The Best Way for a Sequel to Copy the Original

By  · Published on June 16th, 2016

Finding Dory is the latest movie to overlap perfectly, briefly.

When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters this December, one of the things that is most appealing to some fans and most annoying to others is how it will lead right into the beginning of the original Star Wars (aka A New Hope). The expectation is that it could even overlap a wee bit. We might see the classic opening scene from a new angle, perhaps Darth Vader’s point of view as he boards Leia’s Rebel ship. It’s unnecessary, of course. We don’t need to see a remake of an iconic moment, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated, especially when it’ll be so brief.

Minimal overlap is just fine in sequels and prequels. There’s a familiarity that’s not excessive and for something revisiting an old scene or sequence many years later, as in the case of Rogue One, it’s also just enough nostalgia without going overboard. One problem with Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it roughly redoes the whole basic story of the first Star Wars while also reworking some specific narrative beats and motifs. The latter sort of rehash would be enough, just as it is in the repeated elements of the Back to the Future trilogy. Those movies don’t have the same plot, but they feel similar because of an overlay of themes, dialogue, characters, and other tropes.

Back to the Future Part II in particular also features a lot of direct overlap with the original in a well-constructed sequence where Marty McFly returns to the 1950s and winds up in the same scenes he inhabited during his last trip, trying to avoid his other self in a tense and magical way of showing us things we’ve seen before from new angles. The overlap nears excess but the plot is different enough, albeit with some repetition as the first movie’s goals are occasionally added to the new ones , that it becomes more of a climactic plate-spinning stunt than a mere gimmick for the sake of comfortable sameness. Plus Back to the Future Part II is not a standalone movie, and looked at within the context of the trilogy, the sequence is relatively brief.

Finding Dory Review

The latest sequel to feature such overlap, on a minimal level, is Finding Dory. The movie begins with a back story, a sort of prequel-in-prologue showing us the origins of the title character. Eventually she reaches the point in her life where we meet her in Finding Nemo, and the scene plays out over again not so much as a reminder but as a necessary narrative element for context. And of course it is neat to see the bit briefly redone more from the point of view of Dory entering her encounter with Marlin, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, the overall plot is only slightly similar to the original and successfully limits the amount of gratuitously recycled bits.

This sort of copying is preferred to going full remakequel or full rehash of a formula, but it’s not possible with every sequel or prequel. It really only works in cases of time travel or direct-contact plots – those can be a criss-cross like Finding Dory, Terminator Genisys, Superman II, Saw III, The Bourne Ultimatum, and the films in Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy or a lead-in like we’ll see in Rogue One and have seen in The Karate Kid Part II, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Halloween II, and many Rocky sequels. Similarly we see part of the ending of Man of Steel replayed from a different point of view in the only great sequence of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The overlap in the prequel of The Thing is its best part, as well.

Flashbacks can work, too, if the scenes are re-created for the sequel for good narrative purpose, but that’s rare if ever done at all. One aspect of the enjoyment is in seeing something familiar re-created meticulously, but copying it exactly is pointless. Scenes also have to be altered, at least a little bit, because transformation is fresher than straight reproduction and it caters more to our curiosity about seeing through new eyes and hearing the different sides to a story. The overlaps in Finding Dory and Back to the Future and others is like Rashomon light, because we’re not watching the new points of view in consideration of a crime. It’s just to have a greater narrative map.

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As more and more sequels and prequels lately do seem to be recycling too much, to the point of being called remakequels (see my 2016 sequel preview linked above), it’s great to see that one of the movies expected to follow the line of The Force Awakens and Jurassic World did not. Finding Dory instead aligns more with Rogue One, though not in all the ways that makes that prequel look so interesting amid today’s tired franchise trends (however, it is worth celebrating that surprisingly much of Dory is set on land rather than in the ocean). Hopefully it won’t be the last sequel to do its recycling right.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.