Snake Plissken. Criminal. Veteran. Eyepatch.
A few nights ago, I finally sat down and revisited one of John Carpenter’s classic early films, Escape from New York. But it wasn’t just enough to see Snake Plissken in just one film, I had to see the sequel too, Escape from L.A. A fan of Carpenter’s early films, I found myself accepting the first film because of the great chemistry Carpenter had with Kurt Russell (the year following Escape from New York’s release, the two released the masterpiece The Thing). I loved Russell’s character; Plissken was not a hero sent in to a dangerous place to save the day, he is blackmailed. With no other choice, Plissken overcomes the odds and saves the President before all the hoodlums of Manhattan Island, now a prison, kill him.
After a satisfying foray into B-movie glory, I decided to see it’s equally B-movie follow-up. Boy, was I disappointed. The first film had a lot of low-budget appeal and developed a cult following. The sequel, set in Los Angeles, seems to do nothing more than insult California at every turn. When Los Angeles suffers an earthquake that turns it into an island, the United States makes it the anti-Ellis Island. Illegal aliens, criminals, and religious heretics, all quarantined on the island indefinitely.
The problem with Escape from L.A. is how to so closely tries to duplicate what worked in the first film. The film tries to strike lightning twice with every gag or gimmick that made the original so beloved. The sport scene (Boxing in NY, Basketball in LA), the older actor acting as a sidekick (Ernest Borgnine, who reminded me so much of Charlie Cheswick from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Peter Fonda as a washed-up surfer), even the way of injecting him with a virus that will kill him in so many hours to force him to complete the mission, everything was the same.
The attempts to make the story leap forward failed miserably. Steve Buscemi had no business being in this film. And the idea of making Plissken wear dominatrix style leather just put me off. The tacky CGI that looked so fake that I almost turned it off (I hate CGI).
What I realized watching the two films back to back was the importance of moving forward when it comes time for the sequel. Unfortunately, Last summer’s The Hangover Part II didn’t get the memo. Though it has its moments, the film, like the Snake Plissken films, falls dangerously close to copying the original. The major elements of what happened to Stu, Phil, and Alan aren’t different. They blackout, lose a member of their party, and figure out at the last second where he is. The second of these franchises aren’t sequels; they are blatant rip-offs that more closely resemble half-baked remakes. But not all sequels are so profit driven like the greed monster that was Cars 2.
Sequels have always had a spotty record. When Batman gets nipples, something gets lost in translation. For every epic sequel, there are at least five inferior films. In my Breakdown- Best Sequels post, I talk about great sequels that actually improved on the original film. I still stand with those films. And for good reason, they not only continued the story of its predecessor, but it also treaded new ground.
The Terminator is a classic. It gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his big break and helped James Cameron start leaving behind smaller horror fare like Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. But when T2: Judgment Day came out, all hell broke loose. Here was a sequel that took the first film’s story and exploded it to create an epic science fiction/action film.
"Get away from her you bitch!" - Ripley
James Cameron had done the same thing to the Alien franchise years earlier. Cameron took Ridley Scott’s moody monster in space film and made a sequel that could stand apart from its original. The action and story were expanded, not that the first didn’t have a solid script. Aliens merely went further down the road for a movie that turned its survival girl Ripley into the heroine of the film.
Cameron isn’t the only name associated with making a great sequels, Christopher Nolan single-handed revitalized a dead franchise when he made Batman Begins. He started from scratch, leaving a lot of the problems of the pervious films behind. Gone was the camp. Here was a Batman rooted in reality. When Nolan returned to the world of Bruce Wayne’s alternate identity, he managed to top even himself. The Dark Knight became a colossal success. The film took what Begins had set up and continued the evolution of a hero coming to grips with what must be done to protect his city.
These sequels not only justified more sequels, but also showed that an extension of story works just as sharp and rewarding as the first film was. It just needed the proper balance of new and old. Too much new and you end up reimagining the franchise every time (The Punisher films); too much old and you end up with a unsurprising waste of time (Escape From L.A., The Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). They won’t all be terrible, but they won’t have the allure of the original. Don’t believe me? Ask Bryan Singer.
Singer has been on both sides of the coin. With X2: X-Men United, he elaborated on the universe he brought to the screen in X-Men. X2 had a scope and originality that allowed it to act as a proper benchmark for the franchise. But when Singer stepped away from directing another X-Men film, he had decided to reintroduce another superhero. When Superman Returns finally hit theaters, people left underwhelmed. The film focused so much on catching up that no amount of Brandon Routh’s talent could save the film. Two and a half hours later, and people vacated the theater wishing for more action and less drama. At the end of the day, the film was too loyal to everything that had happened before to really make a stand for existing.
John McClane can't die. Hard or otherwise.
Now, despite all I’ve said about these films, even the bad ones still have merit. Sometimes it’s nice to revisit a character on the big screen, even if the actors wink at you as they phone it in. I enjoy a few of them. If they make another Hangover movie or when Die Hard 5 finally makes its way to theaters, I’ll see it opening. What can I saw, I’m exactly what Hollywood wants in moviegoers (I’m far from perfect).
This upcoming summer, we’ll see Will Smith back in his black suit and Peter Parker starting over, but I’m not holding my breath for anything new (exception of course being The Dark Knight Rises). The studios will never learn. Sequels may mean a low risk investment with a tried-and-true brand, but why can’t we add some more originality to things? Take the time to come up with something fresh and exciting. If the Mission Impossible and The Fast and the Furious franchises can experience a new creativity high this late in their respective universes, why can’t every sequel? Christopher Nolan and James Cameron can’t do it themselves.