Sequel-itis – Safe Bet or the Risky Venture

So, it looks like Jurassic World is going to get a sequel.

legoblueTeeAnd though I understand why that’s going to happen (box office receipts make it as one of the top grossing films of 2015) I fail to see what else you can do with the “franchise”. That may be a bit short-sighted of me, but how many ‘we shouldn’t create dinosaurs’ movies do we need?

I posted on Facebook saying that I didn’t think the film warranted a sequel and the post got a mix of reactions – most were excited to have another “dinosaur” movie and some who just shrugged their virtual shoulders and said that the studios will pump out sequels as long as they make money off them, or who argued that the film deserved to have a sequel precisely because it made a billion dollars.

And on one hand, its all about the profit margin. If a film does well, you do what you can to keep making money off of it. The ad guys and marketing folks for studios are able to translate the film-going experience into other products that can be collected or displayed or simply attached to another product (cereal boxes or other food products) in order to keep the public excited about it and rake in more money so they can make more movies, etc. And there have been a number of these franchises that have been well worth the effort, that succeed in terms of not only capturing the feel and excitement of the original but also move the franchise forward.

Some films warrant a multi-film structure, simply because you need that length or time to tell the story properly… others because the characters and the actors who portray them mesh so well with the original material (generally the books they have turned into screenplays) that the thrill of the franchise makes sense for reasons other than cash money (I hope).

There have also been films that were earmarked to be franchise-worthy, but for whatever reason, they failed to achieve or capture enough interest (read: millions and millions or billions of dollars) to warrant further effort. Which is one of the reasons that film studios continue to revisit properties they know will draw people to the box office.

Since the mid-60’s, the trend in movies and films has been to find something that is a success and then attempt to piggy back on the project’s financial success and turn that film/movie/TV show into a franchise – a product that people will buy over and over. It’s not a new trend, for over fifty years there has been a tidal wave of films that have been made in the multi-film sequence format. The James Bond series comes to mind, or the Planet of the Apes series, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Transformers, The Matrix Trilogy. etc. All had multiple installments. And the Jurassic films too,  just to keep on topic.

I’m not really sure how or why JW deserves a sequel. Not because it wasn’t a success (financially it was a monster hit) or was a bad film (which is debatable), I just question the why of it? If it’s just to create more revenue for a studio or whatever – is that really the reason to make a sequel? Is it really all about $$?

If it is, maybe that’s why I am not more of a success story. I never put effort into pursuing the almighty $ as the be all and end all of my existence.

For me, any film worth its merit and worth my money has to be one that captures me with its story. And so, when they announce a film like JW is getting a sequel, I have to ask: What’s the story going to be? What new things will it explore?

I’m not a film historian or a film expert in anyway, heck I’m not even a member of the film making community (though that may change soon 😉 I’m really just another film-goer like everyone else; so what I put down here is just my thoughts and observances and they may be incorrect or uninformed on some level. But I’ll try to explain my self as best I can.

Maybe its the term “sequel” that makes everyone crazy. The concept of a sequel isn’t anything new, sequels have been part and parcel of film almost since the medium was created. The earliest films had recurring characters and plots and were created because the public enjoyed seeing “what happens next”. The Keystone Cops or adventure serials are good examples of this, though, the serial can’t really be categorized as a sequel, as it they were made in “chapter” installments, short pieces that fit together to tell a complete story.

And what is a sequel anyway? What are the hallmarks that mark a work a sequel?

According to the source of all sources, Wikipedia, the definition of a sequel is as follows: “a sequel portrays events set in the same fictional universe as an earlier work, usually chronologically following the events of that work… the sequel continues elements of the original story, often with the same characters and settings.”

JW adheres to the criteria for a sequel, but perhaps what we should do with this type of established franchise film, is to stop calling them sequels altogether. Or at least put an end to the horrible sequential naming system… having a film’s title followed by a number is just so lazy. As is having a new title, but including the original just to make sure the audience “gets” that it is tied to the original. But that’s a educational thing and this post is about movies and sequels.

So instead of sequels, maybe we should call them continuations or continuances – or, maybe every film should end with the dread “To be continued…” phrase when the film goes dark before the credits roll. That way we know the story isn’t over.

Also, from the studio’s point of view – its a risk to spend money on something that isn’t a proven commodity, especially when it comes to blockbuster type films. The blockbuster is less than fifty years old and really began to take hold in the 70’s, with Spielberg’s Jaws and have been fighting for summer movie goer dollars ever since. The maxim of the blockbuster being – bigger and better. And so, if you score a hit with one… you start planning the sequel. It would be crazy of a studio to take that money and put it into a new property… better to stick with the formula and make money than to risk a bomb.

And that’s great as far as business and finances are concerned, its a proven system, it works and we have gotten some really awesome entertainment because of it. Yet, as a storyteller I have to wonder what else we might get at the box office if the sequel formula lost favor and disappeared. I would hope we would get new stories, new characters, new inspiration.

And that I think is at the heart of what this post is all about – the story.

jpMichael Crichton published Jurassic Park in 1990, at a time when chaos theory was getting a lot of attention, and that’s a big part of the book and the 1993 film… that things that can go screwy, will go screwy. And that is the underlying theme of all the ‘sequels’ the to first JP film.

I saw JW and found that I wasn’t pulled into the world of the film, almost from the opening frames. Partly because the excitement of seeing dinos on screen has been lessened in the twenty years between it and the original JP. But mostly because I was aware of how closely its premise and characters and even plot was almost a carbon copy of the original ’93 Jurassic Park film.

That may be an over-simplification – but both are about the dangers of messing with nature, trying to predict or control wild animals and fleeing giant creatures that are higher than us on the food chain. They also have the same character types from the original film albeit transposed or mashed together – Claire Dealing is just a John Hammond clone with some Alan Grant thrown in, Owen Grady is a Muldoon/Ian Malcolm amalgam and so on. They even have a pair of teen siblings with a troubled relationship, sent to the park to see a relative. Oh, and other side characters that serve as menu items, basically.

So, what really irks me about Jurassic World, isn’t the ‘bigger and better’ element of it, which it has in spades – its the rehash of the same story as the original. Even down to the final dino on dino battle.

An interesting point for me, is that one of the lead characters in JW was unlikable from the moment we meet them. Perhaps that’s unfair, because we’ve come to expect our movie characters in blockbuster films to be drawn pretty simply – this ones a hero, this ones a villain and so forth. In contrast to the original JP’s main characters, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Claire Dealing is presented as a ‘villain’ type, and for a majority of the film you look to see her get a Dennis Nedry level of comeuppance.

You know, that a scary dino would corner her and eat her.

— That fate is actually reserved for Claire’s assistant by the way, moasaurus(carried off by a Pterodactyl and then swallowed by a Moasaurus ) and who really doesn’t deserve that type of terrible demise given that the only thing evil she did in the film was roll her eyes. —

Now, I have to be careful here and wonder aloud – do I have a problem with Bryce’s character because of her attitude and outlook, or because she was female? There was a little twitter kerfuffle about that if I remember rightly, Josh Whedon had complained about the way she was represented. I would hope that I found her distasteful because of her personality, not her sex. (That’s a whole other post I think.)

Anyway, getting back to her character – who starts off as an arrogant type, but redeems herself because she finds she actually cares for her nephews, and who in a film of this type twenty years ago might have found herself bitten in half by a dinosaur, but instead, all of the bad decisions and death that result from her arrogance and greed, are ignored in favor of her surviving because… why? I guess that will be answered in the sequel.

Which will find her walking free, out and about rather than say, if you took it from a logical perspective, rotting in jail or in court facing criminal charges for allowing the animals in her park to escape and eat the tourists.

In the end, I’m not saying that Jurassic World, or any franchise film doesn’t have the right to exist or to get made. They do – I just want there to be a good reason for them to exist, one that isn’t necessarily driven by money and profit, but rather driven by story and character. Slim chance, I know.

I’m sure one reason why a lot of people were excited about the film were the dinosaurs and the special effects – I remember being amazed, the mouth open, wide-eyed kind of amazement that film can do sometimes, when I first saw the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park back in 1993. I think everyone had the same look on their faces that Alan Grant did when he saw what John Hammond was able to create.

The story was also new – though the concept is an old one. The thundering roar of the T-Rex was the most frightening thing ever… and now, twenty years on, we have to have a hybrid T-Rex/Raptor in order to try and generate the same thrill and sense of fear. The effects were better, the creatures realistic and we got to see some animals we hadn’t seen in previous incarnations of the franchise. Which is also a main sticking point of the film’s dialogue – ‘Things have to be new. They have to be bigger and better and scarier – or audiences will stay away.’

That’s the other thing about sequels – inevitably they try and outdo the film that preceded it, and most times don’t quite measure up. There are exceptions of course, but because making films isn’t entirely a creative process – you have people (who are funding the project and who have say in how their money is spent) ask, demand or threaten to have things ‘bigger and better’. The T-Rex from 1993 just isn’t scary enough anymore. It wasn’t scary enough for Jurassic Park 3 (grrrrr dumb title!) and so its not going to be scary enough now.

I would go into my issues with the assumption that the raptors could be tamed – I’m not versed enough on animal behavior to know whether or not its feasible. As an audience member it just seemed to stretch the bonds of disbeleif. They are not cats or dogs or lions or other mammals that have been trained – they are lizards. Lizard killing machines. Land sharks. I just didn’t buy it… not from the first trailer where Chris Pratt stares them down.

Don’t get me started on the scene where this lizard, this killing machine, “remembers” its training and forgoes instinct to not eat Pratt and the others and instead to attack a giant T-Rex/Raptor hybrid so the humans (its prey) escape. Face palm.

The other big sticking point for me with Jurassic World was the end sequence. It just seemed sooooooo over the top. And it was practically the same sequence we had at the end of ’93’s JP – with the raptors attacking a larger creature. But, as this is a sequle… that’s not good enough, so let’s throw in the T-Rex too… you know because the T-Rex was the big draw for the first movie… yeah! For nostalgia! And so we get a titanic battle between Indominus Rex, T-Rex and the raptors… but wait, that’s not enough… Indominus needs to get crunched and swallowed by an even bigger predator, the Moasaurus and dragged into the big water enclosure.

It was exactly the type of death that John Malkovich/Cyrus got in Con-Air. It’s not enough for the villain to get punched and knocked out, or just plain ol’ shot. Nope. Not good enough. They have to suffer and die – they have to be handcuffed to a ladder truck, thrown through a glass walkway, electrocuted on high tension wires, land on a convey belt and dropped to get their had smashed to a pulp by a piece of construction equipment… you know, because that’s what happens to guys who threaten Poe’s little girl.

Its almost as ridiculous as the end of  Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood video (if not the whole thing) – I mean, who can’t get enough of napalm and explosions, am I right? {It would take me a whole other 5,000 word essay to talk about how damaging songs and videos like that are on the psyche – what’s it really saying about us? Know what I mean?}

The JW ending wasn’t that level of ludicrous, but close. Because I guess, having someone actually machine-gun the beast to death, or take it out with a sniper shot or simply RPG it to death wasn’t satisfying enough. The only way the Indominus could or should be defeated was by its own kind.

In one way, I’m not really being fair to the film – it’s a perfectly fine piece of summer entertainment. I just don’t think it, or the franchise needs another go round. Not that my opinion counts for diddly. I’m just disappointed in the fact JW was so much like the original.

If I had any input into the sequel I’d ask that they set it several generations in the future. Show us that the dinos have reclaimed much of the earth and that mankind is going to have to fight back from the brink in order to take back the world – or learn to live as a creature who no longer sits atop the food chain. Sound ridiculous? Yeah… and so is a theme park full of dinosaurs, or mystic space knights with light sabers, or people plugged into a computer simulation thinking they are living in the real world.

Wait, wait, wait… that’s it! Space dinosaurs with light swords battling computer programs from the future!

It’s a brand new risk-free franchise! 🙂

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One thought on “Sequel-itis – Safe Bet or the Risky Venture

  1. Pingback: “X Vs. Y” | The Tao of Zordon

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