No one would call Airplane 2: The Sequel one of the great film follow-ups of all time.
But that 1982 comedy does contain one smart, pointed sight gag, in which a movie poster shows a doleful, decrepit prizefighter unable even to lift his own gloves. The title? Rocky XXXVIII.
It’s a knockout joke, but it didn’t get the future quite right. Here we are, 34 years later, and a new Rocky is indeed upon us, though it is the seventh rather than the 38th. Its poster depicts not an old-timer, but a strapping young African-American boxer (Michael B Jordan) accompanied by an older trainer (Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone). This is Creed, in which the former champ coaches the son of Apollo Creed, his opponent from the early Rocky movies. It’s a terrific picture that happens to encapsulate a new kind of film-making model: the sequel that is also a remake and a reboot.
Until now those categories have been fairly distinct from one another. Creed blends them together. It is a grittier, modern-day makeover of the series, which had long ago begun to invite ridicule. It slots sequentially into the ongoing Rocky narrative. And it also reproduces, blow-for-blow, the shape of the 1976 original. If it imitates exactly its predecessor’s success, it will be looking at an armful of Oscars this year.
That sort of supersize franchising will appeal to the widest possible audience, from older cinemagoers drawn by pure nostalgia to the younger crowd who might not know their Rocky from their Raging Bull. Following the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which adheres to the same formula, there seems little doubt that this will be Hollywood’s dominant template for the foreseeable future.
Where Creed surpasses Star Wars is in its sparing use of convention and cliche. There is only the merest hint, for instance, of Bill Conti’s theme music from the earlier Rocky instalments. That compares unfavourably with the new Star Wars, or another lacklustre recent sequel-reboot, Jurassic World, both anchored by nostalgia. A film-maker can choose to preserve the comforts of a franchise or to extend and advance them. When JJ Abrams made the first Star Trek reboot in 2009, he rehabilitated a defunct franchise with irreverent ideas. With this Star Wars, which he also directed, he is in the business only of reanimating dead tissue.
Creed has the advantage of being set in our world, so that it can reflect social changes or tensions, whereas Star Wars movies have never been about anything except their own internal mythology. A new Star Wars film that used John Williams’s thunderous music only in passing, or even omitted it entirely, would send a clear message that it was consigning nostalgia to the past. But then Star Wars was looking back over its shoulder from the very beginning. As Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times pointed out in his 1977 review of the original film, it is set “in the past, not the future – ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’”. That picture, he noted, marked “the disconcerting point at which the cinema’s nostalgia bandwagon seems … to have turned up the road of juvenile regression”. Even the Star Wars creator George Lucas agrees that the new episode goes too far. “They wanted to do a retro movie,” he said last week. “I don’t like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make them different, make them completely different with different planets, different spaceships, to make it new.”
Nostalgia sells. But there are ways in which it can be used subversively, or for gains that are not exclusively commercial. One encouraging example is the other big reboot of 2016: a snazzy spin on Ghostbusters. Fans and film-makers have been clamouring for a third Ghostbusters movie for more than 20 years. Paul Feig, who has directed the new version, has pushed the franchise beyond the confines of nostalgia by casting four female comic actors in the main parts: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Opposition on Twitter from people telling Feig that he has made the movie “to appease the feminist types” suggests that a female Ghostbusters is not only appealing but also urgently needed.
In bringing a strong female presence to a male-dominated fantasy franchise, Feig is following in the tyre-tracks of George Miller, who added a sequel-cum-reboot to his own Mad Max series last year with the barnstorming Mad Max: Fury Road. It was to be expected that the movie would be visually thrilling, but the female bias in its characters and themes felt defiant and progressive.
Max, played by Tom Hardy, was relegated to the status of hanger-on, often literally, in his own story. It was Charlize Theron, as the driver who kidnaps a tyrant’s five wives, who was the real hero. Miller taunted any retrograde fanboys in the audience with a shot of flimsily dressed women hosing themselves down in the desert. In that scene, which could have come straightfrom a 1970s Pirelli calendar, he seemed to be alerting us to the relics of a sexist past whose currency had now expired.
The sequel-reboot-remake hybrid may be new, but it shares DNA with many decades of commercial cinema. Hollywood cottoned on some time ago to the rejuvenating power of adaptation.
The Fugitive was a throwaway 1960s TV series, but that didn’t prevent it becoming a lucrative Oscar-winning 1993 blockbuster. The kitsch and childish can become dark and adult: just look at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, which overwrote a generation’s memory of that superhero’s camp 1960s TV incarnation. When even that new Batman succumbed eventually to campness, it too could be given a lick of paint – back to black in the case of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series.
Cultural traffic can move in the opposite direction, from sober to silly. The serious-minded 1950s cop show Dragnet became a goofy 1987 comedy film starring Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd. Starsky and Hutch, which felt tough to young TV audiences in the 1970s, received a comic makeover in the 2004 movie with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. The biggest beneficiaries of the reboot industry have been those properties once considered irredeemably cheesy. 21 Jump Street was an unremarkable 1980s show about undercover cops at high school, reconfigured in 2012 as an inspired comedy where the absurdity of the original premise became the foundation for its humour. Charlie’s Angels may have been an embarrassing 1970s artefact, but its flaws were converted into knowing fun by the 1999 movie version. Bad TV shows can be rescued from obscurity by post-modernism—the knight in shining irony.
No overhaul was necessary for The Muppets in 2011, since the 1970s TV show and most of the preceding films had aged splendidly. A complete revamp was needed, though, for The Brady Bunch, a naff but good-natured 1970s sitcom about a sprawling step-family. There was comic genius in the 1995 film The Brady Bunch Movie, which had the brilliant conceit of maintaining the characters’ 1970s fashions, behaviour and vocabulary in the 1990s world. Oblivious to the mockery of those around them, the Bradys triumphed with their homespun values. Rather than disparaging the past, The Brady Bunch Movie questioned the cultural superiority that each generation feels over the one before. Most importantly, it was intellectually aware of the pitfalls of any unquestioning attitude, be it blanket nostalgia or knee-jerk cynicism.
Any good reboot has to respond to the times in which it is made, the distance between now and then, and what the changes in the interim say about the world. Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road do that. A movie that doesn’t, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, risks being the cinematic equivalent of the Latin-American boy-band Menudo, which replaced its members with younger models whenever they started to age visibly – a hint of stubble and they were out. The group endured for more than 20 years in one apparently seamless, homogenous state, never getting old, never changing.
If Star Wars continues down that path, it should beware the consequences. There is a thin line, after all, between consistency and rigor mortis.
Creed opens in UK cinemas on 15 Jan. Ghostbusters will be released in July.
RIPE FOR AN OVERHAUL
The Carry On series
Previous revivals of the saucy comedy series have failed – the supposedly ultra-risqué Carry On Emmanuelle in 1978 and the seafaring Carry On Columbus in 1992 – but the time is ripe for another stab with fresh talent.
Macaulay Culkin recently appeared in the web series DRYVRS as a deranged adult version of the child he played in the first two Home Alone films; his co-star Daniel Stern, who played one of the burglars, has responded with his own video. There’s potential for a movie spinoff.
The Thin Man
The 1934 comedy-mystery series was such a success it produced five sequels. The format is evergreen, while the roles of a boozy detective and his heiress wife would be a gift to any comic couple with chemistry. Throw a heap of names in a hat (Louis CK, Jane Krakowski, Donald Glover, Amy Schumer) and pick a pair.
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