NOTE: My apologies for the lack of recent updates. Living near wildfire areas means that, eventually, you’ll have to face said fires.
NOTE 2: This post spoils the plots of ‘Doctor Sleep,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ and ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’
I went to see ‘Doctor Sleep’ last week, despite being skeptical of a sequel to the 1980 classic, ‘The Shining,’ especially one that comes out almost 40 (!) years after the original. But to my surprise, it was a great sequel that doesn’t rely on the power of nostalgia to tell a story that not only feels like a logical continuation of the original film, but also enriches explores and enriches the mythology of Stephen King’s world.
Since seeing ‘Sleep,’ I’ve been musing about why it works so well as a legacy sequel (loosely defined as a sequel to a work that comes out a decade or so after the original) when so many other similar film sequels haven’t done as well at the box office, and realized that the 2015 juggernaut, ‘Jurassic World,’ shared quite a bit of similarities in its storytelling. And while there’s no guaranteed formula for creating a successful legacy sequel, I think ‘World’ and ‘Sleep’ does four things right that writers should keep in mind when doing their own legacy sequels:
1. They take place quite a while after the original.
While the stories of most sequels typically take place a year or two after the original (so the actors don’t age too much), ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ occur decades after their predecessors and largely feature new cast members with only one or two familiar faces returning. While this may seem like a disadvantage, it can be a blessing in disguise: When audiences return to a fictional world where twenty or thirty years have passed, they’re naturally curious about how both the world and the people in it have changed. Best of all, having the story set so long after the original subtly tells the audience that the writer/s have taken their time to create an interesting story instead of hastily throwing something together so that a studio and publisher can get into theaters or stores to make a quick buck while the anvil is hot.
2. They don’t copy the first story.
When given a choice, the entertainment industry likes to play things safe: If a movie or book is a critical and financial success, why change the formula for the sequel? Have the same characters, have roughly the same plot, and make the spectacle bigger and better. Imagine if ‘Sleep’ was about a grown-up Danny being forced to take a caretaker job at the Overlook to support his family, or if ‘World’ was about Ingen building Jurassic Park 2.0, only to have an insider shut down the power to try and get rich in the process. Aside from a few differences, it’d be the same story we’ve seen before, and leave audiences disappointed.
Thankfully, ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ they build off what came before; where ‘The Shining’ is about an alcoholic dad being driven insane by ghosts and subsequently trying to murder his family. ‘Doctor Sleep’ is about his grown-up son struggling with his own alcoholism while battling psychic vampires who gorge themselves on the screams of dying children (Wut). And while ‘World’ has the same basic premise of ‘Jurassic Park’ (humanity creates a theme park full of living dinosaurs and something goes catastrophically wrong), this version of the park is a resounding success. So much so, in fact, that the park’s operators create genetically-modified murdersauruses to recapture people’s interest, which leads to the inevitable breakout of said murdersaurus.
In both instances, ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ borrow elements of their predecessor’s story, but don’t copy it, instead trying to create something that feels like a logical extension.
3. They don’t invalidate what came before.
‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ billed itself as the true continuation of the ‘Terminator’ story by ignoring all the other three sequels that had come after ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day.’ Considering how ‘Judgment Day’ is one of the best sci-fi sequels of all time, I was excited to see what would happen… and then John Connor is killed in the first five minutes, followed by a race to save the person destined to save humanity from a new evil AI called Legion. ‘Dark Fate’ retroactively sours the first two Terminator films because we now know that everything that Sarah, Kyle, John, and Uncle Bob fought for amounts to nothing. Humanity is still almost wiped out by an evil AI, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it.
‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ smartly avert this problem by not invalidating everything their predecessors went through. ‘Sleep’ shows that Danny and Wendy’s struggle to survive being chased by Jack Nicholson at a spooky hotel brought them another decade together, and that Danny eventually overcomes the trauma he endured. ‘World’ shows that the operators of Jurassic World learned from the mistakes of the first film, and made John Hammond’s dream of a family-friendly park filled with dinosaurs come true. Granted, it inevitably falls apart, but for ten years the park brought joy and happiness to millions. Both stories show that the suffering and struggles of the previous stories ultimately amounted to something good, where ‘Dark Fate’ made it so that the suffering and struggles of the previous stories ultimately amounted to nothing.
4. They save nostalgia for the third act
There are few forces as powerful as nostalgia, and indulging fans by giving them the return of a favorite character, the big battle that’s been teased for decades, or hearing a familiar catchphrase from an older actor reprising a role he had twenty years ago can bring about a squeal of joy for any audience. ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ both know the importance of nostalgia, and follow the classic advice of saving the best for last. Or, in storytelling jargon, saving their biggest, most crowd-pleasing moments for the third act.
Most of ‘Sleep’ features Danny and his new companion, Abra, using their shining abilities to battle psychic vampires in New Hampshire. But in the third act, Danny and Abra drive to the now-rotting Overlook hotel for the final showdown with the last surviving vampire, where Danny goes back through all the old rooms we saw back in 1980, eventually confronts the spectral form of his father, and then does battle with Rose by unleashing all the Overlook’s ghosts before destroying the hotel for good.
‘World’ takes a different approach: Instead of indulging in nostalgia in the third act, it sprinkles little bits throughout the film, including a visit to the original visitor’s center in the beginning of the second act. But the biggest nostalgia moment comes in the climax: Having exhausted all other options to stop the Murdersaurus Rex Indominus Rex, park operator Claire releases the park’s T-rex to fight the Indominous. And this isn’t just any T-rex: this is Rexy, the same T-rex from the original 1993 movie, the one that terrorized Alan Grant and the kids outside its paddock, the one who chased Malcom, Sattler, and Muldon in the jungle, and who saved the day in the visitors center. Now, over twenty years later, Rexy returns to save the day once again in the most spectacular climax of the series to date (and one of my personal favorite final fights in years).
What’s so great about both these climaxes is that returning to the Overlook and releasing the T-rex to fight the villain (sadly, not in the same story) isn’t just done for fanservice, but as important parts of the story to resolve the conflict: The Overlook is the only place where Danny and Abra can possibly defeat Rose the Hat, and Rexy is the only chance Claire has to try and stop the Indominus Rex after every other containment option has failed.
As stated earlier, there’s no guaranteed formula for creating a popular legacy sequel. Said sequels can tell new stories without relying on the original and having just the right amount of nostalgia, but still fail. But if writers follow the four points outlined above, we have a much stronger chance of creating a worthy follow-up to delight audiences both new and old.