Jurassic World and the Legacy of Legacy Sequels

Jurassic World turns five years old, and with its anniversary the age of nostalgic “legacy sequels” gains a little perspective.

Photo: Disney / Universal Pictures

It seemed like a breath of fresh air in 2015. By the middle of the last decade, superhero movies, particularly those produced by Marvel Studios, had begun their total domination of the summer box office, and Warner Bros. appeared quick on their heels with Comic-Con trailers about another moody Batman reboot. Yet in the confines of Jurassic World, here was a blast from the past, both the prehistoric kind with CGI recreations of long lost dinosaurs (or Steven Spielberg’s rough approximation of them) and the childhoods cherished by millennial moviegoers.

That memory of the old familiar places was serviced in Colin Trevorrow’s belated sequel by images of a Triceratops lazing about in the sun or a finale where the Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptors—mortal enemies in the ending of the original Jurassic Park—now teamed up to tear down an even bigger foe, the Indominus Rex. It wasn’t art, but as I wrote in 2015, “Those again-resurrected dinosaurs are like Michael Giacchino’s dutiful retreads of John Williams’ musical transcendence: a multiplex thrill momentarily revisited.”

Five years on though, we’ve had a lot of multiplex thrills revisited. So much so that this type of soft reboot has its own term: the legacy sequel. You know the movie, even if the jargon around it is unfamiliar. And it began with a vengeance in 2015, back when these nostalgia-makes presented themselves as ostensible sequels to beloved movies from decades ago, all while functioning as effective remakes of past glory.

Audiences responded in kind with Jurassic World, the first out of the gate, briefly taking the crown of biggest opening weekend in movie history before surrendering it to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’ greatest hits montage of the entire original Star Wars trilogy. Creed, meanwhile, redid Rocky but now with the Italian Stallion as the trainer and Apollo Creed’s kid, a phenomenal Michael B. Jordan, as the underdog who doesn’t quite win in the end but still learns to go the distance. That last one earned Sylvester Stallone an Oscar nomination for the same role he’s played eight times.

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It makes perfect sense for studios to pursue this avenue of franchise and intellectual property management. Whereas the term “remake” became so toxic after years of tarnishing beloved classics that Hollywood invented a whole new phrase for it—“reboot”—the legacy sequel proves itself to be an even safer bet. In theory a reboot (read: remake) needs to find a distinguishing difference in storytelling, tone, or aesthetics to justify its existence, even if those changes are arbitrary and diminishing, such as seeing Uncle Ben say everything but with “great power comes great responsibility” in The Amazing Spider-Man. Or mystery monster Michael Myers, aka The Shape, becoming just another trashy redneck monster from Rob Zombie in the 2007 Halloween reboot.

Conversely, a legacy sequel is expected, at least so far as studios not looking to rock the boat are concerned, to hit all the same beats as the beloved original. Better still by repeating them, you’re not trampling on the beloved memory of a movie from audiences’ collective childhoods; you’re honoring it.

Consider the moment in Jurassic World where two young children who don’t know the glories of the 1993 movie stumble upon the visitor center from that classic: staring up in awe at the grandeur of a previous generation’s success. But if that sequence teased young ones dreaming about a forgotten paradise where Williams’ music is echoed in a minor key, then The Force Awakens rubbed the younger generation’s noses in it with Williams himself back in the sound booth, blasting all of Star Wars’ most revered marches. And rather than a tarnished visitor center, young Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) stand slack-jawed in fealty before a Millennium Falcon that’s never looked more pristine, or of a Han Solo who’s doing exactly the same thing he was doing 40 years ago. Hell, Rey literally grew up wearing a Rebel Alliance helmet, just like all the fans watching her movie.

To be clear, I like all three of these movies to varying degrees, particularly Creed which brought a long lost humanity to the Rocky movies and a scrappy authenticity about American life thanks to the heavyweight talent of director Ryan Coogler. But they ushered in a lot of nostalgic retreads that as a whole have become as exhausted as all those “gritty” reboots that jumped on the Batman Begins bandwagon a decade earlier.

For every Halloween (2018), which absolutely nailed Jamie Lee Curtis’ homecoming to the horror franchise, there was a Terminator: Dark Fate, which at best was fine. It was fine. A totally adequate remake in all but name of the 1984 classic that once inspired greatness from sequels like Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but now only conjured vague familiarity as Sarah Connor protected yet another chosen one from another bad robot from a different bad future. Even Creed II was found wanting as it effectively remade the far less classic Rocky IV (1985), just minus all the absurd jingoistic ‘80s camp that made it amusing. Meanwhile the only one that really tried to do something vastly different from its 30-year-old predecessor, Blade Runner 2049, was a visual marvel that flopped at the box office.

But perhaps the most interesting legacy sequel since 2015 is the one that capped off a half-decade of nostalgia fan service run amok: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. As the trilogy closer for not only the new Star Wars movies begun by Abrams’ The Force Awakens, but also the “Skywalker Saga” of the last 40 years, Episode IX was in an unenviable position. It didn’t help that its predecessor, The Last Jedi, divided fans. While that eighth “episode” was near universally praised by critics for doing something different with the franchise, and not just remaking Empire Strikes Back, many fans were simply startled by how different it was, and the online backlash was intense.

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Disney and returning director J.J. Abrams, who sat out The Last Jedi, seemed to listen to the feedback very carefully and came up with a solution: let’s just do all the favorite bits again. If The Force Awakens was a trip down memory lane, The Rise of Skywalker was a franchise in midlife crisis as it attempted to move back into the childhood home and make things just as they were. If the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) was the big bad in Return of the Jedi, he’d be the big bad in Rise of Skywalker, even if it made absolutely no sense. And if the original movies ended by redoing the Death Star, Abrams’ big new idea was to deliver 10,000 little Death Stars they’d call Star Destroyers. The film even ended with Rey longingly returning to the place Luke Skywalker grew up—a location he never mentioned to Rey, nor that he ever wanted to return to himself. But here she was, nerding out about being on the same location as that 1977 movie, just as the movie hoped fans would.

Yet unlike The Force Awakens’ reception, The Rise of Skywalker arrived with a bit of a shrug. A $1 billion grossing shrug, to be sure, but when compared to the $2 billion the other Abrams directed Star Wars movie made, or even The Last Jedi’s $1.3 billion gross, a shrug it was. And reviews and social media reactions were far more scathing. Just ask Daisy Ridley.

All of which might bring into question if, five years on, nostalgia is a good thing—or at least a long term viable asset. Jurassic World and The Force Awakens did what the Star Wars prequels and even Steven Spielberg personally failed to do with his The Lost World dinosaur sequel: They gave fans everything they loved about the first one without trying to change things up. They weren’t nearly as good as the movies they emulated, but by having characters marvel at the past, they tacitly admitted their own relative disposability and invited audiences, like the characters, to bask fleetingly in glory days that are gone. More cynically, they could be viewed as instruction manuals for why kids should respect their parents’ music as the best there ever was.

But a funny thing about nostalgia is it’s like sugar: a little bit can be delicious but too much will make you want to just lie down. That’s where a lot of Star Wars fans find themselves after the comedown from The Rise of Skywalker, and it’s where Disney also is as they try to reconfigure just how to make Star Wars as exciting as it appeared in 2015.

Perhaps like the fad of gritty reboots that were chasing Christopher Nolan’s coattails 10 years ago, the legacy sequel’s own legacy will be that it was a fad at the end of the 2010s that came and went before being buried in the sand.