What the treatment of legacy characters in reboots tell us about the spectre of old age

legacy characters in The Last Jedi, Terminator: Dark Fate and Halloween Kills.
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Characters played by older actors in franchises like Star Wars and Halloween seldom have much fun. Little wonder Linda Hamilton’s had enough…

NB: The following contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate, The Exorcist: Believer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Top Gun: Maverick, Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends. Sorry.

It was possible to detect more than a hint of world-weariness in a recent interview with Linda Hamilton, in which she was asked whether she was likely to return to the signature role of Sarah Connor in a future Terminator reboot.

“I’m done,” said Hamilton. “I’m done. I have nothing more to say. The story’s been told, and it’s been done to death.”

Given the rough ride Connor went through in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate – Hamilton’s most recent brush with the series – it’s hardly surprising that the actor doesn’t relish the thought of playing the part again. In fact, the way most belated sequels and reboots treat their legacy characters is often so depressing that it’s a wonder that so many actors still agree to come back at all.

The obvious explanation, of course, is that actors reprise old roles in exchange for a handsome pay cheque. A recent, high-profile example was Ellen Burstyn, who repeatedly refused to again play Chris MacNeil – the mother of possessed Reagan – in 2023’s The Exorcist: Believer.

In the 40 years since the release of William Friedkin’s original film, Burstyn had skilfully avoided appearing in the sequels made in its wake. When it came to The Exorcist: Believer, however, its producers kept coming back with increasingly high offers until Burstyn finally relented. The tipping point came when Burstyn realised that she could use the money to set up a scholarship program for young actors.

ellen burstyn in The Exorcist: Believer
Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist: Believer. Credit: Blumhouse/Universal.

In exchange, Burstyn showed up in David Gordon Green’s horror sequel, playing an elder version of Chris who’s estranged from her beloved daughter. As if that doesn’t sound depressing enough, wait until you see the grisly fate the film’s writers have in store for her.

Although The Exorcist: Believer offers Chris at least a ray of hope at the end, her character’s horrendous later years fall broadly into line with other legacy sequels of its type. On a long enough timeline, these movies seem to tell us, we’ll all end up grumpy, alone, and either horribly injured or killed.

It’s hardly an inspiring message for older viewers, especially when it’s tucked away in otherwise breezy fare like a Star Wars sequel. For its more superannuated cast, Star Wars episodes VII to IX were the equivalent of slasher movies; Harrison Ford came back as Han Solo so that he could be murdered by his own son in The Force Awakens. In The Last Jedi, Princess Leia was blown out of an exploding ship and spent much of the film in a coma, also thanks to her son, Kylo Ren.

Luke Skywalker, meanwhile, was reimagined by writer-director Rian Johnson as a grouchy, disillusioned recluse who spent his last years on a dank island eating space puffins and gulping down gallons of green milk squirted from the teat of a mutant elephant seal. Mark Hamill was so dismayed by the curmudgeonly version of his character that he spent much of The Last Jedi’s promotional tour loudly criticising it.

Not even pasteurised: Mark Hamill in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Credit: Lucasfilm/Disney.

Then consider Jamie Lee Curtis’ belated return to the long-running Halloween franchise in 2018’s reboot. Like so many horror revivals, David Gordon Green’s Halloween ignored all the sequels and instead focused on the 1978 original, in which Curtis’ young babysitter Laurie Strode survived a fateful encounter with the masked killer, Michael Myers. Did Strode channel all that inner resolve and resourcefulness into a successful career as a businesswoman? Did she perhaps launch her own line of ‘Final Girl’ perfume and fashion accessories, or establish a chain of ‘Laurie’s Labradors’ dog grooming parlours?

Or course not. Instead, she re-emerged as a traumatised, solitary alcoholic who, terrified at the prospect of Myers making a return, turned her remote house into a mini-fortress packed with traps and firearms. A bit like Chris in The Exorcist: Believer, Laurie does get something approaching a happy ending in the final part of the new Halloween trilogy (2022’s Halloween Ends) but not before Myers has managed to kill her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) and even the two (now fully grown) kids whom she babysat in 1978.

Older people in movies, it seems, have nothing to look forward to but more suffering, misery and attempted murders – which probably explains why they often opt to live alone. Jeff Bridges was a grizzled digital hermit in 2011’s Tron: Legacy. Harrison Ford (him again) spent years hiding out in an irradiated Las Vegas hotel with only his dog for company in Blade Runner 2049. The Creed movies found Rocky Balboa stripped of his millions and his loved ones and living once again in a rustic part of Philadelphia.

Not-so-golden years: Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (2018). Credit: Miramax/Blumhouse/Universal.

The films mentioned so far are all from the past decade or so, and the legacy sequel does appear to be a distinctly 21st century phenomenon – the seeming by-product of an ongoing love affair with the movies and franchises of the 80s and 90s. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that one of the most successful legacy sequels of the current cycle – both critically and financially – was 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick.

For once, its returning characters are ageing but unbowed by time and the forces of change; Tom Cruise’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell has a few miles on the clock since 1986’s Top Gun, but he’s still a good pilot. Even Val Kilmer, whose character is visibly ill when we catch up with him in the sequel, is given a dignified, quite moving final bow.

As is common in belated sequels – see also Ghostbusters: AfterlifeTop Gun: Maverick is about that old passing-the-torch generational rite of passage. But unlike The Last Jedi, 2018’s Halloween or The Exorcist: Believer, Top Gun: Maverick thankfully isn’t another film about growing into an embittered has-been, doomed to a solitary existence or suffer once again at the hands of a nemesis you thought you’d seen the back of years ago.

All of which brings us back to Terminator: Dark Fate. That film sees all the hard work Sarah Connor and her son John put into saving the world from Judgment Day undone by the arrival of a T-800 on a beach one day. When the film’s younger cast catch up with Sarah over two decades later, she’s essentially been demoted from future resistance fighter to the equivalent of a pest control worker – she lives alone and spends her days rushing around, destroying Terminators whenever they pop up.

Again, it’s little wonder that Linda Hamilton isn’t in a massive rush to return to the old Connor role – Dark Fate saw her boozy and jaded, but at least she made it to the end credits in one piece. If she were to inhabit the role again, who knows whether she’d be so lucky again.

Run for the hills, Linda Hamilton. For older actors, legacy sequels seldom offer anything other than their own dark fate.

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