When it comes to long-delayed sequels, we sometimes have to be careful what we wish for. And we have to be especially careful when what is being reintroduced (book, film, TV show, comic, video game—let’s just call it the ‘product’) has moved from the realm of fiction into the world of mass culture, or has a specific social/cultural/generational appeal, or one that transcends boundaries. The deeper the original product’s claws dig into us—as either individuals, members of a particular social/cultural/generational group, or as people in general—the more fraught its reintroduction.
This is because deeply embedded products resonate with us for reasons beyond just the strength of their stories. Instead, these reasons may be personal (you encountered the product at a time in your life when it seemed to ‘speak’ to you); historical (the product may have pioneered a new narrative format or new technologies, or established a brand new business model); societal (the terminology, themes, situations or conundrums originally belonging to the product now have real- world applications); or cultural (the product connects to the wider world in general and to certain cultural types in particular, through things like catchphrases, identification, external references, and obsessive fan worship).
Personal examples are a good way to illustrate this. I grew up watching Doctor Who (1963–2016); my mum parked me in front of it so that she could get the dinner on, and consequently its reintroduction in 2005 was to me both highly exciting and potentially disastrous. As a genre-fan who likes to peek behind the curtain, I’m always somewhat aware when watching a contemporary genre film of the business models pioneered by classic genre films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and the future-defining technologies pioneered by those like The Thing (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993), and can’t help but see their still-continuing ripples. As someone who grew up with these classic genre films, I live in a world where the suffix ‘zilla’ is used to label anything monstrous or destructive; where the term ‘Star Wars’ is used for actual space-based weaponry, and where the word ‘TARDIS’ is used to describe anything overly full, from the bottom drawer in the kitchen to the stereotypical handbag. And lastly, as someone who walks the line between Generations X and Y, I live in a world that is also absolutely and unarguably intertextual, intertwined and post-modern, where words and metaphors like those shown above are a part of some people’s everyday conversation, where it seems like everything references everything else and genre classics are just part of the mix.
However, despite the different reasons underlining a particular product’s resonance, the dangers involved in its reintroduction are almost always the same: an expectation builds, fed by the hype that is an inevitable part of the mass-media machine and by our own individual viewpoints, connections and anticipatory excitement regarding the product in question. This is why we have to make sure that we don’t believe the hype, and this is why we have to be careful what we wish for: do we want something that is new or old? Do we want something that is unashamedly contemporary or something that embraces nostalgia? Do we want something that looks backwards and is chained by the original? Or do we want something that looks forward, and is inspired by the original?
All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Both the original Star Wars series (1977–1983) and the original Mad Max series (1979–1985) have become deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness—they both
perfectly exemplify the times in which they were made and incorporate the aesthetics, costuming, story-types, filmmaking styles and thematic undercurrents that were fashionable back then. Even a brief example shows this: the Star Wars series’ ‘lived in’ universe is the perfect summation of the ‘grungy’ science fiction look of the 1970s, and Star Wars’ success at pushing it to the fore meant that it became de rigueur for much of the next decade. Likewise, the look and feel of the original Mad Max series is unarguably and trash-tastically ‘80s: the films are filled with punk attitudes, punk costume designs, DIY filmmaking techniques, gleeful destruction, lots of explosions, epic rock songs, singers-turned-actors and moral ambiguities.
Their overall aesthetic was copied by thousands of B-grade directors in their shameless attempts at cashing in on its success: a punk-inspired post-apocalyptic world where everything but black leather is in short supply. And so, even though Star Wars is much more deeply embedded, Mad Max still exists in our cultural consciousness and still resonates with us.
Because of these resonances, and because Fury Road and The Force Awakens were set to be released within roughly six-months of each other, the aforementioned mass-media hype machine began to overload shortly after production commenced on both, flooding the market with images, teasers, trailers, spoilers, casting announcements and concept art, all vague enough to hint at the potential for both greatness and disaster. And so the hype began to overtake us: it was exciting that these films were coming, and easy to get lost speculating on what the final products might be like and so forget to ask what we really wanted from them. This excitement for something new, modified by our own individual preferences and predilections, meant that our shared expectations were both great in size and amorphous and vague, with everyone wanting something different from the final products. Both films rose to these challenges, but they did so in very different ways.
With Fury Road, director George Miller chose to dramatically expand the boundaries of the post-apocalyptic world that he created with the original trilogy. This seems like a counterintuitive move, as the original settings were isolated and small-scale, befitting the series’ post-apocalyptic trappings. But it worked: the world of Fury Road is one where mini-cities trade with other mini-cities, where a type of religion has arisen, where the settlements are so established that class structures and social hierarchies have emerged. Gone are the isolated outposts of yore; Fury Road is rich with life and people, crazed and desperate though they may be. This wasn’t Miller’s first counterintuitive move, though—he also chose not to feature any actors from the original trilogy, apart from actor Hugh Keays-Byrne (who played Toecutter in Mad Max and Immortan Joe in Fury Road, two completely different characters). By doing away with any cameos, Miller effectively severed one of the links between old and new, a risky proposition in an age when surprising and not-so-surprising cameos are the norm, and obvious shout-outs and blatant references are the new black.
Instead, by casting a completely different actor as the eponymous Max and creating brand new antagonists and supporting characters, Miller leaves it up to us to accept the film on its standalone terms. As well, we’re forced to situate it in the timeline established by the original trilogy ourselves: enough visual information is given to argue that it takes place sometime between The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but it’s exact placement is vague. The delivery of this information, and the delivery of other visual information throughout the film that pays tribute to the original trilogy, is Miller’s third counterintuitive move: he handles most references with great care. He does this either by constructing scenes that subtly echo similar scenes from the original trilogy, or by delivering the information in a manner- of-fact way, weaving it into the narrative rather than drawing attention to it.
Miller also dramatically changed what a Mad Max story could be about. Rather than following a pseudo-Western storyline, Fury Road is a hopeful story with a female- centric focus. Max is once again entangled in someone else’s schemes rather than acting as the driver of his own, but this entanglement is refreshing and contemporary. It is an acknowledgement of our times, and how much our world has changed in the interim between old and new. And this wasn’t the only change. Miller also took advantage of the untold number of technological and filmmaking changes that occurred in this interim, and so the look of Fury Road is that of the original series turned up to 11. The cinematography, the editing, the stunt-work, the car chases, the ‘mutant’ vehicles, the punk sensibilities and costuming; these factors are all bigger- bigger-bigger than they were in the original series, and yet they still feel as raw as they did back then.
In combination, these factors mean that Fury Road is a film that defied our expectations—no amount of hype could have prepared us for its scope, even if it did prepare us for its size. It shows us why long-delayed sequels can be successful: it is both completely new and yet unarguably informed by the original, and manages to pull this balancing act off effortlessly without wallowing in nostalgia. If we had bought it into the hype and decided against seeing it because it looked like just another Mad Max film, like just another shameless cash-in, we would have missed seeing something unique.
The Force Awakens is very different. Being the newest cinematic reintroduction of the Star Wars series, expectations were high from the very beginning, especially when it was announced that J J Abrams—a competent director with a proven record of successfully reintroducing a classic series—was at the helm. These expectations were only heightened as the hype built and images, teasers, trailers, spoilers, casting announcements and concept art slowly dribbled out, all promising something unarguably Star Wars-ian. And this is where Abrams seemed to run into trouble: the expectation of something as vague as a ‘good’ new Star Wars film seemed to bring him unstuck. Does ‘good’ in this context mean forward looking and only tangentially connected to the original a la Fury Road? Or does it mean something nostalgic, something that deeply embraces the original? The decisions must have been hard, as the original Star Wars trilogy is perhaps the most widely loved and influential science fiction series in the history of film. Ultimately, Abrams seemed to want to have it both ways—to look forward and backward at the same time—and was unfortunately more successful at the latter than the former.
And so, while beginning well with an undeniable sense of newness, The Force Awakens becomes steadily more nostalgic as the narrative unfolds and characters from the original trilogy enter the story. While this undeniably excites and satisfies us —everyone wants to know what happened to these characters in the interim between films—it also becomes the dominant trend of the film: direct references and obvious shout-outs become commonplace.
These range from the use of settings and characters based directly on those from the original trilogy—a multi-xenomorphic bar, a planet-sized WMD, a cute robot that
speaks in whistles and bleeps and carries secret information, a desert planet where life is hard and cheap—to yet more cameos to shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from the original trilogy to the wholesale adoption of the narrative beats of the first film in the series. In the face of this onslaught of nostalgia and self-referential back patting, Abrams’ forward-looking elements tend to lose their impact; they have the potential to change the definition of a Star Wars story and to make the series’ already sizable scope even larger, but this potential remains unfulfilled (at least until the next film, hopefully).
These elements mostly remain unexplored, cursorily drawn, hastily fleshed out—it’s as if Abrams is setting up a story that will be allowed fruition in the sequels, but right now he has to get people in the door, and there’s no better way to do that than by playing on their feelings for the original trilogy and pandering to their misguided desire for something that isn’t really new but instead just looks that way. This isn’t to say that The Force Awakens is a bad film—it’s fun, fast paced, well-made and thoroughly Star Wars-ian, and the nostalgia is a great trip. But it doesn’t challenge our expectations, doesn’t make us reassess the series as a whole, not in the way that Fury Road does. Instead, it affirms our memories of the original trilogy. The hype surrounding its release helped make us want it to do this, and once again showed that we shouldn’t ever really believe it—having seen both Fury Road and The Force Awakens on the big screen, I now know that I’d rather be happily surprised than merely affirmed.
(Originally published in Aurealis #92, July 2016)