Sequels and Backwards (In)Compatibility

July 26, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Now that seemingly every third motion picture is a sequel, the question has to be asked: How does a subsequent installment of a movie series impact the viewer's impressions of what has gone before? It's a tricky question, and not one that many movie-makers are considering as they rush to get their product out the door.

Admittedly, there are some instances when it doesn't matter. A bad second Miss Congeniality isn't going to cause a revisionist perspective of the original. Ditto for Meet the Fockers and Legally Blonde 2. That's because there's no real love for these "franchises." They are disposable entertainment. Half the people in theaters for the second installments don't remember much about the first.

But what about movie series that have serious, built-in fan bases where sequels matter because their content becomes "canon?" If the sequel is good, there are no complaints. But what if the sequel is bad, and, worse, what if it does damage to established characters and/or storylines? Here are some examples.

After its release, Alien was considered to be a modern science fiction/horror classic. Fans approached the sequel, Aliens, with trepidation, but it turned out that James Cameron fashioned a second installment that was as good as, if not better than, Ridley Scott's original. Then came Alien 3. Not only was it a bad movie, but it killed off Newt and Hicks, two characters who gave Aliens its emotional punch. Worse still, they were eliminated "off screen," and ended up DOA. Alien Resurrection compounded the situation by giving us another dud and erasing Ripley's death, and Alien Vs. Predator completed the cycle, reducing a once-beloved franchise into a laughingstock. For those who have seen movies #3, #4, and #5, is it possible to re-watch #1 and especially #2 in the same light? Of course not. In this case, bad sequels have diminished, however slightly, good originals.

Similar arguments can be made for the fourth installments of the Batman and Superman franchises. Enduring Superman IV: The Quest for Peace steals away the good will generated by the first two Superman movies. (The third installment wallows in mediocrity - it's neither good nor bad, and isn't memorable.) For those who have seen the entire Superman saga, it's hard to watch the first two episodes without at least subconsciously recognizing what's lurking out there at the end of the line. And you can't pretend it doesn't exist, since the proof is on the celluloid.

In Star Trek II, Spock dies. In 1982, this was an emotional moment - the first time a major Trek character shuffled off this mortal coil. Two years later, the Vulcan returned. Star Trek III wasn't a bad motion picture, but it diminished the impact of its predecessor's ending. In 1982, it was "Spock is dead!" After 1984, it was, "Okay, he's dead, but he'll be back in the next movie."

The there's the issue of Kirk's ignominous passing in Star Trek: Generations, and he doesn't come back. It's arguably the most pathetic death scene ever endured by a long-running character, and it's easy to understand why some old guard Star Trek fans abandoned the movie series after this. Is it possible to watch any of Kirk's old adventures without thinking of how it will all end for him?

Many Star Wars fans hate the prequels. If you think they are inferior, have they limited your enjoyment of the original trilogy? Does the Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan take something away from the Alec Guiness version? Is it possible to view Darth Vader in the same way in Episode IV?

The upside of a sequel is that it gives us an opportunity to revisit familiar characters and watch the next steps of an ongoing adventure. But there's a downside to this. Sequels that are badly written, ill conceived, and/or made exclusively for financial reasons can result in a diminution of an entire series. Sometimes, it's better not to know what happens next, because, once you have seen it, you may wish you hadn't.