Menace. The action scenes are well-shot; the visual effects (mostly) hold up by today’s standards; and ‘Duel of the Fates‘ is one of greatest works of composer John Williams’ career, which is saying something. But none of that matters compared to the crushing sense of disappointment Star Wars fans inevitably felt when it failed to live up to expectations they built up in their heads in the 16 years following Return of the Jedi.
So why, when the trailer for The Force Awakens first hit the Internet in December 2014, did we collectively go bananas all over again as if The Phantom Menace had never happened? Because nostalgia is a drug to us. Seeing the Millennium Falcon soar through the sky while the Star Wars theme rang out felt like a homecoming; the return to a better, simpler time when the lines between good and evil – between the Rebellion and the Empire – weren’t in the least bit blurry.
Sequels aren’t just about giving us a chance to revisit characters and places that we know and love, either; they’re also a chance for us to introduce those characters to a whole new generation of movie lovers. Sure, films like Jurassic Park have their iconic moments: the first time we see a brontosaur up close, the water in the glass, the first time the T-Rex lets out its terrifying roar. But every new generation deserves the chance to discover its own moments for themselves instead of simply recycling the glory days of our own cinematic youth.
Besides, the youth of today are a damn sight harder to impress than their parents’ generation were. Let’s be honest: CGI made with the most groundbreaking technology of 1999 tends to look hopelessly quaint by the standards of 2015. Show a child of today a roaring T-Rex or a liquid-metal Terminator and they’ll most likely yawn with boredom; after all, this is a generation raised on Pixar and DreamWorks. They won’t be moved by a man in a latex suit pretending to be a velociraptor.
Still, it’s not just shinier gadgets that inspire directors to return to old stomping grounds. Familiar material can also provide the perfect opportunity to explore new themes and ideas. Toy Story 3, which came a decade after its predecessor, saw the toys dealing with the concept of their own mortality as the now grown-up Andy headed off to college. The premise of Jurassic World – what if the theme park had actually worked? – could hardly be more fitting for the series, but director Colin Trevorrow has used it to make a sly point about how difficult modern movie audiences are to impress. The whole reason that the park begins to mess with genetic modification is to up the wow factor. “They’re dinosaurs,” replies Chris Pratt, “wow enough.”
This can also be pretty crafty when done properly. There’s no way George Miller would have been given $150 million to make an explicitly feminist post-apocalyptic action movie starring Charlize Theron and a tribe of warrior women if he’d just asked. Instead he snuck it into cinemas as a new Mad Max movie, and now it’s set to be near the top of many people’s lists of the best films of this year. Similarly, it’s very telling that we’re running so low on truly great female characters in mainstream cinema that we had to borrow two from the 1980s: Sarah Connor and Princess Leia.
It’s very easy to hop on a soapbox and write an article bemoaning the lack of originality in modern movies, where everything is either a sequel, a reboot or a Marvel property. But the truth is, there’s nothing inherently evil about sequels at all. Sure, there’s always a chance that they’ll nuke the fridge and ruin the series forever, but they can often provide us with a solid foundation upon which to build something truly amazing.