- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Hollywood has become hooked on the idea of revisiting old stories decades down the line, with movies like Scream and The Matrix Resurrections. Does it suggest an overreliance on nostalgia and a loss of originality in film?
“Sequels suck. By definition alone, they’re inferior films.”
When Kevin Williamson wrote those lines into Scream 2, he was probably aware of the irony. Now more than ever, Hollywood is a glutton for big franchises, with sequels and reboots routinely filling the top-ten at the box office each year. As that very meta scene in Scream 2 points out, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong about a sequel, with plenty of examples of great follow-ups showing that it’s simply a matter of approach to the idea. Sequels come in all shapes and forms, and have done for decades.
Over the past few years, however, a very new form of sequel has emerged, one which is distinctly telling of Hollywood’s current nostalgia kick – the legacy sequel. The archetypal example, and certainly the one which kickstarted the current rush, is 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which picked up the story three decades after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi and introduced a fleet of new heroes whilst reintroducing older versions of familiar faces, reprised by the same actors. The legacy sequel is a follow-up which reflects directly on the impact of the original film or franchise, and which seeks to both mine nostalgia from it and update its tropes for the present day. New faces may or may not be introduced, but the classic cast is a must. There’s often a commentary on ageing, with characters once fresh-faced grappling with the forward march of time, or with the issue of their questionable relevance in the modern day. In many, but not all cases, a new and younger creative team will step in for the old, oftentimes fans of the original franchise influenced by their nostalgic memories.
The Force Awakens opened the floodgates, and in the years since we’ve revisited Trainspotting, Blade Runner, Jumanji, Mary Poppins, The Shining and more. Some of those attempts have been more successful than others – Blade Runner 2049 > the original, I’m sorry – but they’ve all been interesting studies in how an ageing franchise now perceives itself, and what it believes it has to do to stay relevant. Arguably, the greatest case of a legacy sequel wasn’t found on film at all – David Lynch’s epic 2017 return to Twin Peaks, The Return, thrillingly confronted audience expectations and took the familiar property to new heights.
Legacy sequels provide the opportunity to revitalise a franchise, bringing an old cash cow out of storage for a new generation. It’s little wonder studios have jumped at them, and continue to do so – last year returned to the worlds of Candyman, Ghostbusters and Saw. However, their growing prominence has brought with it increased scrutiny, and with it, criticism. You can use Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the sequel directed by Jason Reitman (son of the original’s director, Ivan) as a lodestone for that backlash. Plenty of fans loved the twinkly nostalgia for the iconography of the original, and the returns of leads Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson to their famed roles, but critics pushed back against what they perceived as an overreliance on nostalgia, an uncritical hero-worship of the original story that forgets to say anything new.
As it defines itself as a genre, the legacy sequel has to innovate to survive, and a potential blueprint can be found in the recent return to the Matrix, Resurrections. It’s true that there’s a naturally meta element to any legacy sequel, which often features younger characters who are ‘fans’ in-universe of the classic characters and their adventures, but The Matrix Resurrections takes self-awareness to a whole other level. Creating a world in which the original Matrix trilogy are a set of video games created by protagonist Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), Lana Wachowski’s legacy sequel directly ponders the issue of reviving a dead franchise, and the cynical motives that can fuel such a return.
In an impressively blunt sequence, Anderson is told by his business partner that their bosses at Warner Bros. (the distributors of Matrix, natch) are demanding a fourth Matrix and will do so with or without his involvement – a direct reflection of the situation that Lana Wachowski found herself in before making the movie. Later, we see a focus group at the video game company debating the appeal of the original Matrix, allowing Wachowski to wheel out a load of the often-contradictory interpretations that have been ascribed to her and her sister’s opus – trans allegory, anti-capitalist screed, cyberpunk indulgence. As Anderson looks on, we’re encouraged to think about what it means to have a singular creative vision absorbed into the pop culture machine and spat back out again as a monetizable brand. Wachowski aptly points out there’s something queasy about our demand to bring old things back, our refusal to let ideas simply speak for themselves.
The rest of Resurrections is a work of creative reclamation, where Wachowski takes on those who have misinterpreted her story over the years and distils the franchise back to the core ideas that are important to her. It’s an interesting study of how legacy sequels can shift the balance between creative and audience, and be used as an opportunity to speak back against potentially faulty interpretations. Of course, it’s worth saying that this approach has manifestly not been successful financially – The Matrix Resurrections was beloved by some fans (popping my hand up there), but is currently struggling to recoup its budget at the box office. Perhaps an overtly confrontation approach to legacy sequels isn’t necessarily a crowdpleaser.
Legacy sequels are about to rear their head again with the imminent release of Scream – despite the title, it’s the fifth in the franchise, and the first since 2011. Horror has an interesting relationship with the legacy sequel idea. Due to the incredibly complicated nature of many horror franchises, where instalments are pumped out frequently with often little regard for quality, the legacy sequel has been used as an opportunity to clean up messy continuity and wipe away all those movies that audiences didn’t like. Most famously, 2018’s Halloween revived the slasher franchise by ignoring every other instalment in the franchise and simply following up to the classic original (which was in fact the third time the franchise cleared its continuity – the Halloween multiverse is wild, you guys). The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, set to drop on Netflix next month, is going to take the exact same approach.
Scream 2022 steals that confusing copy-the-original-title formula, but it won’t be quite as dismissive of the franchise’s past, directly acknowledging the four previous movies. Nevertheless, it’s a classic horror legacy sequel, bringing back iconic leads Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette among a host of fresh-faced young stars to face a copycat Ghostface killer inspired by the original stories. Unlike those previous two movies, Scream is well-placed to comment directly on the horror legacy sequel phenomenon – since the first film, the franchise has always commented deftly on Hollywood’s love of franchises and its reliance on tired horror tropes. This new one is ripe for a takedown of the nostalgic legacy sequel – perhaps the in-universe Stab franchise is getting its own back-to-basics reboot.
Of course, there’s the question of whether a self-aware legacy sequel can really be effective since it’s still perpetuating the reliance on familiar IP that it wants to critique. That’s a tension that’s always animated Scream, and it’s arguably why the franchise’s impact has blunted over time, with its critiques becoming just a little less stinging as the story gets dragged out. The Matrix Resurrections is perhaps the most radical version of a legacy sequel we’ve seen, and the commercial results of that are obvious.
Yet it’s abundantly clear that the legacy sequel is here to stay. They’re wheeling out Harrison Ford, aged almost 80, to play Indiana Jones in next year’s fifthquel, after all. The lure of seeing old faces back on the screen – did you see Spider-Man: No Way Home? – is too much for studios to pass up. If this trend is set to continue, we might as well try and see risks taken within it, even if audiences don’t always take kindly to them. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, but if we don’t want past-gazing to take over the industry entirely, here’s hoping that bold efforts like Resurrections – and hopefully Scream – will be there to challenge the trend and prioritise fresh ideas over simply repeating the old.