Friday, May 27, 2011

The Best (Movie) Sequel

Newsweek, from where it seems that I get all my news but from which I actually get very little -- because I only subscribe to Newsweek anymore out of habit, "habit" in this case meaning "way back when, I paid for enough subscriptions that I will continue to get issues of Newsweek long after they have stopped publishing it" --

... and don't ask yourself how that can happen. It's quantum mechanics, and you don't have to understand it, you just have to make up something silly sounding and eventually scientists will claim to have actually witnessed that in a laboratory, only to then be unable to reproduce the results of the experiment until they get $1,000,000,000 in grants, a hot lab assistant, and a margarita...

... Newsweek recently ran an article by Roger Ebert, because apparently the print version of Newsweek has opted to try to stay relevant by printing only articles written by famous people, whose opinions count for more than those of regular people. (The "written by famous people" angle is Newsweek editor Tina Brown's one trick pony, the same thing she did when she was at Vanity Fair. When Newsweek fires her, and she winds up at Life + Style, expect "Stars: They're Just Like Us" written by Jack Nicholson and Michelle Obama.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah: The famous opinions of the famous Roger Ebert, who in the latest issue of Tina Brown's Personal Blog opines that sequels are ruining the movie industry, noting that according to some website or other -- there's a website for every statistic, now -- this summer will feature more sequels than any summer before it, a travesty of sequelization that to Roger Ebert (who previously opined that 3D was what was killing the movies, and, had he been around for The Wizard Of Oz would likely have railed against this color that was destroying the integrity of movies) is worth taking up a few pages moaning about.

I've got a contrarian streak a mile wide, and when someone in a position of famousosity takes a stance, I am 99% likely to immediately decide just the opposite, and that is almost as many percents as you can have without resorting to quantum mechanics (using quantum mechanics, you can do all sorts of crazy things, like have "Yellow Percent" or "velociraptors").

So I was immediately taken with the idea of complaining that there are not enough sequels, simply because Roger Ebert said there are too many.

Then, too, there's the fact that complaining about something is far easier than celebrating something, and the whole point of this blog, before it admittedly became rather mean-spirited in recent times, was to celebrate The Best Of Everything (or didn't you get that from the title?), and so I decided that unlike Roger Ebert, and others, I wouldn't bemoan sequels, but would celebrate them by determining what was The Best Sequel.

And then I turned the page on that Newsweek article -- yes, I thought that all between finishin Ebert's article and turning the page, because I'm very smart -- and saw that Newsweek had in fact stolen my idea before I'd even had it -- I told you, almost anything is possible with quantum mechanics, including but not limited to quantum mechanics itself -- and had run down what it figured was the best sequel (they don't get capitalization. Only I do.)

Newsweek came up with, as their best sequel, The Godfather Part II, which is about what you'd expect from a bunch of navel-gazing baby boomers who figure they are the most significant thing that ever happened to the planet; a blip in birth rates caused by a generation that was far greater than the Baby Boomers coming home from a war has raised 50 million people whose sense of self-importance is inflated far beyond any rational basis. So you popularized rock 'n' roll and cocaine; get over it.

As I pondered the chart that Newsweek had created, and the article that Ebert had emitted, I began to consider just how loosely people were using the word sequel. Included in the list of sequels Ebert complains about are, for example, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two, and the new Winnie The Pooh movie -- with Ebert complaining that the former is "itself a sequel," which I thought was the point of his article.

(As an aside, Ebert tries to broaden his attack on Hollywood's supposed lack of creativity by somehow equating reliance on sequels with the "upbeat" feeling instilled by the trailer for The Beaver. No, I didn't get it, either.)

Other "sequels" Ebert includes in his list are X-Men: First Class, and Madea's Big Happy Family. Which I suppose are sequels, depending on how you define the word -- except that First Class is actually a prequel, which means that it converts the earlier X-men movies into sequels themselves, only sequels that were made before the movie they sequelled, which is the kind of time-bending thing that results in people being their own grandfather, so I don't like to think about it.

Which Ebert, and Newsweek, and everyone else, don't seem to be doing very strictly. I've always been bothered by people who insist that Kill Bill Vol. 2 was a "sequel" -- it was simply the second half of the movie, which was originally too long to be released, and so was cut into two parts. Really, there was just a long intermission there.

And are the Lord Of the Rings movies made up of The Fellowship of the Ring, and two sequels? Or are all three sequels, of a sort, to the as-yet-unmade The Hobbit, which was a sequel, too -- in a way. Tolkien wrote various stories about the mythology of Middle Earth, but was unable to get them published initially; it wasn't until 1936, when the book The Hobbit was published (a book he'd written for his kids) that anyone paid any attention to them -- and Tolkien then wrote The Lord Of The Rings when people wanted a sequel. The story itself was one book, but publishing costs in the 1950s forced Tolkien to break it into 3 separate volumes. ("Publishing costs", and "We want to make people pay 3 times for one book." So people who criticize Harry Potter for stretching out the final film: Tolkien did it first.)

It was only decades later, that Tolkien's original stories were published as The Silmarillion.

Which makes the three movies -- one of which won an Oscar -- all sequels to a book nobody's ever read.

At least Tolkien did it right: his first story didn't dispose of all the major plot lines and create the ultimate weapon, the way George Lucas*

*Mandatory Star Wars Reference

did in Star Wars. What was left to tell at the end of that movie? The rebellion had been growing, the Empire had the greatest weapon ever made, Luke got off of Tatooine, blew up the Death Star, and that was it. Sure, there might be some mopping up to do yet, but the main story was over.

That's what makes The Empire Strikes Back a "sequel", a real sequel: To me, a sequel is a story that shouldn't have existed, a story that was never contemplated when the original story was written.

That's an easy definition to come by. If you look at The Hobbit, it's pretty clear that Tolkien didn't give any thought to any stories to come after. Bilbo found that ring in a mountain, owned by a frog-thing, and the ring made him invisible: pretty standard stuff for fantasy. When people began demanding a sequel, Tolkien had to come up with more story for characters who were at the end of the line. (The Silmarillion, after all, takes place way before the events that Bilbo and Frodo took part in.) So he crammed some details into the backstory: that ring that Bilbo found? Actually a tremendous ring of power. But it just seems to turn people invisible. That's because you don't know how to use it. It was created in Mordor. Funny we didn't hear much about Mordor in the first book. Hey, look, here's "rangers." Funny, we didn't hear much about them, either.

And what was the deal with Tom Bombadil? I mentioned in a tweet a while back that I'm pretty sure he was Tolkien's Jar Jar Binks and I stand by that.

The Lord of the Rings, I bet, was never contemplated, and don't tell me otherwise: Tolkien had written The Hobbit as a kid's book, and initially started writing LOTR as a kids' series, too.

The Empire Strikes Back, also, was not a movie that George Lucas ever contemplated making when he filmed Star Wars. He can say whatever he wants, now, but nobody releases part four of a series first, and there's no way that part four of a planned six-part series has the ultimate battle and showdown. As I've said before and will go on saying, the very fact that Lucas threw a second Death Star into the series is proof that the first movie was never intended to have a sequel. Frodo didn't get to Mordor in the first 1/3 of Lord Of The Rings.

Sequels -- continuations of a story -- are not a problem when there's more to tell about characters, after all. That's why Ebert doesn't have any problem with James Bond movies, which are all sequels: James Bond's whole life is a movie, making each movie not so much a "sequel" as I define it but simply a continuation of one single story: James Bond's life as a secret agent.

That's how it works on TV. If Lost had been a series of movies, Roger Ebert (and everyone else) would presumably be complaining, saying "Here we are again, another summer, another of those Lost movies" and suggesting that it showed that Hollywood has lost its creativity.

But because Lost was on TV -- where each week we are treated to a sequel of the entertainment we liked the week before -- nobody thought anything of it.

Consider another movie. Let's pick one at random... say, um... hmmm... Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

There's a movie that doesn't need or deserve a sequel, right? (Even though I've actually written one for it.) It doesn't deserve one because the whole entire point of the movie was to look at one day in Ferris Bueller's life.

There were probably other things that could be examined in Ferris' life -- the movie could have been focused on how he and Cameron became friends, or how he met Sloane, or what he did to become so big a hit in school, or anything. But it chose to focus on one single day in his life, and therefore never really contemplated or needed a sequel -- so a sequel to the movie would have been ridiculous (unless, of course, it was my sequel, which clearly should be optioned and make me rich.)

There is, in fact, a move towards more sequels -- as people gravitate towards long-form storytelling on cable TV. Breaking Bad, with Hal From Malcolm In The Middle, was nothing but a series of sequels, but sequels that were necessary because the idea was to tell his whole story. (I assume; I only watched the first two or three episodes ever. But I hear it's great, and I don't hear people complaining that each week there's another Breaking Bad sequel.) Then there's that one historical-era TV series where Kate Winslet decided to get naked a lot in order to compensate for the fact that Lucy Lawless was getting a lot of attention for getting naked in her historical-era series, and there's the new HBO series based on that Thrones book that I'll never read because Michael Offutt confirmed for me that I shouldn't.

Really, it's only movies where people complain about sequels. Books have sequels all the time. Nobody's complaining that Patricia Cornwell slathers together another Kay Scarpetta book every thirty minutes or so. (Except me.) Everyone was thrilled to death that J.K. Rowling was writing 7 Harry Potter novels (although part of the "thrill" might have been faked to keep her from suing them) -- only to then complain that there are sequels to the movie versions of her (sequel) books.

In music, too, people want sequels: they want reunion tours and new albums by artists all the time. When was the last time you heard a music fan say "Oh, God, REM is releasing a new album?! I wish they'd just retire and let someone new come along." (Or Beyonce, or fill-in-your-artist of choice.) People are still mad that The Beatles aren't making new music -- sequels to their earlier albums.

Comic books are monthly sequels, sometimes running for nearly a century, in Superman's case.

And people love babies, too, and isn't a baby a sequel to the parents?

You get the point. So why do people hate sequels in movies? The answer is simple:

They don't.

People don't really hate sequels to movies. They just like to pretend they do. They pretend they hate sequels because it's the "in" thing to do -- but if everyone really hated sequels, we wouldn't go see them and they wouldn't be made.

No, we like sequels just fine, but we pretend we don't, the way we pretend we don't really watch much TV and the way we pretend we don't let our kids eat pizza for breakfast: we do these things because society -- in the form of Roger Ebert, writing in Tina Brown's Vanity Project -- tells us we're not supposed to like them.

And we're not supposed to like them even though the snobs like Ebert like them, too -- if the sequel is one they happen to approve of.

Ebert liked the Star Wars sequels, and The Dark Knight, among others. So he's fine with sequels that he happens to approve of, which makes his opinion snobbery of a pernicious kind: sequels are bad if they're the kind that appeal to people who aren't me, Ebert (and others) are saying.

I don't happen to like Fast Five, but I'll defend the people who do, because there's nothing that makes that sequel any worse (or better) than the Thin Man sequels (whatever those are) Ebert approves of; people like 'em, and that's why they're made. Nobody says you have to like them -- although you probably do, even Roger Ebert -- and they're not the reason Hollywood is churning out so little of what you think passes for entertainment.

No, the reason Hollywood isn't making more movies you approve of is simple: most people don't like what you like.

(Partly because what movie snobs like Ebert like stinks.)

That's a fact of life that I've come to terms with: my own tastes, in music, books, TV, movies, and most other entertainment, are unpopular -- so my shows are always getting cancelled. I preferred Web Soup to Tosh.0, but have to watch the latter. I loved all of Andy Richter's shows and they all were cancelled. Better Off Ted? Better off the air, according to the rest of you.

My bands don't get played on the radio. My author's books go out of print before they go in print. Movies I want to see barely register at the theaters. And so on.

I'm resigned to this. I think the rest of you are all bohemians who wouldn't know entertainment from a hole in the ground, and I'm right because you all go see Beverly Hills Chihuahua and I didn't (all right, I bought it for the Babies!, but I still haven't watched it.)

But I don't curse and moan and wail and gnash my teeth and rend my garments about how uncreative Hollywood is simply because they won't make more movies that I like -- which is what Ebert are really doing. By not complaining about all sequels, they've revealed their bias, without admitting it to themselves.

I don't mind sequels: sometimes, there really is more of the story to tell. Sometimes there's just another place to take the characters. Did anyone really mind that Indiana Jones got to spend some time with his dad and find the Holy Grail? (I also didn't mind the fourth Indy movie, which I found to be very entertaining and I'm including the refrigerator scene. It boggles my mind that the same "fans" who had no trouble believing in the Ark of the Covenant, whatever those Indian stones were, and the Holy Grail had difficulty accepting Indy getting exploded out of a town by a nuclear bomb. Really? That is where you could no longer suspend disbelief?)

If you like characters, or a story, or simply an idea enough, you want to keep going back there. I'm a little disappointed that I don't get to find out what Harry Potter's kid will be like. There are probably other stories to tell about Hogwarts, and about the X-Men's academy, and Spider-Man, and the rest.

And if that's true of them, it's probably also true of those guys from The Hangover (although I hear H2 is a drag and not very good) and Ferris Bueller and pretty much anyone else that you liked.

Growing up, I read all the Dune books -- one after the other, which is really an accomplishment, now that I think of it. They were all sequels, but I never wanted to leave Frank Herbert's universe, and was sad when they were over. I read all of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books, too -- sadly, in the case of the rather disappointing last one. And I loved his Dirk Gently series, which had only one sequel but which would have supported 30 or 40, at least, had he lived long enough to write them.

The point is, anything can be a sequel if enough people like the idea and want to see it. It's only a problem if nobody wanted or needed it (all those Shrek movies) or if it's done badly -- but that goes without saying, as entertainment people don't want or which is done badly is a problem. (Goes without saying, that is, unless you are Roger Ebert and Tina Brown needs you to fill some space.)

A sequel doesn't show a lack of creativity; L. Frank Baum wrote magically creative novels about Oz, more than I can count. A lack of creativity shows a lack of creativity.

So that's the ground rules: A sequel is, as I've defined it (and of course I'm right), a movie that should not have existed because the original was written without ever contemplating that a sequel would be created -- wrapping up all the important points of the characters' lives in the first one.

With that said, there have been good sequels, movies that came about simply because the first movie was so popular that a second one had to be made because studios, after all, are in the business of making money, and if McDonald's can sell you a second hamburger just like the first and make you happy, a studio can try to do that with a movie.

So what's The Best (Movie) Sequel, using those rules -- a movie that shouldn't have been made, by all rights, but which was, anyway, and somehow turned out to be great?

You can rule out superhero movies, right off the bat -- and that includes people like Indiana Jones and the like. Superheroes, like James Bond and other interesting people, have lives that are meant to be serialized. Superman's entire life is one story, so his movies aren't really sequels so much as simply chapters, like Kill Bill.

That leaves one-off movies, and the ultimate one-off movie is a horror movie. What other type of movies so obviously are not meant to be continued beyond what happened in the part we just saw? Whose life is so bad that they have to battle ghosts, or giant spiders, or the Devil, more than one time? Why would we ever want to see that -- having seen our heroes, the characters we love, get out of that house, or through the graveyard, or whatever, why would we want them to go back and do it all again?

We wouldn't. Horror movies are made to be one-shot movies: Freddy Krueger fights some sexy teens and loses and it's over (even though the original of that movie left a set-up for an obvious sequel, making it a horrible example that I'm too lazy to go back and change.)

And that's how I decided on The Best (Movie) Sequel, which is:


I know that many people were expecting some kind of twist or unique look at things here, but that's it: Aliens.

It was just a great movie, and yet, one that was never intended to exist and had no right to be as good as it was, but somehow overcame all of that (and the fact that it was made 7 years after the first) to be one of the greatest movies of all time.

There's a rule for sequels: everything has to be bigger, faster, louder. Call it the Sequel Expansion Rule: everything must be more. Superhero sequels have to have two, or more, villains when the original only needs one bad guy. Teen sex romps have to have more boobs. Cop movies need more car chases over ever more exotic terrain.

I can't prove it for sure, but I suspect that the Sequel Expansion Rule came about because of Aliens. Aliens, after all, promised more right in its title, with that s. There was only one alien in the first movie, after all, and it was killed by Sigourney Weaver, who then went to sleep for a while.

In the second movie, that one alien was still there-- but it was bigger and faster and stronger and meaner and Mom-er, and it was joined by hundreds of other aliens, and the single woman battling the single alien was now a team of marines and a robot and a little girl, and it wasn't just on one ship but instead was on a planet... bigger, better, faster, more-er.

Aliens packed in great performances: Anyone who's seen it has Game Over, man, ringing in their ears, a career-maker for Bill Paxton. And great ideas: The robot suit Ripley uses to battle the alien has been ripped off by movie after movie (including the Matrix trilogy). It even inspired our actual technology. When I saw Aliens, years ago, I thought how great it would be if people could actually sit in a ship and watch Marines battling over cameras installed in their helmets. Twenty-five years later, President Obama watched live as Seal Team 6 (TM, Disney) shot Osama Bin Laden.

I've gone on long enough -- this post should have been chopped into two parts, a la Kill Bill, so that years from now people could debate whether they liked my post about sequels, or the sequel to my post about sequels. Suffice to say that Aliens set the bar for all sequels that came before it and after it, proving that just because something didn't need to exist doesn't mean it can't be good.

Play me out, Bill Paxton:

P.S.: For a while, I seriously considered choosing Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Can you blame me?

Click here for The Best Of... Movies.


Rogue Mutt said...

"Aliens" is a great sequel. I think in large part because like "Empire" it took the original world and expanded on it. And I think that's what a good sequel does; it takes the original and expands on it in an interesting way.

The problem with sequels like "Transformers 2" or the last two "Matrix" movies (which even more than "Star Wars" were not thought of or needed when the first one was written) is they just throw more STUFF at the screen but none of it really does anything interesting.

So I guess there's two ways to do a sequel: digging deeper into the world and its characters like "Aliens," "Empire," or "Godfather" or remaining shallow like "Transformers," "Fast and Furious," just about every horror movie sequel.

I'll probably regurgitate this into a blog entry that will post in about three weeks. I have through June 10 written so the next slot would be June 13, though probably more like June 17 since we're talking movies, which would be perfect for another Friday Flix.

OMG, the word verification is "porked". That is awesome.

Rogue Mutt said...

BTW, someone found my blog today with the search phrase "why briane pagel didn't run for judge"

Sounds like you have a fan!