Hotels and Dinosaurs: What we can learn about Legacy Sequels from ‘Doctor Sleep’ and ‘Jurassic World’

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 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.

What We Can Learn From ‘Henkei Shojo’

NOTE: This post contains material that is not safe to view at work. Specifically, numerous panty and bra shorts from a Japanese miniseries featuring girls who are clearly underage because GOSH DANGIT JAPAN WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

A popular urban legend says that famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki once said that anime was a mistake. Considering how the most popular stereotype of anime depicts of being crammed full with underage girls whose panties and bras are frequently visible, that quote might be on to something. If nothing else, it gives the impression that Japan is full of sexual deviants who are desperate to find any excuse to feature schoolgirls in morally questionable outfits, and that’s before all the tentacles show up.

This short miniseries does nothing to dispel that stereotype:

Well, that’s… something. Let’s break it down and see what writers can learn from girls who turn into vehicles.

What the video does well:

*It does an excellent job with random humor

The best thing about this miniseries is that it masterfully uses a random joke so well: the idea of girls turning into cars, fighter jets, and ships for the flimsiest of reasons, complete with over-the top transformation scenes, leaving a non-transforming onlooker to stare on in stunned silence. While humor relying on sudden, over-the-top elements at random times doesn’t always work, it can provide some great laughs, especially if it’s so ridiculous it has no chance of being taken seriously.

*It does a great job portraying laughably ineffective powers

My favorite video in the series features one girl transforming into a battleship to save another girl on a sinking life raft, complete with the music, the elaborate changing sequence, and falling into the ocean… only to reveal that the battleship is only two feet long, making it all-but-useless when it comes to actually rescuing girls stuck on sinking life rafts in the middle of the ocean, ensuring that she’ll die a miserable, watery death.

This use of a giant buildup with a pitifully weak payoff is one of my favorite comedic acts, because when we think something is going to be awesome, intentionally subverting it for comedic effect can almost always get a belly laugh, like superpowers that turn someone into popcorn.

What doesn’t work as well:

*It sexualizes underage girls, complete with numerous shots of their underworld.

Excuse me for a moment.

*Goes off and drinks bleach*

Okay… let’s do this.

If the girls in the videos above wore normal clothes, like jeans or long-sleeved shirts, and we didn’t see their undergarments when they changed, it would be a lot less creepy. It wouldn’t leave me feeling like this guy. Unless you’re willing to risk being labeled a closeted pedophile, don’t have any underage characters do anything that could even be remotely considered sexual. Tight clothes, bra shots, panty shots, ridiculously tiny skirts that no one would or should wear in real life – including all these things in your work is only asking for trouble and possible visits from your friendly neighborhood police officers.

The Bottom Line:

NEVER, EVER FEATURE UNDERAGE CHARACTERS IN ANYTHING REMOTELY SEXUAL ARG.

Favorite Moments: A Monk and an Imam

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Van Helsing’

The Scene

Why it’s great

2004’s, ‘Van Helsing’, a fun, actionized adaptation of Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Werewolf mythos, has it’s protagonist, Gabriel Van Helsing, being an agent of the Knights of the Holy Order, a fictional organization devoted to fighting supernatural evils. Early on in the film, he goes to the Vatican to get his next assignment, which sets him down a path that will lead to a (rather awesome) showdown against Count Dracula.

As you might expect from a secret religious organization that’s set in the Vatican, the Order features a strong Christian bent, with priests, monks, and the like rushing about. But in a nice touch, it’s shown that the organization is composed of people from different faiths, including a Buddhist monk and an Islamic Imam (specifically, at 1:37 in the video). The movie doesn’t draw extra attention to these characters – they’re just in the background, doing their thing – but to see people of different faiths working together for a common cause is something we don’t see much in stories, and I wish it was far more common – in today’s divided world, such signs of solidarity and cooperation are badly needed, even if only in fiction.

Perfect Moments: Ellen Ripley’s Message

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Game

‘Alien Isolation’

The Moment

Why it’s perfect

Earlier this week, I suggested a new way of watching the Alien series in order to give it – and Ellen – a more hopeful ending instead of the bittersweet one in both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’. Part of that new trilogy was the videogame, ‘Alien: Isolation’ because of the strength of its core concept: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, has spent 15 years searching for any clue about her mother’s fate after she disappeared aboard the Nostromo, and after fighting her way through a decaying space station while hiding from the cosmos’ most terrifying alien, she finally finds a message for her that was recorded by her mother.

When I first played through ‘Isolation’, I almost teared up at this moment. Not only does Sigourney Weaver perfectly play Ellen once more, but bringing an emotional, tragic side of her we almost never see, but the meaning behind this moment is so tragic: This is the first time Amanda has heard her mother in 15 years, and can give her both closure and hope; the novelization of the game reveals that she believes her mother is still alive, and the story ends with her vowing to survive at all costs so she will one day reunite with Ellen. For the first time in over a decade, she has a reason to live, to survive against all odds.

Sadly, it’s not to be:

While Amanda did get closure, and presumably died hoping that her mother was still alive, knowing that the two would never see each other again makes Ellen’s message so perfectly bittersweet.

Mothers, Daughters, and Loss: A New Way to Watch the Alien Saga

Back in 2015, it was revealed that Neill Blomkamp was working on ‘Alien 5’, a new installment in Fox’s ‘Alien’ franchise that would be a direct sequel to ‘Aliens,’ ignoring both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection.’ As time passed, news came that both Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn would come back as both Ripley and Hicks, along with a now-grown up Newt and, presumably, Lance Henriksen as Bishop.

As a fan of the series, this was one of the most exciting movie news I had seen in years; the thought of seeing Ellen Ripley on the big screen again for the first time since 1997 was a dream come true, and I eagerly followed every scrap of news, every piece of concept art, and even makeup tests. My dream sequel was finally coming together!

And then the movie was canceled.

While there’s still the faintest hope that the movie could be resurrected (if James Cameron’s words are any indication), it seems that, for now, Ellen Ripley’s story still ends with her sacrifice on Fiorina 161.

But what if it doesn’t?

Back in 2011, writer Rod Hilton proposed watching the Star Wars saga (which, at the time, was still only six movies) in what he called, ‘machete order.’ While his post explains it best, the basic gist is that you watch episodes 4 and 5, then 2 and 3, and then 6, which starts with the best film, includes (two) prequels, while also preserving the twist that Darth Vader is Luke’s dad. While musing if ‘Alien 5’ will ever be made, it recently dawned on me that the Alien franchise could be viewed in a similar manner; one of the biggest draws of ‘Alien 5’ was the idea that Ellen could get a happier ending than she did in the canon timeline, but thanks to this new viewing order, which takes the stories that work and – in keeping with current Hollywood trends – pretending that the ones that don’t never happened, she does.

So, what is this new viewing experience? It has two of the films and one of the videogames, experienced in this order:

  1. Alien

  2. Alien: Isolation

  3. Aliens.

For those who don’t know, ‘Alien: Isolation’ is a 2014 video game that follows Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, as she goes in search of the Nostromo’s flight recorder to find out what happened to her mother, only to be trapped aboard a space station that’s been decimated by a single Xenomorph, turning her quest into a fight for survival. It’s a tense, frightening experience, and after playing through it over a dozen times, I’ve come to regard it as a sequel to ‘Alien,’ hence its inclusion in this list. Thus, the saga begins with the first film, continues with the video game (which can be further enhanced by reading the novelization, which adds more history to Amanda and Ellen’s history together) and ends with the second film, pretending that ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’ never happened.

While this fan-version of the saga is shorter, and ends with Ellen still alive, there’s a more subtle change that I didn’t realize until I had gone through these three tales again one after another: The ‘Alien’ saga has been about Ellen and her adventures with phallic aliens from beyond the furthest stars, but it’s also a parable about the dangers of greed, corrupt corporations, and those corporations doing anything and everything to increase their profits, no matter the cost in human suffering. The original four film saga was about Weyland-Yutani (and the military) trying and failing to get the Alien for their own purposes, and Ellen foiling them time and time again. In this new trilogy, the story arc is about Weyland-Yutani tearing a family apart in a blind pursuit of profit, and then that family successfully denying said corporation what it so desperately wants while healing and moving on with their lives: Amanda learns what happened to her mother and gets closure, while Ellen, having lost Amanda to cancer before waking up from stasis, manages to stop Weyland-Yutani for good, and saves a little girl from having to grow up without a mother, as Amanda did.

Of course, this isn’t official in any way; it’s just one fan’s version of the Alien saga that has a more hopeful, upbeat ending that lets us imagine all the good times ahead for Ellen. If Alien 5 is never made, this is a way for fans to still have a happy ending, free to decide for themselves what happens next. In my headcanon, Ellen officially adopts Newt, marries Hicks, Bishop is repaired and becomes the family’s robot-butler, Jones continues to be a little s*** head, and they all live happily ever after! Of course, there’s still Weyland-Yutani to deal with, but they’re soon bought out by Disney. And, in my opinion, that’s a far happier ending than seeing one of sci-fi’s greatest heroes being burnt to a crisp.

Great Quotes About Writing: The Difference between Scary and Gory

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

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‘To any director given that assignment (directing a remake of ‘It’), here’s my advice: Maintain clarity about the difference between “Scary” and “Gory.” Do all you can of the former, and not too much of the latter. Keep your eye on the ball: First and foremost, It is about an evil assault on a group of kids, and how they respond to this epic crisis. Don’t get lost in special effects, gimmicks ‘n’ gore, stunts and fancy camera work — it’s always gonna be about the people, and that’s what counts.’

Tommy Lee Wallace, in a retrospective of 1990’s ‘It’, Emphasis mine.

This is a fantastic quote that summarizes what so many horror stories seem to miss: Horror is not about how much blood, guts, and gore you can cram into a story; it’s about characters dealing with forces far more powerful than they are who want to harm them or those they love, and who are nearly impossible to harm or kill, if they can even be killed at all.

Furthermore, perhaps more than any other genre, caring about people in a horror story is vital. If we don’t care about them, then they’re just cannon fodder. Visual effects will inevitably become dated in horror movies, but great characters and a great story are timeless.

Favorite Moments: IT + The Lord of the Rings

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Today’s video is a great example of fans taking two unrelated franchises and combining them to create something new and fascinating. In this case, combining the Lord of the Rings trilogy with the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘It’ to create a version of Middle Earth where the greatest threat isn’t an evil ring, but an evil clown.

While it’s amusing to see Gandalf getting creeped out at seeing Pennywise, or Frodo shaking as a bloody balloon floats his way, what’s great about this crossover is how it stimulates the imagination into thinking how Middle-Earth would react to the presence of such an evil, shape-shifting entity from Earth. Would Gandalf be able to deafeat him? What would Pennywise do if he got the Ring? What would happen if he and Sauron got into a fight?

The best fiction, in my opinion, invites our imaginations to play around with wondering what might happen beyond the pages or the screen. We only get a few snippets of Pennywise interacting with the Fellowship and the denzins of Middle-Earth here, but it’s fun to wonder what might happen if he met other characters or went to places not shown in the video, and a reminder that writers don’t have to show or explain everything: Leaving some blank spots for our readers to fill in for themselves lets them conjure exciting scenarios and ideas beyond what we could ever hope to put on the page or on the screen.