Friday, March 12, 2010

The Problem of Sequels

We all know that sequels are rarely as good as the original. But there is a more serious problem with sequels than just crappy writing. Indeed, there is something inherently problematic in the concept of sequels itself that not only can doom them from the start, but can also harm the original.

Hang with me here. Humans are creatures of logic and emotion. In the real world, logic is superior. Logic gives us reasoning. It allows us to build the world around us. Without logic, there would be no science, no math, and no order. It is only through logic that we can categorize and reason, that we develop patterns of thought, formulas, order and structure. Emotions simply cannot do these things because they are subjective, they vary from person to person and situation to situation. They lack structure, consistency and reliability. Thus, a society based more on emotions than on logic will be an unjust society and a failure.

But story telling is different. In story telling, logic plays only a limited role. It plays the part of the gatekeeper, informing us whether or not the events presented in the story are sufficiently likely that we can suspend our disbelief and accept the story as real enough that we may judge it on its merits. And what are the merits by which we judge a story? We judge a story on the basis of whether or not we "like" it -- which is an emotional decision, not a logical decision. . . you do not "like" an equation, it is simply true or false, but, at the same time, whether a story is true or false does not affect whether or not we like it.

What this means is that story telling is all about emotional manipulation. And since our emotional responses are hardwired, we tend to react similarly to certain emotional triggers. Knowing this allows good story tellers to create emotions, heighten emotions or even suppress emotions. Talented story tellers know how to play these triggers like a musical instrument to achieve the desired result.

What does this have to do with sequels? Consider this. . . movie makers follow a series of well known patterns to create the emotional highs and lows they want. The greater the high or low created, the greater the movie.

To maximize the highs and lows, filmmakers use two age-old tricks. First, they paint the challenge faced by the protagonist as nearly impossible. The reason is simple, the greater the challenge, the more likely the chance of failure, the higher the emotional high achieved when the protagonist succeeds. Thus, you will never see a film about a man planning to cross the street, but you will see a film about a man aiming to climb the highest peak in the world. Unless the challenge is extreme enough, the emotional content for the audience is simply not sufficient.

Secondly, nothing heightens an emotion more than being exposed to the counter emotion moments before the pay off. Think of it this way, a mountain looks a whole lot more impressive if someone digs out a valley before it -- just like you appear taller to someone standing in a ditch. It’s the same thing with emotions. The closer the hero comes to failure, the sweeter (emotionally speaking) the moment when success arrives.

That’s why couples in romantic movies always dislike each other before they fall in love, and why the audience is made to believe they can never be brought together right before they are joined. By giving the audience a negative emotion first, the positive emotion appears to be all the greater.

It’s the same thing in action movies. Ever wonder why the hero needs to appear to lose right before he wins? Because it makes his victory feel all the greater. The scientist in the drama must be brought to the point of giving up before he has his break through. The bad guy must have his moment of perceived triumph right before he’s defeated. The nerds must lose their frat house right before the moment of comedic revenge. In each instance, the film maker is putting you at the top of a mountain or the bottom of a valley before showing you the rise or fall about to come.

Indeed, when a successful film finally wraps up and the story ends, the audience should be brought to an emotional climax that is literally the highest or lowest emotional point of the film.

So what does this have to do with sequels? Sequels are made because the audience was so emotionally moved by the prior film that they want to experience the ride again. They want to relive the highs and lows that befell these characters. And therein lies the problem.

If the ending of the last film was truly the highest point, then the filmmakers must find a way to take that away so the audience can be brought emotionally low again before being lifted up once more -- otherwise the highs will feel flat, or worse, they'll feel like lows compared to where the character had been. What’s worse, the audience wants to repeat the exact type of action that happened the first time, i.e. the audience wants to see the lovers fall in love again, the band of heroes have to join up once more, and the every-man hero who never did anything in his life before must again rise up and meet the impossible challenge.

That’s why the characters who were in never-ending love at the end of Romancing the Stone needed to fall out of love to start Jewel of the Nile, why the Ghostbusters had to lose their business and be spread to the four winds to start Ghostbusters II, and why Ellen Ripley in Alien had to face a bigger challenge for which she was not prepared, but into which she could grow.

But there are two inherent problems with this. First, by undoing the ending of the original, sequels start on a poor footing. Right out of the gates, you’ve killed the never-ending love, and broken up the inseparable team. And how do you make the world’s biggest alien killer back into Joe-nobody? Moreover, when you do this, you change the nature of the characters. Before the lovers merely suffered from romantic mistakes, now we know they might not really get along as well as we thought. Suddenly, those four friends who clung together through thick and thin don’t seem as devoted as they once did? And do we really think Ripley can’t handle this current crisis. . . even though we never would have picked her to survive the first movie?

Also, why should the audience trust that your resolution will be any more real this time? How do we know the lovers won’t break up again the moment the credits stop? If you lied to us before, there is no reason to think that you might not be lying now.

Secondly, the film maker probably told the audience that the crisis in the first film was the biggest crisis of all time. So how are we now supposed to believe something even more challenging has come up? How fake does it feel to hear everyone warn us about the K-10 in the original as if that was the be-all, end-all only to now discover the K-11 standing right next to it. (FYI, you can’t just repeat the original challenge because the audience knows that your character can overcome that. So you must step up the challenge.)

Alien provides a classic example of this problem. In Alien we were told the alien was the most horrific creature in the universe. But Ripley overcame it. Thus, to raise the challenge level, she must now face something worse than “the worst creature ever.” To solve this, they made her face hundreds of aliens. But to make this work, they had to reduce the murderous potency of the creature itself or all the humans would have been wiped out in the first five minutes of the film. Yet, in so doing, the director has now told us that the first alien wasn’t as tough as it seemed. That diminishes her achievement. It would be like learning in Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader was the sissy brother of Darth Super Vader.

That’s the problem with sequels. To recreate the emotional rollercoaster of the original, most need to begin by diminishing the highs and lows of the original ride. Not only does this leave you with a bad taste in your mouth right out of the gates, but it calls into question the reliability of what we are told about the highs and lows this time around. Moreover, it often requires tainting the characters in ways that make them less likeable or less potent.

That’s why most of the best sequels either avoid trying to repeat the first movie, or they are actually longer story arcs disguised as sequels. Take for example, Empire Strikes Back which doesn’t diminish Star Wars because it doesn’t try to downplay or undo what happened in Star Wars, it just builds on it by adding the next stage of a long struggle.

So if you’re a filmmaker and you’re looking at making a sequel, consider this advice. Do no harm.



LoneWolfArcher said...

I actually liked Rocky III better than I or II. Maybe I am weird. Part of it is that I was 7 when the original came out. I had only seen bits and pieces of the original and II when I saw III.

After going back and watching all of them later I still maintain that III was the best of them. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm heading out of town for the weekend so I'll spill everything now and reply in a couple days. :-) What follows is a random assemblage of thoughts.

Very good analysis. Screenplays are nothing if not a set of peaks and valleys: when your hero is up, bring him down. When he's down, bring him up. Many filmmakers (including ones who've done sequels) have said sequels are difficult because: a.) the audience wants something different, but b.) they want the same!

Some of the best sequels, like Empire, simply build on what came before. The Godfather II is another good example (along with the parallel flashback story). On the other hand, Star Trek II ignores almost everything in the first film. They even went out of their way to redesign the uniforms, the music is completely different (Horner instead of Goldsmith), etc. Trek II actually could've been the first film.

Actually, some of the Trek films are so completely different from one another that I'm not sure the normal rules apply. Yeah, V'Ger almost destroys Earth in the first film, yet most people enjoy the smaller, more intimate revenge story of Kirk vs. Khan. The Indy films are more serial-based: "Tune in next week...!"

I love the first three Die Hards but obviously Die Hard II is a repeat of the first film, even down to William Atherton's reporter character being on Willis' wife's plane. The third film is a little different since they: a.) explain the bad guy's motivations by tying it into the first film, and b.) they totally change the claustrophobic nature of Die Hard by opening it up. (From building to airport to Manhattan.)

The Alien films were problematic. While Cameron is applauded for taking a small horror movie and turning it into a balls-out action movie (and expanding on the one-note Ripley character from the original), Fincher gets crap for taking the action movie and turning it back into an Alien-clone horror movie. After all, how can you go from one alien to many to one again? (As I wrote in my blog, the development of Alien 3 was a stressful period for all involved. One of the writers was more interested, not in the alien, but in Ripley's character arc, from "young person" to "warrior" to "reflecting mother.") And then for the fourth one, Jeunet simply makes Alien again, but with a dash of black humor.

Sorry for the random nature of this post. I'll have more to add but I don't know when I'll have computer access (I'm not gonna be hovering for an hour over my phone typing a reply!) :-)

LoneWolfArcher said...

Okay, not that ScottDS gave an in depth analysis, I will have to expand on why I like Rocky III better than I or II.

I and II were the same. A lot of back-story (and II's wasn't very enthralling) leading up a crescendo title fight against Apollo Creed. II's ending was cheesy with both fighters knocking each other down, with Rocky getting up just before 10 and Apollo slumping back down. How Hollywood can you get?

But III was pure Rocky goodness for a little over an hour and a half! It starts with the Rocky and Thunderlips charity event (taken from a similar real life happening from the 70s I might add). Then the first fight against Clubber which Rocky loses. Mickey's death. Rocky doubts himself. Apollo rides in and restores Rocky's confidence. Then the 2nd fight against Clubber where Rocky pulls a rope-a-dope routine for the win!

Give me III over the other II. IV went way off track, V was a little underrated, but still not as good. I've never seen Balboa.

Writer X said...

I'm usually not a fan of sequels and, truthfully, I can't think of one that I really liked better than the original. It's always so hard to match that first movie's originality and authenticity, for many of the great reasons you've listed here, unless the screenwriters/actors/directors dig deeper into the main character's personality--flaws and all. Plus, there has to be plenty of surprisees in the second story. It can't just be a repeat of the first but with different names and in a new location.

I'd say that Rocky II maybe came close, but never matched the original. I think the first original new (does that even make sense??) 007 with Daniel Craig was exceptional. He gave us a serious side of James Bond we never really saw before. I loved that movie. But the next 007 movie that came out with Daniel Craig was a disappointment, mostly because he wasn't developed any further and I can only take so many crash-and-burn car chases.

Anonymous said...

LoneWolf -

Rocky Balboa is pretty good, surprisingly good, actually. I'm biased because I was a temp at MGM at the time the film came out so I got to see it at an employee screening.

In any case, I recommend it. (The Rambo movie he did after that ain't too bad, either.)

StanH said...

The accidental sequel, wherein the original was written, and capped as a one off then reappears as the magic sequel, Beverly Hills Cop, 48hrs, Pirates of the Caribbean, Caddy Shack, etc. They are as you say, poorly written, and tarnish the brand. There are exceptions as listed in your post, and up-thread.

AndrewPrice said...

LoneWolfArcher, I also prefer Rocky III to Rocky I and II. I can't tell you why specifically, I just liked it better. It was definitely a different movie than the first two.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks, glad you liked it. Also, thanks for the thoughts. I agree with them. You're absolutely right about the problem with Aliens III -- how can you tell us that one creature is invinsible, then go to "we can beat Armys of them," and then go back to making one create as exciting? There is an inherent problem there. And that was really the problem created by Aliens.

It's the same thing with action movies. We've gone from threatening a person to families, to cities to nations to worlds. What's left to up the ante to make the threat seem so huge? But that's really for another post.

I think you're right about the Star Trek films too, I think they largely ignore their prior movies whenever they put out a sequel, which hasn't made them sequels so much as just constant "reboots." So they actually side-step the problems I'm talking about in this article. In fact, that might be the best solution for making good sequels.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree. Though there are a few sequels that I do prefer -- though they are more like "reboots" than sequels.

I think you hit upon the other problem with sequels -- they are often made simply to exploit an existing audience and they don't want to go too far from what the first film did. So they don't include new plot points or anything "too" creative. Instead, they just end up repeating the first story with a slightly different location or bad guy, and then inserting car chases, expanded fight scenes, and sex scenes as a substitute for writing.

I thought the first Craig movie was surprisingly good -- and felt very original (though I didn't like the "I resign" bit -- it didn't fit his character at all). But the follow up was recycled garbage.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think that the best sequels, the ones that don't fall into this trap are either the "reboots" like Scott notes with the Star Trek movies, or they are films where the director actually envisioned an entire story arc (like Star Wars) which runs longer than the movie itself. But most sequels come into being only after Hollywood realizes that the audience likes the original.

CrisD said...

Terminator 2 was one of our favorite family movies when the kids were in middle school. I think it worked as a sequel because it turned Terminator one on its ear. (But, also, time travel is a big cheat, I have to admit..) T-3 was a disaster and had all the sequel flaws you talked about.

Good discussion about stories. I think suprises are cool part of story telling. We would watch T2 over and over and still roar laughing and repeat along when he says "Come with me if you want to live!"

Tennessee Jed said...

Your main point is absolutely valid, and actually also indicates the enormous problems faced by writers in series television such as Star Trek. Just as in good single episode drama, where the events being portrayed necessarily must be the most significant to date for the characters involved, in episodic writing those same events must necessarily not be the most significant.

I believe that the best sequals or prequals are merely part of a much larger story. Each individual movie happens to chronicle just a portion and begins and ends with the natural dramatic rise and falls within the larger story. In the case of Star Wars, it was crafted in a way it could stand on it's own. Empire Strikes Back, on the other hand, was clearly the first half of Return of the Jedi. When viewing, one immediately recogizes at the end that there is unfinished business.

The same is true of Godfather and Godfather II. One gets the feeling the story was there all along,and just split into two parts. Godfather III did admittedly complete the life story of Mochael Corleone. Unfortunately, the plotting was just not as compelling as the first two.

One final example of good sequals as parts of a larger whole: North and South and it's sequals. Each is merely a large episode in a larger saga.

Tennessee Jed said...

p.s. my point is the same as yours, Andrew. I usually purposely do not read earlier comments until I have posted my own so that I can avoid falling prey to the anchor effect. That sometimes results in a duplication, but is still, I think, preferable to the other.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, I agree -- T2 is one of those sequels that I think is better than the original. Not only was the budget bigger and the effects better, but the story really took an interesting turn and, as you say, turned the original on its head. Plus, I have to say that the acting and the writing in T2 was simply superb. All around, they did a great job with that one.

As for T3, I agree with you there as well -- it fell into the sequel trap.

Joel Farnham said...


I like your choices, but the best sequel, I have seen, is Crocodile Dundee II. The first is a love story with a fish out of water story, Dundee being the fish. The second reverses that with the gangsters being the fish out of water. It basically stays the same with a sense of danger to Dundee. Very entertaining. The third sequel was very dissappointing which proves your point. :-)

Sister Act couldn't be topped by Sister Act 2. The first had mortal dangers for a fake nun. The second had mortal dangers for a school. Not even in the same league.

Goldman said it best, the reason why sequels are made is because of the money.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Good comment and I agree entirely. Not only are the best sequels those that merely form another part of a larger story, but I think, as you say, this is truly highlighted by the problems with writing series.

Each week needs to seem more dramatic than the last week, but you can't just keep upping the ante or the prior weeks suddenly seem quaint (plus you run out of ways to up the ante pretty quickly). That's why again, many of the best series don't do the monster-of-the-week format so much as a long story arc that slowly exposes plot points over each episode.

Alternatively, you can do something like the original Star Trek series where each week involved different moral and philosphical questions, so that the "issue" can't really be compared week to week. Or you can do like the Twilight Zone and simply do entirely different stories/formats each week. Those are also ways to avoid the sequel trap.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, You're right, most sequels are made for money. A few are made to continue a story, but most are just for money.

I too like Dundee. I thought it was very clever how they turned the first story on its head. It gave the two movies together a more complete feel. Not to read too much into those movies, but in an odd way together they ended up as a character study of the differences between the urban and the country lifestyles.

Plus, they were just fun.

Unknown said...

Andrew: For all the reasons you mentioned, sequels are difficult, and rarely as good as the original. Godfather II was excellent because it could continue a story while expanding on the original and filling in the gaps from it with historical flashbacks. But the two combined had said nearly all that could be said, so Godfather III was not only not up to the quality of its predecessors, it was a near-caricature of them.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree. II did a great job of expanding on I, and III was more of a caricature.

Gordon Winslow said...

While I think your analysis is generally correct, I think you err in writing about Aliens as if it is inferior to Alien when it's generally considered equal or superior. As a result, you make a statement that you don't support:

"That’s why most of the best sequels either avoid trying to repeat the first movie, or they are actually longer story arcs disguised as sequels."

You do not provide an example of the emphasized portion, and Aliens is actually a good one.

Alien was a horror movie, Aliens is an action movie. This is where Star Trek fits: After the philosophical Star Trek I, the better sequels went off in new directions. Star Trek II is a naval battle film. Star Trek IV is a fish-out-of-water comedy. Star Trek VI I remember liking but I saw it a long time ago. (What kind of film was it?)

Fans of Batman Begins and the Dark Knight who agree with your analysis that many of the best follow-ups are longer story arcs disguised as sequels will be pleased by the below interview with Christopher Nolan. He conceives of his Batman films as a trilogy, and notes that the former hero Batman is a fugitive as we begin act three.

Gordon Winslow said...

I haven't seen Rocky III, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that it's as good as Rocky, which is a nearly perfect film and one of my all-time favorites.

My high opinion of Rocky is why I haven't seen Rocky III. I saw Rocky IV and it caused me to never want to see another Rocky sequel because it was an act of sacrilege against something I held as near-holy.

I did see Rocky Balboa, because the girl I was dating when it came out was a huge Rocky fan. I really enjoyed it, but it felt more like a pleasant postscript to Rocky than a straight sequel. Like a quick tacked-on scene at the end of Star Wars where you learn that Han Solo opened up a brewpub with Leia on Endor and had five kids, only in full-length movie form. And a very pleasant postscript it was.

AndrewPrice said...

Gordon, Your point about Aliens being a different kind of movie is well taken and I would agree. It would probably not surprise you that I enjoy both movies equally.

However, I would still maintain that Aliens does diminish Alien because it changes the nature of the creature from being a unique unbeatable creature to being merely one of a group of very tough, but easily killed creatures. It makes you think that all they really needed was a gun and the first movie would have turned out very differently.

In other words, before Aliens came along, Ripley's achievement in Alien was more impressive. After Aliens, where she participated in the killing of dozens of the creatures, her deeds in the first movie seemed a little weaker.

Regarding Rocky, I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of the series. Rocky just never spoke to me, so I saw them mainly as popcorn movies. I included the picture just because of the "III" on the image, not because I meant the article to be specifically about any movie in the Rocky series.

Gordon Winslow said...


Did Rocky on its own not speak to you? I could rhapsodize about it for hours, and probably have. It's the sequels that turned Rocky into popcorn, which is why I pretend they don't exist (except for Rocky Balboa, as noted).

I'd like to yell "Watch it again!" but I know that if it didn't reach you the first time, it probably won't the second time either. People are always telling me to watch M*A*S*H again, but despite several attempts I've never made it through.

Loved the sequel though, if a TV series counts as a sequel.

AndrewPrice said...

Gordon, I can respect Rocky, but it just didn't take for me. I can't say why. Just one of those things I guess?

MASH didn't take either -- though I enjoyed the series.

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