Familiarity Breeds...

August 10, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It wasn't long ago that the concept of a "sequel" was a rarity. By that I mean the exception rather than the rule. There were a few each year - the lastest James Bond, the next Star Trek, another Rocky or Friday the 13th. But you could count on one hand the number of sequels to arrive in theaters during a given 12 month cycle. The same was true of remakes. They were few and far between, and mostly American re-treads of foreign material.

Now, it seems like about 50% of what opens is a prequel, sequel, or remake. (An exaggeration, I know, but still...) It's depressing. One of the great things about watching movies is experiencing something new. In this era of safe packaging and marketability, it's rare that a sequel does something to buck the formula, and rarer still to find a surprise in a remake.

I'm not against sequels as a concept. There are plenty of long-running franchise-type series that warrant additional adventures. Superheroes are perfect examples. Why not keep telling their stories until people no longer want to see them? Occasionally, there are more off-beat subjects that deserve a second look. I'm thinking of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset - a project fueled by creative drive, not box office success. Nine years after the first film, Linklater and his actors (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy) wondered what their characters would be like with so much water under the bridge, so they made the movie.

Deserving sequels seem to be the exception to the rule. Most of the time, sequels are born for financial, not creative, reasons. Consider The Matrix. The first film, designed as a stand-alone, was brilliant. The two sequels, made much later after it was deemed that the market existed, were subpar and disappointing. Most people would agree that they shouldn't have been made, but they exist and they struck box office gold. Then there's the case of the Star Wars prequels. I enjoyed them, but would the movie universe be poorer if they hadn't been made? Many die-hard Star Wars fanatics lost their religion because of Episodes I, II, and III. There's nothing like too much of a good thing to spoil it.

To re-inforce that statement, I turn to Star Trek. For four movies, this series generated unparalleled excitement in a limited fan base. Devotees, be they Trekkies or Trekkers, returned time and again to see The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home. Then, in 1989, along came a bad Star Trek movie, and the air went out of a balloon. The series limped along for a while, but the death knell had been sounded. The most recent Star Trek movie, Nemesis, was a box office disaster - proof that the once-mighty Star Trek juggernaut had shot its wad long ago. Some people never learn, though. Now there's talk of a Star Trek XI.

The series with the most number of sequels is the 007 franchise. Bond thrives on equal parts sameness and change. The stories follow an established formula - that's what the fans want (producers vary from this at their own risk, and the viewers' displeasure is typically felt at the box office). Freshness is supplied by frequently changing the lead actor. The scorecard reads: Connery 6 (or 7, if you count Never Say Never Again), Lazenby 1, Moore 7, Dalton 2, Brosnan 4, Craig 1 (and counting). Roger Moore overstayed his welcome, and staleness permeated his final two outings.

The latest trend in sequels seems to be taking something long dormant and attempting to resucitate it. I'm not referring to Batman and Superman. Those franchises, and others like them, have life apart from the silver screen. They have never truly gone away. But try these two titles: Basic Instinct and Clerks. Was anyone waiting with baited breath for the further adventures of Dante, or for another chance to see Sharon Stone's breasts (nice though they may be in their enhanced glory)? It's no wonder neither film was a financial powerhouse. (In all fairness, as unnecessary as it may be, Clerks II is a funny film.) Now, stand back: here comes Rocky, ready for another bout. And John McClane will yippee kiyay his way through another adventure next summer. Talk about beating dead horses...

I have less to say about remakes. I can understand taking something like The Ring or Pulse or Infernal Affairs and "Americanizing" it. Subtitle-phobia is a real condition (although not a terminal one), so why not give audiences familiar actors speaking a familar language? But that doesn't explain remaking The Omen or The Manchurian Candidate or dozens of perfectly good, not-all-that-old Hollywood productions. Cannibalization isn't pretty. Nothing is sacred: there have been remakes of Psycho, It's a Wonderful Life, and Casablanca. It's a miracle no one (that I know of) has touched Citizen Kane. Then there are the TV shows. Was anyone waiting with baited breath for big screen versions of Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazard, and Miami Vice?

The reasons for sequels, prequels, and remakes is obvious: Hollywood likes familiar, comfortable things. And most big-name sequels make money. Some (like Pirates 2) make HUGE amounts of money. They're the closest thing to a "sure thing" these days, and if a few duds drop out here and there, that's the price for mining an unproductive vein. I'm a realist and my intuition tells me this trend isn't going away. If it makes money, there will be another installment. Then, 30 years down the line, someone will disinter the thing and adapt it for that day's teens. That's right: in 2035, someone will have the temerity to remake the classic Wedding Crashers!