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The Art Of Sequels

Having discussed the merits of creating prequels the other day, it’s now time to look at sequels.

These days there’s barely enough room to swing a cat for all the sequels littered about the place. Effectively, we’ve reached a state where once a film reaches a particularly significant profit margin a sequel is put into production. Nothing to do with critical reception – or, in fact, whether the narrative actually merits or needs an extension – it is purely about the grosses.

On the odd occasion where a sequel is greenlit before the release of the original, there’s often the opportunity to craft a story that works not only from the first instalment, but also weaves the sequel into a larger, grander narrative that provides something more than the sum of its parts. But these are rare.

So, for me, there’s basically three types of sequels.

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1. The Repetitive Sequel

This is the most common. This is also the sequel that invariably is made to cash in on the merits of the first. More and more, these are occurring closer and closer to the release of the original, as executives assume our attention span is so short they hope we don’t realise the first film is over and just remain in situ until the second is released.

The biggest crime with the repetitive sequel is that they offer nothing more to the story. The worst example is where it’s merely a thinly-veiled copy of the first, but with different locations/props/hairstyles/minority support cast (Saw sequels, Hostelsequels, The Hangover sequels and pretty much see every B-grade horror film sequel.)

The variation of the repetitive sequel is when it’s combined with the amplification effect. Even though this does sometimes result in half-decent films, the sequel is essentially the same as the original, only more so (The Matrix Reloaded, 28 Weeks Later, Jurassic Park II, Hannibal). More people, more explosions, more dinosaurs – more whatever it was that made the first story interesting, until that’s all that remains in the sequel.

The problem here is the sequel is demonstrating the same issue that fails prequels: the refusal of the creator and audience to move on from the original.

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2. The Improvement Sequel

This is much better. As a sequel, this is when the sequel actually improves on the original and offers a much more satisfying experience through the story and through the world of the characters inhabit.

This often arises in examples where the first story was imperfect, for any one of a number of reasons. It could be that the first was rushed to release, or didn’t have enough money or attention to detail and cut too many corners (Dawn of the Dead, The Bourne Supremacy). It could be that the first was an unknown quantity, and the creators were unsure how it would be received or too busy world-building, generating a more conservative approach to the story (X2, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban). Or it could be that the success of the original on a limited budget and with limited attention allowed the sequel the freedom of time and money to make a much better second story (Hellboy II: The Golden Army).

There is a drawback though, where the above scenario gives more freedom to the creators and they turn out something worse (the Wachowskis again, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Alien: Resurrection, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End).

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3. The Redefining Sequel

This is the category of sequel where The Godfather Part II comes in. Essentially, it takes the original story and extends it, as a sequel does, but completely changes and challenges how the story’s told. It results in a redefining experience for the viewer, where their expectations and understanding of the original story is pushed into areas they didn’t anticipate, where the story suddenly seems much larger and more complex, and the narrative form itself adapts to create a wholly different experience.

Clearly, this isn’t easy to do, given the fact that The Godfather Part II dominates any discussion over worthy sequels. However, there are other examples, usually where the creator of the sequel acknowledges the excellence of the original story, and doesn’t bother to recreate it. Instead, they focus on offering something different, while still being related to the original film.

Strangely – given that he’s now busying himself with churning out repetitive sequels for Avatar – James Cameron has form in this category. With Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he certainly showed how you can take a perfectly good – if not great – original and pair it with a sequel that carves out its own space and story in a way that never undermines the original and is able to work in its own way, according to its own rules.

See also The Dark Knight, The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future Parts II & III, The Good The Bad & The Ugly.

 

So, a sequel needs to do something different. Needs to tell a different story, while enhancing the original. It can’t ignore it, but it can’t copy it. Like the prequel, there needs to be a reason why the audience is going to experience this story, beyond just the token exploration of more of the story.

 

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