Bill, Ted & the Dark Fate of the Legacyquel

With the arrival of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we find ourselves facing down the latest example of what has become known as the ‘legacyquel’.

First coined in late 2015 by Matt Singer in a piece for ScreenCrush, in advance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the legacyquel operates from different principles than a traditional, standard follow up. The standard sequel continues the established story introduced in the original narrative – The Godfather Part II, for example. A legacyquel revives a property and the characters we came to know, years after the fact, often once they have been immortalised in popular culture – The Godfather Part III, for example, which gave us the final part of Michael Corleone’s tragic story sixteen years after we last saw him. Such immense gaps of time are common in sequels which are expressly designed to recapture, in the audience, a sense of reconnection with worlds and characters, and indeed the actors who play them, who mean a great deal to us.

This is certainly the case with Bill & Ted Face the Music, which expressly delivers another key aspect of the legacyquel – familiarity. Most legacyquels do not rock the creative boat and if they do, it is for a specific reason; a good example that bucks the trend is Star Trek 2009, which J. J. Abrams uses as both a legacyquel (allowing us to reconnect with Leonard Nimoy) and canonical reboot in which we rediscover Kirk & Spock while experiencing their origin stories. Star Trek in that sense is an aberration, with most legacyquels operating to the Bill & Ted principle: more of the same, with a much longer gap. This is the appeal of the legacyquel. Reboots offer nostalgia while exploring new ideas. Sequels or continuing franchises build on what has come before. Legacyquels are all about bringing you ‘home’ again.

This was, in many respects, the intention behind Terminator: Dark Fate. What saddens me is that it didn’t really work.

Now, importantly, let me get this out of the way: I like Dark Fate. I liked it at the cinema on release and I like it just as much at home. No more, admittedly, but certainly no less.

The sad factor is that audiences just did not respond to Tim Miller’s attempt to bring the unwieldy Terminator franchise back to first principles. It was, in no uncertain terms, a box office bomb, raking in a paltry $62 million dollars domestically and a low worldwide haul of $261 million on a budget pushing $200 million. Estimates stated it needed to almost double its takings to break even and ended up losing Paramount between $100-130 million dollars. Putting aside the fact that Dark Fate was actually a well constructed piece of action cinema, such a minuscule response to the Terminator franchise from audiences is pretty astonishing, given the series remains one of the most potent in popular culture since James Cameron’s 1984 original.

What went wrong here? Why was Dark Fate the first legacyquel to titanically collapse at the box office?

There are likely several reasons. Firstly, a lukewarm critical response, despite the picture being light years ahead of Alan Taylor’s 2015 sequel Terminator: Genisys, which worked to try the J. J. Abrams trick employed with Star Trek by combining legacyquel characters and concepts (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800) while rebooting the franchise through time-travel shenanigans, allowing for a defiantly action-heavy portrayal of a young Sarah Connor with almost a meta-awareness of what Cameron did to the character by Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

That film, despite being a twisted mess of plot, bad direlogue, and ideas that would embarrass a poor fan fiction writer, at least had the good grace to realise that Sarah Connor is as key to the DNA of the franchise as the Terminator himself. The earlier projects that took her out of the equation lacked Linda Hamilton’s fierce, intense grace, which Lena Headey takes a decent stab at replicating for Josh Friedman’s sadly cancelled and sorely undervalued The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Dark Fate learned this lesson and while it ditched the questionable Genisys take on Sarah (despite a spirited performance by the Khaleesi herself, Emilia Clarke), a story which skipped the natural character arc of her as a helpless young woman thrust into a battle for life and death as she bears a future Christ child, it brings back Hamilton for the sequel we always dreamed of: a post-Terminator 2, older Sarah Connor, in step with the original two Cameron-directed classics, throwing out every piece of wobbly continuity from subsequent sequels. This is also a factor of the legacyquel: editing its own fate. Niall Blomkamp was developing an Alien sequel that would have brought back an older Sigourney Weaver before Ridley Scott hijacked his own franchise for his (admittedly great) prequels, and pretended everything after James Cameron’s Aliens never happened. With Scott’s original plan for the Alien franchise now in question, this might yet still come to pass.

The only problem with this approach is that continuity matters to many fans. Terminator, being grounded in time travel, has the space to ‘retcon’ its own continuity as almost a story device. The Sarah Connor Chronicles does this by skipping past Rise of the Machines in time which allows them to avoid Sarah’s original off screen death by cancer in that film, while Genisys is all about attempting to rewrite the original Terminator timeline, for better or worse.

An ‘Alien 3’ that pretends Alien3 and Resurrection didn’t happen would simply be creative editing designed to try and elicit the nostalgic audience thrill of seeing Ellen Ripley once again. It would have no basis in actual story, and therefore could do the franchise a disservice. Dark Fate, oddly enough, does this too. It just pretends everything after T2 didn’t happen, before making one critical mistake: it kills the Christ of the series and, in a move almost tailor made to trigger conservatives everywhere, attempts to replace the white male saviour of John Connor with a female immigrant.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with wanting to move the Terminator franchise’s core story away from a masculine hero complex. Cameron’s original picture was a quasi-Biblical story of near immaculate conception, with Sarah as a Mary figure, so the series has eternally been centered on sacred femininity despite the powerful visage of Schwarzenegger dominating popular culture. Dark Fate is a film driven by three strong, resilient, powerful women who all play a part in saving the feminine hero of the future. This is all good storytelling.

The problem is that Terminator had become so entrenched in re-telling the same myth of John Connor’s role as the saviour of humanity, it suffered from brutally reducing him to casual irrelevance at the beginning of the picture. An intended surprise becomes a rejection, in the eyes, of the very narrative fans have expected for almost three decades. Replacing SkyNet with the far more Biblical Legion has a similar effect. By taking away the key constructs of the legacyquel audiences have come to see, Dark Fate becomes perhaps too innovative for its own good. It doesn’t embrace its own past enough.

This arguably is a double edged sword where returning properties are concerned. Take Star Wars. When Singer’s initial article was published, The Force Awakens was weeks away from being almost the archetypal legacyquel, reintroducing legendary characters such as Han Solo, Princess Leia & (briefly) Luke Skywalker while telling a story that invoked A New Hope, the original Star Wars film, while reintroducing the franchise to a new generation. People missed that point with The Force Awakens; the fact it didn’t reinvent the wheel for Star Wars is precisely the reason it worked, because while subverting expectations in some aspects, it fulfilled many others. Han and Chewbacca were back at the helm of the Millennium Falcon, Luke had become a renowned Jedi etc… all of which would be on the wish list for any Star Wars fan since 1983.

Then came Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which attempted to combine the nostalgic reverie for George Lucas’ original trilogy with a progressive, inclusive vision. Luke was a failure. Our new heroine Rey was never special, or gifted of destiny. Anyone could use the Force, from a space princess to a lowly child on a desolate planet. And what happened? Fans turned against it in a myriad of frankly awful ways. The Rise of Skywalker, which saw Abrams return for a re-written, unplanned conclusion to this legacyquel trilogy, reflexively pandered to the whims of fans who simply wanted the original trilogy to play itself out again, and ended up as one of the worst Star Wars films as a result, not to mention a disappointingly flat denouement for arguably blockbuster cinema’s most epic saga. In this case, Star Wars was compromised by the very alchemy that made The Force Awakens such a delightful success. It completely lost any sense of perspective as to what makes a good legacyquel so successful.

The same can be said for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film which, despite what most people say, does have points of merit (I still say that opening ‘nuke the fridge’ sequence is brilliant), but it suffered the same curse you can apply to The Rise of Skywalker: it forgot why we loved the original series in the first place. This is a common refrain for the legacyquels that flatline for audiences – TRON Legacy, Dumb & Dumber Too, both post-Die Hard with a Vengeance sequels. They are all empty examples of throwing the original actors into scenarios just because they can. The best legacyquels add something to the broader narrative.

The Godfather Part III gets a bad rap from almost everybody but, apart from being an underrated film, it is a conclusion to the Corleone saga that feels worth telling. 2018’s Halloween, which ignores the entire continuity—Dark Fate-style—from Halloween II onward, heaves John Carpenter’s slasher franchise back to the low-key final girl chills that were lost for almost four decades, with Jamie Lee Curtis’ aged Laurie Strode having the same level of stately gravitas Hamilton’s older Sarah exudes. 2015’s Creed revamps the Rocky franchise into a sleek, modern story of black power that is just as empowering as Sylvester Stallone’s original mid-70’s tale of the Italian-American pugilist from poverty who becomes someone.

Are the best legacyquels ‘woke’? Perhaps. That’s a term misused these days, of course, deployed as a corrective for political correctness that is assumed to have gone mad, but rather it speaks to how good legacyquels work to recapture what we love about these franchises and characters off screen for decades or more, while representing the world we now live in. Yet such strides for equality and representation are not always valued in these resurgent properties.

Perhaps this is why fans seem to have embraced Bill & Ted in a way they shunned the return of Sarah Connor. Bill & Ted Face the Music, putting aside the middle-aged malaise of its two stoner rocker dudes, could have been made in 1997. It works to immerse you in a comfortable, timeless fantasy world where their future human utopia still exists, and Bill & Ted will remain “excellent!”. Dark Fate attempts to recapture the spirit of Judgment Day while simultaneously re-writing the uber-narrative of the Terminator story, and people rejected it as a result. Audiences appreciate legacyquels for updating old stories, but to a point. There is a line they don’t want these halcyon visages of their earlier lives to cross.

Yet despite Dark Fate’s failure, we will one day see the Terminator rise once more. If not in the guise of the pensionable Arnie, he (or she) will ‘be back’. All of these aforementioned franchises have sequels in the mix or will almost certainly be revived in years to come. Legacyquels retain a unique power among the generations who experienced them first time around. The trick, however, is to follow the first rule of mass media – give the people what they want.

For more on this topic, check out the next episode of the Motion Pictures podcast. Subscribe here or on your podcast app of choice.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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