Sequelitis Disaster

August 18, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Sequels have been around for as long as movies have, but it's only in the last 30 years (or so) that they have begun to dominate the summer box office. Thus far this year, two of the top three movies are sequels. Last year, four of the top five fit into that category. In 2005 and 2006, it was only two out of five, but the #1 films in both years were sequels. In fact, over the last 10 years (including 2008, for which I will assume The Dark Knight finishes at the top), sequels have been #1 in seven of those, including the last six straight. So it goes without saying that they are big business.

The purpose of this column isn't to condemn or laud this "sequelitis" infection, but to look at a specific kind of sequel: instances when the first movie of a series is generally considered to be in the good-to-excellent bracket while its follow-up is a disaster. Consider this the "biggest negative delta." I'm not trying to be comprehensive; I have come up with five examples. They're alphabetical and your mileage may vary. (Keep in mind, this is the biggest delta between films #1 and #2. Franchises like Superman, where there was a marked drop-off between installments #2 and #3, don't count.)

The Blair Witch Project/The Blair Witch Project 2: This is a classic example of a movie that shouldn't have had a sequel. The original was a tense, low-budget horror/thriller about three young people lost in the woods. It was an unexpected phenomenon and made a lot of money, but the likelihood of producing a second installment was about as sound an idea as making a sequel to James Cameron's Titanic (about which, believe it or not, there were discussions). Greed won out and a "prequel" of sorts was created. The only reason The Blair Witch Project 2 is not among the most reviled horror sequels is that (a) hardly anyone bothered to see it and, (b) of the few drawn to theaters by morbid curiosity, most have mercifully forgotten the experience.

Conan the Barbarian/Conan the Destroyer: The first Conan movie was a lot of fun - a film that merged many elements of the Robert E. Howard stories into a tale of love, loss, and revenge. The second Conan movie was a bewildering combination of bad everything. Wilt Chamberlain??? The man may have been able to dunk a basketball with authority, but even a short line of dialogue overwhelmed him. O.K., Olivia D'Abo was cute. Conan the Destroyer was so bad that it felt like a parody of Conan the Barbarian. Worse still, being rated PG-13, it turned the bloody, brutal barbarian into something of a pussycat.

Jaws/Jaws 2: Jaws is one of the great summer thriller of all time. Jaws 2 is an embarrassment. Other than a few cast members, no one involved in the first film was back for the second, and the drop-off in quality was evident. The story was dumb and generic but might not have looked too bad on paper. Enter director Jeannot Szwarc, whose inept handling of the material illustrated just how masterful Steven Spielberg was in his handling of the first picture. Szwarc showed the shark too much, too often and its appearances, rather than being frightening, were laugh-aloud funny. Amazingly, Jaws 2 didn't kill this series. There were two more installments, each worse than their predecessors.

Planet of the Apes/Beneath the Planet of the Apes: The first movie is, of course, a science fiction classic. "Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!" The ending, with the Statue of Liberty, is one of the great iconic images of American cinema. The sequel doesn't start out too badly, but it goes horribly awry once Charlton Heston shows up. Both films leave the viewer flabbergasted, but for different reasons. The first one stuns because of its audacity. The second one stuns because it's impossible to believe that someone actually greenlit such an awful screenplay. Despite its all-around badness, Beneath the Planet of the Apes did little to injure this franchise. More movies and a TV series followed. None of the subsequent productions approached the first movie for quality or the second one for its lack thereof.

Speed/Speed 2: As soon as it became known that the action hero from the first movie was being replaced by the love interest, there was cause for concern. It's hard to believe that many of the same people responsible for the white-knuckle success of Speed were behind the knuckleheaded failure of Speed 2. This is yet another sequel that seemed more like a parody than a serious follow-up. And what does it say about a series when one must confess that Keanu Reeves is sorely missed? Ouch. It is worth noting that not everyone hated Speed 2. If I recall correctly, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel both gave it thumbs up. They may have been the only ones.