This article contains Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers.
In case you haven’t heard about it yet, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the biggest movie of the year. And if its jaw-dropping opening weekend number of $247 million is any indication, it might be the biggest movie of all time. Period. Still, the film it Force-choked that record away from is barely even six months old. Only half a year ago, most studios in Hollywood were glaring with envy at Universal for capturing the opening weekend record with $209 million for Jurassic World, but now that’s ancient history.
So clearly, 2015 has just been an amazing, groundbreaking time for storytelling, right? Well, in a very particular and franchise-friendly sense, it has been exactly that.
Indeed, I think we are about to enter a new blockbuster era where the reboot phase popularized by Batman Begins is supplanted by a new brand that will have all the committee boardrooms and the fan forums they satiate drooling with anticipation: welcome to the age of the nostalgia-make, folks.
Admittedly, this phrase is not as elegant as the word “reboot,” but it is perhaps more fitting since it lets you see everything right there: no longer is it about rebranding the familiar with a new angle. Now, it’s time to do everything we loved before in a sequel that “expands” the universe in extraordinarily familiar ways. Because while both Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens feature new characters, new plots, and new adventures, they are quite clearly influenced by the legacy and storytelling beats of what has come before. In a way, they have found an earnest and reverent approach for remaking the original and “untouchable” classics—and be applauded by the fans for doing so.
And the truth is that they are successful at it, with The Force Awakens being particularly adept at making something special out of the recycled. Also, by capitalizing on multigenerational nostalgia in a positive way, they lay the groundwork for projects like Independence Day: Resurgence down the line. Studios have always rearranged ideas and themes in franchises of the past—such as Star Trek Into Darkness being a limp version of Star Trek: Wrath of Khan or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull appearing like a labored attempt at reliving the glory days of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet rather than recasting classic roles, or simply doubling down on these interpretations as the actors age, Jurassic World and Force Awakens embrace the sameness of their conceits while repackaging it with weighty concepts like “legacy.”
In contrast to J.J. Abrams’ previous (and very checkered) space opera, there is nothing sly in The Force Awakens about reusing spare parts from an earlier film. In fact, the more “echoes” Force has to the original Star Wars, the better. It’s in the marketing with the way we see a new heroine walking through a desert: here is the new Luke Skywalker. However, she is also as aware of the hallowed steps she treads upon as the audience with her hushed admiration for the “myth” that is Luke Skywalker.
And instead of being the aged and central protagonist, Han Solo is now on hand to more dutifully pass the torch with respectful whispers about “the Jedi, the Dark Side? It’s true, all of it.” He gives the protagonists permission to be as wistful about the original films as the audience, and the audience is likewise allowed to embrace the repackaging of a narrative where Han Solo and a young whippersnapper must break into an imperial base to free a female prisoner before revolutionary X-Wing pilots come by to blow the whole place up in the nick of time.
While Jurassic World avoids having Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, or Laura Dern reprising any of their roles, their legacy permeates every frame of the film. Jake Johnson’s Lowery reads Ian Malcolm’s God Creates Dinosaur book on his desk (with even a reference to one of the 1993 film’s most famous lines) and then channels the Goldblum when he sneers at the incompetence of the very theme park he works at. Irrfan Khan’s Masrani is a much more hands-on and virile InGen CEO than the late great Sir Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, but he liberally quotes Hammond’s most famous lines and sincerely promises to maintain Hammond’s best (and worst) qualities while he runs his park headlong into an apocalypse.
The picture is aware of its mandate to be different with “more teeth” when it introduces the Indominus Rex as a corporate sponsored abomination meant to entertain complacent and jaded audiences (much like global viewers who no longer are wowed by the presence of dinosaurs). But nonetheless, the picture follows the same narrative beats of dinosaurs escaping. The body count might be increased, but it still ends with the T. Rex saving the heroes and the conveniently placed hapless children from an even more dangerous scaly enemy—only now it is the I-Rex who forces the T. Rex and Raptors into the heroic role (whereas they were the sparring partners in Jurassic Park).
None of this is necessarily a bad thing since both films are quite entertaining. And while Jurassic World is much more honest about its shameless reprisals with all the winks that they’re doing the same thing again, Star Wars: The Force Awakens truly achieves some of that old school magic in a profound way for when the new Darth Vader—who is explicitly informed by the legacy of the real Vader—faces off with his father, Han Solo. Similarly, the new Luke Skywalker-styled protagonist, the wonderfully heroic Rey (a mesmerizing Daisy Ridley), crosses paths with the Luke Skywalker in the closing moments of The Force Awakens, and it’s a genuinely kinetic, cinematic moment that ends all too soon.
Still, it sets perhaps a dangerous precedent that already has shades of the doom inherent with overuse (see: The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel, Terminator: Genisys, and more from our post-Batman Begins reboot era). Jurassic World lavishes fans with literal nostalgia goggles when the kids in the film find the visitor center from the original Jurassic Park. But all the poignantly wistful piano refrains of John Williams’ iconic Jurassic Park theme in a minor key cannot hide that the surface level appeals of World lie in going bigger and louder:
If people loved the T. Rex vs. Raptors from the original film, well how about a dino Battle Royale in World’s third act? The result is less Steven Spielberg majesty and more silly B-movie hysterics that wouldn’t be out of place in Godzilla 152: The Next One.
Also, as awe-inspiring as it was to see Han Solo and Chewbacca behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon again, there is a definite lack of scope and grandeur to them battling yet another Death Star (excuse me, “Starkiller Base”) with yet another convenient weak spot. In fact, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a stunning step up from the Prequel Trilogy, I’d hardly suggest its ending has anything as operatic as Darth Maul vs. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the otherwise dreadful The Phantom Menace. How can it when in 30 years, everyone is still flying X-Wings and Tie Fighters (without any technological innovation) like it’s another day at the office?
The need to recreate that exact feeling and plot structure can be awfully confining if done too often. But for the time being, 2015 proved that the nostalgia-make can work wonders for a gray and dormant franchise. I would even argue that there is a way to do it and still chart new territory. On that note, the year’s best entry in this model might just be Creed, a terrific standalone boxing drama that just so happens to also be the best formulaic sequel to Rocky ever made.
Creed pays homage and wide-eyed reverence to not only Rocky, but all of its sequels. While The Force Awakens tips the hat to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, you won’t see its plot be derived from the fourth film that introduced Jar Jar Binks. By comparison, Creed is implicitly informed by Rocky IV, the one where Rock won the Cold War after a KGB ubermensch murdered Apollo Creed in the ring.
Remarkably, Creed took that old franchise black-eye and created a protagonist who not only echoed Rocky like how Rey reflects Luke, but also made their hero a diametrically-opposed flip of the original character. Unlike Rocky, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Johnson (Creed) grew up in wealth and doesn’t need to fight to prove his worth. In fact, he quits a finance job to enter the boxing ring.
And his self-worth is not defined by a love story, such as the sweet relationship between Rocky and Talia Shire’s Adrian in the original film. Rather, Adonis finds his value through the father/son dynamic he creates with Rocky—which establishes new meaty emotional through-line when Rock develops cancer and must stage his own, personal prize fight in the third act.
Creed retreads the structure of Rocky right down to its “going the distance” ending, but the stakes and their effect on the protagonists offer a new angle to a familiar yarn.
In a year that saw three nostalgia-makes all find their audiences, Creed is probably the best. But all of them allow varying audiences the chance to relive an old favorite or discover for the first time a well-worn tale. Appealing as much to grandparents as their grandchildren, all three show a new way to revitalize an old brand to greener, profitable pastures. So prepare thyself, because like the Independence Day: Resurgence trailer states, “We always knew they would come back.” And in this case, the ‘they’ is probably every franchise you ever enjoyed.