Note: This Article Contains, Like, Just So Many Spoilers, You Guys
Film Twitter can be an interesting place, not only for the avalanche of “hot takes” that aren’t that hot to defiant declarations of pretty commonly held opinions to reassurances that yes, Sarah Paulson is indeed a national treasure, but also for the occasional question that spurs some interesting discussions. Take this one from last week:
This is a topic I’ve been pondering more lately as the entertainment landscape races more aggressively into movies that serve as just the latest installment of a long-running series, where “content” is replacing “stories” at a rapid pace. Because when movies serve as part of a whole, they must meet different demands and consider more than just the one plot, themes, and characters contained in their running times; they have to build off of what was established in the previous installment. Until relatively recently this not only wasn’t an expectation for a big blockbuster, it was a rarity. Which is why so many sequels – like, say, Ghostbusters II – would just lazily hit the reset button and have the characters go through basically the same story again, but bigger and broader. Sometimes, we would be graced with an unexpected lighting-in-a-bottle masterpiece like The Empire Strikes Back or Before Sunset; sequels that organically follow through from the developments in the last movie to explore new stories and settings while deepening the existing canon.
But sometimes we get the kind of sequels that so badly mangle the “spirit” of the original story it retroactively makes the original a little worse by association. Which are the films I want to present below.
I want to stress up front that this is not a list of the worst movies that happen to be sequels. Many of them, in fact, are perfectly functional, even decent films on their own terms. Likewise, a sequel like SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 commits many crimes against humanity but sullying the original Baby Geniuses is not one of them. I am specifically calling out the worst sequels solely judged in relation to what was established in their predecessors. Because while there are too many exceptions for the mantra “Sequels Are Never as Good as The Original” to be true, it didn’t come from nowhere, either. Consider…
2010: The Year We Make Contact
“Wait, they made a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey?!” Why yes, yes they did. From the man who later went on to helm Timecop, no less. It would be, of course, unfair to the point of cruelty to complain that 2010: The Year We Make Contact compares unfavorably to Stanley Kubrick’s watershed film. Indeed, how could it not? And really, the movie is…fine. Honestly, evaluated as a standalone thing, it’s not far off from the middling sci-fi releases we’ve come to tolerate from Netflix these days. So, I promise you, I am not just including this one because it’s “not as good as” arguably the most dense, ambitious, and thought-provoking science fiction film ever made.
No, the reason 2010 is one of the worst sequels is for an extremely specific plot development regarding one character. The first half is pretty much just retreading the beats of the first movie with the climax from The Abyss tacked on to the second half (and in defense of Peter Hyams, he was apparently adapting faithfully what is, from what I’ve heard, a turgidly prosaic sequel novel from Arthur C. Clarke, though I haven’t read it and have never valued fidelity to the source material as a strength). But the offending scene happens a little over an hour in, when Bob Balaban’s AI engineer figures out and explains what went wrong with the murderous HAL 9000 from the first movie. I’m going to let you read that last sentence again. You see the problem, right?
There’s the obvious one, of course, which is that “explaining” anything in a sequel to such a famously inscrutable classic is always a bad idea, but that’s an easy one to spot. The less obvious but far more damaging problem with this reveal is that it fundamentally misunderstands the dramatic power of the most interesting and complex character in 2001: A Space Odyssey. What went wrong with HAL that made him kill almost everyone onboard the Discovery? Nothing, and that was the point. HAL worked exactly as he was supposed to. He was following his programming to its logical conclusion, based on how his human creators designed him. Even worse, the completely unnecessary explanation has to do with a programming malfunction and not at all to do with the fact that we imbued within this artificial intelligence our own human flaws and capacity for destruction.
Yeah, that legendary jump cut from the bone club to the spaceship wasn’t just put in there to be a cool visual transition.
The Dark Knight Rises
Admittedly, the story of an obviously evil criminal tricking millions of people into devoting themselves to a bad faith faux-populism death cult seemed a lot sillier in 2012 than it does today, but that still doesn’t make up for what a profound betrayal to its predecessor this felt like seeing it in theaters for the first time. It’s almost impressive how Christopher Nolan picks up from where the last film left off in the least interesting manner possible, with Bruce Wayne just straight-up quitting being Batman and living as a recluse in the eight years since willingly making his alter ego a pariah.
It gets only more baffling from there, as Alfred abandons Bruce early on in defiance of everything we’ve learned about their relationship in the previous two movies, to its curious implication that the existence of uniformed police officers are literally the only thing preventing Gotham from descending into violent anarchy after pretty clearly establishing them as deeply flawed and vulnerable to corruption and compromise in the last movie (to say nothing of how horribly such an idea has aged after our country-wide reckoning with overmilitarized law enforcement). There are several references to a law inspired by Harvey Dent’s fictional “sacrifice” allowing all sorts of pretty terrifying police powers and erosions of civil liberties that are just casually dropped into conversations before quickly moving on.
It really does seem like Nolan either got bored with or just wasn’t comfortable further exploring the idea he hinted at in his Oscar-winning hit that Batman, in fact, was not a good long-term solution to Gotham’s problems, and in order for the city to heal, they needed something more hopeful to look up to. That it’s okay for his symbol to be reviled, even for crimes he didn’t commit, because that was always the eventual goal in ensuring Gotham could one day be a city where no little boy would have to be alone in an alley again.
Or they could just build a statue of Batman in the end. That’s definitely an inspiring and mature conclusion that in no way promotes the kind of toxic societal dependence on fantastical figureheads of violent retribution that the last film explicitly outlined the dangers of!
One of the many unqualified triumphs of the classic thriller Halloween is its simplicity. There is no convoluted motivation, no red herrings, no extraneous backstories, no characterization beyond the elemental forces of Good and Evil meeting in a small suburb that looks suspiciously like southern California. There isn’t even a clearly defined motivation for Michael Myers (or “The Shape,” as he’s named in the credits; see what I mean about simplicity?) to actually go after Laurie Strode with single-minded intensity.
It’s one of the greatest coincidences in all of horror; maybe even in all of cinema. Our heroine just so happens to cross paths with the masked killer, he just so happens to see her while stalking a small suburban neighborhood on Halloween night, and decides he just so has to kill her. He kills not out of some revenge mission or teleological reason stretching back to repressed childhood trauma. He does it simply because he is Evil. And that’s what makes him so terrifying: “no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong.”
It’s almost like a dark fairy tale in its stripped-down elegance… at least until John Carpenter and Debra Hill had the bright idea to write and produce a direct sequel three years later that explains Michael Myers in the silliest possible way, by not only tying his killing on Halloween to some druidic tradition having to do with “Samhain,” but even worse, reveals that Laurie Strode is his secret sister. God, what an utterly, deflatingly, so obviously wrong twist forcing a familial connection where one is beyond inappropriate to the needs of the story, and more importantly, what made Michael Myers such a scary movie monster in the first place.
Is it any wonder that David Gordon Green and Danny McBride set out to make a direct sequel to the first film four decades later, and one of the first things they did was retcon every single Halloween sequel from 1981 to 2002 and explicitly stomp out that moronic “Laurie is Michael Myers’ sister” plot thread into the ground?
So, as I warned in the introduction, “worst sequels” do not automatically mean “worst movies that are sequels,” and a great example of this is the splashy follow-up to the iconic Oscar-winning masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. I must confess, I… don’t hate this movie. It’s not “good,” but considering what they had to work with, it could have been so much worse, and I admire what director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian did to make something kinda sorta resembling a decent operatic horror spectacle and not a demented catastrophe.
Rumor has it that Thomas Harris, author of the original novel, set himself out to write a sequel so lurid, so absurd, so Grand Guignol that it would be impossible to adapt without repulsing audiences and everyone involved. That is, in fact, the reason why Jodie Foster, Ted Tally, and Jonathan Demme all passed on returning. And can you blame them? What would your reaction be to the challenge of adapting a novel where its main antagonist has a lesbian bodybuilder sister who serves as his bodyguard despite the fact that he repeatedly raped her when they were teenagers, and he has her under a barrel by promising her a sample of his ejaculate to impregnate her lover with a child to inherit his fortune, and who she kills in the end by shoving an eel down his throat after shoving a cattle prod up his rectum?
… Seriously, that’s in the novel. Luckily, the movie that results excised the most disgusting and campy portions of the book (changing the original ending where Clarice and Lecter fall in love and run away together… yes, really) and making something at least fleetingly entertaining.
So why is it on this list? Because despite being so much better than it had any right to be, both the movie and especially the novel still misunderstood Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter, and why The Silence of the Lambs was such an unforgettable story. Instead of being this psychologically omnipresent and terrifying peripheral figure, able to probe into the darkest corners of our troubled heroine to help her catch another monster despite his own incarceration, he’s now just another villain on the run in a cat-and-mouse thriller. Clarice Starling has her entire character development from the last movie erased so she could go through the same arc all over again. The human imagination of Dr. Lecter’s past crimes are always going to beat some gory staging of Ray Liotta eating his own brains, and that was always going to be the insurmountable hurdle that Scott and Zaillian, hard as they tried, could never clear.
I don’t think I can really stress enough what a profound change the arrival of The Bourne Identity had on the spy thriller genre. When James Bond was descending into an over-the-top parody of himself at the tail-end of the 20th century, and Vin Diesel tried and failed hilariously in introducing a walking, smirking Axe Body Spray commercial as the NuBond, Doug Liman (and later Paul Greengrass) and Matt Damon delivered an elegantly-crafted, more grounded, more sophisticated take on the spy genre, and as a result, the Bond series spent six years in the wilderness before rebooting itself with Bourne clearly having an influence on it. And the xXx series is, like, still hanging around, I guess?
Part of this was, admittedly, fortuitous timing. There was arguably no better era for the original Bourne trilogy comprising of Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum to flourish than between the 9/11 attacks and the end of the Bush Administration, as Americans were starting to forget the last remains of Soviet paranoia and start to feel anxiety over their own government’s increasingly troubling expansion of the surveillance apparatus and war powers for morally dubious ends. But the best part is, the series took that milieu and its lead avatar exploring those anxieties to their thematically appropriate conclusion in 2007 by revealing in the end that Jason Bourne was a willing volunteer in the Treadstone program. He wanted to be an emotionless killer for the federal government at first. An appropriately haunting way to close out this thrilling and complex trilogy with integrity…
… or at least it would have been, had Greengrass and Damon not decided to milk this franchise one more time nearly a decade later by retconning that arc; revealing that aKshuALLy, he was tricked into volunteering for Treadstone after they killed his father and made it look like a terrorist attack, wiping away the moral culpability that made Jason Bourne more compelling than most spy genre protagonists. A lot of critics and fans noted that this film felt so much duller and more perfunctory than the earlier films, despite being just as tightly-constructed and action-packed. I would submit that the reason it felt boring this time around was because with this retcon, our titular protagonist stopped being interesting and worth caring about.
And that’s all for the first part of this op-ed. Oh, that’s right, we’re not done. I’m going to go over five more sequels that betray their previous films later this week. But for now, let us know your most deflating movie sequel experiences in the comments!