There’s been an awakening; have you felt it? Now that movie franchises have moved past making mere millions, the billion dollar risks of continuing a lucrative franchise have created a whole new set of problems and strategies. It forced studios to rethink the ways in which their true moneymakers are managed from conception to completion, but the real emphasis in all of it is what ends up on-screen. Instead of just continuing the story with an original progressive take in a sequel, or admitting defeat with a reboot, or committing franchise suicide with a remake, studios have instead hidden their newest lucrative tactic in plain sight. Both of the two highest grossing movies of 2015 — Jurassic Park and Star Wars: The Force Awakens — supposedly continue their beloved blockbuster stories with new installments, but skew so close to the original that this new trend is unmistakable. Welcome to the era of soft reboots.
It makes plenty of sense — logical and financial — that studios are reluctant to take risks with their multi-billion-dollar franchises. They like to make money (read: lots of money) and want to make even more of it. Straying far from the formula of dinosaurs on the loose or a continuing saga set amid celestial combat could make the cash flow dry up quicker than it would take to just do what you know works best. With a soft reboot everybody gets what they want. Fans get to tap into the feeling of what made them fans in the first place while studios don’t have to worry about screwing things up by trying something different.
A soft reboot is exactly what it sounds like. Not quite a sequel, not quite a reboot, it follows in a successful series and its plot hems dangerously closely to its famous original — it only becomes blatant if the filmmakers don’t stick the landing. Soft reboots are nothing if not tricky things. You have to have enough referential fan service for people who remember and obsess over the blueprint, but are still open to introducing enough of a cohesive story that keeps the non fanboys and fangirls entertained. The movie has to have the feel of a franchise keystone, but still have enough new non-derivative developments in terms of characters or plot that it isn’t immediately obvious how much they’re ripping off.
Jurassic World is just a slightly skewed version of Jurassic Park: Chaos erupts at a dinosaur theme park when the creatures get loose, causing a hero to save the people he wouldn’t have saved at the start of the movie. The Force Awakens is also just a smidge off from A New Hope: A stranded teen on a desert planet sets out on a journey of self discovery amongst a giant galactic battle that culminates in their mentor dying, a giant space station destroyed, and their introduction to a new life.
But it isn’t all as reductive as that. Jurassic World and The Force Awakens still take chances, but they don’t stray too far from what made the originals so iconic. TFAis a little more crowded with character personalities while positioning Rey as the new hero on a journey, and it also manages to seamlessly incorporate the classic elements like Han Solo into where it’s taking the new saga. With Jurassic World it’s a little bit more complicated because it never seems to earn its moments. The Indominus rex attack on the gyrosphere, the famous Dino eye shot, the ending — all of which are simply recycled from Jurassic World save for a few different small details. The best bits of Jurassic World are when it comments on its own existence. “The park needs a new attraction every few years in order to reinvigorate the public’s interest,” says Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, referring to both the amusement park and blockbuster filmmaking at the same time.
The problem with these nostalgic franchise re-starters is that you risk alienating the very fans that loved the original and know it by heart out of sheer familiarity. Instead of taking the plunge like, say, The Lost World did with Jurassic Park, the soft reboot walks the fine line. Granted, The Lost World is an isolated incident considering it had the cinematically omnipotent Spielberg at the helm and author Michael Crichton’s source material uprooting what came before it. The sequel to the biggest movie ever made at the time could have colored-by-numbers, which makes it even more insane that they zigged when they should have zagged back to their dino comfort zone.
But maybe that’s just it. A trend within a trend has emerged where studios are giving their billion-dollar franchises to otherwise small-scale directors. The thought process is that you give relatively untested filmmakers like Rian Johnson or Colin Trevorrow a big franchise so they can imbue the special effects and explosions with the character-based dexterity and tonal levity that drove their indie hits. But for every Trevorrow that brings in the mega money there’s always a Josh Trank to drive your Fantastic Four rehash into the ground, or a Marc Webb to simply be a “yes man” without stopping to take a stand against studio meddling.
It’s telling that Trank was attached to a standalone Star Wars movie before being unceremoniously removed from the project following the Fantastic debacle, while Trevorrow will settle into the director’s seat for Star Wars: Episode IX. Both decisions were a case of a studio executive like Lucasfilm president (and absolute genius) Kathleen Kennedy trusting in doing something different.
Soft reboots are the next evolution of Hollywood filmmaking. Some of them, like Jurassic World, will try to be a retread of the original and fail at shading in the areas needed. Others, like The Force Awakens, will cross every “T” and dot every “I” of the original while using it as a foundation for a brand new set of movies to capture the imagination all over again. Instead of simply continuing the story with a full on sequel, or rebooting the entire thing from square one, or completing the now sacrilegious act of remaking a movie, the better alternative is the soft reboot. Only time will tell if audiences remember or not.