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.