Sequelitis: The Curse of Cinema (and the best and worst sequels ever made)

By November 4, 2015Main

Sequelitis is the worst thing about the modern movie industry.  It is the condition that demands that any movie, however unique, can – indeed, if at all possible, must ­– be replicated for purely commercial motives.  Sure, the odd sequel manages to be just as good, if not better, than its predecessor – but for every Dark Knight, there are about a half dozen or so Batman Forevers.

It is a condition that does not afflict other art-forms.  In theatre, for example, Shakespeare may have written “Henry IV – Parts I and II”, which many Shakespearean critics regard as his finest achievement, but the clue to the plays’ greatness is in their titles: they are two parts of the same story, rather than the same story told twice (with vastly diminishing returns the second time around). 

The really frustrating thing about sequelitis in cinema is that it is a relatively modern affliction.  Up until the early 1970s, there was really no such thing as a sequel in cinema: the emphasis in movies was always on originality, on showing the world something it had never been seen before (rather than showing it something it had already seen in a slightly different guise).  There were, of course, sequels of sorts, such as the three distinctly unmagnificent sequels to The Magnificent Seven, but none were a patch on the original and they were effectively regarded as “B” movies, with little ambition or pretension of matching the original.  

It was only in the early 1970s that sequels began to dominate mainstream American cinema.  The irony is that these original sequels (if that is not a contradiction in terms), such as The Godfather Part II and French Connection II, were probably the best sequels ever made, precisely because, like Shakespeare with his history plays, they were really two parts of the same story and not simply repetitive cash-ins. 

Since the early 1970s, of course, sequelitis has really taken hold of the industry, with the invention of what is in effect “franchise cinema”: the idea that just as you could get a McDonalds or Burger King anywhere in the world and it would taste the same, so any version of Halloween or Police Academy, or more recently any version of Fast and Furious or Final Destination (the very title Final Destination 5 is surely the last word in the sheer stupidity of most sequels and their titles), would provide the same basic thrills, spills and (supposedly) belly-laughs.

It would be easy to imagine that it is only at the ultra-commercial end of modern cinema (the latter-day equivalent of the old “B” movies) that sequelitis has taken hold, but such is the virulence of the disease that it afflicts even undoubtedly great and artistic film-makers.  To give just two examples, it was recently reported by the BBC that in his declining years Orson Welles had seriously considered making a sequel to Citizen Kane (one can only be glad that obesity killed him first) and the equally great Bruce Robinson has also admitted in the past that in the years since making the incomparable Withnail and I he had considered writing a sequel, one in which – incredibly – Withnail had the last laugh (on “I” and the fans of the original film) by becoming a commercial success, not as an actor but as a businessman.  As with Citizen Kane 2, we can only be glad that there was never a Withnail and Me Too, because it would surely have undermined the haunting beauty of the original Withnail, in which the world’s greatest bad actor is surely contemplating suicide as he delivers one of Hamlet’s soliloquys to the wolves at London zoo.

Happily, there is a cure for sequelitis and it is an insistence on the sheer uniqueness – and therefore the complete unrepeatability – of the stories we write for cinema.  As screenwriters, we are encouraged (if we are encouraged at all) to think in “sequels”, and “franchises”, when we all instinctively, intuitively know that the very best stories (and with them, the very greatest characters) are completely original – complete one-offs.  It is an attitude that is perhaps best summed up by the man who is perhaps America’s greatest ever film-maker (judged purely on the length of his career as a director, his claim to the title is incontestable), Woody Allen.  Woody, for one (and he may be the only one in the American film industry), has always insisted that he is completely uninterested in making sequels to any of his films, precisely because he tries to make them as original, as unique, as unrepeatable as possible.  As he says, the best stories, by definition, don’t have sequels, because they leave nothing else to say.  That is why there has never been an Annie Hall II or Hannah and Her Stepsisters, and amen to that.

I will end this brief analysis of the deadliest cinematic condition with a brief history of the best and worst sequels ever made: it was almost impossible to compile the former and all too easy to compile the latter.  There have been great sequels, but they are very much the exception to the rule that almost all sequels suck.

THE FIVE BEST SEQUELS EVER MADE

1. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, based on Puzo’s novel of the same name)

A contender for the greatest film ever made and a shoe-in for the greatest sequel, precisely because it is not just a sequel, but also a prequel.  (A “pre-sequel”, perhaps?)  In telling both the story of Vito Corleone’s son, Michael, and Vito’s own backstory as an Italian orphan attempting to make something of himself in America, Francis Ford Coppola ironically achieved something utterly unrepeatable with his sequel – the sequel to end all sequels.

2.  TOY STORY 2 (1999) (Directed by John Lasseter, Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb)

The greatest animated sequel ever made, and lord knows that animation is susceptible to sequelitis like no other form of movie-making, precisely because cartoon characters cannot rule themselves out of crappy sequels. Toy Story 2 is more straightforward structurally than The Godfather Part II, as this time Buzz and the other toys attempt to save Woody from a heartless collector (a reversal of the original film’s plot), but in its examination of identity and even existential crisis (especially when Buzz encounters another Buzz who is apparently just like him), it is almost as profound.

3.  FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975) (Directed by John Frankenheimer, Written by Laurie Dillon, Robert Dillon and Alexander Jacobs)

The French Connection may have inadvertently invented The Wire (watch them one after the other and the similarities are uncanny), but for my money, French Connection II was still a definite improvement on most sequels (although it dropped the definite article). That was because, like all the best sequels, it developed (rather than just repeated) the original story, by taking Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle to the source of the heroin flowing into New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s – France itself – and in the process Popeye himself almost becomes a junkie, as he is captured by traffickers and injected with heroin.  As the movie’s original poster proclaimed, “The French Connection was only the beginning – this is the climax!”  And for once, the sexual metaphor was justified.

4.  THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) (Directed by Irvin Kershner, Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan)

J.J. Abrams, who is now attempting to reboot the Star Wars saga by making sequels to the original three films (as opposed to the awful, convoluted prequels that George Lucas himself made in the early 2000s), has famously said that the original film is the more powerful, in part because Empire, though perhaps more poetic, is “incomplete”: only a part of a larger story, rather than a self-contained film.  But surely that is the point of Empire, that it is the middle or centre of the original series of films.  And it is absolutely the best Star Wars film made so far, and one that Abrams himself will struggle to match, for two main reasons.  First, George Lucas gave the directorial reins to a genuine director (Kershner having made one of the finest television movies ever made, Raid on Entebbe) and, secondly, two screenwriting greats, Leigh Brackett (who had co-written such classics as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo) and Lawrence Kasdan (who would go on to write Raiders of the Lost Ark), collaborated to produce the finest Oedipal revelation since Oedipus himself 2,500 years earlier.

5.  AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (1999) (Directed by Jay Roach, Written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers)

An admittedly contentious choice, which is itself a testament to the sheer dearth of great sequels.  The Spy Who Shagged Me was the only truly funny Austin Powers film, and for eliciting the only truly memorable screen performance from Heather Graham (an actress so beautiful she should have been the Julie Christie of her age but who never got the parts to prove it), it deserves celebrating.

AND THE FIVE WORST SEQUELS EVER MADE

1. THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo)

I freely admit that, in its own way, this is as contentious a pick for worst sequel ever made as The Spy Who Shagged Me is for one of the best sequels ever made.  But there is method in my madness.  Compared to almost any other film ever made, especially every other gangster film ever made, The Godfather Part III is really pretty good, with Al Pacino in particular delivering a superb performance as an ageing and ultimately defeated Michael Corleone.  But compared to every other Godfather film, it is awful, and not just for Sofia Coppola’s amateurish turn as Michael’s daughter Mary (a performance so terrible that it practically compelled her to become a terrific director to compensate).  It is because it was absolutely only made for the money (after nearly bankrupting himself in the 1980s with flops such as Tucker, Coppola had to accept the offer to make another Godfather film) that Part III is so different in its DNA to Parts I and II.  They may have been about making money (crime, after all, being only the logical extension of capitalism) but, more importantly, they were also about family, identity and history itself. 

2.  JAWS II (1978) (Directed by Jeannot Szwarc, Written by Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler)

For The Godfather Part III, read Jaws II.  In and of itself, not a bad movie at all: in fact, about as good as an utterly pointless, insanely ridiculous remake (sorry, sequel) could be.  But just as Coppola was forced to make The Godfather Part III against his own best instincts, so Roy Scheider was forced to reprise his career-defining turn as Chief Brody to end a contractual impasse.  But whatever he made for making Jaws II, it wasn’t worth it, as it ultimately relegated him from serious actor (not only in the original Jaws but in other 70s classics such as The French Connection and Marathon Man) to sequel actor (even appearing in the last and worst Jaws sequel, Jaws 4 or Jaws: The Revenge).

3.  BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) (Directed by Ted Post, Written by Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams)

As so often with sequels, the title says it all: in every sense, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was literally beneath the original Planet of the Apes, and ultimately almost beneath contempt.  It had a typically risible plot for a sequel (another astronaut goes in search of Charlton Heston) that only got worse as the movie wore on, culminating in arrant nonsense involving telepathy and cult-worship of a nuclear bomb.  The rebooted Planet of the Apes, beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, has employed spectacular CGI to reanimate the entire series, but it still remains a mystery why no-one has ever adapted the original novel by Pierre Boule, which was inspired by his own experience as a Japanese PoW in WWII (an experience that also gave rise to his great realist novel, The Bridge Over The River Kwai), and which remains arguably the greatest Swiftian satire of the 20th century.

4.  BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979) (Directed by Irwin Allen, Screenplay by Nelson Gidding)

Steven Spielberg had the good sense to realise that Jaws was an absolute one-off and had nothing to do with the awful sequels.  (Perhaps he should have done the same with the Jurassic Park movies.)  By contrast, Irwin Allen was both the genius who made The Poseidon Adventure (in which a group of survivors attempt to escape from an overturned cruise ship before it sinks) and the schmuck who made Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (in which two salvage teams attempt to find the treasure that is supposedly located within the ship, but which had mysteriously gone uncommented upon in the original film).  Having made The Poseidon Adventure and then The Towering Inferno, Allen could legitimately claim to be the father of the disaster movie, but Beyond The Poseidon Adventure was just a disaster, critically and commercially, that effectively ended his career as a major director. 

5.  GREGORY’S 2 GIRLS (1999) (Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth)

Bill Forsyth has only ever made nine feature films, but almost half of them (That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy) are masterpieces, which makes the fact that his last feature was Gregory’s 2 Girls an absolute travesty (and something of a tragedy).  It is a sequel that almost undoes all the good work of the original, as John Gordon Sinclair is shown to have grown up to be a charmless teacher who still fantasises about teenage girls.  The only good thing about it was that it was so bad it dissuaded Forsyth from sullying his reputation further by making any more films.

AND FINALLY, THE GOOD NEWS: IN THE END, SEQUELS DON’T MATTER

It’s true.  The Godfather (Parts I and II), Jaws and even Gregory’s Girl ultimately remain unsullied by their awful, unnecessary sequels.  When they came out, the likes of Jaws II and Gregory’s 2 Girls temporarily threatened to besmirch the hallowed reputation of their illustrious forebears, but in time they are as forgotten and unloved as the originals are revered and remembered.  I suspect that that is because they were only ever made for the money, and once the money is counted up and secreted away to Swiss bank accounts, it is the glorious, lustrous art of the originals that endures.