Following The Stars (Are Time-Gap Sequels The New Reboot?)

Minor spoilers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. So, go see it. That be the best way to repel spoilers. Also, some slight spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but if you haven’t seen that yet, where have you been, stranded on Jakku?

Nostalgia is a major part of wish fulfillment. The human subconscious is frequently drawn towards good memories of years gone by as a way to cope with the harshness of the present. A healthy dose of it can keep you young at heart, but too much and you’ll find yourself stuck in the past. Of course, if there’s one thing alcohol has taught us, it’s that people naturally tend to overuse their comforts.

Now, more than ever, Hollywood has picked up on this and transmogrified nostalgia into the hottest of commodities. As I have stated before, we live in an era of remakes and reboots, as well as adaptations of childhood classics. It’s a trend as old as film itself, but things really started going crazy with the turn of the new millennium. Suddenly, every studio was looking to put its gritty, effects-driven spin on old stories, and audiences ate it right up… until they didn’t.

It’s difficult to say when, but probably somewhere around the American housing market crash of 2007, audiences got more and more hip to the fact that filmmakers were just repackaging their old favorites and selling them what amounted to prettier-but-dumber versions. The average moviegoer was tightening the belt, and the Michael Bay eye-candy was not filling their needs anymore. Reboots could still work, but they now required actual effort in order to sell. Studios could no longer rely on the quality of stories from the past; they had to make them good in the present.

That is, until Disney found the loophole.

When Tron Legacy opened in 2010, it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen (and I don’t just mean Jeff Bridges’ incredible digital rejuvenation.) This was not a straight remake of the cult classic Tron, nor was it what Tim Burton wanted everyone to call a “reimagining”. This was a sequel, a pure-blooded member of the franchise, made decades after the original. It featured a new cast, supported by the old one, continuing the story of the first film with continuity (sort of) intact.

Well, Tron: Legacy didn’t do so well, so it was back to the drawing board for Disney. (In the meantime, they had Marvel movies to make, so nobody needs to feel bad for the mouse.) I can only imagine the post-mortem on that film, the conversations of what went wrong. It had a star-studded cast, groundbreaking effects, and a story that held together well enough. What was it about this movie that sent it the way of Atlantis: The Lost Empire?

I’ll tell you what it was: Tron was a cult classic. Sure, it has a fanbase of some kind, but the majority of them found it after its theatrical run. So, sure they liked it, maybe even loved it, but it wasn’t like it was this major event that had suddenly stopped happening, leaving hordes of fans without a regular fix. It wasn’t, say, Star Wars.

Or Jurassic Park, for that matter. Universal actually beat Disney to the punch, with Jurassic World making out like a bandit at the box office half a year before The Force Awakens broke records on opening weekend. Even Warner Brothers jumped in with Mad Max: Fury Road. 2015 had clinched it; the studios had struck gold, and nostalgia was the key.

Fast-forward to 2017. Rogue One has been heralded as possibly the best Star Wars film ever, The Last Jedi has everyone buzzing like mad, and Jurassic World II is chugging its way along to a 2018 release. Blade Runner 2049 is looking to be a better Ghost in the Shell than director Rupert Sanders tried to push on us. It’s even happening on television with shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks coming back to weird people out once again.

Here’s the thing, though: These are all continuations. They’re taking endings that were definitively endings and changing them into “to be continued”s. Granted, this is nothing new (circa 1986, with Back to the Future’s VHS release), and life does go on. However, there is something to be said about closing the book.

That’s where Pirates of the Caribbean comes in.

Ah yes, Pirates of the Caribbean. Now there’s a film franchise that’s gone through as many rises and falls as you can find on the attraction that inspired it. They made swashbuckling cool again with The Curse of the Black Pearl, invented the feature-length movie teaser with Dead Man’s Chest, and discovered that maybe there is a such thing as too much plot in the 3-hour behemoth that was At World’s End (my personal favorite of the franchise, but I realize I’m in the minority there). Nevertheless, each film kept making more money. So, to no one’s surprise but many’s chagrin, Jerry Bruckheimer pushed ever onward with yet another sequel. Unlike the two films before it, On Stranger Tides was a standalone sequel, leaping far away from the tangled web of continuity that came before. Unfortunately, that ended up being the film’s downfall. Without the grandiose plot threads of the original trilogy to put wind in its sails and Gore Verbinski’s incredible talent to manically focus on everything at once, the fourth installment in the saga ended up adrift, drowning in its comparative dullness. Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin served as poor replacements for trilogy mainstays Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom respectively. Turning Jack Sparrow (easily Johnny Depp‘s biggest cash cow) into the protagonist was entirely a mistake, and Ian McShaneas Blackbeard was an unforgivably dull villain. Even the supernatural aspects of the film, which were consistently incredible up to that point, were painfully watered down. Certainly, it had the highest opening weekend gross of the franchise, but general audience reaction was that nobody really cared to find out where the blatant cliffhanger ending led. Overall, the whole endeavor didn’t add anything special, and it left the franchise with the wrong kind of salty taste.

Fast forward again to 2017. We have a new Pirates film on our hands, Dead Men Tell No Tales, and it is absolutely dripping with nostalgia. Rather than flee from its predecessors, this film celebrates its heritage. Instead of trying to make Jack a likable hero, the writers returned him to a lovable fly in the ointment. What’s more, On Stranger Tides offered nothing in terms of closure, whereas Dead Men Tell No Tales is all about closure. It’s what our new leads, Henry Turner and Carina Smyth, are searching for; what the grim grinning Captain Salazar (portrayed hauntingly by the acclaimed Javier Bardem) is chasing after; and what Jack Sparrow, characteristically, is running far away from. Even Hector Barbossa gets mixed up in this whole closure mess when-oops, spoilers…

He’s Carina Smyth’s father. There, I’ve ruined that entire subplot for you. Man, I’m just as bad as Wikipedia.

What I’m getting at is that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales revels in the fact that it is a part of its franchise, for better or for worse. In this way, rises above not only On Stranger Tides, but also the film to which critics have been comparing it: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Yes, I just said Dead Men Tell No Tales was better than The Force Awakens. I can feel some hate already.

I’d like to preface this (too late for that, interlude, maybe?) by saying I am a fan of both Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean. Along with Back to the Future, they’re my top three favorite franchises of all time. (Ooh, I’ve angered some more people, I’m sure.) Furthermore, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. It is not at all a bad film.

But is it really Star Wars?

When it comes down to it, The Force Awakens is a great, fun, frenetic science-fantasy action-adventure movie with impressive effects and a serviceable story. However, that alone does not make a Star Wars movie. (Trigger Warning: This is my opinion.)

Here is a list of things that make a Star Wars movie:

  • The Force
  • An epic struggle between good and evil with our heroes caught in the middle.
  • Memorable main and side characters that richly fill out the universe and give it a lived-in feel
  • Intense space battles that immerse you into the conflict (Plus, it can’t be Star Wars if there aren’t some wars in the Stars)

Here’s a list of what The Force Awakens gave us:

  • The Force (so far so good)
  • An epic struggle between good and evil with our heroes occasionally getting mixed up in it (wait, what?)
  • Memorable main characters that fill the frame so we remember what toys to buy at the Disney store (whoa, hang on there…)
  • A light dusting of X-Wings shooting down Tie Fighters which takes a massive back seat to what amounts to a whole lot of infighting (now, that’s hardly fair.)

Ask anyone what was the best part of The Force Awakens, and they’ll probably pull up a pithy quip from Finn or Han, whip out a funny Stormtrooper moment, or remind you that Leia was in it and as a military general no less. (Side Note: I totally support that decision, made perfect sense for her character, but I do disagree with people who denigrate her contributions as Princess Leia by comparison. Princess Leia got things done.) That’s all great, and they were a lot of fun, but where’s the scale? Where’s the grandeur? Star Wars is a SPACE OPERA, and yet The Force Awakens is written more like an episode of NCIS (again, good in its own right, but not Star Wars).

In direct contrast, Dead Men Tell No Tales carries on the piratey torch with bountiful betrayals, convoluted coincidence, and some deliciously creepy sea myths. Captain Jackblunders about some wonderfully zany escapades, and turns out to be-ah, spoilers.

He’s the reason why they’re all in this big mess, once again. If Jack Sparrow hadn’t led Captain Salazar into the Devil’s Triangle, they could have just popped on over to the trident, grabbed it, and Paul McCartney‘s your surprisingly funny cameo.

From the sharp tongued wit of the dialogue to the legacy of its mythos, the film stays true to its nature and serves as a heartwarming epilogue to the original trilogy that spawned it. Honestly, if the story ended here, I’d be okay with that.

It probably won’t though, so keep a weathered eye on that horizon.

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