Do sequels ever really work when decades have passed since the first film?
I still haven’t seen Independence Day: Resurgence, and there’s a good chance I won’t.
When 20th Century Fox made the decision not to screen the film for US press in advance of the film’s opening, they sent a very clear message to anyone paying attention, and it’s a message that I believe more and more studios would love to send to critics, especially on their giant event films: not only do we not need you, but we don’t want you. At all.
And it’s true. Studios don’t really need to screen movies for critics. It’s a professional agreement that we all participate in, but more and more often, studios screen later and almost begrudgingly. I am amazed how many times this year alone I’ve had to basically beg to even find out when or if a screening is happening. The stakes are getting higher for the studios as they push all their chips onto these megamovies. Now that there are no mid-range films and everything is either a million-dollar pick-up or a gigantically-budgeted pre-sold property, studios have to look at the prospect of mixed or negative reviews as a direct threat to their bottom line.
One of the things that makes Independence Day: Resurgence different than a standard sequel is the amount of time that passed between the release of the first film and this one. It is uncommon for a studio to let a property lay fallow for that long, and when you consider what a monster hit the original was and how Fox typically works, it’s almost unthinkable that it took a full 20 years between movies. Most of the long-lag sequels that have existed before now have been for very different films, and from a commercial point of view, it’s a model that doesn’t really have a strong precursor. You’ve got an entirely different generation buying tickets now, and you have to wonder how much of an attachment they’ve got to that film from two decades ago that has no spin-offs, no sequels, and no real pop culture presence in the years since.
Based on the film’s performance, it looks like Fox’s gamble didn’t pay off for them on any front. The reviews that were written were scathing, and the public’s response has been, largely, indifference. That’s one of the real dangers of making this kind of film. I think sequels have a certain shelf life, and after you cross a certain span of years, a sequel becomes an oddity instead of an actual commercial prospect. The entire notion of a sequel is based on the premise that there’s some reason to return to this material. Either the fans are so fervent that it makes commercial sense, or the storyteller has some legitimate next step they want to share in the story or in the characters. The list of real sequels, where there is some continuity between the films beyond branding, that have taken more than ten or fifteen years to happen is a very short one, and looking at it, you’d be hard-pressed to find many success stories.
Last year, Mad Max: Fury Road took global audiences by storm, and considering the thirty years between that film and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, that film is a miracle. George Miller made a young man’s movie, hungry and daring and ambitious, and he pulled it off with a technical facility that could only have come from a lifetime spent defining and redefining the way action is filmed. He also reinvented the entire visual language of Mad Max, refusing to simply coast on what he’d already done. That is the exception to the rule, though. Look at Tron: Legacy, for example. Disney did everything they could to convince the world that they really wanted to head back inside the computer world, but when they imagined the film, they did so as if it was still 1982 and the thirty years of technical progress that happened between the movies was unimportant. How can you make a Tron sequel after the advent of the Internet and never acknowledge it?
For every The Color Of Money, where we actually learn something new about a returning character or where something is reimagined in a way that expands our ideas about the first film, we are left with dozens of Slap Shot 2: Breaking The Ices, movies that lean on a nostalgia that just isn’t there, or that certainly isn’t ingrained enough to expect major box-office returns as a result. Was anyone asking for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps? Was there any reason beyond ego to risk a Blues Brothers 2000? Who was it who insisted that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Legend was something people wanted? What bottom-of-the-barrel impulse leads to When A Stranger Calls Back?
Finding Dory may be topping the box-office charts right now, and thirteen years between films is nothing to sneeze at, but Pixar and Disney films feel like different things than your standard movie sequels. When Disney cranks out Bambi and Peter Pan sequels, you’re dealing with something that can theoretically offer up a certain timelessness. Bambi doesn’t keep aging between movies. When The Two Jakes hit theaters, Jack Nicholson was at a very different point in his career than he was when Chinatown came out, and he was leaning into his own iconography in a very different way. He had entered into a prolonged period of self-parody, even in his “serious” performances, and the films that were connecting with audiences (Batman, The Witches Of Eastwick) were the films where he was playing “Jack Nicholson” cranked up to eleven. The Two Jakes was nothing like that, and it never stood a chance based on the way Paramount sold it.
Anything over a decade seems difficult for a sequel, creatively speaking. If you have the original filmmaker return, chances are they’ve become someone very different by that point. Look at Tobe Hooper’s genre-defining The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and then look at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Only 12 years passed between the two, but Hooper had gone through a lifetime or three as a director, and the films look like they were made by completely different people. The Peter Bogdanovich who made The Last Picture Show was a major filmmaker at the height of his creative powers. The Peter Bogdanovich who made Texasville was… not. Ridley Scott was still hungry when he made Alien, and he elevated a B-movie premise into something genuinely beautiful and visually groundbreaking. When he made Prometheus, he was at a very different place, and he took this thing that had been so simple and effective the first time around and smothered it to death with needless backstory and pointless connections and a weirdly anti-science moron script filled with dumb characters doing dumb things for no reason. One of the most uncomfortable examples I’ve ever seen was The Odd Couple II, in which Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau decided to drop a squat right on the chest of the 1968 comedy hit, a situation echoed by the generally-disliked Dumb and Dumber To.
It’s not impossible to make a sequel well after decades away. John Boorman’s Queen and Country is a gentle, heartfelt follow-up to Hope and Glory, and it feels like it comes from just as honest a place as his original. When Sylvester Stallone returned to playing John Rambo a full 20 years after his last time as the character, he made a film that substantially improved on the film before it, harder and more righteously angry, and he juiced it up with an appetite for megaviolence that was startling. He managed the same sort of course correction with Rocky Balboa, a full 16 years after the awful Rocky V. But those are all films where it feels like the filmmaker carefully considered why you would ever want or need to see these characters again. With Boorman’s film, he’s dealing in a sort of heightened memoir, and he was able to draw on something very true.
The failure of Independence Day: Resurgence won’t slow studios down at all. It’s been 12 years since Renee Zellweger last played Bridget Jones, and almost as long since she’s been in a hit film of any kind. Will her return to the role in Bridget Jones's Baby get audiences excited, or has the Working Title rom-com been laid to rest at this point, making this too little too late? Will fourteen years between Bad Boys films render this new one a curiosity, or will they make something that has its own style and that feels new? Can Eddie Murphy ever play Axel Foley on the big screen again, or should his sleepwalking appearance in that horrifying TV pilot for Beverly Hills Cop serve as all the warning we need?
We’ll see, whether we want to or not.
Independence Day: Resurgence is in theaters now.