The Godfather is great, but The Godfather: Part II is greater. It’s that rare thing – a sequel that doesn’t just match but actually surpasses the original film. Not content with just recycling the same story, it illuminates and elaborates on it, adding a classically tragic dimension by using flashbacks to show the origins of the Corleone family, and then moving forward in time to show that same family ripping itself apart.
Conventional wisdom has it that sequels are inferior to the original films, but we all know there are a few titles that buck the trend. It’s not difficult coming up with a list of them; the hard part is getting everyone to agree with your choices. You’re on safe ground with The Godfather: Part II, which won twice as many Oscars as the first film, or with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, since Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been such a dog’s dinner that the only way to go was up.
But there are plenty of people who will disagree with my contention that Star Wars is inferior on all counts to its first sequel (we’ll draw a veil over the sequel and prequels after that). George Lucas may be a genius as a producer and world-builder, but he can’t write or direct for toffee, so it helped that The Empire Strikes Back (I’m sorry, but I am not going to refer to it by its abominable retroactive retitling, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back) was made by people who knew their craft, notably Irvin Kershner, a useful if not inspired director, and screenwriters Leigh Brackett (veteran of a couple of Howard Hawks classics) and the up-and-coming Lawrence Kasdan.
It helps, of course, if you’re not as bowled over by the original film as everyone else. Alien was revolutionary in terms of setting and design, but once the creature had burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I found the repetitive way each character gormlessly wandered off to get killed a dreary cliché already done to death by so many horror movies. Aliens, on the other hand, was no longer a horror film but a war movie that grabbed me by the throat and didn’t ease up for the entire 137 minutes.
There are those who prefer Terminator 2: Judgment Day to The Terminator, but I’m not one of them; give me killer Schwarzenegger to the kiddy-friendly version any day – even if the special effects were flashier. I’m not alone in marginally preferring Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 to the original Toy Story, but there are other partialities where I’m certainly in a tiny minority. Perhaps it was the result of lowered expectations, but I found Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Ghostbusters II and The Lost World: Jurassic Park a lot more fun than their predecessors.
Then there are the sequels where a talented director seizes on increased resources to do things he couldn’t afford to do in the lower budget of the original. With Mad Max, George Miller conjured an eye-popping white line nightmare for only 400,000 Australian dollars; but 4.5 million enabled him to add even crazier stunts and an epic quality to Mad Max 2. That 20 minute carmageddon at the climax is surely still the best extended multi-vehicle car chase ever filmed, and if you’ve never seen it in 70mm, you’ve never lived.
Likewise, if Sam Raimi whipped up a colourful orgy of demonic possession for peanuts in The Evil Dead, an increased budget of 3.6 million allowed him to remake it as even bigger, funnier and more splattery Evil Dead II.
For the best sequels, though, you’d have to go back to the first great golden age of Hollywood horror. James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein is even weirder and more phantasmagorical than his Frankenstein; they’re both stone-cold classics, but many of us prefer the second film. And while Cat People (1944) is a classic of psychosexual horror, its nominal sequel, Curse of the Cat People, makes me cry like a baby; unlike its predecessor, it’s not a horror film, but a sensitive study of childhood. Just as, 42 years later, Aliens would swap its predecessor’s horror elements for those of a war movie, it switches genres.
Perhaps this is one of the keys to making a sequel that can match its predecessor for quality; not serving up more of the same, but offering something completely different – albeit recycling some of the characters and set in the same fictional landscape.
Then again, maybe this just means it’s not a sequel at all – simply another original film masquerading as one.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in April 2014. It has since been edited, a bit.
Addendum: My Top Ten Sequels:
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Mad Max 2 (1981)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Evil Dead II (1987)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Batman Returns (1992)
Toy Story 2 (1999)