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The never-ending suffering of the legacyquel

The new Scream movie and The Matrix Resurrections explore what happens when stories never end.

Neve Campbell in Scream 5 and Keanu Reeves in Matrix 4.
Sidney from Scream and Neo from The Matrix don’t have a ton in common. But they are both trapped in never-ending franchises that keep forcing them to endure endless amounts of suffering. So there’s that!
Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Spoilers for the Scream and Matrix franchises follow.

Midway through Scream, the fifth feature film entry in the Scream slasher movie franchise, a roomful of nervous youths have a discussion of terminology with Dewey Riley (David Arquette), one of the series’ core trio of characters.

The fact that these new characters, who are mostly a bunch of teenagers with connections to the kids from the original film (no matter how tenuous), are being stalked by a killer in the famous Ghostface mask is one thing. But they’ve also been joined by Dewey and eventually the series’ other two main characters, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). Is this a sequel? Is this a reboot? No. As one of the kids explains, it’s the purgatory between both — alternately known as the requel or the legacyquel. (I’m going to use legacyquel because it’s a great play on words.)

Dewey, who has to this point survived four slasher movies and is literally getting too old for this shit, doesn’t much care about which term the kids use. But he’s also aware he’s trapped in an unending Sisyphean ordeal, doomed, forever, to not quite escape the bloody tendrils of the past. The kids might be excited at the thought that they are part of a major film franchise (the Scream movies have always been winking and meta-textual), but Dewey has had enough of this. He would rather live his life in peace and watch his ex host a morning show.

Of course he gets dragged back in to the slasher nonsense. Of course he’s living in a legacyquel. And of course he’s unable to make it out of this story alive. Dewey, who has been near death in seemingly every Scream movie finally dies at the hands of Ghostface, because the film needs to establish that the stakes are different this time. Higher.

Similarly, the first act of The Matrix Resurrections, the recently released legacyquel to the original Matrix trilogy, involves Neo (Keanu Reeves) drudging through a work-a-day life as a world-famous video game designer. He’s most famous for a trilogy of games called The Matrix, and now his video game company has been asked by its parent company Warner Bros. to make a fourth Matrix game. It’s goofy meta trickery that sets the stage for one of the film’s big questions: Why does this movie even exist?

The film offers an initial answer to that question in the very same scene as the order to make a new Matrix game. His old nemesis Smith (played here by Jonathan Groff), now reborn as his business partner, offers the following bit of wisdom: “I know you said the story was over for you, but that’s the thing about stories. They never really end, do they? We’re still telling the same stories we’ve always told, just with different names, different faces.” Stories are eternal; certain characters just end up being conduits for them. Enjoy the show.

I really liked Scream and loved The Matrix Resurrections. But they also left me wondering if they were ultimately about the same basic idea: If storytelling is, on some level, about either catharsis or the subversion of same, then what happens when you have to tell stories that keep jerking catharsis away from their characters, like Lucy with a trauma-filled football?

What if you were trapped in a story that never ended?

I have a habit of thinking about movies and TV shows through the lens of what the emotional experiences of living through those stories would be like for the characters if they were real people. One example, Meredith Grey, the hero of Grey’s Anatomy, has endured so many disasters both natural and manmade, in addition to nearly dying from Covid-19, that it’s a wonder she’s not borderline catatonic and can keep going to work.

To some degree, that’s the buy-in of serialized storytelling: These characters are going to go through a lot, and you’re going to buy that they’re not completely leveled by it emotionally. In the best serialized stories, the writers, directors, and actors combine to convince you that, say, Meredith really is that stalwart and steadfast because she is a doctor, and doctors are stalwart and steadfast. It’s taking an idea inherent in our culture and pushing it to its absolute extreme.

But in serialized TV shows, we expect things to keep rolling along to some degree. Film sequels are a different beast, and legacyquels are really different. Both Matrix Resurrections and the new Scream need to convincingly tie off stories for characters old and new in a way that will stand as a successful wrap-up for the entire story, but they also need to leave just enough room for the story to continue if need be.

What sets apart the legacyquel is an attempt to build satisfying stories for characters we know from older entries in the franchise and for characters brand new to this particular story. Yes, Sidney and Gale face off with Ghostface again, but so do sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega). If there are more Scream movies, the franchise’s many keepers surely hope you’ll be just as excited to find out what Sam and Tara are up to as you were Sidney and Gale. That way, the franchise’s future is not tied to actors who might not want to keep coming back for more movies every few years.

Sam brandishes a knife while she looks for Ghostface.
Melissa Barrera plays the new character Sam in the new Scream. Despite being new to the franchise, Sam has a surprising connection to its past.
Paramount Pictures

The irony here is that the addition of new “generations” of characters means the stories of these franchises can’t end. They’re doomed to cycle endlessly, grinding up more and more people. The recent Star Wars trilogy that began with The Force Awakens in 2015 literally served as a revisiting of most of the initial trilogy’s ideas, themes, and memorable moments, now with a set of new, younger characters to carry us through. (Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy were all still there, of course.)

Because these sorts of franchise films are often the main game in town when it comes to getting anything made within the studio system, all kinds of narrative baggage gets piled on top of them, in a way that becomes much more untenable within the world of feature filmmaking. If Sidney Prescott has survived five separate slasher movies and if Neo has died and been resurrected in his pursuit of ending the Matrix’s hold over those who would rather be free, their emotions start to feel alien and unrecognizable.

That potential distance has led to one of the more fashionable ways to describe big-budget storytelling right now: These stories are really about trauma. And, yes, if I had survived five separate slasher movies, I would be really, really traumatized. Part of the appeal of Sidney, then, is that we know she won’t let these events get her down. By the fifth movie, she’s treating hunting down a psycho killer as basically just a thing she’s gotta keep doing, like Meredith Grey at her hospital. Characters like Sidney and Neo are inspiring because of how they keep rising above what would crush most of us. (Also, Sidney can survive seemingly any knife wound, and Neo can stop bullets with his hands, both of which are also admirable qualities.)

But the legacyquel drags entirely new batches of characters into the central stories of the franchise, which ends up feeling slightly like a cycle of trauma perpetuating itself. If we accept that these stories are “about trauma” on some level (and I have doubts, but I’m going with it for purposes of this argument), then the continuation of the story is a continuation of the trauma. And if new people are getting dragged into the story, then the trauma becomes cyclical. Sidney and Neo aren’t spreading damage themselves, but by being in mere proximity to them, you’ll probably end up dead or horribly injured anyway.

The perversity of blockbuster suffering

There’s an occasionally overt religiosity to the ordeals these characters must endure the longer their franchises go. Neo and his love Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are literally resurrected, after all.

But that religiosity extends beyond what the characters go through to the experiences of the audience itself. When the characters in a Scream movie argue about the rules of the genre and/or franchise they exist within, they present their arguments almost as ones over doctrinal differences. Being in a slasher movie is different from being in a slasher sequel is different from being in a slasher legacyquel, but we in the audience want to see the familiar beats of the story hit, like stations of the cross.

If it’s a Scream movie, we want some poor girl to die before the opening title, we want a collection of characters who get whittled down to a core handful, and we want there to be two killers working in tandem. You can subvert one or two of those things — the girl in the pre-titles sequence in the new Scream survives, for instance — but you can’t subvert all of them.

This endless procession through pain and catharsis, over and over, starts to take on the feeling of ritual. We sit down in our theater seats, we pull out our popcorn, and we wait for Sidney and Neo to do the things they do. If they don’t do them in exactly the way we expect them to, there will be angry outcry online, as The Matrix Resurrections (which inspired a lot of fan complaints) and the Star Wars film The Last Jedi showed. We want to know our faith has not been misplaced.

Amusingly, Resurrections and especially Scream write these ideas into their very text. Resurrections features a number of Matrix fan characters, one of whom turns out to be a most likely unwitting dupe of the movie’s main villain. And the big bad in Scream is literally a toxic fan, who yells at a handful of terrified survivors about how there are certain things that must be done to make a good slasher movie.

Neo visits a body shop. Sparks fly in the background.
Neo finds himself resurrected in The Matrix Resurrections.
Warner Bros.

But that’s just it: If you’re a character in one of these movies and you only continue to exist because there’s an appetite for more of your adventures, then literally any fandom of the property is toxic. I’m not trying to suggest here that you and I are literally responsible for the endless suffering of Sidney Prescott.

We’re not the ones stabbing Sidney, nor do we have the power to greenlight more Scream movies. But so long as we keep going to those movies, they’re going to keep getting made, and Sidney will forever be trapped in a maze of knives because we don’t want to see the Scream formula shaken up all that much. Sidney’s a great movie character, one of the best in the slasher genre, played brilliantly by Campbell, so it makes sense we’d want to spend time with her. But the price of getting to hang out with her is also having to watch her nearly die, over and over again.

The sense of an unwelcome cycle repeating itself extends behind the scenes too. The filmmakers of Resurrections and Scream are incredibly inventive. The Matrix sequel was spearheaded by Lana Wachowski, one of the most innovative directors currently working, and Scream hails from Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, whose 2019 horror movie Ready or Not was a blood-drenched bit of darkly comedic class commentary. And yet how can these filmmakers continue to make movies in this environment? They can continue pumping out new installments in established franchises, that’s how!

There used to be room for many stories within the American film industry, but now, unless you’re willing to make movies for very small budgets that often limit the scope of what you can do, you’re only telling a handful of stories we already know. We’re still telling the same stories we’ve always told. The difference is that we won’t let the characters we love escape them to do something else. They’re stuck in the spiral, and they’re dragging all of us down with them.