The Retro Films of 2015

Jurassic World Star Wars Terminator Genysis

Is it just me, or do all of the films that are coming out this year look really familiar?  This isn’t me whining about how Hollywood’s running out of ideas, nor about how there are too many sequels or remakes or reboots.  I like sequels, or at least the good ones.  While the first film of a franchise is generally worried about laying out the ground rules and setting up the world, sequels are free to bend (and sometimes break) those rules and explore those worlds.  Even reviled sequels (like Alien 3) usually bear at least some worthy fruit (like the Xenomorph’s ability to appropriate physiological traits from those it impregnates).

I’m commenting on the oddly specific type of sequels and remakes that are coming out in 2015: developing on or revisiting the same group of Generation X blockbusters that were ubiquitous throughout my and many others’ childhoods.  We’ve gotten latter day Star Wars, tired Jurassic Parks and increasingly convoluted Terminators before, but never quite like this and certainly never all at once.  They all seem less concerned with moving their various franchises forward as much as they are about returning to square one: exploiting what made the original films so appealing to begin with.

Take Jurassic World, for instance.  The series’ first film presented the absolute marvel of genetically engineering dinosaurs and putting them together in a high tech zoo.  Sure, there was corporate espionage and chaos theory thrown in for good measure, but the soul of the film was the simultaneous wonder and terror of bringing Earth’s most ancient monsters into the 20th Century.

Jurassic Park T-Rex

The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s concern wasn’t so much replicating the success of Jurassic Park, but on-upping it.  It wasn’t enough to revisit the theme park, they had to bring them to the mainland and let them run amok in downtown San Diego.  Despite its better intentions, Jurassic Park III was born of the same “one-up the original” mindset (although let’s face it, the God-awful script didn’t do it any favors).  It wasn’t enough to have the Tyrrannosaurus Rex – an animal whose name translates into “Tyrant Lizard King” – as monster to beat.  They instead had to go with the Spinosaurus, a dinosaur that few people knew, let alone cared, about.

While it might appear on the surface to be following the exact same pattern of “Jurassic Park, only better” that the other sequels went with, what we actually see is a return to form for the series.  Despite their names, what was the one thing that none of the other sequels had?  A park.

Jurassic World begins with a functional, sustanable, dinosaur-laden theme park that has been around for so long that the novelty of its existence has worn off.  The eventual result of this – that the corporate powers that be engineer hybridized, designer dinosaurs – is more in line with the spirit of the first film than either of the sequels.  The reason why the dinosaurs were able to break free and terrorize the film’s protagonists was that splicing dinosaur DNA with sex-changing frogs resulted in giant, carnivorous lizards to spontaneously change their sex in order to reproduce at an unregulated rate.  Purposefully making them more dangerous is simply the next step in human stupidity.

Star Wars the Force Awakens

While the problems with the Star Wars prequel trilogy are far too numerous to address here, suffice it to say that they largely boil down to the same genreal point: the films did not resemble the originals.  The set and ship designs were too slick, the CG too obvious, the action too omnipresent and the characters too obnoxious.  It was so focussed on what it could do with modern special effects that it forgot what it was supposed to be doing with it: telling a compelling story with likable characters.

If the series’ creator couldn’t do Episodes 4-6 justice, what chance do a bunch of Disney executives looking to make back the more than $4 billion investment that they made on the franchise?  As it turns out, a really good one.  It’s easy to forget that between the billions spent to buy the rights to the series and the hundreds of millions spent to produce, advertise and distribute each film, Disney won’t make anything back if people do not like the movies enough to sit through all of the sequels an spin-offs that they have planned.

As a result, Disney has been hellbent on making a product that people not just want to see, but will pay through the nose in order to do so (in many cases two and three and four times).  That’s why the film (and its surrouning marketting) have gone back to the series’ basics.  The trailer prominantly features Tatooine; the ships and droids very closely resemble what were in the first films; the last twenty-odd seconds was completely devoted to a aerial dog-fight between Tie Fighters and the Millennium Falcon.  Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker are all reprising their roles from Episodes 4-6 and Abrams has been a broken record about the use of puppets and physical props throughout The Force Awakens‘ highly publicized production.  Disney knows exactly what Star Wars fans want to see and has no problem selling it to them at $10 a ticket.

Terminator Genisys

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The Terminator franchise has been so focussed on moving the story of John Connor into the future that its creators seemingly forgot that series owes its whole existence to time travel.  Why have a lone robotic assassin attack one person along a linear timeline when you can send the second (or third, or fourth) one(s) to reinforce the initial one whose mission failed?  Why not send it back to just after the events of the first movie, when Sarah Connor is weak, alone and pregnant?  Why not revist the same night again and again and again, like every Back to the Future film seems to revolve around November 5, 1955 in Hill Valley.

Obviously there are very good reasons to not do this, but my point remains: if your central premise is something as wibbly-wobbly as time travel, why not bend the franhise back in on itself?  Why not make it entirely about its own existence?  After the disappointing reception of Terminator Salvation, the stewards of the franchise must have finally asked themselves this same question.

Terminator Genisys turns the franchise into a temporal ouroboros: taking the present-day timeline (now the post-apocalyptic future of the first film) and bringing it back to that fateful night when Kyle Reese landed in 1984, only things aren’t quite how we remember it.  Something went wonky in the timeline, so now Sarah Connor is already the badass that she would become in Terminator 2,  with the Schwarzenegger Terminator in tow, and the T-1000 (or at least some approximation of it) is the opponent that they have to square off against.  It’s basically the premise of the first film meets the characters from the second one which, from the outside looking in, looks to be all kinds of awesome.

2015’s blockbusters aren’t concerned building off of the past successes of their franchises as much as they are about outright reliving it (literally, in Terminator Genisys‘ case).  It’s not about being the next film in the series, but about keeping as closely to the first as possible.  It remains to be seen exactly how well this year’s trend will pan out, but I expect that we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the summers to come.

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