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The Unapologetic Geek

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Top 5 Best & Worst Movie Sequels

Contrary to popular belief, the trend in Hollywood to turn every profitable movie into a series of movies is not a strictly modern obsession. Going all the way back to the studio system of the thirties and forties, Hollywood was cranking out sequels, serials, and neverending strings of Tarzan, Philip Marlowe, Andy Hardy, and Mummy movies (to name just a few). Normally—and this is as true today as it was then—a sequel will try to recapture the magic of the original film, ultimately failing to be as good or profitable but still managing to turn a healthy enough box office for the studios to consider a trilogy.

However, this top 5 list isn’t about the normal cases; it’s about the exceptional ones. Every once in a while, a sequel will be arguably better than the original, will try to do something completely different and succeed in unexpected ways, or will take something cherished and completely destroy it. In making this list, I had a few simple rules: 1) I have to have actually seen the movie; 2) the original has to be a good movie; 3) the sequel has to have come out before 2008; 4) it has to have been a theatrically released movie (no direct-to-video cash-ins); and 5) it has to be the second film in a series, if indeed the franchise lived to become a series (In every case but one, each sequel on my list—even the worst ones—spawned at least one more film). By the way, notice that just about all of these movies use roman numerals; what's up with that?

THE WORST
5. Mission: Impossible II
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Of the five worst sequels here, this is the only one I own and may watch again. Though it is a deeply flawed movie, a parody of itself, and an explosion of cliché, it can still be entertaining, as long as you forget the original film, the third film, and the television show upon which they are all loosely based (all three of which are vastly superior to this sequel). Granted, many fans of the television show have a bad taste in their mouths from the first film, which turned the hero of the show into the primary villain of the movie, but if you can get past that, the original adaptation is extremely entertaining. The CIA break-in alone, with Tom Cruise suspended by a pulley system over a ridiculously well-protected computer room, has become part of American cinematic zeitgeist, but there is nothing in the sequel that compares. Mission: Impossible II is mired by slow-motion action sequences involving flying motorcycles and an abundance of doves, and to say that the plot twists are more ludiculous than the other installments in the franchise is a grand understatement.

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THE BEST
5. Superman II

The original Superman was a pretty major accomplishment, one that reverberates today. It was the first time a comic book superhero was put up on the silver screen and audiences were asked to take him seriously. Superman is a huge part of American culture, and the movie, though a little tedious from time to time, was a success, earning more than $300 million worldwide (in a time where that kind of number was unheard of). The sequel, Superman II, made almost as much a few years later, and nowadays, most fanboys will tell you that Superman II is the better movie overall. It definitely has more action and narrative focus, and the primary character conflict—in which Superman tries to shed his powers for the sake of love only to find that he has a responsibility to use his gifts for the benefit of mankind—is more poignant than the indecipherable messages of the first movie (or its more recent and even sloppier reboot). Before this year’s The Dark Knight, there was little question that Superman II was the best superhero movie ever made. Batman, if he has dethroned Superman as the icon of American heroism, would be wise to remember how important his predecessor was to the creation of the comic book movie, for without Superman and Superman II, there would be no Dark Knight.

THE WORST
4. Exorcist II: The Heretic
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How do you make a sequel to one of the most frightening movies ever made? Apparently, somebody thought you should take away everything that made the original so terrifying, add a bunch of ponderous pop psychobabble, and put out a movie that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. This is Exorcist II: The Heretic, a movie so bad it feels like it was made for TV and will only be shown at three in the morning on the Hallmark Movie Channel. To be fair, I caught it on AMC at three in the morning, but I digress. The Exorcist is an important—and traumatic—movie, but every attempt to recapture its terrible magic has been futile. It is certainly an example of how some movies should be left alone.

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THE BEST
4. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Yes, despite the ordering, this was the second movie in the franchise. Though I have gone on record with my controversial opinion that Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith is the best Star Wars movie, most Star Wars geeks are united in their opinion of The Empire Strikes Back. This is the one with the mind-blowing revelation that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are one in the same, that Han Solo is a scruffy-looking nerf herder, that the best jedi in the universe is a muppet, and that “This is no cave.” But really, I think Dante Hicks said it best when he said, “It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings.” The original Star Wars movie (Episode IV: A New Hope), was something groundbreaking and amazing, but The Empire Strikes Back clearly took it to the next level.

THE WORST
3. Psycho II
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Horror movies are typically inexpensive, have a built-in audience, and are usually based on basic formulas, which means that, probably more than any other genre, horror sees the most sequels. This isn’t always so bad, but occasionally, a sequel comes out that is almost blasphemous. Such is the case with Psycho II, the mind-numbingly awful sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece about the dissociative homicidal hotel owner obsessed with his mother. The “plot” of the sequel involves Norman Bates going back to the hotel where it all started after 22 years of psychiatric care and working as a short-order cook at a nearby diner. Naturally, somebody is stabbed to death, but could Norman be the culprit? The twist at the end: it’s Norman. He’s a serial killer, remember? So, what the hell was the point of that?

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THE BEST
3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek fatigue may be in full swing—the new J.J. Abrams reboot notwithstanding—but Trekkies still argue about which movie is the best one. The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a neat science-fiction flick, but is hardly a contender for best Star Trek movie. Still, the sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is simultaneously more entertaining and more artistic. It may sound laughable to people not versed in Trek, but a movie starring William Shatner and Ricardo Mantalban named The Wrath of Khan is actually a startlingly complex character-driven movie about old age, regret, death, and some dark shadow of the past coming back with clenched fists screaming for bloody vengeance. As an action sci-fi, it has epic three-dimensional space battles, enormous explosions, a terraforming device that can create life, and little aliens that wriggle into your ears in order to control your mind. It’s so awesome, I want to stop writing this and watch it right now.

THE WORST
2. The Fly II
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David Cronenberg’s grotesquely fascinating The Fly is a remake that manages to be better than the original, even though the original stars the incredible Vincent Price while the remake stars the cardboard Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum. The Fly is a horrifying examination of the psychological, Kafka-esque transformation of man to monster. The Fly II, on the other hand, is a horrifying examination of the psychological torment you get by watching a movie that is so poor you can’t even laugh at it. Eric Stolz plays the rapidly aging son of the original protagonists who has been hired by an evil corporate asshole to work on his father’s telepods while he quickly becomes the same kind of man-fly hybrid with acidic puke. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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THE BEST
2. The Godfather, Part II

Centuries from now, historians studying our now ancient films will watch the first two Godfather movies (luckily, the third one will be eradicated from history) and will still argue with each other over which one is better. Both are incredibly dark epics about the mafia and about a terribly dysfunctional family, and they both contain top-notch acting, writing, and directing. They are different, but the sequel feels like a natural extension of the original, a truly astonishing feat considering how much of a masterpiece the original is. If you ask me, though, the boat scene at the end (you know which one) is the nose sticking out at the photo finish, making The Godfather, Part II an even greater masterpiece than the original.

THE WORST
1. Highlander II: The Quickening
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The tagline of the original Highlander is “There can be only one.” How appropriate. The plot revolves around a world populated by a handful of semi-immortals who have the evolutional imperative to hunt each other down until there is only one left. In the end, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the last immortal standing, saturated with all the powers of the now-dead immortals who came before him. Not only was somebody stupid enough to think this called for a sequel, but that same person thought it would make sense to make the sequel revolve around a near future in which the ozone layer has been depleted, Sean Connery’s character is inexplicably still alive, Connor MacLeod has lost all of his awesome powers, and immortals from another planet called Ziest have decided to invade. In other words, somebody was doing way too much crack.

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THE BEST
1. Aliens

The best way to make a sequel is to take the same ideas of the original, multiply them, add something new, and take the characters in a logical new direction. This is exactly what James Cameron did in Aliens. It may not be as terrifying as the original, but it is still pretty damn scary and ten times more badass. Ellen Ripley is a one-dimensional character in the original Alien, but multiple layers are added to her, the survivor of a traumatic experience forced back on the horse to face her worst fears (the uncut version adds more layers with her dead-from-old-age child subplot). Additionally, the mythology of the aliens is expanded upon, with the addition of multiple aliens, hive-like behavior, and a queen. All in all, Aliens is like Alien, only moreso, which is why it is the best sequel ever made. It's just too bad the franchise was killed by Joss Whedon. (Is it too much to admit that the only fan fic I ever wrote was a treatment for Alien IV? Is it too much to say I’m 100% certain my ideas were infinitely better than Joss Whedon’s?)





-e. magill 08/18/2008








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