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Coming to a Theater Near You! Again: Do We Live Vicariously Through Reboots and Sequels?

September 2, 2015

The Transporter: Refueled is coming out on Friday, and it’s the fourth reboot in the Transporter franchise (if you don’t count the television series reboot of 2012). It rehashes the same concept of a man transporting something, with a few changes—one of those being Ed Skrein taking the place of Jason Statham, the actor who created the role of Frank Martin and played him in the other three Transporter movies released between 2002 and 2008. The casting change has critics asking if the franchise can even “survive without Jason Statham,” because the original trilogy is so “synonymous with ‘The Stath'” that it even “looked wrong” when Chris Vance replaced Statham on the TV show. This suggests that regurgitating the same concept yet again with a new actor can deviate too far from viewers’ expectations of what their favorite characters “should” be like.

The idea that re-creations damage or destroy classics is one of several reasons that there’s contempt around remakes and sequels. Opinionators of the Internet depict Hollywood as nothing but a villainous machine that runs on empty ideas and only commits to productions that are sure to make bank. And to be fair, this perspective holds weight in some respects. But if Hollywood is in fact such an evil machine, we should admit that we, the audience, are its sniveling-minion cogs.

Hollywood wouldn’t deconstruct and reassemble past films and shows if we didn’t gear up to see them, and we do. Studies show that derivative works actually fare better with professional critics and online audience reviews, and they make more money at the box office, with Jurassic World setting a new domestic record on its opening day.

Bloggers and journalists often chalk this up to nostalgia. Others point out that franchises simply have bigger and better advertising campaigns than original movies, so remakes and reboots are more visible to the public, making them more successful. And to be fair, these arguments also hold weight. But there’s another theory behind our desire for remakes that hasn’t gotten much attention—and it has to do with personal identity.

“There’s a narcissistic thing operating with reboots,” said Film & Media professor Emily Carpenter, who teaches a course on cinema and intimacy at UC Berkeley. “We, [as the audience] form an intimate relationship with a narrative … because we have a stake in it for our identity formation.”

So we seek out remakes, reboots, sequels, and serial narratives because these stories can become part of who we are, and revisiting these characters and narratives over and over can allow these parts of us to live on. Like Jacob from the Twilight series, we can imprint on our favorite characters and stories, binding us to them. With this in mind, Ed Skrein could really ruin a movie for someone who is happy with “The Stath’s” portrayal.

As ridiculous as that may sound, identifying with these narratives and fictional characters is a common phenomenon—and it effects how people operate in real life.

In 2012, researchers at Ohio State University discovered that people will subconsciously take on traits of fictional characters in a process called “experience-taking.” In the study, researchers had people read a story depicting a character who voted on Election Day, then observed the participants intentions to vote and their actual voting behavior. Participants who strongly identified with the voting character were more likely to vote in the election. The participants had merged their identities to form what Lisa Libby and Geoff Kaufman (now at Dartmouth) call “vicarious self-perception”: When a person observes a character he identifies with or wants to be, he can think that he possesses the traits implied by the character in the fictional story—and will act as such.

“We propose that when experience-taking occurs, readers simulate the events of a narrative as though they were a particular character in the story world, adopting the character’s mindset and perspective as the story progresses rather than orienting themselves as an observer or evaluator of the character,” Libby and Kaufman write.

According to this theory, in sequels and serial narratives (i.e., TV shows), the characters we identify with get to go on new adventures, allowing us to live vicariously and possibly gain a deeper understanding of who we are as people, even if we aren’t consciously aware of what’s happening.

For instance, if a person idealizes or admires a character, he may subconsciously project his own positive qualities onto them, according to Dr. Birgit Wolz, a cinema therapist with a practice in Lake County and the author of E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation.

“Understanding this kind of projection helps clients recognize their admirable qualities,” Wolz said. “Gaining recognition of their positive character traits in this indirect way helps them in the process of learning to own these previously hidden qualities.”

So repeat viewings of characters and stories we identify with can affirm or disaffirm ideas we have about ourselves. It can be endless narcissistic entertainment to constantly imagine ourselves in different situations, pretending that we’re as cool as Frank Martin—or at least, the Frank Martin we relate to and prefer.

Watching familiar content can also allow for self-reflexivity and personal growth, according to a study published in the August 2012 Journal of Consumer Research. In the study, researchers asked participants why they go back to familiar geographic places, books, and movies, and found that re-consumption can be “a form of actively seeking, a way of asking for something from the past, a way of becoming rather than returning.”

And people don’t just go back to remakes and serials to live vicariously though the one or two characters they most identify with.

Studies have long shown that people can form illusory friendships or love affairs with fictional people on TV. These characters act as “social surrogates,” providing the viewer with the experience of having their social needs met without actually meeting their needs in reality, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This creates a false sense of “belonging” which causes people to “revel longer” in favored television programs.

“We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people,” said Howard Sklar, a professor at the University of Helsinki whose master’s degree is from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. “Our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.”

The close bond people form with a narrative or its characters can leave them feeling as if the story belongs to them personally, which often leads to a sense of obligation to watch over that story in all its re-creations.

“Do you ever feel obligated to see a movie, not out of any real desire, but because it’s another _______ movie?” said Flutterwander in a reddit thread posted in August 2015. “Case in point, I’m sure I’ll see the newest Star Wars movie, but I don’t really have any particular reason except that it’s a Star Wars movie. The trailers look fine but don’t have me shrieking in delight and trembling with anticipation the way they are evidently supposed to be doing, but yes, I’m pretty sure I’ll buy a ticket.”

“There’s this way in which we feel that we owe the text because of all the time we’ve spent watching it and re-watching it,” Carpenter said. “We owe that story something even if it’s not quite loyalty.”

An original movie primarily belongs to the studios, but remakes and franchises belong to the fans. This is especially true in the age of the Internet. Fans can now lurk the Instagrams of the actors on set, see photos of productions in the works, and publicly analyze remakes in the comments and blogs. And this public opining affirms a fan’s perceived ownership and expertise regarding the narrative. It also can say, “Look at me! Read what I think.”

As Oscar Wilde once put it, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography,” because when someone is critical, it tells you more about them than the subject that they’re criticizing.

People get a thrill out of flaunting their expertise and getting their two cents in, which is why they’ll see sequels even if they think they’re going to be terrible.

“The studio knows that you’re going to want to see [a remake], even if you don’t think they’re going to do a good job.” Carpenter said. “Maybe especially if you think they’re not going to do a good job.”

So is it good, bad or ugly that we can attach to our favorite stories and characters, further the remake craze, and demand that reboots like The Transporter: Refueled transport us into stories that feed our own sense of identity?

Albert Camus once said: “If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be meaningless recreation.”

But if it’s human nature to form an identity around familiar fictional stories and characters, should we fight this nature? Or could we embrace it, become aware of it, and use these familiar viewings to become more mindful?

“Getting to know our disowned parts can prevent us from acting out in an involuntary and undesired way,” said Wolz. “Becoming conscious and accepting these [hidden] qualities can help us become more authentic and whole human beings and even access our hidden potential. Understanding our projections guides us to more emotional healing and inner freedom.”

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