It’s been commonly noted that Hollywood is dominated by sequels, and more so with each passing years. They’re often lazy cash grabs, but they can be worthy successors with the right approach. We’ve gotten so used to movie sequels that I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the weirder kinds of sequels out there.
1. Second Verse, Same as the First
Name this movie: An off-duty cop goes to meet his wife when he’s caught in the middle of a hostage situation on Christmas Eve. The authorities fail to be of any help, and the cop has to step in and defeat the terrorists to save his wife. If you guessed ‘Die Hard,’ you’re correct! However, if you guessed ‘Die Hard 2,’ you’re also correct. The sequel replaces German terrorist/thief Hans Gruber with a rogue army officer/nude kung fu aficionado, and changes the location from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Otherwise, they’re basically the same movie.
Hollywood logic dictates that the best way to replicate a movie’s success is to replicate the movie itself. The results can be reasonably entertaining (any movie wherein Bruce Willis stabs someone in the eye with an icicle is at least watchable), but these sequels are always trapped under the shadow of the first film. The audience goes to see what happens to their favorite characters, only to find them implausibly trapped in the same situation as before. As Bruce Willis’ John McClane so eloquently asks, “How can the same s--t happen to the same guy twice?”
2. Bigger and Better
Sometimes, an obscure indie movie manages to make it big, enabling the director to break into larger budget filmmaking. One of the earliest examples of this phenomenon comes from George Miller, who directed the low budget Australian action movie ‘Mad Max’ in 1979. It was a surprising success and launched Mel Gibson’s Hollywood career. When Miller made a more expensive sequel in 1981, Warner Bros. was willing to distribute it in America. Due to the bigger budget, Miller was able to make a much more impressive, engaging film while retaining the elements that worked in the original.
A similar thing happened to director Robert Rodriguez, who made the Spanish language action film ‘El Mariachi’ on a $7000 budget. When he got a larger budget for the sequel ‘Desperado,’ he replaced the amatuer star with Antonio Banderas and released it in English. As opposed to the gritty, down-to-earth feel of the original, ‘Desperado’ was an eccentric, over-the-top action movie filled with explosions and gunfights. That’s not to say this sort of sequel is always a success. There’s always a danger of a franchise straying too far from its charmingly humble origins, as happened with both the ‘Mad Max’ and ‘El Mariachi’ series in ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’ and ‘One Upon a Time in Mexico.’ Thankfully, 'Mad Max' bounced back with last year's incredible 'Fury Road.'
If a movie is successful, we can usually expect a sequel in just a few years. Sometimes, however, it looks like the series is really over. A decade or two might pass, but legions of fans hold are still nostalgic for the original. It’s only a matter of time before someone has the bright idea of resurrecting the series. The original filmmakers and stars agree to come back, and the hype grows to epic proportions. What happens next can go either one of two ways.
If you’re lucky, you get a movie like ‘The Force Awakens.’ It’s something new, but it feels a lot like the old movies. It makes a ton of money, and most of the fans are satisfied. However, it’s more likely that we get something like “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” It’s full of call-backs and in-jokes, but it’s just a modern blockbuster dressed up to remind us of the original. The problem is that people are so emotionally invested and have extraordinary expectations. A mediocre sequel to a classic franchise inspires frustration and talk of ruined childhoods. Typically, if a franchise came to a satisfying conclusion, it’s best to leave it at that.
4. Genre Swap
One way to make a unique sequel is to take the plot elements of the original film and drop them into a different genre. Sometimes this keeps the franchise fresh, but it can obviously be a disaster as well. The best example of this is ‘Aliens,’ James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s horror film “Alien.” Rather than a betrayal of the original film, it feels like a natural progression of the story. While ‘Alien’ was the small-scale story of a vicious alien aboard a claustrophobic space ship, ’Aliens’ follows a team of marines sent in to deal with a larger outbreak of aliens on a distant space colony. While both features sci-fi themes like space travel, androids, and extraterrestrial life, the original is clearly horror whereas the sequel is action. It’s actually hard to compare the two, because each has such unique strengths.
One less successful attempt comes from the ‘Return of the Living Dead’ series. The original is a cult classic horror-comedy with absurd characters and excessive gore. While the first sequel was a relatively tame comedy in comparison, the real departure came with ‘Return of the Living Dead 3,’ which was a darkly romantic horror film. It follows a rebellious teenager who reanimates his dead girlfriend with a chemical the military is testing. The couple go on the run as she attempts to control her cravings for human flesh (which she does by inflicting pain on herself). The original is campy comedy inspired by ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ whereas the sequel is a goth retelling of Romeo and Juliet complete with self-mutilation. While not a totally horrible concept, it shouldn’t have been billed as a ‘Return of the Living Dead’ sequel.
Of all the types of sequels out there, this is one of the rarest. The sequel continues the events of the original, while acknowledging that both the original and itself are fictional. It’s hard enough to explain that it’s better if I just use an example. Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ led to a long string of largely forgotten sequels. One of the few highlights of the series came when Craven returned with the bizarre “New Nightmare.” The original film’s star, Heather Langenkamp, returned to play herself, rather than her character. In the movie, she is approached to star in a sequel of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” However, she discovers that the series’ dream-invading killer Freddy Krueger has somehow crossed over into the real world, intent on tormenting her. At one point, she even discovers the movie’s screenplay.
One of the few other movies to try this is ‘Gremlins 2.’ Apparently, direction Joe Dante didn’t like the idea of a sequel, but ended up agreeing to direct if he got full creative control. He chose to make a parody of the original film, and Hollywood sequels in general. It even features a scene wherein film critic Leonard Maltin gives a harsh review of the original movie, only to be attacked by a horde of gremlins.This kind of sequel only works when the original film was fairly bizarre to start with. However, if the filmmakers pull it off, it can be funny, mind bending, and incredibly creative.