We live in an age of instant reaction. A few words, strung together to form a headline with little context or nuance, are enough to launch highly emotional, deeply polarizing, and often consequential debates. There’s a built-in economy for these sorts of debates and a greedy intentionality in the never-ending cycle of their generation.
One could argue that, aside from the Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump, there’s no place on the internet where fewer words can have a greater impact than in movie fandom. That’s because Hollywood has appropriated a single word that wields the power to unleash either inexhaustible fury or boundless joy from millions of nerds around the world.
That word is “reboot.”
To state the obvious, and in the simplest of definitions, a “reboot” is a new film based on a dormant existing franchise. Or, to put it another way, it’s a tool for Hollywood to squeeze more money out of owned IP. There’s an important conversation to be had about whether Hollywood’s reliance on long-term franchises is damaging the industry’s creative integrity, but I think there are two major reasons that the term “reboot” evokes so much passion.
First, the underlying principle of a franchise is that a story resonated well enough with an audience that there’s a desire for more. People form nostalgic attachments to movies, communities grow out of that nostalgia, and then suddenly it’s 1999 and I’m literally sleeping on a sidewalk with thousands of other Star Wars fans waiting to buy tickets for The Phantom Menace. People have all sorts of intense reactions when you tamper with their nostalgia and The Hollywood reboot machine is wildly inconsistent in the quality department.
Second, the term “reboot” is so vague and broad that it simultaneously tickles the imagination and causes deep anxiety. Will we see our favorite characters or actors again? Does the new story fit in the old mythology? What does it mean for the legacy of the source material? With internet rumors and spoilers directly affecting any given movie’s chances for success, studios have become tight-lipped about the narrative implications for their movies – meaning that any clarity around the term “reboot” and its accompanying questions isn’t likely.
So, let’s just stop using the term “reboot.”
Let’s use more descriptive terms – terms that already exist in the Hollywood lexicon – so that when a headline about a franchise is printed, there’s at least some rationality in the public’s response. Here’s what I propose to use instead:
These are movies that are in direct linear succession to the story and focused on the primary characters of the original property, no matter how far separated by time. Pretty straightforward with one clarifying note: the original actors don’t necessarily need to star as long as the characters and their history are the same (e.g. Mary Poppins Returns or Mad Max: Fury Road).
Examples: Star Wars I-III and VII-IX, Blade Runner 2049, The Hobbit trilogy, Before Sunset/Before Midnight, Finding Dory, The Color of Money, Zoolander 2.
Like sequels and prequels, spin-offs take place in the same universe as the original movie(s). They adhere to the mythology and continuity of any narratives that preceded or followed them. The distinction is that they branch off and follow minor characters from the original or new ones entirely. When movies are referred to as being within a “cinematic universe,” they are interconnected spin-offs from the first movie in that universe.
Examples: Men in Black International, US Marshals, Get Him to the Greek, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Annabelle, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Fantastic Beasts series.
This is the contentious one and the one that causes the most panic when used synonymously with “reboot.” Remakes take an original property and retell the story in a new way (sometimes unnecessarily, Paul Feig). The defining factor here is that there is no narrative continuity with the original. Anything that happened before doesn’t have any impact on the world of the remake.
Examples: Ghostbusters (2016), A Star is Born (2018), Total Recall (2012), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Ocean’s 11 (2001), half of John Carpenter’s perfect library which should never have been touched by any of the blasphemous clowns who arrogantly thought they could outmaster a genius.
That’s it. Four terms. Prequel, sequel, spin-off, or remake. Sometimes the first three combine in innovative ways (like the Kelvin Universe Star Trek movies), so let me simplify things even more.
It all boils down to whether or not a new movie follows in the continuity of the original. Specifying the terms of the conversation won’t rid the internet of controversy or trolls, but it certainly will make for a more informed debate.