Sequels, prequels and treequels

Art & Culture

The film business is a business. Repeat, a business. They make things that people want to watch, and will pay money to do so. The more people pay money, the happier they are. Audiences are sheep. If they like something, they want more of it. Either in the form of a sequel, or a film with the same star, director or overall plot. (For some reason, marketing companies think that saying "By the Producers of Pirates of The Caribbean", for example, that will induce us to go and see a film, but surely we're not that stupid).

Which is how we get to sequels, prequels and all the rannygazoo that is regularly spewed in our direction. This week it's Men in Black 3, an amusing but wholly redundant treequel to a 1997 movie. The sequel was a dud, and it's taken 10 years to bully and cajole Tommy Lee Jones back in front of the camera, mainly by allowing him to disappear from all but the beginning and end of the film; and I expect he got paid a bit too. In a week or 2 we'll have Ridley Scott's Prometheus, a prequel that isn't a prequel, apparently, though it looks a lot like one, and is being heavily marketed as such. We've had American Pie: Reunion, and later this summer there's The Amazing Spiderman (known as a reboot), The Dark Knight Rises, and Ice Age: Continental Drift.

And it'll be the same next summer, and the summer after, until we storm the multiplexes with pitchforks and those flaming torches that burn all night, and demand to see some original and interesting films. Don't expect that to happen any time soon. The problem for the studios is not which films to make sequels to – simply follow the cash – but how to do them. Because most film stories exist in a single unrepeatable reality. Can you imagine a sequel to Groundhog Day, for example – and I bet someone has tried? Scripts have a beginning, a middle and an end, and at the end we want to feel that everything is neatly wrapped up, and we can go home (or to bed) safe in the knowledge that it's all sorted. The girl got the guy, the baddie was shot/locked up, and the world is back in balance again.

There are exceptions, of course – Star Wars, for example, was planned as a 9 parter which, thankfully only managed 6 parts. The Hunger Games (being based on 3 novels) conveniently falls into 3 films. But otherwise, a second or third film has to carefully unpick all the hard work that was done before – the baddie escapes, the girl and guy split up – and start all over again. It's one of the advantages soap operas have over movies. On TV, nothing ever has to end, it all just continues endlessly into the future. Pity the poor movie scriptwriter who has to dream up reasons for how the next franchise wannabe can justify its existence.

Because there's a whole other level of problem. What made the original film appealing – shark terrorises beach; young cool black guy and old grumpy white guy team up to battle aliens; dinosaurs are alive and well in the 20th century – is no longer fresh. That's already a given. You have to find something entirely new and appealing to make us – the easily jaded audience – believe that this is worth going to see. Terminator 2 did a good job that way, by making the bad guy into the good guy, and upping the CGI effects dramatically. That felt like a new film which was exciting. Cameron (James, not David) pulled the same trick with Aliens, turning  a boo movie into a tough action movie, and giving Sigourney her head. But these are rare beasts. Mostly, it's a sad descent downhill, as Pirates of the Caribbean is followed by 2, 3 and 4 (with 5 to come), each film longer, duller and more incomprehensible than the last.

The failure is a joint one. The studios, run by accountants, look at the bottom line, and decide that what sells is what is already known. On the receiving end, the great unwashed pubic says 'oh look, it's another film with Johnny Depp pretending to be Keith Richards, let's go and see that.' Greed and stupidity are a powerful cocktail. And always have been.

By Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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