The Rules of Making a Sequel Decades After the Original

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T2 Trainspotting. Photo: Sony Pictures

How long is too long to wait to make a sequel to your movie? Increasingly, the question is becoming moot: No movie these days is too old to get a sequel, as long, of course, as that sequel is commercially relevant. Such an approach has seen results both good (Mad Max: Fury Road, released 30 years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and not-so-good (Zoolander 2), but fortunately for Danny Boyle, his 20-years-later sequel T2 Trainspotting seems to have landed in the former camp, opening to strong reviews as it expands wide this weekend.

T2 reunites many of the principals from the first film, including Boyle, writer John Hodge, and stars Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremmer, Johnny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle, checking in with the gang two decades later: Mark Renton (McGregor) returns to Edinburgh to find Spud (Bremmer), Sick Boy (Miller), and Begbie (Carlyle) still stuck, to varying degrees, in the cycles of their past. That allows the characters to be put through a wringer similar to the previous movie, but with plenty of chronological updates, including Snapchat filters, video games, and small-business loans from the European Union. Naturally, some things never change (heroin), and the final result ends up as iterative as it is progressive. Much like life.

If T2 mostly sticks the delayed landing, especially for fans of its predecessor — even if some elements have aged a little less well — then it raises a question for future filmmakers trying the same scheme. What exactly makes certain down-the-road sequels succeed where others fail? Here are a few tips for the next time Hollywood chooses to resurrect a sleeping franchise.

Make the time gap a major part of the story.
Almost unanimously, the best of this type of film tend to steer head-on into the fact that the characters have been out of view for a while. T2 does this with Renton’s return, which opens old wounds that date back, conveniently, to when these characters were in a movie together; by focusing exclusively on the protagonists of the first film, the question of time becomes infused into every scene, conversation, and narrative beat. Conversely, when movies brush the passage of time aside as a joke or a meta-narrative inconvenience (Zoolander 2, Dumb and Dumber To), that sense of insincerity tends to hang over the entire enterprise. The shining examples of how to use time across sequels are Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, which both treat the years lost between films with as much interest as they do what we see onscreen. This serves the dual purpose of taking the audience’s lives seriously — after all, they aged just as much as the characters did — and justifying the decision to revisit the world in question.

A protégé helps.
If you’d rather focus mainly on the protagonist from the first film, mixing him or her with a younger milieu while staying within your lingua franca of choice, the best move is to find a protégé. The protégé will allow you to skew across demographics and put a new character through a familiar set of trials and tribulations, except more relevant and less obviously … old. In Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, Tom Cruise comes in to share hustling duties with The Hustler himself, Paul Newman. Similarly, Shia LaBeouf played the Tom Cruise to Michael Douglas’s Paul Newman in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone’s 22-years-later sequel to Wall Street — although you could also say that LaBeouf plays the Charlie Sheen to Michael Douglas’s Michael Douglas, considering that the first film had already utilized the protégé dynamic for Gordon Gekko. Tron: Legacy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (LaBeouf used to do this a lot), and Creed also used this technique, as did, to some extent, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Or focus on different characters entirely.
Failing either of those approaches, the best path is often to populate the same weird with a separate cast of characters. Mad Max: Fury Road did this to great effect, filling a world that connected aesthetically and thematically to that of the first three Mad Max movies with novel heroes, villains, societies, and scenery, with the film defined by its style and quality rather than relying on prior emotional investment from the audience. This tends to work particularly well when trying to get a larger franchise back up and running, as was the case with Prometheus and Jurassic World.

And lastly: Make it good.
Although if it isn’t, straight-to-VOD is still an option, even though its heyday has passed. A Christmas Story 2, anyone?

The Rules of Making a Sequel Decades After the Original