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In Defense of Sequels: The Sequel

In today’s franchise-obsessed Hollywood sequels are all-important. Sequels, after all, are the easiest type of film to market (they have a built-in fan base), and can on occasion far out gross the original film. Just look at the current release slates of all the major studios, which are littered with sequels and remakes--or, as they’re termed these days, reboots.

     Yet it seems that sequels are in trouble. In recent months several high profile follow-ups, including THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT, ZOOLANDER 2, THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR, ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS and INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, have underperformed, which has many questioning the validity of the format. Certainly there are quite a few elements responsible for those movies’ failures independent of the fact that they’re sequels--all are bad movies, for instance--but among box office pundits the thinking seems to be that sequels may have run their course.

     As I've made clear elsewhere on this site, I love sequels. This has been true since I was a kid, and eagerly rushed off to view seemingly every movie sequel there was, from ROCKY 3 to INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM to CITY SLICKERS 2: THE LEGEND OF CURLY’S GOLD, and the fact that I was often disappointed didn’t slow me down. I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI three times, as I recall, due to the fact that I disliked it the first time, and felt the problem must have with me and not the movie (ditto THE PHANTOM MENACE). I dutifully sat through the first four POLICE ACADEMY movies and LETHAL WEAPON 1-3 before those films’ imbecility finally got to me, and I’m still known to turn out for sequels all these years later. I’m among the few who will admit to liking SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, and I even got a kick out of SHARKNADO 2.

     A good sequel offers a chance to spend time with old friends in the form of characters from a beloved movie classic, or, alternatively, a heaven-sent opportunity for a filmmaker to iron out the kinks of an unsuccessful film. A lot of criticism has been levelled at Hollywood for turning out sequels, such as HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR, to poorly received originals. It seems to me, however, that HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR was a good idea, as the film it sequalized, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, left plenty of room for improvement.

     HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR certainly wasn’t the first time I was disappointed in a sequel that could have been much better. I eagerly sought out LOST BOYS 2 and 3, as I was never overjoyed with the original LOST BOYS, and sequels seemed a good way to improve upon the material. Needless to say, after viewing those films I was sorry, just as I was with THE HUNTSMAN, which despite its lofty budget and glossy visuals was conceptually about on par with the LOST BOYS sequels. The same can be said of ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, whose glossy overlay and roster of movie stars couldn't hide the fact that the film had very little to offer.

     Once again: I love sequels. What I don’t care for is the cynicism that so often goes into the conception of such films, which are frequently little more than (as proclaimed in Roger Ebert’s smart-assed “definition” of sequel) a filmed deal.

     THE LOST BOYS 2 & 3 represent what historically has been the norm with sequels, being cheap, formulaic knock-offs that cynically traded on the original film’s popularity. Such thinking has produced many a worthless follow-up, and is followed religiously in the horror sphere, which can always be counted on to follow up a successful--or even unsuccessful--movie with one or more uninspired trash-fests.

     Indeed, the idea of mega-budgeted event movie sequels seems a relatively recent one. Take STAR WARS, which for a time was to have a cut-rate follow-up: see the 1978 novel SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE by Alan Dean Foster, in which Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Princess Leia all end up on a backwoods planet in what was supposed to be a modestly budgeted quickie of a movie (at least until George Lucas took the reins and created the more expansive EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).

     If, for instance, GREMLINS 2 were made today it would likely be a $200 million spectacular, and not the scaled-down 1990 release we got--which despite director Joe Dante’s attempts at jazzing up the material with self-referential comedy was ultimately never much more than the cheap knock-off it inherently was (plus the film took place in a big city high-rise, a popular setting for cheap-o eighties sequels--see DEMONS 2 and POLTERGEIST 3).

     To use another then-and-now analogy, if this year’s much-hated reboot of CABIN FEVER were made a decade ago it would be called CABIN FEVER 3, as it’s the same type of trashy cash-in as 2009’s better-left-unmentioned CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER. The point? That today’s reboots are essentially roman numeral-free sequels.

     Does this mean reboots will eventually take the place of sequels altogether? It certainly seems that way, as reboots are modern Hollywood’s preferred type of franchise-bait. I don’t find that fact too encouraging, but I do contend that, as with sequels, reboots doesn’t have to be cynical and uninspired affairs. They can, in fact, be glorious and exhilarating films that improve upon their models (as was the case with RESERVOIR DOGS, an uncredited reboot of the lesser CITY ON FIRE). Unfortunately, I also concede that’s a very unlikely possibility.