Sequels

So I want to talk about the new Pirates movies, but I don’t want to make any judgements about it, since it is Part I of II; I also don’t want to offer any spoilers, because that would be rude. Therefore, I am going to ramble at length about sequels in general, and any comments I make may or may not be relevant to this particular one. Capiche?

So, let’s set out some “ground rules”. We’re talking here about entertainment not high art. So, I’m not talking about a sequel to Oedipus Rex (although I might later, coz I’m making the rules here), but the kind of movie that you’d take your slightly drunk college buddies to on a dead thursday night. I’m talking about the genre of action/comedy/horror, rather than y’know, The Divine Secretes of the Ya-ya Sisters or whatever. Also: the sequel is to a movie people actually liked.

So, when I said a few rules, I really only meant two. Clear?

The first thing is: what did we like about the first movie? The action? the comedy? The horror? Take a movie like The Mummy. We liked that Rachel Weisz is hot. We liked manly-yet-funny Brendan Fraser. But mostly, we liked the fact that there was a serious and heroic story being told that we could also laugh at. The plot is to save the world from the Mummy, which I think we can all respect; but many humorous moments crop up. There was a balance.

Now, let’s talk about the sequel. What went wrong? Well, IMHO, not a huge amount. If anything, they managed to get the action/comedy sequences almost perfect. The difficulty was that in doing so, they sacrificed what remained of the creepiness, and had a decent stab at undermining the lynch-pin of a good mindless rollercoaster: The Villain. The original movie had as the antagonist a guy whose powers were slightly unclear, whose motivations were certainly evil. Imhotep struck at their weakness, but moments like when he flees from the cat give the characters some hope of victory. He has all three of the essential villainous qualities: You can hate him, you can sympathise with him and you can respect him. Unfortunately, he’d already been used, so the sequel set up The Scorpion King as the thing they were really afraid of. They needed to do this because the characters had already defeated Imhotep, he was no longer enough of a challenge for the characters. The Mummy Returns redeemed its need to replace the Mummy as the villain with The Scorpion King, in that moment when Anck Su Namun abandons him, completing his tragedy.

Okay, now it’s time to talk about a sequel that went so horribly wrong that I’m not sure I can bring myself to even type its title. The Matrix Reloaded. Oh, that wasn’t so bad.

So, let’s re-cap. What did we like about The Matrix? I guess for a lot of people the answer starts and stops with Bullet-time. But what made it such a kick-ass movie wasn’t the flashy FX or stylish Kung Fu choreography, but the story. It was a movie you could watch on DVD and still enjoy (Spiderman 2 I’m looking at you!) It had no real comic elements, but it substituted instead drama. It wasn’t unrelenting action: there was a human story of doubt and self-awareness liberally sprinkled throughout. And the villain? Agent Smith was a despicable machine, bent on the destruction of the lovable (well, not outright annoying) Neo so you could hate him. He was an Agent, undefeated by mortal man, so you could respect him. But, he was pathetically trapped in a world that seemed designed to deliberately annoy him for ever, so you could kinda sympathize with him.

Action? Check. Drama? Check. Cool Villain? Check. Right, now let’s make a second movie, and just ramp all that shit up to the maximum? Check. So, what went wrong? Well, firstly: they re-used Agent Smith. Neo struck him down, and he became more powerful than we could possibly imagine. There ought to be a specific verb for that. The difficulty is that it makes the whole ended of the original movie a tragic misunderstanding, it undermines the basis of the “epic”. The heroes were the exact opposite of successful, Neo’s death could have yielded no worse a result than his victory. So, now the audience feels confused and I dare say, betrayed by the storytellers. Secondly, it set up a lot of interesting drama: just how does Joe computer programmer cope with suddenly being Jesus Christ? Then it quickly abandons any follow-up. Then it further undermines the whole saga by revealing that the whole Neo thing is just a joke that the machines play on successive Neos.

A brief digression on plot twists: A plot twist works best when it makes you look back at what you thought you knew and recasts the whole lot in a new light. The end of The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense are great examples. There is no retrospective change in facts, and afterwards you kick yourself if you didn’t see it (I got The Sixth Sense, but not The Usual Suspects) A plot twist is not just some unexpected story change, such as the mid-point of Million Dollar Baby. A device which makes you look back at what’s been before and say “that makes no sense” is destructive for the suspension of disbelief and breaks the implicit trust between the audience and storyteller. I’m talking about Metachlorians, for example.

Then, there’s the action sequences. The Highway scene is one of the worst action scenes that I can think of that isn’t laughable. It served absolutely no purpose whatsoever, other than for the brothers to demonstrate just how vast their budget was.

The best summary I heard of the sequels was from an American friend of ‘s: It’s Special Effects Porn. The story exists only as a way of getting you from blow-job to girl-on-girl to orgy.

Special effects aren’t necessary for memorable fight scenes. Ask any 5 of your friends which their favourite fight scene in moviedom is, and 3 will say “Inigo v. Westley in the Princess Bride“. Why? Because it’s built up well, and the characters sell it to the audience. Other favourites will probably include the three-way fight in The Phantom Menace, because it was awesomely choreographed, but also because it was a miniature character study of the three characters involved. One or more fights from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may get mentioned too. What you won’t here is the Jet Li v. Jet Li fight from The One, because it had the same basic failures in how it was presented and carried out as the fights in the Matrix sequels.

Dropping down a notch, we have Ocean’s Eleven. It wasn’t inspired, but it was brainless fun to watch some pretty boilerplate domestic drama against one of the most improbable robberies ever. The difficulty with Ocean’s Twelve was that it just did the exact same thing again. Yawn. I saw the first movie, why did I pay 6 quid to see the secnod? Buggered if I know. I felt that the Bourne Supremacy also suffered from this, as well as being less clever than the original.

Lastly, there’s The Transporter. Decent action fun, with a likeable lead. It was refreshing to see a movie that went back to basics. No wirework, nothing crazily unlikely or difficult. What did we get in the second? A car flipping so that a hanging crane could knock the bomb from off its chasis. It’s like they hadn’t seen the original, or had no idea why it was good.

So… in summary, the faults that a sequel can have fall into only a few different categories:
1. It can try to do the same things as the first movie, but be the best evah! Where you get a director masturbating over the film and hoping people will pay money to see it. Alas, I paid to see Star Wars I, II and III. Damn you Lucas!

2. It can try to do something fundamentally different. Hello French Connection II.

3. The film can be exactly the same as the original. I think we can all recognise that this is the main failing of the Horror movie genre generally.

4. It can gut the emotional centre by neutering either the Hero or the Villain.

For my money, the most successful series of movies designed successively as sequels is the Indiana Jones series. Each installment was in the same vein, but never tried to be the “bigger” version of the previous one. They each have a different plot shape, albeit with some similarities between I and III, and while their villains may generally have been a bit lacklustre, they managed to keep the hero full of vigour and sparkle.

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6 Responses to Sequels

  1. menchi says:

    Totally with you on this one Mash! πŸ™‚

    Conan

  2. mashugenah says:

    I thought about providing a list of sequels that I liked to movies I liked… but in the end I decided that people could draw their own conclusions. πŸ™‚

    The thing too is that there are a bunch of mind-bogglingly good movies with pretty average sequels, but there are also a horde of decent and unpretentious movies with decent and unpretentious sequels. Series like the Fast and the Furious duo (haven’t seen Tokyo Drift) or the two Short Circuit movies. The second one pretty much delivered the same kind of enjoyment as the first… but neither are exceptional movies. I think that situation is a better representation of the average sequel experience than the Matrices. πŸ™‚

  3. susan_joan says:

    What do you think of the genre-switching sequels to Alien?

    • mashugenah says:

      Or Pitch Black to The Chronicles of Riddick? Or arguably 2001 to 2010?

      I ask myself a question: Why not start over again? What are you bringing with you from movie to movie? The obvious answer for the Aliens quadrology is: the Aliens, but in essence, the Alien creatures are just a generic source of death. The distinctive killing mechanism which sets them apart in the mind is the face-hugger; once you have a live alien, is there any real plot difference from being killed by an Alien compared to Jason compared to the Predator and so on? I don’t think there is. So what you’re taking with you are Ripley and the idea that the mega-corp is rutheless in its pursuit of the alien to use as a weapon; a pretty meagre and threadbare package IMHO.

      Alien layed the ground rules and Aliens tried to take the basic creature and look at society through it. What is the real horror in Aliens? I think there is a strong argument to be made that the alien creature becomes an even more explicit representation of the faceless and amoral megacorporation which has taken over society. Carter Burke is the real monster in Aliens, just as Ash is the real monster in Alien.

      Aliens 3 takes this even further. The alien becomes a physical manifestation of the indifference to human suffering by the corporation.

      So… there’s an argument there that the first three movies really show a progressive interest in man’s inhumanity to man. A lot of people hate Aliens 3 because Ripley dies, and it’s a bit hack. I don’t like it because it’s just Aliens all over again.

      Alien 4 is getting a bit hazy in my mind. I watched it once, on video when it was still a new release, which must be c. 98 or so. What I recall is that it tried to shunt the emphasis back onto the alien itself, rather than on the reactions it induced in the people affected by it. There was a general interest in the evolution and development of the creature, and how it was being affected by the cloning process, yada yada.. But, moreover, it took a couple of giant steps back in terms of the seriousness with which you could take the whole endeavour. I found the growing attachment between Ripley and the creature hard to buy into; I think I actually laughed at the look on her face when it gets sucked through a small hole in the ship. So, the major change I felt in the “genre” was in the relationship dynamics.

      So, in short: I’m trying to wriggle out of the quadrology as really being genre-hopping. For me, the movies had generally the same tone, and a motif/structure akin to the slasher flicks of the 80s as the various cast members are gruesomely picked off singly or in small groups, and the tension mounts while you hope somebody makes it out alive. Alien 4 tried to up the ante with a “risk to earth”… but I’m not convinced they succeeded in moving the emotional centre that far…

      Overall, I’d say that they probably fit into my “decent but unspectacular” category, in that any of the four are not a burden to sit through even if you’ve seen the others (well, I haven’t mustered the energy to sit through Aliens 4 a second time so…) They don’t really run afoul of my 4 flaws to an unforgivable extent. At the same time… I think they would each have been fine as a single movie made by itself with no prequels or sequels; and I think that would have been sufficient interest to show the basic alien concept.

      You weren’t hoping for a short answer were you?

      • susan_joan says:

        No, I wasn’t: mutual friends have told me that the difference between you and I is that your analyses are longer. I was hoping for an interesting answer and I got one.

        I don’t remember the movies so well any more but I did think Alien was a horror, Aliens was an action movie, Alien 3 was something else (forgotten off hand) and Alien 4 was a disaster movie. And so I was expecting you to think they’d done fault 2 or fault 3 but couldn’t predict which.

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