Movie Philosophy: Soft Reboots

That’s right I heard the story over and over again!

Today’s Topic:
Soft Reboots

Say you have a property that you REALLY want to use. You love it’s world, characters and plotlines. You’d like to revisit the whole thing again.

But there’s all that pesky continuity going on. The main character had many revelations involving their relationship with the villain. Many supporting characters have entangled themselves with the main character’s life. The history of the world has been explored to the point that you basically need an encyclopedia before being introduced to it’s latest installment.

“Wilson Fisk killed Bruce Wayne’s parents! I CAN PROVE IT!”

Oh, but we can’t get rid of all of THAT! The fans will riot the streets if we erase everything and start from scratch! They will rip their action figures of the new version of the main character, they will post videos online on how this new villain is NOTHING compared to the ORIGINAL villain!

“SONIC’S ARMS ARE NOT BLUE!!!”

But you don’t want this story to ONLY be enjoyed by the original fans, right? What about NEW fans that have an interest in the story but are too intimidated by the amount of continuity?

Well, no more worries! Because we have this thing called Soft Reboots!

Basically a Soft Reboot is a Reboot that DOESN’T erase the history of the property. It just (usually) takes place in a different time period OF the world so that the history and continuity have less DIRECT effect on the present story.

Now whether the history truly affects the plot of the reboot at all is pretty much up to the writer.

Passing the Torch

Some Soft Reboots still have the original characters feature in the story. A lot of the time they become the mentor characters rather than the main characters, as a kind of “passing the torch” thing. The main character would usually be a new character so that new fans would be able to have this new character’s view as an entry point of the franchise.

While the most famous example of this in recent times would be the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, I’d like to instead focus on the Star Trek Reboot.

Yes, it literally takes place in a different timeline (dubbed the Kelvin Timeline after the Starship Kelvin that discovered the black hole that started the timeline), but the ORIGINAL timeline wasn’t erased. The Old Spock was still played by Leonard Nimoy and is officially the same Spock who’s been through Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search of Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, etc.

It’s just that in the Reboot’s backstory, Old Spock was sent into the past which split the timeline into two parallel timelines. The Original Timeline being the one we witnessed in the original series and the Kelvin Timeline that we have now where the characters got to meet eachother WAY earlier than when they were supposed to in the Original Timeline. Old Spock even gets to interact with the New Spock of this new timeline as a kind of passing the torch thing.

Of course, Old Spock has knowledge of how things happened in the original timeline and can kind of predict some things like knowing Khan Noonien Singh by name.

But because of the deviation in the timeline, he can’t of course predict everything exactly. And the new versions of the characters in the Kelvin Timeline get to experience everything for the first time.

Thus all the previous TV Series and Movies aren’t erased so that original fans won’t be (too) pissed off, while new fans can enter the franchise through the reboot as they don’t NEED to have watched 542 Hours of the Original Timeline to understand what’s going on in the latest entry.

New Story

Another way a Soft Reboot works is pretty much telling it’s own story that barely relates to the original story. The history is still there, but the heroes of the original work don’t even need to show up at all. Instead the new entry will focus on completely new characters so they can start from scratch.

Whether you like the movie or not, you gotta appreciate the ridiculously awesomeness of this visual.

A big example of this is Jurassic World.

Coming after Jurassic Park III, which generally is considered the low-point of the franchise (still enjoyed it personally, but hey that’s just me), Jurassic World takes 22 years after the first Jurassic Park movie. Generally ignoring (but NOT erasing) the events of The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World is a completely new story with new characters.

You don’t need to know that Ian Malcolm took part in saving Dinosaurs in Isla Sorna, nor do you need to know that Alan Grant was on a rescue mission to save a kid on that same island in a later event. Convenient as well, of course, that the events of Jurassic World takes place on the original island of Isla Nublar instead of Isla Sorna which means they generally don’t NEED to reference The Lost World: Jurassic Park or Jurassic Park III.

Paul: “We needed someone who who’d been on the island before.”

Alan: “I have never BEEN on this island.”

Paul: “Sure you have! You wrote that book!”

Billy: “That was Isla Nublar, this is Isla Sorna.
Site B.”

Udesky: “You mean there are TWO islands with dinosaurs on them?!”

Basically you can go from the original Jurassic Park straight to Jurassic World no problem. Heck you barely even need to have watched the original Jurassic Park. Neither Alan Grant or Ian Malcolm feature in the story and John Hammond is only mentioned in passing. The new main characters are Owen Grady and Claire Dearing, which the new fans can now follow from start to finish.

Reinvention

Of course, you don’t HAVE to replace the original characters. Sometimes the Soft Reboot KEEPS the original characters as the heroes but for one reason or another (usually the time period) doesn’t need think back on the events of the original work too much.

Thor: Ragnarok is a good example of this.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost infamous for having a lot of continuity to keep track of because of it’s shared universe. The Thor movies have had their ups and downs quality-wise, but you can’t just REMOVE them from canon because they’re pretty much backstories used for The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Fittingly for a story named after “Ragnarok”, Thor: Ragnarok simply has Thor as a character re-invent himself. The events of Thor and Thor: The Dark World still happened, but since the story is pretty much about the destruction of Asgard, most of the continuity of those films slowly lose their relevance in future stories. And even things that take place on Earth generally are pushed to the side-lines as Thor and Jane’s relationship simply fell apart in-between films.

As a result, Thor: Ragnarok even kinda switches genres. Instead of the High-Fantasy take of Thor and Thor: Dark World, it goes more in a Flash Gordon-style 1980’s Sci-Fi Genre where everything is a lot more comedy-based.

The director Taika Waititi said it best.

We basically just destroyed everything that went before. It’s what Ragnarok is: the death of the world and its rebirth. This film is a rebirthing of all those characters. It’s like a reboot, but we didn’t have to recast.

TAika WAititi

Semi-negative Continuity

Lastly we have a more interesting take on the “Soft Reboot” where basically EVERY entry is kind of a Soft Reboot.

Every film’s story pretty much stands on it’s own where you barely need to have seen all the previous ones to understand the CURRENT story. Of course, SEEING all the movies in chronological order gives you something of a mental timeline of events for the world’s history, but most of the films can pretty much be their own entry point to the franchise.

Two franchises that I think fits this description the best would be the Ring and Ju-On Movies (I’m talking about the Japanese films in particular).

Besides a few examples (Rasen, Ring 2 and Sadako 3D 2 for the Ring Franchise and Ju-On: The Curse 2 for the Ju-On Franchise) most individual films of these franchises can pretty much be watched on their own.

For the Ring franchise;

  • Ring, of course, is the first film (in THIS continuity. There was Ring: Kanzenban which was an earlier adaptation of the novel). Of course you can easily enter the franchise through the first work.
  • Ring 0: Birthday takes place BEFORE the first movie, meaning you don’t need to know about the events of Ring to understand what’s going on.
  • Sadako 3D takes place at LEAST 20 years after Rasen, featuring new characters that barely need to reference Rasen’s events.
  • Sadako (2019) takes place about 21 years after Ring 2 (there’s a bit of a split timeline going on), which also features new characters that barely need to reference Ring 2’s events.

For the Ju-On franchise;

  • Ju-On: The Curse, of course, is the first film (with two shorts preceeding it which takes place DURING this film; Katasumi and 444 444 4444). Of course you can easily enter the franchise through the first work.
  • Ju-On: The Grudge takes place after Ju-On: The Curse 2, but since all characters of Ju-On: The Curse 2 are dead, we follow new characters that end up getting cursed by the Saeki family. It stands SO well on it’s own that it’s in fact THIS film that mostly got remade in the American version rather than Ju-On: The Curse.
  • Ju-On: The Grudge 2 takes place after Ju-On: The Grudge, but also features new characters who get cursed by the Saeki family in a different way.
  • Ju-On: Black Ghost features a DIFFERENT curse which is unrelated to the Saeki Family.
  • Ju-On: White Ghost features ANOTHER different curse which is unrelated to the Saeki Family (though with SOME ties to Black Ghost, but you don’t need to have seen Black Ghost to understand this one).

(I didn’t include Ju-On: The Beginning of the End and Ju-On: The Final Curse because they’re ACTUAL Hard Reboots that don’t take place in the world and history of the previous Ju-On Movies at all.)

Of course, you still pick up on some connections when watched in order.

In the Ring franchise, though there’s a split timeline, the main ghost Sadako’s backstory keeps getting developed further and further in each next entry.

By the time of Sadako (2019) you have a pretty good understanding of Sadako’s tragic life story from her birth to her death.

But each story stands well enough on their own that you don’t NEED to have watched the previous works to figure out what’s going on (heck, for some of them it’s almost better that HAVEN’T watched the previous ones so you don’t miss the characters of the previous story…).

In the Ju-On franchise, you get to witness the curse mutating in many different ways as the curse of the main ghosts, the Saeki Family, pretty much evolves and gains new methods to terrify the victims (and audience).

Still, the set-up of the franchise pretty much gaurantees that every next film (except Ju-On: The Curse 2 because it’s the direct sequel to Ju-On: The Curse) pretty much starts from a blank slate due to all the characters of the previous film dying before the end credits. The set-up being that every character coming in contact with the curse is gauranteed to die. The only notable exception of this rule being Ju-On: White Ghost.

Pros and Cons

The Soft Reboot is not without it’s faults, of course. No matter what, there will always be some hardcore fans that have problems with the idea of the original stories being pushed to the side-lines, whether the original events were erased or not.

Sure, the reboots have the benefit of hindsight, you generally know what works and what DIDN’T work in the original stories and are thus able to keep those things in mind.

But conversely, the original stories usually have the benefit of being more experimental BECAUSE they were made with no previous preconceptions of what does and DOESN’T work.

Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan DIDN’T know that bringing Khan Noonien Singh back after the Original Series’ episode “Space Seed” would result in Ricardo Montalban bringing one of the greatest Star Trek villain performances of all time, while Star Trek Into Darkness DID know of the character Khan Noonien Singh’s popularity when they wrote it.

As a result, though, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan knew to put their all in the story to make sure the character of Khan got a great beginning, middle and end to his story.

Star Trek Into Darkness on the other hand pretty much focused on the NAME of Khan to bring up hype before actual great writing. (Still want to mention that I’m a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch regardless).

But it CAN be pulled off right if the original work had faults that needed to be ironed out in the first place, and a new direction may just end up being the more fitting direction in the end. Which is why Thor: Ragnarok ended up being such a critical success.

Thor as a character truly became more enjoyable due to the events of Thor: Ragnarok because he’s able to shed the things that were holding him back in the previous films.

The things Thor: Ragnarok KEPT were all things that everybody LOVED about the original Thor movies, like his brother Loki who got SO popular that he became THE villain of The Avengers (under employ of Thanos of course, but still).

Conclusion

If there’s anything to learn from this, it’s that continuity can be both a strength and a burden. Keeping up with the continuity makes it more and more difficult to gain new fans, while a Hard Reboot runs the risk of alienating fans of the original work. A Soft Reboot may be a good way to kind of get the best of both worlds, but it’s not always a perfect answer either.

Just know that it’s an option should you get the chance to work on the next installment in a long-running franchise.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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