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The Year Of The Meta-Blockbuster

Hollywood invented a new kind of blockbuster this year. Its vanguards? Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World.

Spoilers ahead.

INT. STAR DESTROYER - KYLO REN'S CHAMBERS - DAY

A dark space. Kylo Ren, CLOSE TO CAMERA, addresses someone OFF-CAMERA whom we do not see.

KYLO REN
Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again, the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started.

As his emotion builds, he stands and heads off—we FOLLOW HIM, PIVOTING TO REVEAL who he was talking to: THE BURNT, ASHEN, GHOSTLY DEFORMED MASK OF DARTH VADER.

Before we get started, I want you to really consider the absurdity of this scene. You have the lead villain of a $200 million Disney movie, acted by one of the greatest young talents of the day, and he’s holding Darth Vader’s tattered helmet like a geek genuflecting to his most-prized mint-condition collectible.

© 2015 Lucasfilm

In this moment of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you realize that Kylo Ren is just a wannabe. He doesn’t need to wear his own mask to breathe like Vader did. He wears a mask because he’s a Star Wars superfan. Like J.J. Abrams himself, Ren is overzealous and insecure at the same time.

Okay, got that? In the business, it’s called a cold open. Now let’s cut to the credits.

The Oscars are a fun excuse to drink too much while mocking the red carpet looks you could never afford. But if you really want to know which movies spoke to our collective consciousness in 2015, ask the box office. Last year, the two top-grossing films were Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2 billion) and Jurassic World ($1.6 billion).

Both films represent a new style of sequel in which films can exist somewhere between a reboot and a continuation in the series. It’s the dawn of the meta-sequel, a movie that’s largely about the fact that it’s a sequel. Crucially, the filmmakers behind meta-sequels usually aren't interested in broadening the world or advancing the story in any fundamental level. Instead, they take on the role of a fan, reappropriating the original cinematography, language, and minutiae of a film to produce a new work of supersized nostalgia. And we, the viewers, love it.

© 2015 Universal Pictures

The Self-Aware Protagonist

One of the hallmarks of the meta-sequel are the characters themselves, who act with a meta-awareness of being in a film. While many films break the fourth wall, as a main character destroys the invisible barrier between the audience and the stage and makes eye contact with the crowd, Jurassic World and The Force Awakens are never so overt in their violations—but even still, they constantly acknowledge the walls of their own containers.

Take Chris Pratt, who may have the convincingly ripped physique of a raptor tamer but is betrayed by the faux-serious brow of a juror who is quelling the urge to crack up, as one friend put it. The comedian-turned-action-hero's facial expressions are far from the only element of Jurassic World that winks at its own construct by turning its characters into fans of their own franchise. Take this scene, as we get a peek inside Jurassic World’s mega control room for the first time:

"Claire enters holding a Starbucks coffee cup and addresses two of the technicians, VIVIAN KRILL and LOWERY CRUTHERS. Lowery's desk is covered with toy dinosaurs, and he's wearing a Jurassic Park shirt instead of a Jurassic World one.

CLAIRE
What's the live count?

VIVIAN
Twenty-two thousand, two-sixteen.

CLAIRE
Any incidents?

LOWERY
Yeah, six kids in the lost and found, uh, 28 down with heatstroke, and some—

Claire notices his shirt of the ill-fated and famous Jurassic Park.

CLAIRE
Where did you get that . . . ?

LOWERY
(gushing)
Oh, this? I got it on eBay. Yeah, it's pretty amazing. I got it for 150 dollars, but the mint-condition one goes for 300, easy.

CLAIRE
(annoyed)
Didn't it occur to you maybe that's in poor taste?

LOWERY
(contrite)
The shirt? Yeah, no, it did. I understand people died. It was terrible, but . . .
(gushing again)
That first park was legit! You know, I have a lot of respect for it. They didn't need these genetic hybrids—

Claire sighs."

The Force Awakens is filled with similar moments in which characters act one step removed from the film itself. As Poe (Oscar Isaac) makes an escape via TIE Fighter, he exclaims, like any fan on set would, "I always wanted to fly one of these things!" Moments later, as Finn (John Boyega) blasts bad guys from the sky, they celebrate together, "amazed, almost enjoying it," according to the script. Poe yells, "Woooahhh!" impressed by his own performance.

In a later scene, Rey (Daisy Ridley) shouts to Finn, "I know how to run without you holding my hand!" Saying it once wouldn’t mean much, but she expresses the same sentiment twice in the same scene, among all the explosions. The repetition is pointed—no piece of fluff dialogue gets past the ruthless editing of such a blockbuster film—a way for an emerging protagonist to tip her hand as a character who isn’t reacting to the moment, but is absolutely cognizant of her landmark role as a Force-wielding leading lady.

© 2015 Universal Pictures/© 2015 Lucasfilm

Bigger, Louder, More Teeth

Each film is loaded with allusions to the originals—or what the fans call Easter Eggs. From the original themes by John Williams that wash each film in familiarity, to Abrams’s almost sociopathic shot-by-shot references to earlier Star Wars movies, to Jurassic World’s set design that looks, at times, identical to the original Jurassic Park, meta-sequels are designed to feel just like their predecessors, seeping in repurposed art direction from decades earlier.

Similarly, the "new" characters of the Star Wars franchise are essentially clone-stamped copies from 40-year-old footage. BB-8 is a cuter R2-D2, Kylo Ren is a svelter Darth Vader with a fancier sword, and Rey embodies the purity of Luke Skywalker without all the whining. Heck, the First Order is really the Empire 2.0, right?

Not quite. These new films don’t just repeat tropes; they maximize them. Take Rey. Rey is not just a Padawan learning her powers like Luke Skywalker was at her age, timidly getting shocked by a training robot while she fumbles around like a teenager in a superhero’s body. She’s—by a sudden, divine intervention—the ultimate Jedi, a mechanic who can repair the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo, a mind hacker who can squeeze the meanest Sith brain to a pulp, and, naturally, a poet with the lightsaber the first time she holds it.

Similarly, Jurassic World introduces a new dinosaur called the Indominus rex. It’s not just a good old Tyrannosaurus rex, mind you. This dinosaur is much bigger, and it’s smarter, thanks to an infusion of raptor DNA. Oh, and it can camouflage like a giant chameleon because, fuck it, why not? The Indominus rex is basically the everything dinosaur, plus some. It’s the Rey of dinosaurs.

In this sense, Rey and the Indominus rex embody the duality of today's Hollywood filmmakers, who on one hand are acknowledging that the same old tricks will no longer work, and on the other, have no better ideas than to repurpose the guts of old movies to thrill an audience in fanboy service.

As Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) describes the phenomenon in Jurassic World, "Let's be honest, no one is impressed by a dinosaur anymore. Twenty years ago, de-extinction was right up there with magic. These days, kids look at a Stegosaurus like an elephant from the city zoo . . . consumers want them bigger, louder, more teeth."

This line is a self-effacing shot at Jurassic World’s entire premise as a film, and yet, it’s the same principle that propels the audience into the last act of The Force Awakens, as the Rebel Alliance pieces together data on the new, worst weapon ever created. "Another Death Star."

"SNAP
We're not sure how to describe a weapon of this scale.

MAJOR EMATT
(horrible memories)
It's another Death Star.

POE
I wish that were the case, Major.

Poe hits a control. A WIREFRAME OF THE DEATH STAR APPEARS.

POE (CONT'D)
This was the Death Star.

Poe hits another control—the Death Star SHRINKS—AND SHRINKS AND SHRINKS, as the SURFACE AREA OF THE STARKILLER BASE IS DRAWN INTO A LARGER IMAGE, REVEALING THE ENTIRE BASE PLANET. The Death Star is a minuscule SATELLITE in comparison.

POE (CONT'D)
This is Starkiller Base.

This is news to many here, and they're stunned.

HAN
So it's big."

And it’s here, facing supersized, clone-stamped villains, that our characters have no recourse but to turn to the lessons learned in old movies to defeat them. In a critical moment, Rey uses the Force to pull a lightsaber from the snow (just like Luke Skywalker did back in Empire), while the standard array of X-wings does their pew pew-ing to take down the big Death Star and call it a day.

Meanwhile in Jurassic World, the two brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), are making their way through the chaotic theme park, when monsters attack and they have to ditch their broken futuristic hamster ball—the stupid new movie stuff—for something else. By a twist of luck, they come across one of the dinosaur mobiles from the original Jurassic Park. Gray identifies it immediately: "1992 Jeep Wrangler Sahara, sand beige." Repairing the vehicle offers them immediate escape.

Eventually, when the Indominus rex seems to have the whole crew cornered, Claire has an idea—the ONE THING that can save them: unleash the trusty old T. rex. In the meta-sequel, nothing rescues the plus-sized perversion of new-school nostalgia better than a dose of unadulterated old-school nostalgia. Just like tagging womp rats from a T-16, amiright?

© 2015 Lucasfilm

The Rise Of The Self-Conscious Blockbuster

The Force Awakens and Jurassic World don’t just allude to decades of film history. They’re self-consciously cloaking themselves in it. And with no new ideas, their only creative recourse is to make those old concepts bigger, as directors J.J. Abrams and Colin Trevorrow channel the fan fiction musings of their inner eight-year-olds: a T. rex but way smarter and meaner! A Death Star times a million!

The Force Awakens script literally describes the explosion of the Starkiller Base as "AN ATOMIC BOMB TEST TIMES A ZILLION."

The greater truth of that matter is that audiences loved every minute of it. Hollywood has always manipulated the formulas of narrative, and what we’re drinking now is just the latest mix. Furthermore, these supersized versions of Star Wars and Jurassic Park are timed perfectly to the 30- and 40-somethings who remember seeing the original films in the theater as children, a phenomenon that is well-trodden ground in the film and television world (Adam Gopnik even wrote about it in The New Yorker a few years back). If a new, giant, extra-toothy dinosaur does anything, it allows us all to feel a little little again, if only by comparison.

As to what these meta-sequels mean for the grander art form of film, I wonder if it’s inevitable that we reach complete total saturation of self-reference. While filmmakers are generating more box office revenue than ever before in history, their success only lives in the shadow of allusion, which plays out as an entire subtext of insecurity in these movies, if you watch closely enough.

"On Ren's face as HIS CONFIDENCE BEGINS TO MELT AWAY. He has slammed up against a barrier in her mind. He looks less certain by the moment as Rey seems to GROW IN STRENGTH. The FEROCITY of confrontation builds until it hits critical mass AND REY DOES THE UNTHINKABLE! SHE ENTERS HIS HEAD, AMAZED AT WHAT SHE IS SEEING!

REY
. . . You . . . you're afraid . . . that you will never be as strong as . . .Darth Vader!

KYLO REN SUDDENLY WITHDRAWS HIS HAND, as if her face were FIRE HOT. TAKES A STEP BACK, CONFUSED, RATTLED. Rey's body is released, she breathes deeply, her powerful eyes still on Kylo Ren, who starts to leave."

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