The highs and lows of the soft movie reboot

This summer has seen Mad Max, Jurassic World and Terminator movies hit cinemas. Ryan looks at what’s good and bad about the soft reboot...

This piece contains mild spoilers for Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road and Terminator: Genisys

If the sequel was a late 20th century phenomenon, ushered into being thanks to the likes of James Bond, The Godfatherand Planet Of The Apes, then the soft reboot is a peculiar product of the 21st.

Unlike a conventional remake or reboot, which often abandon characters, plots and settings in favor of an entirely new approach, the soft reboot is less drastic. JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek movie is a prime example; it casts new actors in the roles of the Original Series’ famous roster of characters – Chris Pine replacing William Shatner as Kirk, Zachary Quinto replacing Leonard Nimoy as Spock, and so on – and sends them off on new adventures with fan-pleasing echoes of films and TV episodes past.

It’s an approach that, if pulled off successfully, gives writers a chance to set aside years of increasingly complex canon and start again with a clean sheet, while at the same time retaining enough of the original property’s DNA to keep long-term fans satisfied.

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This summer’s been a significant one for movies such as this. Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Terminator Genisys are follow-ups to franchises that are at least 20 or 30 years old. Each takes its own approach to the soft reboot – that is, revitalising each respective series for a new generation while retaining plenty of links to their predecessors. Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Jurassic World

After more than a decade in a production quagmire, Jurassic World finally broke loose in June, and its success ($1.26bn and counting) seems to have taken even its studio by surprise. Director Colin Trevorrow, who also co-wrote, takes us back to Isla Nublar, where the ill-fated, dinosaur-filled theme park devised by the quixotic John Hammond has ballooned into the huge, corporate-owned Jurassic World.

Like many of the movie franchises of the present, Jurassic World’s new, rebooted theme park seems to be suffering from a case of gigantism: the exhibits are more plentiful and spectacular, the hotel rooms more opulent, yet still the visitors grow restless. Distracted by their mobile phones and no longer moved by the sight of gargantuan dinosaurs, the families shuffling around Isla Nublar are as jaded by the attractions as we are to things like CGI and 3D glasses.

To combat this epidemic of apathy, Jurassic World’s scientists create a bigger, scarier, nastier creature which, they hope, will reintroduce a bit of shock and awe among the public. Naturally, this new exhibit soon turns around to bite its creators on the backside…

Jurassic World embraces the music, iconography and even merchandising of Steven Spielberg’s original film, even as it quietly ignores the movies which followed. One employee wears a Jurassic Park T-shirt (he purchased it off eBay), which greatly irks his boss, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. There’s talk of the disaster that took place on the island over 20 years earlier, when the dinosaurs first leapt screaming from their enclosures, and we’re even given a brief guided tour around some old, dusty relics from the first film, tucked away in a corner of the island.

Jurassic World introduces a new collection of leads, but still brings a few faces back from the past. John Hammond briefly appears, albeit as a statue. BD Wong returns to play Doctor Henry Wu, the scientist who seems strangely unperturbred by the havoc his scaly creations are capable of causing. The big star, though, is the T-rex, who comes thundering in late in the film for a showdown with Jurassic World’s newer, more deadly exhibit.

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Like the movie’s Indominus Rex, Jurassic World is carefully-engineered summer blockbuster, designed from the ground up to extract the maximum number of oohs and aahs from its audience. But unlike the I-Rex, the film’s keenly aware of its status in the food chain; it openly draws attention to its own requirements as a sequel: give audiences what they want. Bigger, faster, louder, more teeth. Make it so they’re too scared to even look down at their mobile phones.

At the same time, Jurassic World is emblematic of how nostalgic and reverential Hollywood is for its bygone hits. You can feel the affection for Spielberg’s brand of popcorn entertainment pulsating through Jurassic World, from its shots of kids staring in wonderment to the cheeky allusions to Jaws.

The resulting formula has proved to be multiplex catnip, attracting kids who loved the original (and now have kids themselves) as well as a new generation of youngsters hungry to visit Jurassic World’s dinosaur island.

Jurassic World may be a Frankenstein’s monster of old and new parts, but the resulting attraction has bested even the 1993 in terms of unadjusted ticket sales. But what happens when you take a much older franchise, more adult franchise and give it a similarly universal spin?

Terminator Genisys

When we spoke to the producers of Terminator Genisys last year, they openly admitted that the sequel is following the template laid out by their previous soft reboot, Star Trek (2009). Like that film, Genisys casts younger actors in familiar roles: Jai Courtney as future soldier Kyle Reese, Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, mother to the future saviour of mankind. And like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, Genisys uses the 1984 Terminator as a springboard for a rather different story which takes in new kinds of killer machine, Matt Smith and evil operating systems.

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In this respect, the returning Arnold Schwarzenegger serves a similar purpose to “Spock Prime” in Star Trek: a reassuring face from the past, indirectly telling audiences that, hey, things may have changed, but the old timeline with its familiar faces still exists, unsullied.

Terminator Genisys also displays an almost overwhelming devotion to the first two Terminator films in the series, while at the same time disregarding the events of Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines and Terminator Salvation with the stroke of the screenwriters’ pen. Entire scenes from 1984‘s The Terminator are recreated shot for shot, from confused tramps to Nike trainers to a nude T-800 striding about a benighted Los Angeles.

Like Jurassic World and Star Trek, Genisys tries to hook in pre-installed fans who will recognise this resynthesised version of James Cameron’s 80s universe, while at the same time providing enough 21st century whizz-bang CGI trickery to make it interesting to more youthful cinemagoers.

There is, however, a problem with this approach. Jurassic World could get away with referencing Jurassic Park because it was a multi-million dollar blockbuster. The Terminator was an out-and-out classic, but its takings were small beer compared to Jurassic Parks. The Terminator was a low-budget, R-rated, sci-fi horror chase movie, not a mega-budget behemoth that dominated the cinema landscape when it appeared. Terminator Genisys is heavily referencing a film that few kids under the age of 18 will have even seen.

Genisys falls, therefore, between two stools in terms of its storytelling; it’s neither dark nor violent enough to capture the essence of the first two films in a way its existing fans will appreciate, nor does it seem fresh enough for newcomers with no pre-existing knowledge of the Terminator franchise to date.

Of course, we don’t yet know whether Genisys will be a hit; it’s possible that the novelty of a returning Schwarzenegger, the presence of South Korean superstar Lee-Byung-hun and cult TV actors like Emilia Clarke and Matt Smith will push the film onto a healthy profit.

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Whatever fate awaits Genisys at the box-office, its attempt to recapture the past glories of The Terminator and T2 seems emblematic of a Hollywood film industry undergoing a crisis of confidence. It’s as though the industry’s learned that cinema-goers are inherently distrustful of out-and-out remakes or reboots, and are therefore looking at ways to make their follow-up films seem more authentic, more legitimate, more respectful of films past. “Look,” they seem to say. “You can’t be angry with us for making a new Terminator film. It’s got Arnold Schwarzenegger in it.”

Then again, making a belated sequel to an ageing franchise – and casting a new actor in the lead role – can actually pay off spectacularly. Just ask George Miller.

Mad Max: Fury Road

If you’d have asked us a few years ago whether George Miller’s Mad Max sequel would even see the light of day, we’d have probably laughed and said no.

At one point, the production of Fury Road seemed so stunningly ill-starred that it seemed a miracle that everyone involved in its production didn’t just cross themselves and walk off set. But after years of false starts and production delays, Miller emerged from a thanklessly difficult six month shoot in the Namibian desert with what is, for this writer, the best mainstream film of 2015 so far.

How can this be? How can a sequel to a series that has sat untouched for 30 years be such an incredible artistic success? How did it manage to succeed where the likes of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull fail?

The answer, perhaps, is that George Miller has the kind of reputation (and perhaps even hypnotic powers) that allows him to go off and make a $150m action movie with no obvious studio interference at all.

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At any rate, the result is one of the most startlingly individual sequels of recent times, one that both links to the earlier Mad Max movies (largely in those brief flashbacks seen near the beginning) while at the same time updating it with a new lead actor (Tom Hardy) and expanding it with a new co-star (Charlize Theron’s Furiosa).

Fury Road even follows the trend of Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, and Star Trek by bringing back an actor from an earlier movie – in this instance, it’s Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the biker villain Toecutter in 1979’s Mad Max, and who’s completely unrecognisable as the masked despot Immortan Joe here.

Keays-Byrne’s reappearance might just sum up why Fury Road works so brilliantly: he’s a returning actor, sure, but his presence isn’t designed to please crowds or boost box-office – Miller just brought him back because he loved his method approach to playing a post-apocalyptic villain. The decisions behind Fury Road were instinctual, not made by executives or accountants.

Fury Road may not have pleased everyone – including a small but remarkably vocal group of people who dislike the film’s feminist overtones – and it hasn’t made the same financial impact as Jurassic World. But when compared to Genisys, with its great slabs of expository dialogue and tepid action, Fury Road remains a breath of fresh air: a film as uncompromising – and uncompromised – as the films it belatedly follows.

The future

We haven’t seen the last of the soft reboot, either, or at least the sentiment behind it.

Director Neill Blomkamp has a fifth Alien film in the works which, like Superman Returns and Terminator Genisys, will pretend that its third and fourth entries didn’t happen – instead, it’ll somehow follow on from Aliens, with Michael Biehn reuniting with Sigourney Weaver for the first time since 1986.

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While not a soft reboot as such, Independence Day Resurgence, due out next June, will see director Roland Emmerich, producer Dean Devlin and stars Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner reunite for another alien invasion. Similarly, JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, out in December, will also unite a new cast with the stars of the original trilogy, including Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. If it’s a hit (which it almost certainly will be), The Force Awakens will launch a new era for the Star Wars franchise, with spin-offs as well as numbered sequels planned for the next few years.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen Hollywood increasingly mine its past in search of future successes – not just by reviving old properties in the form of remakes, but by bringing back familiar actors and characters from bygone hits, and sometimes even recreating entire sequences from those films. Jurassic World proves that the approach can reap huge financial rewards. Mad Max: Fury Road is a reminder that such a film can offer something bold and entirely unexpected.

But the soft reboot can sometimes bring its own dangers, too: the cloying sense that a risk-averse industry is relying on nostalgia rather than new ideas, and that mainstream films have too much reverence for films from the 20 or 30 years ago. As well as looking to the past, Hollywood also needs to think about the filmmakers and original screenplays of the present – the would-be Spielbergs and Lawrence Kasdans; the next James Cameron, the next George Miller.

Without them, the Hollywood industry itself is in danger of becoming like the corporate-backed scientists in Jurassic World: stuck in a cycle of building new monsters out of old DNA, vainly hoping their new creation will shock audiences out of their ever-increasing apathy.