Spiritual Successors is a new BFB column in which two movies with shared themes or archetypes from different decades of release are discussed in relation to one another.
A collection of both personal expectations and mind-numbing public anticipation often leads to a negative general consensus of a hit movie’s long-awaited sequel. It’s easy to generate our own fantasies of what we would like to see next from our favorite characters and stories as we yearn for clarity and narrative satisfaction. Among the endless hit-and-miss sequels that are often considered “box office safety nets” are two films that simply weren’t so. They are strangers from time periods of release but married perfectly in both execution and a split-fan perspective. They are Gremlins: The New Batch (1990) and The Matrix: Resurrections (2021).
The original Gremlins is a lighting-in-a-bottle machine of charming practical effects that pays homage to the Spielberg aesthetic while still delivering on a horror hour of Christmas capitalism, helmed by one of the great genre filmmakers, Joe Dante (The Howling, The Burbs). He would go on later, against better judgment, to helm the differentiating and intoxicating live-action cartoon Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which was met with a mixed-bag mentality from critics and audiences alike.
Differing story outcomes depending on who you hear from within the production, Dante was initially hesitant to return, requesting full creative control over the entire project in order for him to come back, which by the end worked out for the better; Dante flexes every visually creative muscle in his body to birth one of the genres foremost leading fourth-wall comedies. In doing so, he repurposed the charm of its franchise and predecessor.
Gremlins: The New Batch continues on a few years later from where Gremlins left off with the naive and incorrigible Billy Peltzer, who is still in possession of pet and (more importantly) best friend, Gizmo. They have run into a whole new ballpark of trouble with a whole new slew of Gremlins in the midst of a towering, tech-heavy cooperate estate.
So decades on, when it came time to view my very personally anticipated but critically divided Matrix fourth outing Resurrections, I couldn’t help but compare the two in the culture. In last year's film, Neo finds himself pulled back into the rabbit hole of the Matrix, plagued and possessed with longing memories of the past, unaware of which emotions and relationships are now real, and having no choice but to return as the chosen one once again.
On the surface, the similarities between the two can be interpreted by way of mixed critical responses and their complete shifts in tone from previous installment(s). The New Batch sees Joe Dante returned to helm yet another Mogwai adventure only to distance himself from a more traditional narrative of a set-up and pay-off project. The original Gremlins relies on a snappy screenplay and likable characters to sail toward a full-throttle climax of elongated chaos, not to mention a hearty mix of creature-feature silliness to keep monster-heads like me happy.
Its irreverent follow-up is bathed in an animated haze of scene after scene of pure Looney Tunes-esque nonsense and constant (yet clever) fourth wall breaks that dig at both its franchise and film studios in general. Dante combines a truly cathartic and absurd sensibility with the execution of The New Batch, so much so that it feels like the Gremlins themselves were behind the camera for the majority of its runtime. Where Matrix: Resurrections finds its ‘New Batch-isms’ is its paradoxical and amusing sense of audience demand, a point-and-laugh system at all the boneheaded viewers craving hollow callbacks and meandering easter eggs.
Lana Wachowski's latest entry is a digital mirage of past images that are reconstructed and passed off as fading memories, already half-lost. The images are as much subversions of the original works as they are retreads, never wholly one or the other. Lana Wachowski morphs those familiar symbols and beats so as to hold an unashamedly sentimental and hyper-digital mirror up to the original Matrix, which (very much like The New Batch) has a self-aware reliance on its own ethos, a feedback loop of iconography and ideas. It is always reinventing itself, always covering the same ground, but never treading the same path in the same way. The film creates its own repackagable images for commercial consumption and deploys them to righteous, appropriate, and productive ends.
Wachowski's affably nostalgic callbacks are constructed with such whole-heartfeltness that they far and beyond stack up over the modern blockbuster, the latter in which countless attempts are made to make audiences feel some genuine emotion from vapid and fleeting references.
The shared discourse of film sequel speculation and the major undeserving critical backlash that both films received suggests that, in a perfect world, every single person would have their preferred cut of either of these movies. It’s an ongoing thread of downgrading a film due to contrasts with our own personal expectations. The strongest points of interest from both films can also be seen as a mismatch of what the filmmakers were intentionally reaching for with what general audiences seek to see in a sequel. The successors are, in both final cuts, misunderstood masterpieces.