Examining the Sequel: How Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi show the true potential for
Featured Image Credit - Lucasfilm/Disney
Sequels. These days, no matter where you go, it's often the case that the biggest selling films are either reboots of previous films, sequels to previous films, or are part of a big expanded universe.
We have an obsession with sequels these days.
As an audience, we experience a film, we love it, and we want more of it. The film companies look at the financial result, see the opportunity, and quickly organise a sequel. A sequel comes with the opportunity to build a new franchise, creating the foundation for future instalments. Blah blah blah.
But, how often is it that when it comes time to see that second film, it actually builds on and is better than the original? It's certainly not something that happens often. These days, sequels have developed a notorious reputation for being inferior to the original. Maybe because it was rushed by a studio desperate to create more of these films? Sometimes, the sequel can be so mediocre, it make you wonder if the first one was as good as you remember it.
This isn't an article that complains or bemoans about the current state of cinema, or blames sequels. In online media, that's frankly been done to death. Just because a movie is a sequel to a previous film doesn't mean that that movie is going to be necessarily bad.
Often, it is harder for sequels to do better in my opinion, because when an audience goes into a sequel, they go in expecting it to be better than something that they have already seen. It's why people so often say of sequels, 'this film is good... but it's not as good as this film.' An original film wouldn't have anything to be compared to, a sequel has to go off the expectations set by the original.
A great film provides a sense of escapism: they introduce you to characters and worlds that take you away from the every day. In a way, they create a story that inspires you.
A great sequel builds on that foundation. Challenges the characters even more. But most importantly, increases the stakes in the story. A sequel shouldn't be a shameless rehash of the first film, nor sticking to the same tropes and ideas. A great sequel challenges both the characters and the audience.
These are the traits that you see in every great sequel film. The Empire Strikes Back. The Dark Knight. Mad Max: The Road Warrior. These films all provided experiences that challenged fans and lovers of the first film. This was especially the case for Empire, which received initially mixed reviews from critics and fans.
But to me, two films have come along over the course of this year that have really reiterated this point about the sequel. Within the film landscape of mediocre sequel after unmemorable reboot, Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi provide a shining light on how to not only build on their first film, but also challenge the audience with their characters and storytelling in unexpected ways, almost to the point of angry fan backlash.
Now, of course these films do have flaws, which I will address. But I will be talking about these films in some detail, so there will be some minor spoilers ahead. Keep in mind as well that this is my own opinion on these films.
Starting with Blade Runner 2049, for many years, creating a sequel to Blade Runner was seen as being an awful idea. When the original was first released in 1982, it come hot on the heels of big blockbuster action films like Star Wars, and Harrison Ford himself was a recognised action hero with Indiana Jones and Star Wars under his belt. The film had also been marketed as a action adventure.
Truth be told, it really wasn't. It received a mixed initial response, which was unsurprising considering the misleading marketing and the tacked-on elements such as the happy ending and Deckard's narration (both added in after studio pressure).
It wasn't until the release of the Directors Cut nearly a decade later that people really caught onto the philosophical ideas that Blade Runner examines. The notion of what is human, the ideas around how people and replicants are treated as second-class citizens. Those were what made Blade Runner such an icon of cinema: it's storytelling and ideas.
So when Blade Runner 2049 came out, it was almost ironic that people fell for the same problem. Despite critical success, it failed to really take off commercially, which is a real pity.
It was a sequel that stuck faithfully to the ideas of the original, and in many moments transcended it. Detailing the character of K (played by Ryan Gosling) in the middle of an investigation, the retiring of a older replicate leads to a story of whether replicants can reproduce, intertwining around the original's characters of Rachel and Deckard.
This was not an action film. It wasn't laid as the foundation for a new franchise of films. It wasn't just a rehash of the first film's aesthetic beauty. It wasn't a chance to shoehorn Harrison Ford in to return as one of his most iconic characters (he actually doesn't even appear until the last hour of the movie).
This film has a story, and it tells it. Frankly, within our world where we are endlessly teased to future installments, and also in a world where a film is marketed to the point where the audience goes into the cinema basically knowing what is about to happen, this felt like a breath of fresh air when I left the cinema.
While the film overindulges at some moments, particularly in it's length, the cinematography of the film was stunning, as were the many social examinations of our world today, such as the treatment of citizens and women in our society.
But what was most incredible was the story that was intertwined with all that, and the questions that built upon the ideas of the original. It is one thing to argue about what it is to be human. But to then ask, does that even matter who is replicant and who is not?
With the lines between human and non-human more blurred than ever, this created a catalyst for a lot of the films emotional punch in it's storytelling. One that challenges the characters in new and unexpected ways. That is a successful extension of Blade Runner that extends on the original, and asks questions of the audience, while also feeling completely familiar.
But then, we flip this to the another examination, being the recent release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
We knew this was an action film. We knew that it would conform to all the basic tropes of the Star Wars universe. Yet, the film, despite critical acclaim, was still criticised by fans upon it's release.
Often, people look at specific moments in the film, (such as Leia floating in space or some of the other film plotholes), and quickly judge the film to be terrible. I really enjoyed The Last Jedi, even more so than The Force Awakens, but this was purely from examining the story.
The one thing The Last Jedi really nailed down well was the characters. More specifically, Rey, Kylo Ren and Luke. Many have been quick to criticise the portrayal of Luke in the film as someone who just gave up and went into exile.
But in truth, this is very much in character of Luke, and of the Jedi themselves. In the film itself, Rey views Luke very much like how the audience does: that this was the great Jedi who defeated the legendary Darth Vader. We want to see that Luke, that legend. But that's not the Luke we grew up with.
We grew up with the Luke that failed, time and time again. He is a human being who made many mistakes on his way to being a Jedi. And truth be told, he made many mistakes after killing Vader, such as in the case of him briefly considering killing Kylo Ren (rash, but not out of character, considering he tried to kill the Emperor and Vader in Return of the Jedi through using his anger).
In the end, the decision to go into exile doesn't seem as unreasonable as many may believe. The loss of his nephew, him having to face Han Solo and Leia. From as story standpoint it makes a lot of sense. And it is not like Jedi haven't gone into exile before because they failed... case in point, Yoda going into exile to Degobah because he failed to defeat the Emperor.
Mark Hamill has been critical of his portrayal in the film, because director Rian Johnson shows a side of Luke that had just 'given up', which was contrary to what Luke had done as a character up until that point. Where The Last Jedi flounders is, in my opinion, it's execution. The story could have been told better on screen, but that doesn't make it a bad story.
In fact, this is the film that really liberates future Star Wars instalments from being all like The Force Awakens: enjoyable, but pretty much a rehash of previous Star Wars films (I still loved The Force Awakens though). The decision to kill off the supposed main villain in Snoke, the decision to have the Resistance effectively whittled down to a handful of survivors, the decision to 'kill off' Luke after his most triumphant moment.
The Last Jedi could have easily fallen back on its typical tropes, delivered the fan service that people want, and stayed in this safe zone of storytelling and give fans what they expected. Instead, like Blade Runner, it challenges, asks questions, and makes the audience question as much as the characters do.
Empire is often seen as the benchmark of Star Wars, and really it is because of the challenging direction it took with it's storytelling, which was controversial with many fans at the time. Whether The Last Jedi matches up and similarly stands the test of time is anyone's guess, but what it at least does is free up future instalments of Star Wars, encouraging future directors to take the story in new and exciting directions.
It is this kind of reinvention that is necessary to stop a film series going stale and becoming formulaic. And, while it may not sit well with some people, I myself have found that The Last Jedi has stuck with me a lot longer than The Force Awakens.
In the end, what both these movies show is not just that sequels can be good films, but that they can be enlightening forms of storytelling in their own right. They differ so much from the norm of sequels and pumped out factory reboots, and it's good to check out these kinds of sequels when they come along.
Go in, pop some popcorn and enjoy. In the end, that's what cinema is all about.