If there’s one thing people love to complain about in reference to cinema, it’s Hollywood’s apparent lack of originality. It seems that every film to hits theaters these days (assuming, of course, the theaters are actually open) is either an adaptation, a sequel, or a remake of an existing property. Two seconds on any film blog or entertainment news site will more likely than not yield multiple editorials on the subject, going on about how studios are creatively bankrupt and how there are no more original ideas anymore. Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. I can’t tell you how many rants my poor roommate has had to endure from me on Disney’s live-action remakes in particular. It sometimes feels like if an idea isn’t part of an established franchise, or can be easily attached to one (a la the Cloverfield strategy), then it’s not worth doing at all.
I’m not here today to try and disprove that notion. Not because I don’t think it’s wrong, necessarily, but because It’s, frankly, just an inescapable consequence of our current studio system. Film production is fueled by film profit, in an unending, self-feeding cycle that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon (unless the impact from COVID is more catastrophic than currently projected). With that in mind, it’s high time to accept that franchise films are here to stay. But what I would like to do, however, is explore how to do franchise films better.
Specifically, I want to talk about remakes and “reboots.” They’re often considered to be the bottom of the barrel, in terms of milking an IP for every single cent possible. Remaking or rebooting an existing property is basically admitting “We’ve run out of ideas to continue this in any organic fashion whatsoever, so we’re simply restarting it altogether and hoping people will still pay money to see it.” It’s lazy and uninspired, sure, but it can often lead to an incredibly successful relaunch of property, occasionally even eclipsing the original.
The distinction between a remake and a reboot is small, but crucial. A remake is a completely new take on an idea, while keeping the same basic premise, characters, and usually title. For example, Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong is longer than the 1933 original, with a few new characters and side plots, but is largely a faithful retelling of its predecessor. It is not a continuation of the original film, but rather a completely new version of the story. It doesn’t necessarily have to follow the original as closely as the above example, but it usually will keep to the same beats. The remakes of movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and RoboCop deviate in a lot of ways from their older counterparts, but they still follow the same bare-bones story as their respective original versions. The basic indicator of a remake is a complete and total abandonment of the previous canon and continuity, in favor of one that is newly built from the ground up.
A reboot serves the same basic purpose of a remake, returning to an existing franchise in an attempt to restart the brand and reintroduce it to modern audiences. The key difference is that a reboot can take place within the established continuity of the IP, if only loosely. It can feature characters and plot points from the original (or the last point in a franchise before a hiatus), but will also try to forge ahead with a largely-new cast and style, in an attempt to draw in new audiences. The Terminator franchise, for example, has gone through multiple different “reboots” at this point, trying to revitalize a franchise that really shouldn’t have run out of steam after just a few sequels. Terminator: Genysis uses multiverse theory to re-start the franchise from the beginning thanks to some hand-waved time-travel shenanigans, with a new cast playing the iconic characters of Sarah Conner and Kyle Reese. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the titular android, and gives suitable exposition linking the film to the previous installments, albeit tenuously. Due to the poor critical and commercial performance of the film, another reboot came just last year, titles Dark Fate. Once again, this film uses some vague time travel exposition to establish that it exists within the continuity of the other films, just in another possible timeline. As you can probably tell, reboots are tricky, and can often just feel like loose sequels. But basically, as long as a film keeps at least one key element from previous films (usually a character or cast member), even while heading in a completely new plot direction, it’s a reboot.
The tricky part comes from the fact that a reboot can also completely abandon previous continuity altogether, and just keep the idea of a character or a story instead. This is particularly common with superhero films. We’ve had three different versions of Peter Parker so far, and between 5 and 8 different Bruce Waynes, depending on how you decide to interpret the continuity of Schumacher’s two Batman films. James Bond is another good example, although continuity with 007 can get confusing, as occasionally, characters like Judi Dench’s M can appear in more than one iteration of the franchise. Reboots are designed to move a franchise in a new direction, and whether or not they keep existing elements is largely determined by how well those elements mesh with the new approach. A sort of general rule to go by is that a remake with largely re-adapt the plot of the original, while a reboot is free to experiment. Of course, like all “rules,” this has quite a few exceptions, essentially being the cinema equivalent of “i’ before ‘e’.” It also doesn’t help that the two terms are often used completely interchangeably, which often makes drawing a hardline distinction seem kind of pointless.
If that weren’t confusing enough, reboots can also be sometimes used interchangeably with “sidequels,” depending on the intention behind the film in terms of its greater purpose in a franchise. A “sidequel” is a film that is more or less just a spin-off of a mainline franchise, albeit one that is said to be happening concurrently with its parent film. They’re arguably the most annoying version of redux cinema, because it’s a storytelling approach that isn’t quite brave enough to venture into full-on spin-off territory. Instead, they feel the need to tether themselves, sometimes incredibly tenuously, to their more popular narrative counterparts. As a result, they’re often written as being jusssst off frame from the main plot, with films like The Bourne Legacy constantly pulling the “Oh yeah, Jason Bourne was here like two seconds ago, you just missed him!” 300: Rise of an Empire does the same thing with Leonidas, the only character that anyone can actually name from the first film. Sidequels can best be described as reboot trail runs, testing the waters to see if audiences are as equally receptive to their new characters as they are the ones that they’re more intimately familiar with. And since I’m assuming that most of you, like me, completely forgot that either of the movies I just mentioned even exist, I’d say that a good 99% of the time, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
There’s pros and cons to remaking or rebooting a property. On the one hand, it allows an IP to shed any excess baggage or overburdened continuity in leu of a clean slate that allows new viewers to jump in without having seen prior installments. Take X-Men: First Class: After both poor reception to the previous couple of films in the franchise, and the nightmare of convoluted continuity that it had become, the reboot allowed the franchise to start fresh while still technically staying within the established parameters of the previous films, even keeping fan-favorite characters like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. In the case of films like The Departed, remakes can also specifically allow properties to be localized and adapted for western audiences, who otherwise probably would never have seen the foreign original.
On the other hand, a lot can be lost in translating or redoing a film or an idea for new audiences. Many 80s action films like RoboCop and Total Recall are regarded as cult classics not only because they’re fun to watch, but because they’re often full of biting social commentary as well. In the remakes of both of these films, that critical edge was completely done away with, in order to water them down into more generic sci-fi action flicks. As a result, they lose the very pieces of their respective identities that made them unique in the first place. This speaks to a common problem with remakes and reboots in general: A complete misunderstanding of the source material. Studios seem to operate under the assumption that a title alone is enough to draw in audiences, regardless of quality. Fortunately, poor box office returns for many of these lesser attempts pretty clearly disprove that notion.
With remakes of popular films, there’s usually a good reason the original was so well received. Be it the specific actors or actresses that portrayed certain characters, or certain thematic elements that audiences took a particular liking to, there’s always something that can be distilled as a “classic” of that particular universe. The longer a franchise goes on, the more those elements get diluted, or even abandoned, leaving it a barely recognizable husk of its former self. At this point, there’s usually a steep drop-off in box-office revenue, which is when studios start to consider either A) retiring the franchise altogether or B) rebooting it. And even if they do go with option A, it generally leads to a reboot later on down the line anyway. But there’s a better option, one that seems to be gaining steam lately as interest in full remakes seems to be waning: The “Rebootquel.”
(Seriously, who names these things anyway?)
A “rebootquel,” as you can probably guess from the name, is the frankensteined, bastard offspring of the sequel and the reboot. Despite how stupid it sounds, it’s actually a fairly genius approach. What a rebootquel does is pick a point in franchise where reception began to go downhill, or where the plot began to diverge from what was originally intended, and the promptly ignores everything that came after it, effectively inserting itself as the one, true sequel. For example, John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween is an iconic, near perfect slasher film, but its many sequels range from tolerable to terrible. With David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween, the decision was made to ignore everything after the first film, allowing it to both serve as a direct sequel to the original, and still serve as a new launching-off point for future installments. The best part is, by choosing to insert itself within the canon of the original film, the Green’s Halloween was able to bring back classic and beloved characters like Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode, which pleased both fans and critics alike. This in stark contrast with Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween, which abandoned everything about the original save character names. Legacy is key to the rebootquel, which means acknowledging and embracing what makes a franchise great.
The rebootquel rightfully acknowledges that there are parts of a franchise worth salvaging, and that throwing away the entire continuity and starting over from scratch is not only unnecessary, but wasteful. It’s also fully aware of what isn’t worth keeping, and wisely chooses to jettison the more problematic and unpopular aspects of a franchise. With Halloween, subsequent sequels muddied the perfectly simplistic premise of the original with increasingly ridiculous shark-jumping leaps into the absurd. What originally started as just a disturbed man stalking a group of teenagers on Halloween night eventually became a story of ancient Celtic curses, masks powered by fragments of Stonehenge, and enough long-lost family twists to shame most soap operas. By refusing to acknowledge these later developments, the 2018 reboot/sequel hybrid reigns the franchise back in, restoring it to its purest form. That’s the beauty of the rebootquel, the chance to cherry pick all the best aspects of a franchise, and toss out the rest.
That isn’t to say that these films necessarily have any more artistic integrity than any other form of remake/reboot. At the end of the day, it’s still largely a marketing ploy, designed to prey on nostalgia for the original installments in a franchise. The aforementioned Terminator: Dark Fate is arguably a rebootquel, taking place after the events of Terminator 2 and largely ignoring the later films, even bringing back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner for the first time. But the film was incredibly middling, with its connection to its far more beloved predecessor not really serving any real purpose in the film. Unlike the 2018 Halloween, it never really felt like it was being done out of reverence for the series, but rather as another quick cash grab with the Terminator name slapped on it. Same thing with Texas Chainsaw 3D, which has absolutely no reason to serve as a follow-up to the ‘74 original, and instead is just another gimmicky 3D horror flick with no substance behind it. Like with anything, a rebootquel is only as good as the talent and the intention behind it. If it’s only being made to keep the brand alive, it’s no better than simply making another sequel.
But I think the potential for this kind of film is enormous. Think of how many film franchises have gone stale, or even sour, because of increasingly terrible sequels? We’re already getting a new RoboCop that ignores the remake and the two so-so sequels to the original film, which is an incredibly exciting prospect considering its social and political undertones that have only become more relevant as time goes on. I’d love to see more horror franchises take this approach as well, following the success of Halloween. Like David Gordon Green brought Michael Myers back from the brink of irrelevance, I would love to see similar redemptions for other icons like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. We’ve already tried the remake option with both of these figures, and they failed spectacularly, so why not give a rebootqel a go? My absolute dream film, however, would be an Alien sequel that ignores both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, giving Sigourney Weaver one last chance to kick some extraterrestrial ass alongside Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen.
Again, it’s just as likely that this method of relaunching a franchise will be just as soulless and hackneyed as any other in most cases, but I really think it has the best chance to produce something truly special. Maybe it’s the tiny, malnourished optimist in me, or maybe it’s just the fact that I’m so sick of remakes that I’ll take anything at this point that tries a different approach. Either way, with Halloween raking in almost $260 million on a modest $10-15 million budget, it’s a fair guess that we’re going to be seeing a lot more rebootquels in the future. With any luck though, this could finally let fans and general audiences get some much-needed closure or revivals of franchises they’ve long since given up hope for.
(Is it too much to hope we can just ignore Kingdom of the Crystal Skull too?)