BY John H. Foote
It always surprises me to sit down at the beginning of each year and go through the release list to see what is coming. The number of sequels always shocks me. Yet it should not. Hollywood has been making sequels to hit films since the thirties, where they began to make follow-ups to their monster movies of the time. Two, sometimes up to five sequels would come before good sense prevailed and they gave the franchise a much-needed rest.
However, when the movie gods are watching over them, the filmmakers can create art in their sequels, often surpassing the original or first film.
Quite often it was no secret that the sequel was made in hopes of cashing in and making the film a box office hit. But in 1974 something extraordinary happened. Basking in the success of having directed a film that was incredibly well reviewed, and the top moneymaker of all time, Paramount invited Francis Ford Coppola to create a sequel. He refused initially, but they came back at him hard. Full creative freedom, no questions asked. Studio chief would keep his nose out of the movie. He would be paid one million to direct, another million to produce and write, and could do whatever he wanted. Francis Ford Coppola created The Godfather Part II (1974) which was two things to the first. The film was a continuation of the first, but also, the story of the godfather of the first film was told in flashback.
The Godfather Part II (1974) is far more than the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1974, more than the best-reviewed film of the year, the film is, in my opinion, the finest film ever made. Darker, richer, more complex, the ambitious film somehow managed to surpass The Godfather (1972) which critics had hailed as “the finest American film since Citizen Kane (1941).”
At that moment Hollywood realized sequels, too, could be art.
And everything changed.
Since 1974 sequels are taken much more seriously by the studio, the creators and audiences. A sequel offers a chance for the story to be deepened, to expand what we had experienced, and perhaps for a narrative shocker or two to be dropped.
Today studios have an eye for franchise films, sequels are a given, but if they can they will expand the first film into as many as they can make maintaining audiences interest.
I went back as far as 1930 to find the Ten Greatest Sequels ever made, though serial films did not count for inclusion. Here we go.
10. TOY STORY 2 and 3 (1999/2010)
It is hard to believe that we could care so much about a group of computer-generated characters voiced by great actors and well-known character actors. Two sequels, each one excellent, were made to the film Toy Story (1995) the groundbreaking feature animated film created in a computer. Watching the film was akin to seeing a motion picture for the first time, the dawn of a new age. In the bedroom of a boy named Andy, the toys come to life when he is absent, their mission in life to be a great toy to him. When a new toy, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) replaces cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) as Andy’s new favourite toy, a war breaks out between the two toys driving Woody to an act that shames him. To make amends he rescues Buzz from the toy wrecking Sid, and the two become friends. The sequels continue this, but the third, made eleven years after the second is stirring. Now headed off to college, Andy must decide what to do with his toys, not aware they have been taken to the dump. As the toys head towards the fire, they reach over and hold hands with one another, together till the end. The finale is a tearjerker as the toys find a new home, and Andy, tearfully realizing what they meant to him, says farewell. Beautifully created, the voice work is exceptional, and the screenplays are perfection.
9. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)
The second sequel to the First was vastly superior to the second, Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom (1984), which was marred with violence against children. The third pits Jones against the Nazis again, as if there was not enough conflict with them in the first. Jones goes after his father’s obsession, the Holy Grail, racing against the Nazis to find it. Little does he know that the Nazis have already taken his father Henry (Sean Connery) hostage to glean all he knows about the Grail. Like the previous Indiana Jones Films, the film is filled with wild action sequences and puzzles, the final one by the far the best, as Jones walks his way through booby traps into the room where an ancient guard, stands in watch over the grail. Harrison Ford and Sean Connery have a lovely chemistry with each other, believable in every way. River Phoenix appears at the beginning as a young Indiana, where many questions about him are answered.
8. ALIENS (1986)
Ridley Scott made a horror film when he directed Alien (1979) a big haunted house film set on a freighter in space. When James Cameron got involved with the Alien sequel, he had a totally idea in mind. Cameron would make a war film set fifty years after the conclusion of the first, merging it with horror, science fiction and the thriller. After being rescued from her fifty year hibernation, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has a chance to rescue a group of settlers who might have encountered those vicious aliens that nearly killed her. Back she goes with a kick-ass futuristic Marine detail only to find nearly all the settlers dead, and the planet teeming with those nasty aliens. On your mark, get set, GO! And once Cameron has you by the throat, he never lets go. Weaver is terrific, giving a towering performance as a strong terrified woman who is smart enough to be scared. She becomes a warrior in the film, fearlessly taking them on when her maternal instincts are challenged when she finds a child left alive and alone. The film never stops moving, and is sublimely directed, shot and edited. Incredibly the director drew some fine performances from his cast including Bill Paxton’s terrified Marine, Lance Henrickson’s wise Artificial life form, and Paul Weiser’s slimy company man. It is often forgotten that Weaver received one of the films seven Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for her spectacular performance.
7. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)
Though it took thirty five years for the sequel to get to the screen, it was worth the wait. Taking place that same thirty five years after the end of that first haunting film, innovation has continued in the world and artificial life forms are banned from the planet, though many are on earth. The police who hunt the Artificial are themselves not real, and one of them is assigned to find a blade Runner from days gone by, Deckart (Harrison Ford) who holds a secret no one truly believes. The look of the film is sensational, the effects smooth, realistic, it is directed with that same haunting quality as the first. Ryan Gosling is the modern day Blade Runner sent to find Deckart, and the two share a unique bond, which drives the heart of the narrative. Denis Villeneuve directed the film, continuing the style of Ridley Scott but bringing his own vision to it. The scenes in Vegas are extraordinary, beautifully designed and realized, the film won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Visual Effects. Dark, deep, but a knockout. Like the first, the ending is both haunting and striking.
6. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
After the success of the original film Frankenstein (1931), a studio executive asked the question, “what if the monster did not die in the fire?” Within days a writer had been assigned the film, James Whale hired to direct and Boris Karloff signed to portray the monster again. Though some at Universal doubted the film could re-capture the magic of the first film, Whale believed from the beginning he was creating something very special. And he did just that. Karloff further humanize the monster, learning to speak, befriending an old blind man in the woods, realizing his appearance terrified people so he stayed away from villages. The old man and he live a charmed, quiet existence until the outside world crashes down on them, sending the creature into the woods, heading back to his creator. Finding him, he wants a mate. Frankenstein creates a mate for her, but the second creation recoils in horror at the site of him. The monster does what he should have done in the first place, blows them to atoms. This film offered Karloff the chance to make the monster even more sympathetic than he already had, and the sequences with the old blind man have a gentle, lyrical beauty. Listening to him speak gives one chills, even today, eighty three years later.
5. THE LORD OF THE RINGS : THE TWO TOWERS (2002)
The middle film of a trilogy is always the most difficult of the series because you know going in there will not be a conclusion, the plot will be furthered, but the end will be a cliffhanger bridging to the next film. That happens, for sure, but the narrative is driven beautifully by the driving plot. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) who died in the First is resurrected in this film as the white wizard, while the trees come to life to aid the little hobbits. The film picks up exactly where the first left off and explores how the fellowship breaks apart out of necessity to destroy the ring in Mount Doom. More and more it is taking control of Frodo who bravely marches on under the fierce protection on Sam. Again, beautifully crafted, the film is a majestic wonder of fantasy, truly something to behold.
4. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
God, I remember the silence and collective gasp in the packed theatre when Darth Vader told Luke he was his father. Like the rest of the audience, I was absolutely stunned by that development, yet it felt so right, so perfect. Lucas handed the directing duties to Irvin Kershner, a former film professor of his, who brashly took control of the film knowing the pressure on him. He was directing the sequel to the most successful film of all time, millions were counting on him not to screw it up. And he did not. Darker, much more complex than the first, the film explores Luke’s education of the force by Yoda, Leila and Han are falling in love, and Vader is consolidating his power. The film allows us to see other worlds, the ice planet Hoth, the living planet with the giant slug, the swamp planet Dagobah, the city in the clouds, all breathtaking views of this galaxy far far away.
3. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The greatest superhero, comic-book adaptation of all time, the film that made such films art. Christopher Nolan gave the film an inner energy, a pulsating score that was like the heartbeat of the film. But make no mistake, the characters are the reason this film is what it is. Christian Bale is a magnificent, gravelly voiced Batman who is also a suave billionaire Bruce Wayne. Michael Caine is loving and warm as Arthur, his faithful butler, Morgan Freeman, superb as his gadget builder, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Maggie Gyllenhaal as the woman between Bruce and Harvey, Gary Oldman as the decent, good Commissioner Gordon and in his Academy Award-winning performance, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. To say Ledger dominates the film is unfair because Bale is so very good in the film, but Ledger gives the picture a sense of dark energy, bringing chaos and madness to the screen. Nolan directs with bold confidence, creating what remains a stunning, soaring work of as yet unmatched in the genre.
2. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF KING (2003)
In bringing the Tolkien trilogy to the screen, Peter Jackson did everything right, finding the perfect tone, an intimacy for the characters yet a massive epic sweep. One of the greatest fantasy films and trilogies ever made, the third film, this one was the finest in the trilogy, though it is impossible to see them as individual movies. As Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Austin) perilously make their way with the ring to Mount Doom, their friends attempt to distract the armies hunting them, buying them some time. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) will bargain with the army of the dead, loyal to only the true king of Gondor, which he is. When he turns to look at Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan), whispering “For Frodo” and charges, he has become the King we know he can be. Later crowned King, he sees the little hobbits, the true heroes in the line celebrating his coronation. “My friends, you bow to no one,” he says bowing to the hobbits in honour of their courage and valour. A brilliant, soaring epic with magnificent visual effects, the film won eleven Academy Awards, tying the all-time record. A magnificent film.
1. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Not only the greatest sequel of all time but arguably the greatest American film ever made. Deeper, darker more complex than the first, Coppola saw the chance to make two films, continuing his theme from the first of fathers and sons. The first film is bookended by this film which continues the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) but looks into the past at how Vito (Robert De Niro) rose to power in the teens and twenties in Little Italy. We watch as Michael becomes morally corrupt, losing himself in the business of crime, eventually losing his family, his wife and his mortal soul. When Fredo inadvertently betrays him, he kisses him full on the mouth and tells him he knows what he did. Eventually, he orders the death of his older brother, though Michael knows Fredo is no threat to him, what he did cannot be tolerated. Pacino was never better than he is in this film, he is simply superb, in a quiet, near seething performance. As the younger Vito, Robert De Niro is a revelation, creating a young man we believe will grow into Vito, the godfather of the first film. His fine Oscar-winning performance suggests Brando in his movements and voice, it is sublime in every way. John Cazale is heartbreaking as Fredo, Lee Strasberg excellent as Hyman Roth, loosely based on Ace Rothstein. Coppola gives the film a beautifully intimate feel, the theme being absolute power corrupts absolutely, but also an epic sweep, a film about America, the immigrant experience. In every way, a masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.