The Slow Sequel Movement

Original image by jayaprime.

Original image by jayaprime.

I should preface this by saying no, I am not literally suggesting a movement. I am instead offering food for thought with a hyperbolic headline. You know the drill.

Ami Angelwings posted a fascinating and insightful look into the original Terminator film and its sequel, Judgment Day. You should just go read the whole thing. Go now, read up and then come back. My point is related but a bit of a tangent. If you ignored the link and want the damn article to just continue already, here are the two most relevant tweets to this article:

"T1's themes were about technological advancement, how technology interacts with us, our reliance on it, losing our humanity to convenience."
"The 2nd subverts the first, it says that it's not that we use technology, it's how we do, and who we are, how we treat each other."

How did this self-subversion happen? It certainly helped that the original Terminator was released in 1984 while its sequel was released a full seven years later, in 1991. In 1984, personal computing was a niche hobby of the wealthy, outside the lives of most people. Its promises were uncertain. By 1991, we had the first website (on the pre-internet at CERN). We saw the first notebooks. Technology has spread to more parts of society. The flip in perspectives between Terminators 1 and 2 isn’t just about writers finding clever new plotlines. It’s a change that happened alongside changes in societal attitudes.

Terminator 2 is informed by seven years of social change that were directly relevant to the core themes of the story. By comparison, today filmmakers plan out entire trilogies all at once, thanks to rampant copycatting of Peter Jackson’s approach to filming Lord of the Rings. Not only is there no room for self-reflection in these drawn-out epics, there is no room for change outside of the film itself. These are grandiose spectacles sold to us year-after-year, that do not have the luxury of questioning their core tenets.

This production style lent itself well to The Lord of the Rings, a well-known book that is practically a historic artifact. When applied to other stories, especially new ones, however, it seems as though we are gearing ourselves for storytelling short-sightedness. At least the trilogy Peter Jackson produced was able to reflect on the social change that happened between LotR’s original publishing back in 1954 and the film’s production, which began in 1997. That is why the film adopts several changes, including the addition of women characters with dialog and plot relevance. Tolkien’s original work was somewhat informed by his experience of post-war industrialization, and Peter Jackson’s adaptation informed by social change that happened since then. In a sense, the Lord of the Rings films are to Tolkien’s novels as Terminator 2 is to Terminator 1. Same players, same drama, slightly different focus.

Can we say the same of the upcoming Star Wars trilogy? Or the universally-panned second trilogy? The very first Star Wars film (retconned as “Episode IV”) was the opening to a potential trilogy, but there was no completed story to execute film-by-film. The story was adapted and expanded during production of both of the sequels.

So I guess, in these examples, we see a spectrum of possibilities for releasing multiple films, from “unexpected sequel that is made long after the first” on the left to “story that is written in stone from day one” on the far right. Why does this matter? For one, we’re dealing with speculative fiction here. Films that ask “what if?” I personally think that the further we head toward the right of this spectrum, the less we are able to actively speculate about the world around us and find meaning from social changes brought on by technology. Instead, these multi-film mega-productions suffer from a serious case of self-fulfilling prophecy within their own stories. No matter how good a writer you are, nobody is smarter than the unpredictable march of time.

Terminator 2, being released far enough into the future after the first film, is able to reflect on what has changed since that first post-apocalyptic fantasy was made. It is not a standalone film with a singular message, like most disaster films, for example. It references a part of our culture from the past and gives us opportunity to reflect on how we have changed since then. It creates a dialog that spans beyond fiscal quarters and self-contained book-to-movie trilogies.

Maybe we have something to learn from this happy accident. Maybe we should slow down a bit with our storytelling, and let time itself do some of the telling for us. When we constantly shout, in the form of story, without ever reflecting on what has previously been said, we learn nothing. Terminator 2, surprising given its action-movie blockbuster explosions and 90’s-era teen pandering, asks us to listen and think about the passage of time and what it means.

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One thought on “The Slow Sequel Movement

  1. You mention LotR as the impetus for this kind of storytelling, but I wonder how much of it is influenced by the success of Babylon 5, with its mostly pre-planned multi-season story arc allowing for a much more intense viewing experience compared to what was on tv at the time.

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