The last post took off from the impending premiere of the movie Independence Day: Resurgence. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this release; I’m no more than cautiously hopeful about whether it’ll be any good. But there’s more to be said about this kind of sequel.
In a lot of stories, a sequel can start out more or less where the original tale did, because the status quo ante is preserved. Each James Bond movie starts in our everyday world, because the world-changing plans of the villains were foiled in the previous episode. It would be a very different world if the villains had succeeded in starting a nuclear war or whatever. (The only real changes in Bond’s “initial conditions” come from the fact that the films have been produced over the period of half a century, and the real world itself has changed in the meantime: the Soviet Union falls, a female head of the agency becomes plausible, actors age out and are replaced, and so forth.)
Even in the Star Wars saga, despite the world-shattering events of each movie, the situation tends to cycle back to the starting point. Episode IV: the rebels are on the run. Episode V: the rebels are on the run. Episode VI: the rebels are still on the run. Episode VII: we have a new set of rebels with a different empire to fight – but they’re still on the run.
A story that has far-reaching implications can still fail to change the world much. At the end of E.T., Elliott’s life has certainly been changed. And there’s a batch of scientists who know something radically new: there’s other life out there. But the whole matter has been handled with such mystery and secrecy (for no very good reason) that one can imagine California going right back to its old ways afterwards, after a nine-day wonder about why some government agency swathed Elliott’s house in Saran Wrap for a day or so. And there’s no reason to think the aliens will be coming back. (Once they get home, the galactic TripAdvisor probably lists Earth with one star at best: “Lousy health care, and primitive communications facilities.) (Of course, there’s only one star in our solar system to begin with.)
But it’s a different matter when the original story changes the world completely. A sequel to The War of the Worlds would have to be quite different from the original, because Earth could not lapse back into its pre-invasion ignorance of extraterrestrial life—nor ignore all that advanced alien technology lying around for the studying. Whatever humanity might do in response, it’s unlikely that history would have proceeded as it actually did. At least one sort-of-sequel to The War of the Worlds recognized this, with Earth’s nations uniting to build a space fleet for a counterattack.
This means that the sequel to a movie like Independence Day needs to be a distinctly different kind of story from the original. We will not be starting from the same status quo. Technology will have changed, and with it, ordinary lifestyles. (“Turn on the force field, would you, dear? Junior’s going to fall down the steps again.”) International relations will have changed. The economics of recovery from mass destruction must be considered. And most of all, we will not have unsuspecting Earthlings shocked by the extraterrestrial incursion. We’ve “seen the elephant.”
Science fiction books can get this right. The first book of David Weber’s Dahak trilogy, Mutineers’ Moon, starts in the near future and reveals an age-old conspiracy with advanced technology. As a result of the battle against the ancient mutineers, a world government is formed and preparations are put in motion for an attack by an age-old menace. The second and third books start in a world very different from the present day and logically carry forward the consequences. (The trilogy is a great read, by the way.)
The marketing difficulty with a film sequel is that the second movie, coming from such a different starting point, may have to be quite different from the first. This disturbs Hollywood, which typically wants to capture the same audience by giving it more of the same. There’s a disturbing tendency to pull back from the implications and somehow paste the previous status quo back into place. For example, Ghostbusters 2 went to considerable trouble to achieve a just-barely-plausible reset in which the universally adored heroes of the original are now forgotten and reduced to underdogs again.
So far, it looks as if the Independence Day sequel may be following Weber’s example. The tagline for the movie is: “We had twenty years to prepare. So did they.” It sounds as if the Earth that faces another invasion will have changed based on the first story. How much, we’ll have to see. Will we start out in a plausible future twenty years on from the end of the first movie? Time to find out!