I still say Prometheus is one of the best films of 2012. There. Good thing that argument is totally over with, and that I'll never hear from another detractor again.
William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I spent a sizable amount of time on the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (now up to its mind-melting 71st week) comparing and contrasting the various films in the popular Alien franchise. Something notable and unusual about the Alien movies is that, as they progress from film to film, they seem to mutate genre entirely. I can't think of any other long-running series (and I've seen many) that do this to such a dramatic degree. The first Alien film most resembled a horror film, the second was a pass-the-ammo action flick, the third was a tragic examination of hopelessness, and the fourth was… um… a goop film. That's a subgenre, right? Then, when we get to Prometheus, it's back to the spooky, scary mystery of Alien, but cast in a more pure sci-fi mold, wherein the film brings up big questions like the origin of life, and the quest for knowledge. Five films, we've gone, and it's been a long strange journey.
Of course, there have been many notable baffling gearshifts in the history of franchised film. I've pointed out this pattern before in The Series Project: The first film in a franchise will be the big hit. People will latch onto it, memorize it, and become familiar with the characters and the details. A sequel will eventually be made, except to keep the new fans' interest, the filmmakers will have to up the ante: situations will become more dramatic, the stakes will be raised, the body count will be higher, there will now be two villains instead of one. That second film will typically do well with its ramped-up approach. By the time a second sequel is decided upon, the filmmakers have a tough decision to face: They can either up the ante further still, forcing the film into an over-the-top scenario of ridiculousness, or they can decide to take the series in a “new direction,” and introduce a previously inappropriate element into the mix. Consider the introduction of Richard Pryor in Superman III. Or the double-villain supra-mess in Spider-Man 3.
Almost no long-running film series is completely flawless. Each series has its fair share of completely stupid entries. To wit:
Highlander II: The Quickening (dir. Russel Mulcahy, 1991)
The original, bombastic, Queen-scored fantasy flick is, while being considered a cheap film even by many of its fans, has most certainly taken its place in the pop canon. Indeed, there has been a lot of talk of a Highlander remake in the works. It tells the story of a 16th century Scottish rogue named MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) who learns that he is the latest in a long line of immortals. The only way he and other immortals can die is by decapitation, so there's a lot of swordplay in his world. It's understood, also, that when only one immortal remains standing, he or she will be granted the privilege of growing old naturally and dying of old age. Highlander takes place mostly in the present day, as our hero tries to complete his quest, remember his dead mentor (Sean Connery), kill a bad guy (Clancy Brown), charm a sexy lady (Roxanne Hart), and emote fiercely to the dulcet strains of Brian May and Freddie Mercury.
1991 rolls around, and Highlander II: The Quickening is released. Fans of the original deafen the world with a collective “WTF?” So MacLeod, having killed all the other immortals, has now grown into old age, just like the premise of the first film promised. Only now, he's in the future (!) living underneath an artificial world-darkening ozone shield. Also, he seems to have the ability to resurrect his dead mentor (Connery again), which, uh, was never really explained. Oh yes, and all the immortals are actually interplanetary aliens. Wait. What? Seriously. What? Highlander II actually retcons (and even changes) events from the first film to explain that our characters are all secretly space aliens. How did a rather simple sword-and-sorcery adventure change into this bizarro sci-fi creature in front of us? He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had more genre continuity. The shift is all the stranger when you learn that the first two pictures had the same director.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (dir. William Shatner, 1989)
The Star Trek feature film series, like Alien, did indeed go through several dramatic tonal shifts, if not outright changes in genre. The first was a bold and slow-moving contemplation of big space-related stuff, and attempted to make Star Trek into something more like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The second was an outright adventure film with some tense action. The third was, well, kind of a stopgap as the series resurrected a dead character. The fourth was a big risk involving time travel and saving whales in the past.
By the time we got to the fifth, which was, by dint of its title, intended to be the last in the series, well… I'm not exactly sure what we have. The film is all over the place. It's goofy and really rather stupid. For one, Shatner directed the film, and he clearly saw Star Trek as a) being entirely about Capt. Kirk, and b) a fun and woodsy adventure for dimwit cowboys. So we have our usual crew now acting flip and casual and way below their usual professional capabilities. The central conceit of the film stabs at meaningfulness, but is kind of trite: a rogue Vulcan hijacks the enterprise and takes it to the center of the galaxy where he believes God lives. And not in a spiritual sense, but where the physical being of God hangs out. In a series that draws its strength from egalitarian behavior, classical references, and gentle looks at some serious human foibles, Star Trek V comes across as a cartoon cousin. Thank goodness the series went on to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Leprechaun 4: In Space (dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1997)
Not that this series was known for, well, anything resembling continuity. Indeed, when writing about the six Leprechaun movies for The Series Project, I posited that, since the monster unmistakably dies at the end of each installment, the next progressive chapter featured a whole new leprechaun (still played by Warwick Davis). Despite this, the films, at the very least, stuck to a few simple rules. The leprechaun was obsessed with gold, told stupid puns, murdered people, and could work magic. He often ran afoul of a group of humans in an intimate Earthbound setting (the woods, the city, Vegas) where he could lurk in familiar locations.
Leprechaun 4: In Space, however, was an intentional and gleeful jump from the rails. As the title informs, the action of the film does indeed take place in space. It's not explained why a magical Irish imp is living on a distant planet, or how it seems to knows its way around a futuristic space vessel, but there it is. To be fair, the previous installments in the series weren't taken too seriously by the horror community as earnest or scary efforts, so it was perhaps fair to flip genres on us. But the film is just so flipping weird, and the notion of a leprechaun in space is a enough to make you drink heavily. Of course, once the series progresses to Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), you'll want to gnaw off your own foot to escape.
The Neverending Story III: Escape from Fantasia (dir. Peter MacDonald, 1994)
Okay, I won't talk too much about this one, as you probably haven't seen it. If you have, I don't want to make you think about it too much.
Sometimes a film can fall apart merely by the very simple laws of diminishing returns. The first film in The NeverEnding Story series (1984) was a strange and original gorgeous fantasy flick which is well-beloved to this day by a generation of filmgoers. The second film, from 1990, was a little-hyped affair that looked like it had about half the budget of the first, even though it cost more to make. Ignoring the absurdity of adding a second chapter to a film called The Neverending Story, The Next Chapter (as it was called) was a stiff and less imaginative film that seemed to suffer for its cheap effects. Gone was the odd largeness of the first film. In its place was something that seemed cheaper. The film made much less money than the first, which was, in itself, considered a bomb at the time.
But the third film, a straight-to-video mess, had such a small budget, and such a determination to grasp a much younger audience, that it looks and feels nothing like the previous two chapters. It feels cheaper still than even the second film. So little thought and money went into this production that it reeks of studio product. It's unfunny and weird, but in an off-putting way. Audiences failed to rent it, and many tend to ignore it (if they even know about the film to begin with). Indeed, this may be the most anyone's ever talked about it. I can't even really pin down a specific thematic or storytelling change that marks it. It's mostly just a bland tonal disaster. The Neverending Story III is evidence of a film franchise that got so cheap so quickly that the end result ends up looking or feeling nothing like the original.
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (dir. Frank Nissen, 2007)
Not so much Cinderella III specifically, but the entire '00s trend of straight-to-video sequels to classic Disney animated features from decades before. In addition to tacking numbers onto its more recent canon (there's a Mulan II, a Hunchback of Notre Dame II, several Lion Kings, a trio of Little Mermaids, and a trio of Aladdins), Disney also dug into its own flesh by making offshoots to The Lady and the Tramp, The Fox and the Hound, Peter Pan, and even Bambi. Given the whorish nature of the company – they seem like a rich but distant parent, trying to buy the good graces of their spoiled children – these moves are not surprising.
I cite Cinderella III as particularly egregious because of it's strange premise. We all remember the ending to the famous 1950 animated feature, wherein Cinderella was allowed to marry the handsome prince. But what if the wicked stepmother managed to steal the magical wand of Cinderella's fairy godmother, and, uh, go back in time to stop the prince from marrying… Cinderella… and he marries the ugly sister instead… and… uh, WHAT THE F*CK? I understand this is a world with fairy godmothers and magical spells, but time travel? It's the cheapest way to set up a new premise for a well-known story. A good way to have handled it: go back in time and kill Gepetto before he builds Pinocchio, hence avoiding the Wooden Robot Apocalypse. James Cameron can direct.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
There’s been a bit of a backlash against Prometheus, a film Witney loved, loved, loved and the rest of the world seems to think is a bit of a crapburger. The strange-ass sequel has a few noteworthy fans, of course, but the overall consensus seems to be that Ridley Scott’s structurally bunk but loftily-ambitioned follow-up to Alien was a major let down. Why they expected anything else bewilders me. Hey, I was hoping for the best too, but Ridley Scott hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders since 2001’s Black Hawk Down. The last decade brought us bombs and mixed bags like Matchstick Men, A Good Year, Body of Lies and Robin Hood. I’ll cut him some slack on Kingdom of Heaven, but only because the director’s cut kicks ass. Maybe the director’s cut of Prometheus will have the same effect on me, I don’t know.
But I gave him credit for trying something new, I did, and sure enough, Prometheus doesn’t feel like anything else in the Alien franchise to date. It sure as hell improves on the awkward messes that were Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. It focused on aspects of the series that had gone completely unexplored – if you haven’t read the comics, anyway – and carried with it a Lovecraftian desire to both explain the nature of reality and raise even more ominous questions afterwards. I’ve seen worse sequels in my time.
I sometimes pity the folks making movie sequels. Coming up with a second, third or fourth chapter to a story that, usually, wrapped itself up pretty nicely in the first film is a thankless task. But sometimes you have to wonder how much cocaine a studio head has to take before they start thinking that The Chronicles of Riddick was a worthy successor to the minor sci-fi classic Pitch Black. David Twohy was responsible for both films, of course, but he still had to run it by dozens of development executives and accountants who actually gave him the “thumb’s up”to turn the grounded universe of Pitch Black into the 1980’s European space opera The Chronicles of Riddick. That’s a weird process to think about, but not nearly as weird as the fact that The Chronicles of Riddick was too straightforward to include on my own list of weird-ass sequels.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)
When John Carpenter made the serial killer Michael Myers disappear at the end of 1978’s Halloween, he claims, he didn’t think you’d take it so seriously. It was just supposed to end the film on an enigmatic note, not set it up for eight repetitive sequels. After the very first sequel, 1981’s Halloween II, seemed to end the Myers’family story on a very decisive, explosive note, Carpenter was still pressured to put together a third film in the franchise. He didn’t want to bring back the old killer, so instead he came up with the somewhat novel idea to tell an entirely different horror story that also happened to revolve around the holiday of Halloween, with an eye towards transforming Halloween into an anthology franchise. It might have worked if he’d done this right after the first Halloween, so audiences wouldn’t have been trained to expect Michael Myers’return. It also might have worked if Season of the Witch hadn’t been absolutely batsh*t insane.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch stars horror icon Tom Atkins as Dr. Dan Challis, who’s investigating a mystery surrounding the Silver Shamrock company, which sells some damned eerie Halloween masks and seems to be involved in a series of unexplained deaths. What he discovers over the course of the film is that the Silver Shamrock company has a plan to hypnotize the children of the world into murdering their parents on Halloween, via television. Oh, and it’s all a pagan sacrifice. Oh, and a lot of the employees of the Silver Shamrock company are also robots. Oh, and did you need to hear any more? It’s hard to get further from the sharklike simplicity of the original Halloween, but in all fairness, Halloween III gets a bum rap. It’s not so much “bad”as utterly bizarre, and if it hadn’t been part of the Halloween franchise, it might honestly have developed a reputation as a highly entertaining, if bonkers, 1980s horror romp. Give it a chance someday and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1985)
If you all you know about the Rambo franchise is heaving muscles and wanton destruction of America’s enemies abroad, you might not remember 1982’s First Blood very well. The original movie stars Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who returns home in an attempt to shake the violent programming he received on the battlefield, but when the country he fought to protect turns on him in a shocking incident of small town violence, he snaps and turns into a terrified killing machine, easily plowing his way through the National Guardsmen sent to take him down. The film ends with Rambo captured and emotionally fragile, in what can only be described as a strong and engrossing indictment of post-Vietnam sentiment and war itself.
So it was ridiculously odd when the second film in the franchise forgets about that entirely, repositioning John Rambo as a cynical but dedicated American hero sent behind enemy lines to rescue POWs still held by the Vietcong. What follows is a mindless barrage of action sequences and bizarre crucifixion scenarios, including one where Rambo is dunked in what appears to be poo. Although the hero eventually turns on the American officers who sent him on the suicide mission, the lines between “Good”and “Evil” are clearly drawn, and the series which began as an anti-violence polemic immediately became synonymous with the 1980s “Bad Ass” movie cycle, which celebrated the wanton destruction as somehow necessary to protect the world, and perhaps most importantly Americans, from harm. Like in Rambo III, when Stallone teamed up with the Taliban to stop the Russians. (Hmm…)
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (dir. Anthony Hickox, 1992)
Though not a household name, the two Waxwork movies are in my estimation some of the most entertaining horror films to come out of the late 1980s/early 1990s. At least, Waxwork is a horror movie. Its sequel is some kind of bizarre horror/action/comedy/”Sliders” hybrid that you really have to see to believe. I think you’ll enjoy the hell out of it though.
The first Waxwork pit Gremlins star Zach Galligan against the proprietor of a wax museum (played by the great David Warner), whose exhibits send you back in time to be killed by mummies, werewolves, the Marquis de Sade, you name it. The second film rather cleverly begins with the surviving cast members struggling to explain themselves in court, since nobody believes that they’re not all mass murderers after the events of the last film. They eventually find a magical compass that transports them from one movie-like scenario to another, including a hilarious black and white haunted house where Bruce Campbell plays a doomed paranormal investigator, and a sci-fi Alien knockoff that actually looks damned impressive considering the budget they had to work with. It turns out that they’re stuck in what a raven refers to as “God’s Nintendo,” and that Galligan is actually a “Chosen One” who…oh, forget it. It’s silly as hell, doesn’t make any sense and plays more like an action movie than a horror film. The only way to compare the two Waxworks movies is to say that they’re both really, really fun.
Weekend at Bernie's II (dir. Robert Klane, 1993)
The original Weekend at Bernie’s was a pretty weird film to begin with, starring Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman as hapless yuppies who find the corpse of their old boss, Bernie (Terry Kiser), and are forced to pretend that he’s still alive in order to avoid being killed themselves. The simple comic set up led to a series of madcap situations, many of which are quite funny if you don’t consider the whole idea too macabre. And the film did well enough to warrant a sequel, even though by definition the plot is too utterly bizarre to happen again, just by coincidence.
Enter Weekend at Bernie’s II, which reunited McCarthy, Silverman and the corpse in a fantasy comedy about voodoo and buried treasure. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. You good? Okay, so it turns out that Bernie had embezzled millions and buried it in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and has been given a voodoo curse that forces him to walk directly to the treasure, even though he’s, you know, dead. Oh, and Silverman gets another voodoo curse that will kill him unless they either find the treasure or the blood of a virgin (McCarthy qualifies). It ends with Bernie riding a shark into the sunset. Weekend at Bernie's II wasn't an elegant solution to the sequel problem, but at least it was really, really bad.
Hannibal Rising (dir. Peter Webber, 2007)
The killers in Scream pointed out that Hannibal Lecter is a lot scarier because we don’t know why he eats people. So when Peter Webber made Hannibal Rising in 2007, a film which explained exactly that, it was a genuinely baffling decision. With Anthony Hopkins getting a little long in the tooth to keeping playing Lecter over and over again, they decided to make a prequel to the Silence of the Lambs franchise that took “Hannibal the Cannibal” from the World War II, through his samurai days, and right on through to… WHAT?!
Yes, Hannibal Rising – which to be fair is based on a book by original Hannibal Lecter creator Thomas Harris – doesn’t just give you the serial killer’s origins, it also gives you a blow-by-blow remake of Batman Begins, complete with family tragedy, martial arts and a revenge quest against the evil bastards who made Lecter the psycho he turned out to be. It’s stultifyingly awful. Audiences engaged with Hannibal Lecter over the course of several previous films, but that didn’t mean we wanted him turned into a hero. Thank god this idea never took hold, because a series of films about a cannibal serial killer fighting bad guys… well, actually that sounds pretty cool. But this interpretation of the kinda nifty idea only besmirches the legacy of an otherwise great movie villain.