Shaking Our Fists At The Sun
By Ash Wakeman
October 5, 2004
Sometimes it seems like every second film being released is a sequel, part of a franchise. People often cite this as symptom of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy, a relatively new phenomenon. But this certainly isn’t the case; the sequel has been with us since the early days of cinema. Its origin lies in serials like Flash Gordon and feature film franchises like Charlie Chan and Andy Hardy. These were stand-alone episodic films featuring a regular cast of characters, which wasn't surprising in the days before TV.
I’m not going to speak out against sequels in general. They’ve been around since the beginning and some of my favorite films are sequels or part of a franchise; Aliens, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and James Bond, to name a few. There is a place in Hollywood for films of this nature; it would be hypocritical of me to denounce sequels in general because of this list.
But what I cannot stand, what really annoys the complete part twos out of me are completely pointless and unnecessary sequels. These are the sequels that should never have been made, that effectively destroy the legacy of the film they are following. Some films I might even like as a stand-alone motion picture, but their very existence as an unnecessary sequel annoys me too much to make watching them a pleasurable experience.
During recent years, this cinematic phenomenon had become something of an obsession. I can even recall the exact day that it all fell into place and my hatred was given form. I was sitting in a cinema watching The Mummy Returns and feeling my rage gnawing at me like a hungry scarab beetle. Since that day I’ve been refining my dislike of the unnecessary sequel and have broadly classified them into five convenient types.
1. Exploiting the Self-Contained
Some films are clearly written to be that starting point of a franchise if they are successful. Spider-Man is the perfect case in point. It was an origin story, and devoted just as much time to setting up future plots as it did to its own resolution. Star Wars is another good example. The first film was even released as episode four, a tribute to the earlier serials that influenced Lucas. You also have films where the action is based on a single incident from the hectic life or career of the main protagonist. James Bond is a secret agent. When we watch a James Bond film we watch one of his missions with the knowledge that it is not his first and will not be his last.
However, many - if not most - films are designed to be single, self-contained stories. More than that, some films are particularly effective as individual tales, and the fact that they work well as such is part of their charm. However, when such films succeed, a sequel will often follow. The problem with such films is that even while they may be good films in themselves, they spoil part of the charm of the film they are exploiting.
Shrek is a good example. Although opinions are mixed here at BOP (some people are still annoyed about a certain Oscar), I really enjoyed and thought it was a great one-off kids' film with broad appeal. For me, a big part of the popularity was that the film was so good as a stand-alone. The sequel was a fairly good film, incredibly popular and probably funnier than the first overall; however the story was pretty much jettisoned in favour of upping the number of gags. So while I enjoyed Shrek 2 as a movie, in the back of my mind, I felt the charm of the original being eroded. I have no doubt that there are Shreks to follow; the second film's success makes this pretty much a sure thing. Those sequels will continue to erode these memories.
2: Lightning in a Bottle
The first type of unnecessary sequel is probably the least offensive. What makes it much, much worse is when the original film is something unique and special; you know, those films that make you remember why you love movies so much. They don’t come along too often, and when one does, you’ll know about it. I’m thinking about something like the Usual Suspects here, or Memento. Nice original films that - while they may not appeal to everyone - strike a chord with many as something unique.
The Blair Witch Project was a fascinating cinematic phenomenon: an ultra-low budget horror film whose reputation was built on a killer hook (is it real or not?) and snowballing hype that turned into one of the most profitable films ever. The phrase “one of the most profitable films ever” is the only reason this film ever had a sequel. There are no artistic or narrative reasons; there is no point to a sequel to The Blair Witch Project beyond the financial.
What makes it worse is that, by its very nature, what made The Blair Witch Project a success is not something that can be done again. It doesn’t work the second time around. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle.
Pitch Black was a rarity; a smart, stylish old-fashioned science fiction monster movie made for a moderate budget. As the title suggests, darkness was integral to its plot and to an extent, to its success. Pitch Black’s budget-saving sleight of hand is that if you can’t see them, special effects are very cheap indeed. And it worked well.
To be fair, Pitch Black was always intended to be part of a broader canvas, an episode in the chronicles of its anti-hero Riddick. But the problem is that when they came to make the sequel, the elements that made the first a success were absent from the considerably more expensive sequel. Even Riddick himself, a larger-than-life figure in the claustrophobic original, is dwarfed by the extravagant opulence of what follows. As a result, the considerably more expensive sequel only ended up taking marginally more than the original at the box office.
3. More, more, more
Riddick is also a prime example of the need to make sequels bigger in every respect. It’s almost as if some people just can’t grasp the concept that the quality of a film is not directly proportional to the size of its explosions, length of its car chases, or number of protagonists. If a low budget film is profitable, this doesn’t mean that a higher budget sequel will be relatively more profitable. In fact, more often than not, the exact opposite is the case. It certainly was in Riddick’s case.
Even apart from financial considerations, this obsession with raising the stakes in a sequel often makes later films messy and uneven. You can only fit so many elements in a motion picture and maintain some kind of coherence.
The Mummy Returns is close to being my least favorite film of all time. As I have mentioned, it was instrumental in my sequel-related epiphany. The Mummy was a fun, old-fashioned adventure film with cutting-edge special effects. Aside from the Indiana Jones trilogy, it’s one of the few films that have really captured the spirit of the adventure films to which it pays homage, while still pandering to the needs of the modern cinema audience.
The Mummy Returns, on the other hand, is a terrible mess. As well as all the returning characters from the first film, we’re introduced to a plethora of new ones, both heroes and villains. In addition, the number of artifacts key to the plot increase significantly, as do the number of supernatural themes and distinct plots. In the end, the film just contains too much, well, stuff. As a result, the film is so bursting at the seams with all the new elements it starts to leak cohesion, as narrative elements and logic begin to be jettisoned left, right and center.
This terrible affliction is made worse when it comes to the special effects. The impressive CGI of the first film is there again, only this time it’s so over-the-top, so much bigger in scale it just becomes preposterous. Why make a digital army of a thousand servants of darkness when it costs just the same to make an army of 10,000 or 100,000? When I saw this movie at the cinema, the audience laughed at the point where the heroes where supposed to be realizing their plight was hopeless. The overwhelming force they faced was just too overwhelming and completely ruined what could have been a fairly dramatic scene.
The Star Wars films - especially the more recent ones - suffer a similar fate at times. I recall reading an article that went into detail on how the number of divergent plotlines and climactic battles steadily increased in each film from Episodes 4, 5, 6 and 1.
4. Diminishing Returns
Without a doubt, this is the most pathetic form of unnecessary sequel. There’s just something really tragic about a franchise in decline or a sequel that’s just going through the motions. It’s a given that it won’t be as good as or as profitable as the original, but it will still make a profit, so they might as well. I can only imagine what the premieres are like for films like these. Do the directors hang their heads in shame? Are the stars doing their hair that night?
I’m looking at you, Speed 2. I think the Star Trek franchise knows what I’m talking about as well. Robocop 3? Let’s not even go there. Look at it this way, if the shame of being in another Police Academy film is so much that even Steve Guttenberg wants out, maybe that’s a sign that it’s time to, you know, call it a day. The same goes for The Fast and the Furious. If a project is such a bad idea that even Vin Diesel’s judgment-impaired agent decides to pass, just don’t do it.
5. It’s as if the First Never Existed
I could probably just leave it at that, but for those of you lucky enough not to have seen it, I’ll continue.
The film itself is just inexplicable. On its own, it’s not the worst film ever. It's pretty bad, but I’ve seen worse. The odd thing about Highlander 2 is that not only does it have pretty much nothing to do with the first film, but also continuously directly contradicts it.
It’s not just the completely different story, or even the return of a character whose death was pivotal to the plot of the first film, but the entire central plot and premise of the first was negated by the plot of the second.
Highlander 2 is in fact so bad that further sequels (themselves nothing to write home about) effectively ignored it. Both director and star wanted out at certain points but were unable to do so for contractual reasons. Recent interviews blame the desecration on the loss of creative control to the film companies and insurers when spiralling costs meant the film was in danger of being abandoned altogether. However reviews of a “renegade” edition of the film supposedly restored to the director’s true vision of the sequel are not kind and suggest it was destined to be a pointless mess from the beginning.