Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Write Club -- How to Doom a Sequel

Hey y'all.  So I was thinking about it, and there are things that moviemakers do either by accident or by well-intentioned mistake.  It generally doesn't happen as often with books, particularly considering that it takes so long to write a book and publishers seem to care a whole lot more than producers whether or not their product is good.  Considering that movie makers can get away with a lot dumber choices and still make money...well, yeah.

Maybe this is just a personal vendetta from a writer type, but it seems to me that movie people should be punished by lower sales when they make dumb stuff.  Unfortunately, even things like "Jack and Jill" and "Zookeeper" seem to make a crap ton of money, probably because people are bored and movies are there.  Fortunately, making fun of bad movies is entertaining.  A win-win situation, I guess.

Anyway, I just want to illustrate a few things that illustrate what can make a sequel turn bad.  Everybody's aware of sequelitis, where a sequel just doesn't measure up.  Sometimes it's just a matter of not being quite as good, but still being well-made and watchable.  Other times....well, not so much.

The most glaringly obvious series for this is the Matrix trilogy.  The first movie had everyone excited for what was to come.  I remember watching this when I was young, and of course I enjoyed it very much.  When I heard about the two sequels slotted to be made, I wondered what they were going to do next.  I just had no clue what story they could possibly tell to extend the series.  But then I shrugged my shoulders and went to bed.

Ha.  Yeah.  Trusting the writers there was perhaps a mistake.  Apparently the writers of the Matrix had much of the trilogy planned all along, but thankfully they're no George Lucases.  Which is about the only good thing in the situation.  Well, that and cool costumes.

Sequel Rule #1: Don't destroy your foundation.

The real problem with the Matrix sequels is that they completely contradicted everything you liked about the first.  So Neo, after that huge struggle you finally overcame your lack of faith in yourself and destroyed Agent Smith?  Oh wait, no you didn't!  Not only is he alive, but there's a billion of him.  You thought you were the One?  Pssht.  The One is a trick organized by the Matrix itself.  Morpheus isn't a prophet, he's just a deluded old man.  And the Oracle?  Computer program.  Everything you learned in the first movie was a lie!

Fans don't like this.  It may in fact be more realistic for a character such as Neo to fail or to be an unintentional dupe for the computer systems controlling everyone.  That, however, is not what people like in action movies.  People want action movies to have adrenaline and to see how the good guy wins, not to get bogged down in trite philosophy and have characters they like go through dumb situations.  Worse yet, when the production destroys what we liked about the first movie, it takes away our ability to enjoy watching even that.

Now, there are other things wrong with the Matrix trilogies, but at this point I have to confess that I've only seen segments of the later movies, as well as reading some online scripts and spoilers.  I excuse myself by saying that it's a lot easier to pretend the later movies never happened if you haven't seen them.

Sequel Rule #2: Don't extend your villain.

That was another problem with the Matrix.  They kept Agent Smith, when really the whole point of the movie was for Neo to overcome Smith and learn to be the One.  Now, on the one hand, I do understand this.  All writers probably do.  I mean, you have this really great villain in Smith, and how are you supposed to create a villain that can surpass him?  It's a daunting task, so the production crew opted for the easy way out.

Thing is, this isn't like Mario or Sonic.  The only reason Nintendo and Sega get away with keeping Bowser and Dr. Robotnik in game after game is because those universes are cartoons, and you can do anything in a cartoon world.  The Matrix trilogy attempted to make their own version of reality, and in a universe taken seriously, you can't have fudgey rules.  You have rules that must be obeyed, and even for a character as good as Smith the rules should not be bent.

But let's get off the Matrix.  Another bad sequel is the fairly recent Prince Caspian, done by Disney.  Now, you surely know by now that I love the books, and so I'm bound to be disappointed pretty much no matter what they put on the screen.  I just didn't expect it to be that bad.  One of the things they did wrong was bring back Tilda Swinton as the White Witch.  She was really good in the previous film, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, but bringing her back for Prince Caspian...ugh.  It was a cheap attempt to capitalize on a successful villain.

Admittedly, there was a place in the book where she logically could have made an appearance.  A werewolf and a hag attempted to bring her back to life with black magic.  In the book they didn't get far, and the witch didn't appear.  However, the movie decided they were going to have Tilda do a cheap cameo in which she attempts to "seduce" whichever male is standing before her.  All the scene really accomplishes is embarrassing everyone involved and reminding the audience that Edmund doesn't like her.  Ho-hum.

To make it even worse, they dragged Tilda into the next movie, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  UGH.  In this book there was no logical place for her to pop up, making the attempt even more cheap.  Thankfully they put her in the trailer, so that I could see she was there and make no attempt to watch a movie that surely was a waste of time.

Sequel Rule #3: Each story should stand on its own.

While each movie in a series can and should relate, each should be enjoyable as a separate piece and not require you to watch another movie to know what's going on.  This method not only extends your universe and makes it easier for new viewers to enter the series not having seen the first, but it also allows the writers to avoid clinging to mistakes made in the first film.

For example, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was only alright.  It was very Star Trek-y, but it really failed to be a comprehensive action movie, and in the mainstream it was seen as boring.  I like it, but admittedly I have to say that there are a lot of long parts they could have cut out.  With the next movie, The Wrath of Khan, they completely ignored the first.

Now, Star Trek being what it is, it can do this a lot easier than most films.  Still, they learned from their mistakes and made something better.  They didn't reuse the same slow style as the first.  They didn't feel the need to follow up on anything that happened in the first movie.  They even scrapped the boring uniforms for what will almost universally among the Trekkers be called the best uniforms of Star Trek.  And the put in some s'plosions.  Winning formula!  And Ricardo Montalban is a great actor.  I'll miss that guy.

Even when the later movies referred to events that happened in the past (Star Treks 2-4 would all relate somewhat), Each movie was capable of standing on its own.  They each had separate themes, separate adventures, and separate moods.  Even if you watch Star Trek 4, the movie makers don't assume the audience is stupid.  Instead, they did the smartest thing possible, which was to just summarize the previous two movies with a Klingon ambassador calling out Captain Kirk and accusing him of being a warmonger.  After the crew of the Enterprise make their way back to Earth, they encounter a new antagonistical force and there is no further mention of their previous adventures until the end of the movie, where *spoiler* Kirk is pardoned for saving Earth.

A negative example of this Pirates of the Caribbean.  With the exception of the first movie, none of the films stand on their own.  Each one is like a television episode, with too many unanswered questions and unresolved plots at the end of each one.  There was really very little point in watching the second movie, as it's filled with decent action, but it essentially cuts off half-way and doesn't have any sort of denouement where, even if some of it is left unresolved, the plot can at least take a breather.

The latest one, On Stranger Tides, was even worse.  All it was was a jumbled up set up for the next movie.  It at least attempts to make the story arc of the individual film come to a rest, but so much of it is left unsettled, that you can't help but feel that the whole thing was a waste of time.  Except the mermaid fight sequence.  A lot of people liked that.

Sequel Rule #4: Please, don't make your sequel a copy of the first.

Now, admittedly, some movies get away with this.  Home Alone 2 was ridiculously note-for-note, and yet even I don't hate it.  It's still charming.  However, it did so by upping the ante: the pranks were better, they adding bungling hotel people, and had a really funny choir scene in the beginning.  Now, was this movie great?  No, but it was watchable, primarily because it was children's stuff and they can get away with that a lot easier than other movies.

Not so much grown-up stuff.  Adults are intelligent people, and they want variety in their work or else they'll bring their interest somewhere else.  It takes more than shiny things to get us to enjoy a movie.  Oh wait, a bunch of people liked that TRON sequel.  Um...um....okay, forget it, copy away, movie studios.  It's not like you were going to listen to me anyway.

At least in the novel world, writers would never get away with that crap.  Oh wait, romance novels...those are all alike and people keep buying them.  Um...um...okay....forget I said anything, I guess....

Sequel Rule #5: Know when to say no.

Some stories are just done.  There's no point to making any more of them.  The first movie was good, and the second might have been decent,  and the third caps it off.  Or maybe it's just one stand alone movie.  The point is, sometimes there's nothing more you can do but leave the story alone.  You've told the story, and you've told it well.  What more is there to do?

Just one thing.  Give your story a crap ton of pointless sequels that add nothing but money to your pocket.  Ugh...

Really, there's no more glaring example of this than the Saw series.  There are like...seven of those things?  I honestly can't keep up.  The first movie was suspenseful and impacting, the second was alright and had a good twist (but terrible acting), and rightfully, there probably only should have been one more, where Jigsaw is killed and the cops, and the audience, can get a sigh of relief.  Alas, they decided to make more, even though the only possible way they could extend the plot further is add a new villain and a crap-ton of gore.  Yay...

Now, I understand that there are some things that can go on for a while.  Batman and Superman are in their...oh, eighties now?  Something like that.  But the thing is, those dudes are cartoons.  Cartoons, because of their separate nature from reality, can live longer.  They've almost become legends or fables, and those survive because they can be told again and again, to people on the edge of forgetting them.

Actually, the only reason why they're still around is due to various things.  They've actually changed.  Batman became really campy in the sixties, and some time during the eighties he started to get progressively darker.  Superman basically did the same, though he's not quite as emo.  They've both gone through so many incarnations and versions that everyone is bound to find a version they like (my favorite are the nineties Batman cartoons).  Besides, they have the added advantage of collectibility.  They also go through years of ebbs and waves, backing off then returning to popularity when the next generation hears about them.

Thing is, that's not always true of your story.  You're a more realistic writer, you have no collectibles, and your story is so dang gorey and nasty that no sane person would really want a collectible even if you had one.  Or so I would tell the writers of the Saw series.

Listen.  Stories don't always need to go on.  Sometimes they just need to end, and that way everyone will have fond memories of them.  If you keep making really lame sequels, people will just get tired of  your series, maybe going over "the good old days" if you're lucky.  If your story is very popular, people will insist on a sequel, and if you wait to be insisted, the chances that you will be inspired for more are greater.  Just don't go further than your inspiration, and know when you don't have any more within you.

Also, know when your story is told.  If you spoke the theme of your story and you've spoken it well, people get the point.  Let it be poignant, not redundant.

This rant was brought to you by Arc Rose Studios.  Have a great day, y'all.

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