I’ve watched a lot of sequels in preparation for this, and by and large they start well, some even end well, but let’s face it, most are poor quality money-spinners. Some are episodic, some ignore the initial plot, and some are simply more of the same (remakes in one or two cases). But what makes a good sequel? Does the saga need to be one flowing story? Does the lead character need to be the same? Can a sequel trump the original? And do particular genres lend themselves better to sequels? I've had a look at the best and worst film series in modern cinema (there are quite a few), but do any maintain greatness throughout?
Alien covers the most bases in one series, so here’s my brief synopsis on the highs and lows of the cult series:
Alien (1979). Ridley Scott, in only his second major film release and amid a Star Wars frenzy delivered a very different science fiction; Sci. Fi. Horror. “In space, no one can hear you scream”. It was ground breaking, Scott pioneered modern film psychology. Extreme wide, dark and lingering shots, give the feeling of solitude. A lack of outside perspective gives an understanding of their distance from home. Eerie tones and creepy silences leave you on the edge of your seat. The film is scary, but it doesn’t rely on gore or shock, instead embracing cinematography and direction. This isn’t about one film though, it’s about four films (soon to be five).
Aliens (1986), James Cameron directing this time. With recent success on The Terminator two years prior, this film had Cameron’s signature all over it. Aliens is an action film more than a horror, it is full of one liners and big guns, it is not intelligent film making, it is exciting film making. This point along with the presence of Bill Paxton makes it possible to see this as a dumbed down version of the original (sorry Bill, I still love you in Club Dread). Don’t get me wrong, I love the film, one of the greatest action films and one of the best sequels too. Overall, a triumph. But you can switch off your brain. Oh and I wasn’t a fan of the fluffy ending. Anyhow, on we go.
Alien³ (1992), David Fincher. I like Fincher a lot, but this really had its flaws. He obviously didn’t like the soft end to the second film either as he killed off two of the survivors in the opening sequence. He’s trying to bring back the horror factor that made the first film so good, so the ship crashes into a space prison full of sex-starved murderers and rapists. Not the kind of characters that you grow to love or are even a bit bothered about when they inevitably kick the bucket. Ripley makes uncharacteristic decisions; this is the woman who was so insistent on quarantine in the original, now sitting down to eat with the worst criminals in the system, one of which she decides to bump uglies with. All this odd stuff, just makes it impossible to relate to the characters or respect their decisions. Add in some poor graphics and (some) bewildering shot composition (the shot when Ripley jumps into the lead, seriously, what the hell?) and you have a pretty rubbish sequel.
Alien: Resurrection (1997). Jean-Pierre Jeunet, unrecognizable from his later triumphs in Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. With Ripley good and dead at the end of the third in the series, resurrection is the only way to go to cash in on the brand (by this point even the worst Alien orientated films would be guaranteed profit makers on their opening weekend alone). So 200 years after her death some bright spark decides to clone Ripley to get at the Alien inside her. After seven failed attempts, Ripley’s back… sort of. The design of the film is like a Terry Gilliam vision of the future meets a Frank Miller version of the original films, I love the mad scientist outfits. But that’s where the love stops. The script seems like it’s been revised and revised and revised. Its cheesy lines cheapen the rare poignant scenes. Winona Ryder appears to have been cast merely to help ensure the box office, and the rest of the cast is forgettable, only Hell Boy’s comic sexism sticks in mind.
So, there we have it. Sequels can be great, they can be bad and they can be awful, all in the same series. Hopefully they can return to greatness too, and with Ridley Scott back on board for the 5th in the series hopefully Alien will do just that. All pointers about the film make it look interesting to say the least. Ripley has been laid to rest which as it’s a prequel is probably best. The Space Jockey seen on the ship found in Alien is thought to be the focus, maybe as a race who engineered the aliens themselves? What this makes me think is that maybe this episode titled Prometheus (the titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind) will be that holy grail of the sequel… Original.
Not all series are the same though. The Harry Potter heptalogy gets better as you work through them, the first being dire (re-watch it if you disagree, you’ll surprise yourselves) and although not my particular bag, the later ones are quite enjoyable. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is basically one massive film, so one film can’t exist without the others. Evil Dead 2 is a ground breaking awesome horror film that is simply Evil Dead with a budget. Evil Dead 3 is a random sequel to say the least but continues the greatness. James Bond with its 22 (soon to be 23) films and six incarnations are all so different to each other that you judge them each on different merits. Often modern sequels (especially comic book adaptations) use the first film to introduce all the characters and so miss the mark on the story line, for example X-men 2 massively trumps X-men. Some sequels only hint at their nature as a follow up, Enemy of the State is widely regarded as a sequel to The Conversation, even though officially it is not and the only common character (Gene Hackman) has a different name, he is clearly the same character and the later film even includes a still shot of him in the original.
Horror appears to be the genre of choice for the sequel, but lets not convince ourselves that they are all good. Even great horror institutions like Friday the 13th can be butchered, Jason X sees Jason Voorhees way in the future, in space being made even stronger and more death proof with the accidental use of nanobots (his mother would be proud!), in short, it’s proper pants. But what this particular genre has on its side against all others it the way it makes money. They don’t rely on the box office, they rely on purchases, first VHS now DVD. This makes less money but horror has a committed following, so if you keep giving them material to purchase they will keep buying it.
The horror sequel almost exclusively needs to have a familiar character. Jigsaw, Freddy Krueger, Critters, Candy Man, Pin Head, the list goes on and on and on. In this fact though, horror is not alone. Buzz and Woody, John Maclane, Connor MacLeod, Shrek, Marty McFly, Indiana Jones, almost every successful sequel franchise has common characters.
As for what makes a good series, it seems to be that there are no particular rules that say that a sequel must be in keeping with the original directorially, however changes in actor especially when the character remains the same are difficult to accept (a recent example is the character of Rachael being played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the new Batman franchise). Changes in genre too are OK as long as you don’t go too far. Horror to action is clearly OK, suspense-thriller to rom-com might not work so well. Above all, there needs to be good films in there, it doesn’t really matter where in the order they come, as long as they are there. With all this in mind here are a few of my choices to inspire you:
The best action film series has got to be Die Hard, every film in the saga has its fans and its critics, importantly the later films are strong.
Family trilogies are difficult but in my humble opinion is Back to the Future beats all others, it’s a close call between this and Indiana Jones, but Huey Lewis gives it the edge.
The best epic production, even with the sacrilegious prequels Star Wars will always beat the likes of Lord of the Rings & Harry Potter.
The best comedy is clearly the Naked Gun trilogy, no two ways about it, and don’t even think of arguing with me!
Horror is difficult, but I’m going for Evil Dead, they’re ground breaking, cult films that are responsible for so much. That & I really want Bruce Campbell to like me.
OK, so that’s that, I've said my peice. I like sequels, and wether you like them or not, they're here to stay. Let's just hope that in years to come we won't feel the need to cringe everytime we hear about a re-hash of an old favourite.