Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rounds Out the Year of the Remake Sequel

By  · Published on December 21st, 2015


This was not a good year for original ideas. Guillermo del Toro, the Wachowskis, Brad Bird and George Lucas all bombed big time with fresh movie properties – one of which, Tomorrowland, even wound up released with a branded title, and that didn’t help. However, this was also not a good year for blatant rehashes, as any straight remake that wasn’t Disney revisiting its own animated classic as a live-action feature also failed miserably.

In 2015, the two highest-grossing movies were sequels that resurrected old franchises, and as it turns out two of the best Hollywood movies of the year were also sequels that resurrected other old franchises. For better or worse, though more likely for worse, the successes and the flops are going to dictate where popular cinema heads in the future, and that means we have many more sequels of a certain, familiar ilk to look forward to.

We’re Done With Movies Being Redone

While it’s too early to be sure about Point Break, which opens on Christmas, this year continued to prove audiences are not very interested in direct remakes. Poltergeist wound up okay financially, but it was hardly a hit and nobody really saw the point in its existence. These ironic attempts to attract audiences familiar with their popular originals will almost always fall flat because we still have and prefer those originals.

Remakes that did particularly disappointing box office were those that dramatized stories previously handled in documentaries. The Walk added a level of 3D spectacle that made it worth seeing despite rehashing the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, but the gimmick didn’t appeal to many people, whether they’d seen the doc or not. Also, Freeheld and Our Brand is Crisis were duds even though few moviegoers likely knew they were remakes of docs.

Movies revisiting subject matter that’s already been covered recently are a turn off for audiences, even if they didn’t see those previous works. The fact of the matter is that we could have stayed home and watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, Jobs, The Secret in Their Eyes and 2005’s Fantastic Four instead of going out to see Pawn Sacrifice, Steve Jobs, Secret in Their Eyes and Fantastic Four, if we wanted to.

We have so much at our fingertips online and in our living rooms, including other options for cinematic incarnations of classic characters, that new takes on those old stories are also mostly going ignored. Pan was looked down on as if it was another superhero movie reboot retelling the same old origin stories, and it probably wouldn’t have even helped if the reimagined “Peter Pan” was any good.

If Disney had made it, though, we’d probably have seen different results. Their live-action Cinderella is almost as magical, albeit without being as musical, as the studio’s animated adaptation of the fairy tale, keeping it simple and familiar enough for kids and parents alike while still offering fresh attractions like Cate Blanchett’s delectable wicked stepmother.

Other studios are going to continue to try to beat Disney at its own game with their own live-action versions of “The Little Mermaid,” “The Jungle Book” and more, but it’s very possible they’ll fail as bad as Pan. Audiences are also just not interested in new versions of “Frankenstein,” and the disastrous reception of Victor Frankenstein should finally send the message to Hollywood, which seems to put out another one every year.

Except When the Remake is Disguised as a Sequel

Don’t worry, fans, they’ll never remake classic blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Star Wars. They’ll just recycle them beat for beat for new sequels that reboot the series and pretend it’s all just to recapture the spirit of the originals. After many attempts at delivering franchise installments that took us different directions, a la the Matrix trilogy and the Star Wars prequels, Hollywood has finally learned what we want.

In order to please the fans, we now get sequels like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens that feel a lot like remakes, with a few changes and fresh perspectives, so the audience recognizes them as genuine Jurassic Park and Star Wars movies, not some strange divergence where a dinosaur comes to America or where there’s no mission to blow up another superweapon.

The Star Wars movie is at least original in enough ways to make it more satisfying as both fan-service and a new piece of entertainment. Remakequels aren’t going to be a problem if they introduce strong, instantly iconic characters alongside the old. It’s one of the reasons we also love Mad Max: Fury Road in spite of its apparent intention to give us a sequel structured similarly to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

Creed does it right, too, with just enough familiarity mixed with just enough originality, honoring the legacy while building upon it. Vacation could be argued favorably, as well, even if it’s not a good movie. It takes its rehash of the original’s plot and dashes it with the modern style of mean-spirited comedy. And it was fairly successful as a result, even if it didn’t carry over as many of its original fans as other remakequels have.

The idea doesn’t always work, as seen with this year’s Terminator Genisys, in part because that movie revisits the plot of the original, plus elements of its more-popular follow-up, in order to erase their events rather than honor them. Maybe it’s actually the opposite of a remakequel for that reason. There’s little respect for the fans and what they want in terms of familiarity.

Even if some of these secret remakes are forgivable because they’re well-made and entertaining (and in the case of Spotlight, extremely stealthy in its remakequelness – note the “jr.” character who allows it to be a literal if not official legacy sequel to All the President’s Men), they deserve much scrutiny. They’re basically cinematic ouroboroses, eating their own tails.

But the Remake Sequel Has Always Been a Phantom Menace

Remake sequels are not a new thing, as it used to be that a movie’s first sequel was often a cheap copy with maybe an escalation of stakes. We weren’t so tolerating of that practice, but we allow for it more when it’s a later installment, because of nostalgia and the idea that they’re paying tribute in the form of revival. And it’s a favorable alternative to a total remake or reboot of our beloved franchises, which would be done if not this.

The good thing is Hollywood can’t possibly continue the charade, because nobody wants Jurassic World 2 to be a remake of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and while The Force Awakens can get away with following the beats of Star Wars, especially since Return of the Jedi managed to do some of the same thing just poorly, it’s going to be silly if Star Wars VIII is so blatantly a copy of The Empire Strikes Back.

How far can they diverge from what fans know and expect, though? Audiences want more of the same, and that’s not just evident in the rise of these franchise resurrecting remakequels but also in the rest of the successful sequels of 2015. Furious 7, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation and SPECTRE are all installments of series that maintain common plots by focusing our attention on action set pieces instead of story.

Outside of its box office success, SPECTRE was a disappointment for many fans because it made a fatal error in exposing a side of its remake-ness that we’re less approving of. By resurrecting an iconic old villain but introducing him anew, the James Bond sequel dismissed its heritage while meaning to revisit it, not unlike Terminator Genisys, albeit in a different way.

Then there’s the MCU sequels, of which we can include Ant-Man because it’s nothing without being another installment of a mega franchise. While not all movies in the MCU are so familiar, the origin-story first-issue features like Ant-Man tend to follow a pattern, and this one feels particularly like a remake of Iron Man. As for Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s just more of The Avengers, only dumber in its details.

One of the most interesting sequels this year, then, is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Not only does it take the franchise far from the structure and spirit of the first movie, it seems to be making a meta point when its characters reject the idea of their new government redoing the Hunger Games by their own rules. Of course, now there’s talk of prequels that would antithetically return the franchise to a game plot focus.

Who’s ready for the next thing, the prequemakequel?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.