Re:Bourne (Notes on Sequelitis)

Neil Neil Archer


It’s the name, I guess, and its evident capacity for lame puns (see above), that has made the Bourne series something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we’ve found out over the course of three films, Bourne is less an actual name, and more a description of the way Matt Damon’s soldier, David Webb, is re-created as the series’ amnesiac automaton. The Bourne Ultimatum, back in 2007, saw Bourne processing this discovery before hurling himself into New York’s East River, just as his CIA protector Pam Landy exposed the files on the agency’s assassin programme. Leaving Bourne’s body unfound, and hinting in the final frames to another re-birth of sorts – a silhouetted figure, floating in the river’s amniotic fluid, jerking into action and swimming away – director Paul Greengrass drew a line under the series he had helped define since helming The Bourne Supremacy in 2004. For Greengrass, as indeed for Damon, there was nowhere else to go. A return film, Greengrass quipped at the time, might as well be called The Bourne Redundancy.


Back they are, though, after nine years, and four years after the curious footnote of The Bourne Legacy; an odd (if not redundant) ‘side-quel’ which interwove another agent’s story around the events and timeline of the previous film. The fairly self-explanatory Jason Bourne picks up some time after the New York dunking, and pieces together more of the titular character’s enigmatic history. Despite having intimated they were never going to make another Bourne film, there are plenty of good reasons why Damon and Greengrass should return to the franchise. Neither of them has been exactly struggling since The Bourne Ultimatum, but the opportunities to work again on the biggest canvas (Ultimatum was produced for Universal at $100m, and took in half a billion at the global box office) are obvious. The cynical view would see this return for the most part in financial terms. Isn’t this after all the primary reason sequels get made? Perhaps: but this would overlook what the sequel actually represents in contemporary cinema. As much as the logic of the Hollywood franchise dies hard (as it were), we need to think about what sequels or serial filmmaking actually do; and how, in fact, they are transforming our understanding and experience of the movies in various, often unexpected ways.
The 2012 side-quel was evidence of the fact that ‘properties’ such as Bourne belong, finally, to the studios that own them. If anything, the historical significance of The Bourne Legacy may lie in its inadvertently postmodern title, which describes the film’s own logic and process of franchise maintenance, as much as it identifies anything to do with the film’s plot. If cold business logic is at the heart of this, it’s worth noting how the ‘sequelitis’ currently manifest in Hollywood is symptomatic not so much of opportunism, but the more anxious manoeuvres of an American cinema coming to terms with significant cultural and economic shifts. Hollywood’s largely self-propelled movement over the last four decades towards the blockbuster or ‘tent-pole’ film – large-budget movies released simultaneously across thousands of screens, with the opening week, or even weekend, determining the movie’s success – has proved a profitable model, though with related financial and artistic costs. The digitization of film projection means that studios no longer need to produce thousands of individual prints, yet the marketing budgets for these films, as studios clamour for the attention of first-weekend audiences in a competitive field, is often comparable to the production costs of the (already very expensive) movies themselves. In the era, then, of the billion-dollar movie – the Avatars, Avengers Assembles and Skyfalls of our time – the framework for what constitutes a film’s box-office success has shifted upwards. The expectations for a film like Jason Bourne will consequently be enormously high: such films are not produced with a view to anything less.
In a decade, then, in which the holiday tent-pole film is the default form, but in which $200m franchise start-ups can rise and fall with barely a mention – The Lone Ranger, John Carter, Tomorrowland – Hollywood has balanced extravagance with conservatism, relying on the road-tested formulae of its established properties, with their built-in familiarity and all-important ‘pre-awareness’ factor. All franchises, of course, had to start somewhere; but a main difference now, as Lynda Obst shows in her book Sleepless in Hollywood, is that the West-Coast studios increasingly have eyes on the Chinese market; now officially the biggest captive audience for Hollywood film in the world. Even a cursory glance at the Chinese box office over the last few years reveals just why established film series, and what’s more, a certain type of series – preferably one that is either modern or futuristic, global in its settings and casting, mythic rather than culturally specific in its storytelling (hence the prevalence of expensive science-fiction and/or superhero franchises) – are the obsession of Hollywood producers. Within this context, sequelitis is a symptom of risk aversion, not necessarily a lack of imagination.
If sequel dependency is the new abnormal, though, to borrow Obst’s phrase, film production has evolved accordingly, in an often friutful way. By its own nature, a successful sequel could never really be a rehash: in order for it to work, degrees of innovation and variation need to operate alongside reiteration and familiarity. What’s more, once the series logic is structured into a film’s rationale, the expectations and ambitions are re-calibrated. As I wrote a few years ago, series like the Bourne films take their cue as much from long-form television as from cinema, in their capacity to combine self-contained episode narratives with overarching storylines across the various movies. The individual films, in turn, can function discretely, but are in fact amplified and enriched by their positioning within a wider series. In the process, the series creates breadth within its world, and encourages the greater investment of viewers. This is by now such an assumption in contemporary Hollywood that my original argument already sounds like a quaint statement of the obvious. Today’s multi-film narratives, with Marvel’s and DC/Warner Bros.’ endlessly proliferating series being the models, can move in any temporal direction while developing a linear narrative line, while also overlapping and interweaving, hinting at other films to come, or leaving clues and cues to be picked up across the series as a whole.
Of course, the movies are only here following the lead already established by audiences, or more specifically fans, in insisting that a film is no longer a prescribed and finite two-hour experience. As both generators and consumers of what is variously called dispersed narrative, ‘transmedia’ storytelling or the media of ‘convergence’ – wherein stories are disaggregated and pieced together from across different media platforms and content – fans have come to play a significant role in shaping and maintaining the form of modern popular cinema. Fans, or modern audiences more broadly, demand that the show goes on, both in the afterlives they create for films, and increasingly, in their expectation of narrative returns. A narrative implication of this state of affairs is that a film series, in fact, cannot really end. In this respect, franchises start not so much to resemble long-form television series (which, after all, do eventually end), but rather soap opera. In Spanish, the colloquial term for the latter is culebrón – literally, ‘big snake’ – a word which aptly evokes such television’s remarkable capacity to go on and on with no apparent end in sight; to the almost mystical point, in fact, when the snake runs into its own tail, and beginning becomes end becomes beginning ad infinitum: a slightly pretentious way, perhaps, of saying that the soap opera replicates the varied rhythms and open-endedness of everyday life.
Applied to movies, though, as Nicholas Barber has recently mused, what does this mean for our traditional conceptions of ‘the end’? If movies are never really finished, how can we make sense of any narrative claims to resolve and restore, the dominant popular function of the cinematic ending for over a hundred years? What, moreover, does the endless dispersal and proliferation of narrative mean retrospectively for the films as we once experienced them? As Barber notes, the harmonious happy ending of Return of the Jedi now feels like a bit of a ruse. If it’s all going to go belly-up again in a few years time – new Empire wannabees, planet-destroying weapons, more running, hiding, pain and loss – what was all that hand-clapping for? What, in fact, is the point of carrying on at all? More problematically for Barber, if the narrative arcs and resolutions of individual films ultimately defer to an endless bigger picture, why bother watching any one of them, when you can simply catch up on a later episode?
Barber has a good point, though maybe in his haste to defend the virtues of classical Hollywood endings, he misses the comic and satisfyingly pessimistic possibilities of the unfinished story. I’ve always been wary of the neat-and-tidy conclusion, which after all is what many find so sentimental and grating in the Hollywood ‘happy ending’. Openness and uncertainty are in many respects desirable and effective qualities in a conclusion. The Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful film in many ways, but its stand-out quality in the Star Wars series relates to its bitter-sweet and unambiguously unresolved ending. Isn’t it one of the ironies of the contemporary franchise movie, in fact, that at its most synergistically business-oriented moment, and its maximization of commercial possibilities, it starts to elide into the non-conclusive, non-resolving domains of the art or auteur film – where rejecting neat narrative resolutions and happy endings was always de rigueur – against which it supposedly stands in eternal opposition?
And on this point, let’s not forget that so-called ‘independent’ or ‘world’ cinema is hardly immune to the power of the sequel. After making ten television films based around the ten commandments, the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a trilogy of inter-weaving films based on the French tricolor (Blue [1993], White [1994] and Red [1994]); one in which the main characters pop in and out of each other’s films, before finding themselves together at the end on a sinking ferry. Julie Delpy, meanwhile, Kieslowski’s star in White, is perhaps best known as one half (with Ethan Hawke) of Richard Linklater’s ‘Jesse and Céline’ trilogy (Before Sunrise [1995], Before Sunset [2004] and Before Midnight [2013]): a seemingly ongoing


before sunset



series of improvised films, about a transatlantic couple who meet on a train and fall in love (Sunrise), finally see each other again after nine years (Sunset), and then actually have a relationship (Midnight). The before-midnight-580narrative beauty of these films, which feel like semi-fictional counterparts to the lives of the actors that star in and co-write them, is the way they offer ambiguity and hesitation in place of clear resolutions. Life is after all rarely in a finished state, defined largely by uncertainty about the future (what’s going to happen?) and speculation about the past (what might have happened?). Consequently, Linklater’s films leave us with a set of possible ‘happy’ outcomes counterbalanced by their potential for failure: will Jesse and Céline meet up a year later, as they promise each other (they won’t); will they resist getting together again after nine years (they don’t); and can their relationship survive in the real grown-up world (it can’t). Given Linklater’s fondness for taking film-making conceits to extremes (as per his real-time coming-of-age movie Boyhood [2014]), I wouldn’t be too surprised if we follow Jesse and Céline’s on-off romance until one or both of them is dead – if even that is enough.
Will the Bourne series follow suit? I personally like the idea of following Bourne into aging retirement, perhaps settling down by the beach with Pam, reflecting on his past as a semi-automated death machine as he walks his dog. Inevitably, another team of buff, hollow-eyed assassins will at this moment come out of the trees. At which point, Damon’s famously taciturn agent will probably not sigh, raise an eyebrow, and growl: ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’. Cue the ensuing carnage, with added aches and strains.


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