by John Constantine
I hear the same complaint every summer: why are there so many sequels!? Don’t these movie-maker people have any original ideas? How about some new movies already? Look, everyone. Sequels are awesome. We’ve known this about popular fiction since popular fiction was invented. Long before Optimus Prime rolled out in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” creators and audiences have been itching to return to their favorite characters and stories.
Just look at Cervantes. The guy created the modern novel. His "Don Quixote" was the 17th century equivalent to the summer blockbuster. Know what the guy did ten years after writing it? He wrote part two! Continuing adventures are coded into the very DNA of modern entertainment. The only problem is that they rarely live up to their predecessors. Here are the five movie sequels that not only met expectations, but exceeded them.
In film, a boiler-plate sequel is the exact same thing, just MORE of it. Louder. Bigger. Again, more. James Cameron’s “Aliens” is the exception to the rule. Ridley Scott’s “Alien” was a film about isolation under duress in the terrifying expanse of open space, virtues I lauded just last month. “Aliens” is about being under siege by an unstoppable force. It’s got the louder and bigger parts of the sequel down pat, but it’s far from the same thing. The crew of the Sulaco could barely survive a single xenomorph being in their midst. In Cameron’s sequel, we have a full team of trained soldiers beset by hundreds of space monsters. It expands the franchise’s universe, enriches returning hero Ripley’s character and scares its audience in entirely new ways.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is everything the “Star Wars” prequels aren’t. It’s subtle, scary, desperate, grand, and sexy. It’s no wonder then that it’s the one entry in the venerable space opera series that George Lucas had the least to do with. Writers Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan made Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader more than the simple character archetypes they were in “A New Hope,” imbuing them with humanity and flaws we never knew they had. Director Irvin Kershner showed us a galaxy at war that was more awe-inspiring, dangerous, and alive than anything we’ve ever seen on that desert planet called Tatooine. (Note: “Empire” is the only “Star Wars” movie that never shows Tatooine.) “Empire” is the best sequel... hell, since Homer wrote “The Odyssey.” Yeah, I went there.
“Gremlins” is a vintage ‘80s movie, the sort of fantasy that could not have been made during any other era of film. It’s funny and scary, unsettling and heartwarming simultaneously. One second you’re watching a little green bugger try to stab a housewife and the next, you’re watching him sing along to “Snow White.” It’s weird as hell. It isn’t even close to as weird as “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”.
At the start of “Gremlins 2”, it seems like the movie’s going to be nothing more than Gremlins-In-New-York instead of Gremlins-In-Smalltown-USA. Then it turns into a schizophrenic social satire about early ‘90s consumer culture and Dadaist humor. The movie can be summed up perfectly in one two-minute scene: a dude dressed like Grandpa Munster interviews a hyper-intelligent, English-speaking gremlin wearing glasses. In the middle of the interview, Brain Gremlin says that all he wants is civilization. Then he shoots another gremlin in the face. MADNESS!
The first “Toy Story” made Pixar’s reputation as great filmmakers at the forefront of digital animation. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear’s (Tim Allen) adventure was thrilling, fun and funny stuff. “Toy Story 2” proved Pixar's place as the best storytellers in American animation. It’s an adventure, just like the first flick, but it’s about so much more. The first “Toy Story” focused on the importance of friendship and the acceptance of change.
In “Toy Story 2,” when Woody is kidnapped because he’s a collectible, he’s confronted by characters like Jessie (Joan Cussack) and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer), toys long-past their prime and forgotten by their previous owners. It’s about impermanence, aging and how to find your purpose in life, and it’s a story told through the metaphor of a toy’s purpose. Every Pixar movie since has been a masterpiece, but none of them have matched “Toy Story 2”’s raw emotional impact and heart.
Ha! Gotcha! Bet you thought this was going to be another genre movie here at the end. You’re forgiven for the expectation. After all, most sequels are made for genre movies. Sci-fi epics, fantasy adventures, silly comedies and animated romps. Drama and romance, as forms of storytelling, don’t lend themselves as well to serialization because they need defined beginnings and endings to have the most impact.
Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” continuation of a beautiful love story is great precisely because it renders its beginning and ending as ambiguous. The movie was made and takes place ten years after “Before Sunrise.” “Sunrise”’s romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) was one of infatuation; two young lovers meet, must separate, and we naively believe that they will end up together because love conquers all. In “Sunset”, we find that Jesse and Celine never had the picture-perfect romance the audience imagined for them and they’ve grown into complicated adults. We never get all the details of where they’ve been for ten years and the movie ends without us ever finding out if they end up together. What we get is a story that is every bit as complex, melancholic, sweet and serious as love. Go rent it right now.