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A big lover of all types of media, from Movies to Video Games, Books to Music, Television to Stage.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What Determines A Sequel?

I've been sitting here, wracking my brain for the last little while, trying to determine what makes a movie worthy of a sequel.  The reason I have this topic on my mind is that there are movies out there that never get a second go-round, when many people feel they really deserve one.  There is also the matter of movies whose sequels surpass them utterly, and those whose sequels actually kill a once promising franchise.  Why don't we take a trip down Past Movies Lane, and maybe take a peek down Wishing Thinking Street, and see what we unearth?

If we want to talk about movie sequels, we have to dismiss at first the notion of ongoing horror series.  These don't count so much as sequels as much as they do as a reason to have studios keep their bottom lines intact.  Make a movie for $200,000, let it make only $800,000, studio stays in the black, no harm no foul.  So, when it comes to flicks like "Saw VI," or "Friday The 13th: A New Beginning," I am choosing to ignore the multiple titles and just consider them a necessary evil in the day-to-day running of a successful studio, financially speaking.  These flicks turn a profit for the company making them, and as far as I can tell that is all they are meant to do.  There are two glaring exceptions to this rule, a sequel so horribly bad that I will need to mention it later, and one that in many people's opinions outshines the first title, but otherwise I'm ignoring the horror genre for the purposes of this discussion.

No, when I'm thinking sequels, I'm thinking movies that stand out, either as part of an ongoing storyline, or as a stand-alone title that grabbed so much attention that studio heads rightly decided that a second dip from the same well would be a good thing.  Whether they are right or wrong about that, we will determine that ourselves.  Let's take some grand titles from the past, some rare exceptions when the sequel demanded by the studio/audience/storyline actually surpassed the original movie of the franchise.  There are only really two titles where the direct sequel was leaps and bounds ahead of the original, and those would arguably be "The Godfather Part II" and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Both of these titles are part of a saga that extends beyond them; in the case of "The Godfather," there were more books in the series, though they were released long after the original two movies, and before the third (only the original book was written by Mario Puzo, though he was heavily involved in writing the script for Part II).  In the case of "The Empire Strikes Back," George Lucas always conceived the series as a nine movie journey, though with the critical drubbing the prequel trilogy has rightfully gotten, there is little doubt that the final three movies will ever be made.  In both cases, the movies that followed were considered 'lesser' films than the immediate sequels themselves (speaking directly to the prequels in the "Star Wars" saga; it is universally accepted that "Return Of the Jedi" was a fitting ending to the original trilogy).  Of all of the "Godfather" books and films, past, present and future (that's right folks, more are on their way), "The Godfather Part II" stands out starkly against the rest, due mainly to the fact that it is in fact the equivalent of two movies tied into one masterpiece.  Of all the movies in the "Star Wars" universe, "Empire" stands out starkly due to the darkness which takes hold of the entire film, giving it a dramatic tension not found in any of the other films that comprise this series.  Given the original audience reactions to both of these series first titles, the idea that the following movies would NOT be made was dismissed rapidly.  "The Godfather" received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, which made the move to do a second movie a no-brainer.  "Star Wars," due to its ground-breaking use of editing, special effects and storytelling, is considered one of the most influential movies of all time.  Again, making the second movie was never in doubt.

There are other sequels that, while not surpassing the originals, certainly made for worthwhile continuations of the story the first movie set out.  "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan" certainly falls in this category, especially when the original movie was such a crapfest.  "Terminator II: Judgment Day" was excellent, and though some would consider this a title which surpassed the original, I consider it personally to just be the logical extension of the first movie, though I know I'll probably hear form someone over this.  Another film that comes to mind is "Aliens," though it is so different in tone than the first one that it almost seems that it stands alone. Other titles, whether made for amusement, studio bucks, or actually for an audience to watch enthralled, include "Gremlins 2: The New Batch," "Desperado," and "Beverly Hills Cop 2," another franchise beaten to an early death by a horrible third movie.  There are a few other titles, but some of the ones I want to talk about fall under a different rule, so I'll get to them in a bit.

These examples, however, are very much exceptions to the rule.  While it is true that the first two "Godfather" movies are considered to be two of the greatest movies ever made (regularly being found in the AFI top film lists), the third is also known as being of the greatest cinematic disappointments on film (though personally I enjoy the entire trilogy myself).  And, while the original "Star Wars" trilogy is loving referenced frequently in books, games, movies and television, the newer prequel trilogy is largely regarded as a waste of celluloid.  The third "Godfather" film, as with the entire "Star Wars" prequel trilogy, prove to be departures enough fromthe films that preceded them that audiences found themselves unsatisfied, and in the case of the "Star Wars" movies downright hostile in regards to what had been done to the series that had inspired and defined a generation of movie watchers and creators.

While it can be seen that within these franchises, the second movies were arguably the best, there are hundreds of examples of sequels that only further an idea, or fail at doing so.  One of the biggest sequel flops that I can relate to as far as destroying a franchise utterly for many a year is "Ghostbusters II."  You'll notice on the left side there that the link is for only the first movie.  Why yes, it certainly is, because I wouldn't want to subject anyone to the second film, and thusly did not allow an image of the DVD double feature set to be viewable.  If you really want to get it, go to the link I just provided, but we'll leave the box image for the good film visible.  This sequel fell apart because of the notion that 'more of the same' should be followed to the point that 'it is the same movie, only depressing' became the blueprint.  Harold Ramis has gone so far as to apologize for the second film, citing that the third movie (oh, yes, they are reviving the franchise after all this time) will occur as though the second movie never happened.  Which brings me to the horror sequel that fits this bill: "A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge."  What a horrible piece of schlock this film is.  It is so bad that it is a wonder the third movie ever got made (though, as stated above, it is more than likely that the franchise was considered more of a way of the studio to stay in the black while it developed 'real' films).  Many fans of the series ignore that the second title exists, and I personally would be much happier if the collection you can see over there on the left shipped missing that second disc.  However, it'll be in there, I'm sorry to say.

Then, there are movie sequels and franchises that arguably get better and better the more of them that are made.  Whether following a story written out before the first movie even gets a green light, or being created on the go as the movies get audience acceptance, there can be no denying that some of these movies improve greatly as the number after the title climbs higher.  The four franchises I'll mention here today are the "Austin Powers" movies, the "Toy Story" movies, the "Harry Potter" films, and of course, the "Back To The Future" trilogy.  In each of these instances, not only did the movies get more complex, the storylines got audiences more engaged with the characters, and the obstacles the protagonists had to surmount grew larger and more interesting with each new incarnation.  Even in the case of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," a book which has purposefully been split into two movies to ensure that everything from the pages gets up on that screen, the final movie is expected to prove to be the crowning achievement of the franchise.  "Back To The Future" is, simply put, a perfect trilogy.  I'm not only writing as someone who loves the films, I'm looknig at it from a writer's standpoint.  The series has a clear beginning, an almost hopelessly challenging middle, a firm and definitive end, the characters grow and mature (yes, even Doc Brown has at least one epiphany throughout the course of the series), the plot never gets lost, and while it ends on a very satisfying note it still leaves the audience wanting more.  What more can people want from movies?

Well, how about a sequel which is deserved and never comes?  While it can be argued that there are many movies undeserving of sequels, and sequels of sequels, it can also be argued that there are movies that earn the expectation of a sequel and the studios simply don't deliver.  One of the most obvious titles that meets this particular criteria is "Innerspace," a film from 1987 which was kind of a comedic version of "Fantastic Voyage."  If ever there was a sequel expected for a movie, this was it.  They purposefully left the movie on a cliffhanger, there was indeed a script for a sequel, and everything looked good...it even won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  The movie, however, was not a box office success, and this is what doomed the sequel.  If you ever do watch it, you'll see a cute, middle of the road film, fun, funny, and if you invest in the characters you'll agree that a sequel was really called for here.  Other movies that I have heard people discuss, whether box office failures or not, include "Jumper," "The Goonies," "Cloverfield," "Kick-Ass," "Forrest Gump," and "The Incredibles."  Some of the above are planned, some are yet to be green-lit, and some will simply never happen.

And that's the problem.  Too often, studios are driven by what the audiences votes for with their dollars, rather than what would make good storytelling.  Wouldn't it be nice if, in the future, a person who liked a movie - even if they were the only one who did - could choose from a kind of menu what they would like to see in a sequel, and by digitally manipulating the actors a studio create a private movie just for them?  Imagine ten "Toy Story" films, or making the "Star Wars" movies stretch to nine using the plot laid out by some of the incredible books that have been written in that direction!  That would be a way to satisfy the entire audience, and studios could do it at a fraction of the cost.  Actors might have to dub lines, but since the images of the actors are already recorded, all it would take is CGI manipulation and an imagination.  Unfortunately, imagination is the one thing it often seems Hollywood is lacking in these days.

Oh, and that other horror movie, the one that I feel is better than it's already excellent first title?  That would be "Paranormal Activity 2."  Keep your eyes open, the third is on it's way this October.  Until next time, keep that popcorn warm for me!

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