The Return of the Bride of the Sequel, Part 2

Tony Sokol takes on a winding journey through the mind of sequel-happy Hollywood.

When I heard Final Destination 2 was coming to theaters, I thought, Final Destination 2?  If they couldn’t reach their final destination in a movie called Final Destination, how many movies would it take for these poor souls to get where they were going? As they continue their travels we realize that, like licks on a tootsie pop, we may never know.

Right now, there are more than 90 sequels in the works in Hollywood. Not all of these movies will be made. But we’ve heard that before. Some wait in the planning stage, like Anchorman 2, some have been kicking around for years and may only remain ideas, like Bill & Ted 3. It was announced this week that studios found the hair of the dog in The Hangover III and Project X will party on. Robert Rodriguez plans to reprise both Sin City and Machete. Paramount will unearth The Ring 3D in 2012. Zoolander 2  hits the runway in 2014.

The sequel is almost as old as the movies. From the silent era Fall of the Nation, sequel to Birth of a Nation, in 1916 to the spate of sequels slated for summer release, success breeds repetition and usually diminishing returns. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa shadowboxing into old age or the toothless Jaws 3, where I believe the shark raided Entebbe, the inevitable downward slide is a Neverending Story (successfully sued on The Simpsons for false advertising).

Sequels can expand and improve on their originals. There is a school of thought that The Godfather Part II was a better film than The Godfather and by all accounts Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan photon torpedoed Star Trek, The Motion Picture. But for every Bride of Frankenstein there is Another 48 Hours.  Does it drive you Psycho too?

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Certain films are so successful that making a sequel is economically inevitable. This doesn’t always pay off. Do we care enough about millionaire lush Arthur to follow him in his trip through the gutter in Arthur 2?  Most people don’t remember there was a sequel. The producers of Grease did not have a sequel in mind. It was a fully realized play, a hit on Broadway. They certainly didn’t envision Grease 2.  Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End probably didn’t sink the Pearl, but it put it in danger of foundering. Speed 2: Cruise Control hit the break on any momentum Speed built. Originally a serious movie about American expatriates in pre-Castro Cuba, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights proclaimed “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”

Some movies are made with sequels in mind. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter won’t be in theaters until June 22, but a sequel is already in the works. The Lord of the Rings and Bourne Identity were envisioned as trilogies and the Harry Potter and Star Wars series were always intended as franchises. Sony is planning to produce film versions of all three Stieg Larsson’s novels despite the initially disappointing box office takes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hunger Games, which had the third biggest opening ever, has a sequel in the works.

Both Kill Bill movies were shot at the same time without the actors’ knowledge. The second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films were also shot simultaneously. The Harry Potter movies were shot within very tight time frames so the actors would still appear school age. This is not new.  The 1954 sword and sandal film (which featured Michelangelo’s statue of David 1,465 years before he sculpted it) Demetrius and the Gladiators was the sequel to The Robe. They were released several months apart but shot at the same time.

High-end adventure series are not immune. The Hunt for Red October launched a Tom Clancy franchise that survived the replacement of its star, Alec Baldwin, as Harrison Ford took the role of Jack Ryan, who was also played by Ben Affleck. The Indiana Jones franchise was quickly doomed, sometimes redeemed and then doomed again. Tom Hanks combed his hair for Angels and Demons.

Science Fiction also offered a mixed bag of reprisals.  The Alien series retained consistent quality. The Mad Max saga will continue as Fury Road and Furiosa will be shot back to back. Matrix Reloaded is on many worst-sequel lists. The most interesting episode of the Star Wars saga was the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. T2 was superior to Terminator. (When Predator was paired with the lovable-dog sequel Benji, The Hunted, on 86th Street, all I could think was, couldn’t Arnold pick on someone his own size?)

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Some sequels retroactively diminish their predecessors, others keep them limping forward. Jack Nicholson directed the disappointing The Two Jakes, the much-anticipated sequel to Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown. The Godfather Part III is widely touted as a one of the worst sequels, but it suffers more in comparison with the first two films than as a film itself. Sofia Coppola could never top her performance in the tremendously ground-breaking baptism scene of the first movie, which influences filmmakers to this day.

Box office success does not always guarantee a sequel. As soon as Casablanca became a hit, there was talk of a sequel. Inspector Renault arranged safe passage to Brazzaville, but the planned sequel was never produced.  Tim Burton sidestepped a Beetlejuice reprise by offering the studio the worst sequel idea he could think of: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, which was pretty much the original movie, but warmer. In 1996, the studio was still trying to get it made and asked Kevin Smith to do a rewrite. Smith reportedly told them, “Didn’t we say all we needed to say in the first Beetlejuice?” Rock star Nick Cave was asked to write a resurrection to Gladiator because Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe thought he would be able to come up with a creative way to deal with the death of Crowe’s character at the end of the film. Cave’s script, which had Maximus made immortal after battling Roman gods and influencing history until finally helping U.S. spies in Nazi Germany, might not have seemed out of place in the Xena universe, but was rejected by the studio for being over the top. A sequel to Forrest Gump would have had him invent New Coke.

Heroic efforts keep the Batman franchise alive. Rabid comic book fans propelled it from its first screen interpretations in the Forties through its television incarnations and back to film in spite of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Richard Pryor wasn’t the kryptonite that grounded Superman III, that honor went to the plotting of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns.

Sometimes it’s better to let a film age, like good scotch, before revisiting it. Paul Newman didn’t touch a pool stick for years before Martin Scorsese got him to reprise Eddie Felson in The Color of Money. The doubly phallic named Peter O’Toole used all his voices as King Henry in both Becket and The Lion in Winter. But it took 19 years for Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to come up with an alien twist for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal. They are reportedly searching for a dignified end to the series with Indiana Jones 5.

Sequels hedge bets because studios know audiences respond to name recognition. It’s easier for both the studio and the audience. The studios already did their work selling the first movie, so it’s easy to promote more of the same. Some films cut costs by replacing the stars that made the originals so special. The Police Academy series never fully recovered from the loss of Steve Guttenburg in Police Academy 5. Producers will sometimes cast lesser stars in replacement roles, like when they conned so few to see The Sting II. Sometimes they cast inexpensive unknowns and retain some of the lesser cast for continuity. In some cases they just keep the monsters. Sometimes they leave the monsters to fight each other, as they did in the cross-franchise flicks Freddie vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator. A lot of these sequels go straight to video.

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Some movies have sequels built in, which can seem crass and calculated, as if the publicity department is using the first as a large trailer for the follow-up.  The originals already feel like a lackluster sequel. History of the World, Part One played with this premise, even ending with a teaser for the sequel. The Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear and Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Insult further parodied the senseless sensibility of film-as-running joke. The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes series unintentionally did the same.

What are worse, terrible sequels to great movies or pointless sequels to average movies? Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen are sequels to a vanity remake of a vanity film that didn’t warrant sequels. Jurassic Park III abandoned Michael Crichton and became extinct. Caddyshack II suffered from the loss of the Baby Ruth bar. Many sequels are just plain unnecessary. In this, I hold Dumb and Dumberer to be self-evident. Anyone with Traveling Pants will attest to that.

Most people look at horror or slasher franchises as the most heinous of culprits, but when Saw 17 is released it may still be more engaging than Sex in the City 2 (and, yes, there are whisperings of a Sex in the City 3). Open Water II treads water with a group of friends who can’t get back in their boat because they forgot to put out a ladder before they went for a swim. Open Water stranded divers in shark infested water. It is clear they should never have left the dock.

Richard Burton and James Earl Jones could have played their dueling Pazuzus as comedy in Exorcist II: The Heretic, but it didn’t cast out Exorcist III. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch suffered from its inflated budget, which cost it the grit of the original’s lower-end, handheld cameras. The raspy Scream 3 silenced that parody horror series. The Saw series should have been cut off at Saw II. Even John Edward couldn’t have predicted the saccharine ending of Poltergeist II: The Other Side. He might not have even helped it cross over.

King Kong had a son. Satan had a daughter. Dr. Jekyll had a sister. The Omen gave birth to Damien. Spawn will spawn in 2013. The sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein featured their brides and children, demonic cults, hippies and famous gunslingers, like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Even the architecture was featured in The House of Frankenstein and The House of Dracula.

Godzilla recently passed the Blondie series, which comprised 28 movies, for the series with the most sequels. Godzilla is the longest running film series in movie history spanning from 1954 to the present with more than 29 films made and a new one rumored to be released in 2012.  The James Bond series has been spied coming up quickly with 21 episodes so far.  Even Deep Throat coughed up six sequels, but I’ll get to that in Another 9-1/2 Half Weeks.

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I don’t go to a lot of sequels. I sometimes have trouble getting through the originals. On “30 Rock” Liz Lemon and Dennis Duffy bonded over how The Hours should have been called The Weeks. I’m kept up nights fearing 127 Hours will have a 254-hour sequel.