In film, everything old is new again. But is the impetus nostalgia or cash, asks Don Steinberg
Tina Turner had it wrong. Apparently we do need another hero. Mad Max: Fury Road brings the infuriated Aussie back to the big screen for the first time since Turner sang the theme song to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. Tom Hardy is the hero now, instead of Mel Gibson. Fury Road kicks off a throwback winter-movie season when studios are digging up film franchises that had seemed buried for ages. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that one of them is about reviving dinosaurs.
Poltergeist resurrects a franchise that first scared audiences in 1982 and hasn’t had a sequel since 1988. Vacation will be the sixth familytravel comedy in a series born in 1983. Terminator Genisys continues a franchise James Cameron created in 1984 and Jurassic World marks the return of a series Steven Spielberg launched in 1993. Max’s madness began in 1979.
It would be romanticising the business to chalk it all up to nostalgia, to suggest that 1980s kids grew up to run studios and now decide what movies to release based on their childhood memories. Studios own franchise titles and are always looking to monetise them.
“Having a title that’s recognisable has a lot of value. It’s something there’s goodwill towards, and it can cut through the clutter,” says Jonathan Glickman, president of MGM’s motion picture group, which produced the new Poltergeist and last year’s RoboCop reboot. “The goal is to make something modern which would still be great entertainment if it was called something else. Then the title has the energy to break out to a new audience.”
What might be called The Return of the Gen X Classics bucks a recent trend in which tidily packaged movie franchises such as The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga and The Lord of the Rings have pounded audiences with a new film every year. The advantages to that approach are clear: audiences stay connected, young actors stay young, and filmmakers know how the series will end before they shoot the first film. It’s not so neat with older franchises resurrected sporadically. New storylines get tacked on, sometimes clumsily. Actors age. Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger is 67. Long-time Vacation dad Chevy Chase is 71. Filmgoers grow up too, ageing out of target demographics.
So how do you update an iconic but ageing franchise? This summer’s films take different approaches. The old-school revivals aren’t over. In the pipeline are new instalments in throwback franchises including Alien (1979-97), Fletch (1985-89), Rocky (1976-2006) and Ghostbusters (1984-89), and, of course, Star Wars (1977-2005).
Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15)
History: Three films from 1979 to 1985
Nature of revival: The fourth Mad Max film isn’t a sequel or remake. Gibson is gone. It doesn’t connect well to the chronology of the first three, borrowing only their post-apocalyptic world where vehicles are treasured, haircuts are bad and an angry ex-cop roams the outback.
“I tell people it’s set 45 years from next Wednesday,” says Australian filmmaker George Miller, who wrote and directed Fury Road and the previous Max films. “Next Wednesday is when all the catastrophic stuff we see on the news, and all the stuff we never anticipated, comes to pass, and we end up in the new dark ages.”
This first Mad Max film since 1985 has been on the road for a long time. “I never wanted to make another Mad Max movie. But a character lives in your head. A story came to me in the late 90s,” Miller says. He had Gibson ready to reprise the role of Max, but the September 11 attacks caused the American dollar to collapse against the Australian dollar and the budget became impossible. (He made Happy Feet instead.) Years later, he signed up Hardy as Max and Charlize Theron as a new character. (See story on page 8) Fury Road brings back the high-octane road war that fans of the series love, employing minimal computer effects. Unlike Beyond Thunderdome, there’s little dialogue.
Poltergeist (July 23)
History: Three films from 1982 to 1988
Nature of revival: Haunted houses are hot. The timing seems right for an updated remake of the 1982 classic. This restaging stars Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as the couple who lose their daughter into a ghostly dimension in their suburban house.
“It took one small reconception to give this thing a new lease on life,” says director Gil Kenan. The original Poltergeist celebrated the suburbs as the American ideal, he says. Producer Sam Raimi and scriptwriter David Lindsay-Abaire flipped the script, deciding that in 2015 the suburbs are where you go when life doesn’t work out. That creates an aroma of failure that frames the story.
A big challenge the filmmakers faced was revisiting the terrifying clown-in-the-bedroom scene from the original Poltergeist. Kenan felt he couldn’t leave it out but, he says, the original film made clowns so scary that no kid ever wanted one again in their bedroom, so it became unrealistic.
“David had to write his way out of that problem, in a way that connected to the idea of the subdivision being a stale and fraught landscape,” Kenan says. They still send in the clowns — but in a creepy new way.
Jurassic World (June 11)
History: Three films from 1993 to 2001
Nature of revival: Plans for the fourth Jurassic film, which is set (and released) 22 years after the original, date back to 2001. Many screenwriters, directors and actors have been attached to the sequel as it lumbered towards the screen. Story originator Michael Crichton and Stan Winston, mastermind behind the franchise’s animatronic dinosaurs, both died in 2008. Richard Attenborough, who played mad entrepreneur John Hammond, died last year.
Hammond’s dream of creating a living-dinosaur theme park has become reality. It’s now open to tourists on fictitious Isla Nublar (loc- ated west of Costa Rica). Park attractions include raptors and a Godzilla-like Indominus rex. A deadly rampage seems inevitable, but park professionals Chris Pratt ( Guardians of the Galaxy) and Bryce Dallas Howard ( The Help) try to keep things in control. Spielberg is executive-producing the film while Colin Trevorrow directs.
Terminator Genisys (July 1)
History: Four films from 1984 to 2009
Nature of revival: The new film picks up plotwise after the second original film ( T2: Judgment Day), then sends the characters back in time to relive events of the first film, differently. By showing future events that precede the first film, the new film also has elements of a prequel.
“I’d go with ‘reset’,” says Jason Clarke, the fourth actor to play John Connor, the character who leads the future human rebellion against our machine overlords.
As fans know, in the 1984 film, the malevolent SkyNet network sends a robotic Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, whose future son John will become leader of the anti-machine resistance. Resistance leader John Connor responds (in the future) by sending his protege Kyle Reese back to 1984 to protect his mother. Awkwardly, Kyle ends up becoming John Connor’s father.
Schwarzenegger, who skipped 2009’s Terminator: Salvation while he was governor of California, is back. It appears that one thing society learns in the future is how to make Terminators look older. In fact, there’s an explanation: a Terminator’s exterior is organic tissue, which ages.
Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier are writing two more Terminator films. John Connor famously pronounced that “The future is not written” in the 1984 movie. “I think it’s being written now,” Clarke says.
Vacation, (August 20)
History: Five films from 1983 to 2003
Nature of revival: Like all the Vacation movies, this is a sequel but the same story as always: the Griswold family takes a road trip. Now it’s the next generation. Grown son Rusty hauls his family to the Walley World amusement park, fondly remembering his boyhood visit from the first film.
“He’s sort of selectively forgotten the mishaps of that trip,” says Jonathan Goldstein, codirector and writer of the new film with John Francis Daley. Ed Helms becomes the fifth actor to play Rusty (and Leslie Mann the fifth to play sister Audrey), bringing the same goofy optimism that Chevy Chase delivered as Clark Griswold. Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as grandparents. The biggest change since 1983 may be in the sensibility of comedies. The 1983 original was rated R and considered racy, but that was before PG-13 existed.
STUDIOS ARE ALWAYS LOOKING TO MONETISE FRANCHISE TITLES
Far left, top and bottom, scenes from original Mad Max and the new Mad Max Fury Road; middle, Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and its sequel, Terminator: Genisys; above, Jurassic Park and its reincarnation, Jurassic World