Monday, July 2, 2007

Sequels - Eagerly Awaited, Rarely Satisfying

What must a sequel have so that it does not disappoint and holds up to its predecessor? Read on!
This summer is more than ever the summer of the film sequel. Or, in quite a few cases, of the threequel. Sequels are mostly done as guaranteed money-makers for the film studios, not because something worthy is to add to the story of the franchise. And that is the fear many fans of the original have: You loved the first film, were captured by its magic and you want it to continue, are excited about it. But you are always afraid that the makers mess it up and produce an unworthy successor that ruins even the memory of the blessed original.
I only have to think of "Pirates of the Caribbean". The first movie was such a nicely entertaining romp, and the sequels just upped on effects and action, but left out a good story. And don't get me started on "Matrix". I try hard to forget the horrible sequels! Worst. Franchise. Ending. Ever!
There are not many sequels which can hold up to their originals. Because how can you properly extend a storyline that seems to have finished in the first film? Develop a completely new one, for example. That may work. One only has to look at "Aliens" to see that. While the original was a suspense shocker, the second film turned out to be a pure action blockbuster. Released in the action film heyday of the 1980s, "Aliens" stood out because of its female lead (opposed to the standard male action hero) and action expert James Cameron.
But other sequels work very often because they have a book or a story that they are based on. That provides the writers with a thought-through storyline that only has to be adapted to the screen. OK, fair enough, this can fall flat as well, if the transition sucks. But looking at films like "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" or "Spider-Man 2" shows: It can work really, really well.
Speaking of Spidey: In this case, at least in my humble opinion, the sequel even improved on the original. A more interesting villain, the story more gripping, what more can one ask for? "Shrek 2" also worked better than its predecessor, largely due to adding Puss in Boots to the crew and a screenplay to beat. And yes, there are more examples of great sequels, "X-Men 2", "Terminator 2", "The Empire Strikes Back", "Toy Story 2" and the perennial sequel classic "Bride of Frankenstein".
And why did they succeed? Because they developed the story, added fresh new characters that fit in well, and expanded the whole universe of the franchise. But the emphasis lies on story development. This is what makes a sequel rise or fall.
And lacking in this summer's sequels is? A good story, yes! "Pirates" failed already on the second outing. But "Spider-Man 3" was the first disappointing movie in the series, with too many villains, and a repetitive plot. "Shrek the Third", even worse. The makers did only bother to improve the animation (which could be expected), but did not care much about the plot. Relying on your previous installments' reputation to get audiences to the cinema is not enough!
And that is the one mistake producers of sequels almost always make. Cash in on the previous success, never mind the story. But a really good sequel is a movie that could stand on its own, without having to rely completely on previous successes. A great movie in its own right, with a good story, that is worth the while. If you do not have a story that is original enough, drop the idea of a sequel. Or better: stamp it into your trash bin. But I know, in the end it is only the money that counts. What a pity. And we can expect "Spider-Man 4-6" and "Shrek 4+5" and only pray for a good story. The horror! Or, just stay at home and show the film studios our middle finger. But in the end we will be there. And they know that.