Top 5 Sequels
In this summer of sequels, a title most summers could sport in this day and age, I thought it would be nice to take a look back at the finest sequels of all time. One of the things I noticed when composing this list was that sequels that utilized elements of the first feature to tell an entirely new story faired better than those which basically recycled the movies that preceded them. Audiences like to revisit characters and environments more than they like to revisit plots, so finding a way to tell a new story is critical to a sequel’s success. With that in mind, there are several films on this list that rise above the films that inspired them, movies that somehow bucked the odds and surpassed their predecessors.
Also, in a bit of a curious note, the 80s have it, at least so far as sequels are concerned. The only entry on my list that didn’t come didn’t come from that glorious decade of obnoxious decadence arrived mere months ahead of schedule in 1979.
Another key attribute of the films that made my Top 5 here: grand finales. Sequels are routinely touted for higher body counts and bigger explosions, but a number of my favorites made sure to end with a massive setpiece, many of which remain among the most invigorating finishes in motion picture history.
1) Aliens (1986)
I imagine there are many people (myself included) who don’t appreciate Alien like they should simply because Aliens was so much better. Now don’t get me wrong, Alien is a very good horror film, and perhaps even a great one, but Aliens is clearly a masterpiece. This is the finest film in Cameron’s library, and it came at a time when he had scored big with The Terminator and offered up a fairly mundane horror film in Piranha II, so he was still a bit on the fence so far as Hollywood was concerned. In all honesty, calling Piranha II “fairly mundane” is an act of kindness of considerable magnitude. Regardless, after Aliens there could be no doubt that one of the most exciting filmmakers of all time had arrived. Whereas Alien is a claustrophobic exercise in horror, Aliens is a massive thriller on a grand scale, a major spectacle populated with a host of memorable characters and packed with innovative setpieces that still pack a wicked punch. Only Cameron (the youthful Cameron, the badass Jim Cameron who had yet to drop T2 or The Abyss on us, not that guy who wound up making Titanic 11 years later) would pit a hardened squad of Space Marines against his particularly gruesome breed of aliens in a firefight adjacent to a nuclear reactor, forcing his troops to shoulder their weapons as they are massacred by those nightmarish beasts that squirm and snarl across the screen. This is followed by a terrific scene with two so-called face-huggers trying to impregnate Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in her signature role) and young Newt (Carrie Henn) in a sealed room where the only sound is the faint scraping sounds the unsightly creatures make as they scuttle across the floor. That scene is followed by a standoff to end all standoffs, a valiant effort that gives way in the face of alien terror. Finally, Ripley makes a daring plunge into the Alien Queen’s nest, and their epic showdown is a great example of how to end a film. Combine all this with wonderful performances from Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and even Paul Reiser sprinkled throughout a plot that never relents, and the end result is spectacular to say the least. Aliens is a sequel to judge all sequels by, a total triumph that may stand as the greatest film of its genre.
2) The Road Warrior (1981)
Mad Max was a nifty little thrill ride that put star Mel Gibson and director George Miller on the map, but The Road Warrior was a true juggernaut that boasts a climax that will probably never be topped. In yet another example of the sequel eclipsing its predecessor, The Road Warrior proved far superior to Mad Max, and the narrative is so much bigger and the action so much livelier that it’s hard to compare the two. Whereas the first entry was a revenge flick, The Road Warrior is a sadistic vision of a true anti-hero coming to the rescue of a community in peril. When Max comes upon an encampment of peaceful survivors who are trying valiantly to protect a stash of fuel, he also crosses paths with the menacing band of rogues who have surrounded the weary survivors. While audiences might expect Max to quickly take a side in this conflict, our rugged hero has no interest in anyone else’s fight. Despite the brutal methods of the marauding rogues, Max is intent on avoiding this conflict altogether until circumstances force him to play the part of the hero. Once he climbs behind the wheel of a massive rig equipped for war with the minions of the awful Humungus in hot pursuit, however, it’s time for one of the biggest finales of all time. As the rig dismantles a horde of motorcycles, jeeps, trucks, and various other vehicles, we’re treated to the type of innovation and daring that movies no longer feature. As men leap from one vehicle to another and bodies hurtle through the air as metal meets metal in an epic race to destruction, it is important to note that there was no such thing as CGI in 1981. Those are real people in real machines putting their lives on the line to make a picture. With this sequel, George Miller and Mel Gibson delivered an action film without parallel and a bleak vision of an apocalyptic future that still resonates. The Road Warrior is a landmark in motion picture history, a powerful collision of art and adrenaline that remains potent thirty years after its inception.
3) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This is probably first on a great many lists, and I do understand that, yet I’m not even positive that it’s the best Star Wars sequel. Kevin Smith’s opinion aside, I’m tempted to say that I enjoy Return of the Jedi a tad more. In fact, if not for Anakin’s clumsy about-face into darkness, Revenge of the Sith might present its own challenge, but Empire has quite a legacy and in the end I deferred to this second film in that line’s storied history. In truth, Empire certainly has a lot going for it. The opening on icy planet Hoth is energetic and captivating, and the mystery and wonder of Dagobah combined with Yoda, Yoda’s endearing speech impediment, and his strange tutelage, are equally remarkable. Harrison Ford steals the show as Han Solo (as usual) while Billy Dee Williams makes Lando Calrissian one of the series’ most complex characters. Mark Hamill is much better as Luke, though his badass turn* in Jedi remains far superior. The climax features one of Hollywood’s biggest twists and a grim closing that left many young fans (be sure to include yours truly in their ranks) quivering in fear as they eagerly awaited resolution that wouldn’t arrive for another three years. Empire is a stellar science-fiction outing, a robust space opera that is bristling with excitement and adventure, a film for all ages, though it is easily one of the darkest family pictures to be so revered.
4) Evil Dead 2 (1987)
In essence, Sam Raimi reshaped The Evil Dead here, retelling that story in a far more whimsical manner in this cult classic that elevated Bruce Campbell to iconic status and ushered Sam into mainstream filmmaking of the highest order. This is a delightful piece, a gory delight that is as funny as it is sinister, a horror film with comedic overtones that is utterly unique and gleefully absurd. The biggest inspiration for this outrageous romp seems to be vintage Three Stooges routines and the comical and extremely violent Looney Tunes cartoon library. Our main character grows more and more delirious as he contends with horrors both real and imagined in a haunted cabin deep in the forest. A vicious monstrosity roams this isolated nightmare and anyone who shows up is apt to start levitating and spewing horrific gibberish before savagely attacking anyone in sight. Of course these fiends must be dispatched via bodily dismemberment, but as it turns out Bruce Campbell’s Ash is a natural when it comes to battling the undead. He must also contend with his own body as his hand turns on him, leading to one of the film’s best scenes, a physical comedy routine rooted in horror that never fails to amuse and disgust. Suffice it to say that our hero finds himself down one hand when that particular onslaught draws to a close. Things really spiral out of control during the big finish, which kicks off with our hero fashioning a chainsaw onto his freshly-minted stump and squaring off with a dead witch who rises up from the root cellar. This quirky spookshow is a real treasure, and despite his big-time success with Spider-Man and other mainstream films like The Gift and Drag Me to Hell, Evil Dead 2 surely represents Sam Raimi at his ridiculous best. It doesn’t hurt matters that Bruce Campbell became one of the most recognizable figures in the horror industry as a result of his performance here and his subsequent efforts with the character.
5) Rocky II (1979)
I may be alone in thinking this is a better film than Rocky, but I’m not alone in treasuring it, and the closing reel is decidedly epic. Rocky’s second fight with champion Apollo Creed is a magnificent combination of stirring choreography and visionary direction, providing us with a surreal cinematic experience that is both lurid and overwhelming. The tension is unbearable as Rocky struggles to his feet, and the elation is supreme when he is declared the victor and the music swells as the new champ leaps up in triumph. Rocky II is an example of storytelling at its best, and Sylvester Stallone was at his apex in this charming gem. This is a playful piece and a serious character study, giving us an entertaining and introspective look at a strong-willed simpleton. This lovable chump who marches to the beat of a different drum and sacrifices his body in the dogged pursuit of something meaningful in the beatings he suffers in the ring is one of the industry’s most popular creations. Stallone benefits from Talia Shire’s steady presence and Burgess Meredith’s scenery-chewing embodiment of the grizzled sports vet as the grumpy old trainer who guides Rocky along the way. Meredith’s Mickey is almost as likable as the title character, and his untimely death in Rocky III remains the biggest mistake the makers of this series made, though it certainly isn’t the only one. Carl Weavers is ideal in the role of Rocky’s rival Apollo Creed, a magnificent champion whose pride is both his greatest attribute and his ultimate undoing. The story is actually rather moving though it is a bit melodramatic, with Rocky fearing that another fight will blind him while Adrian falls into a coma after exerting herself too much during pregnancy. Another plot thread finds Mickey growing frustrated with Rocky’s lack of heart, which itself stems from Adrian’s refusal to endorse his efforts because of her fear for his sight and anything he else he might sacrifice in the ring. Of course Adrian will wake up from the coma, deliver the child, and wish Rocky luck on his way to the ring, inspiring him to give his all in one of the finest fights ever captured on film. As I mentioned before, the bout*** that closes this picture out is a glorious presentation ripe with some of the finest slow motion bits ever and enough suspense to make anyone watching anxious. This gives way to a fantastic payoff that closes out one of the cinema’s finest sequels in style, making Rocky II my favorite film in the series as well as a worthy addition to this list.
*“I'm taking Captain Solo and his friends. You can either profit by this or be destroyed. It's your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power.”
**My father swears that when he saw this picture at the local drive-in theater everyone got out of their cars and jumped around, pumping their fists and cheering during the big fight. I can believe it. Pop said he didn’t want to get out of his car, but he had to so that he could see, and then when Rocky won a barrage of jubilant strangers hugged dad and high-fived him in celebration. He says he rarely felt so foolish, but I imagine that I would have been cheering too.
Oddly enough, no comic book adaptations made the cut here, though I strongly pondered including The Dark Knight, X2, Spider-Man 2, and even Superman 2.
Other titles considered included:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom – While researching this piece, I found a lot of commentary and critiques online, and apparently a lot of people hate this film. I really had no idea. I have always preferred it to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while I know that isn’t typical, I honestly didn’t know that people hated this one. I think it’s absolutely terrific.
The Mummy Returns
Phantasm IV: Oblivion
28 Weeks Later
Lethal Weapon 2
Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie
Young Guns II
Dawn of the Dead
-Originally published by RVA Magazine. They'll be dropping my Top 5 Elmore Leonard list later this week--stay tuned!