Tinseltown, like any other business, is all about making money, and one of their easiest paths to the Almighty Dollar has been the sequel. Ever since The Fall of a Nation, the 1916 followup to D. W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has been churning out sequels left and right. Some are made to continue the narrative (The Godfather); some are made to expand on the story’s mythology (Star Wars), and many are purely cash-grabs, which often lead to hit-or-miss results (for every Wayne’s World 2, there’s a Caddyshack II).
Still, for all the complaints that have been thrown and are still getting thrown and will continue to be thrown at sequels for being another reason Hollywood has no interest in producing anything original, not all are that bad; in fact, some are actually great, and for that reason, along with this month’s highly anticipated release of Star Wars: Episode VII, I’m here to give the often slighted second or third entries their day in the sun.
Before we begin, here are some honorable mentions: Back to the Future Part II, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Kill Bill: Volume 2, Lethal Weapon 2, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Superman II and X2: X-Men United.
Anyway, let’s get this show on the road, starting with…
10) Dawn of the Dead
1979 – Whether it’s Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the 13th, no genre has put out a crappier track record of horrible sequels than horror. Exception to the rule, thy name is George A. Romero. Dawn of the Dead had some big shoes to fill with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead revolutionizing the zombie genre, yet Romero brought his A-game once again. As Romero does best, Dawn of the Dead is relentlessly brutal and gruesome, but beyond the depravity, it’s his savage satire on the American consumer that elevates this film above being an expertly crafted yet mindless zombie flick and turns it into one of the best films to come out of the ’70s. It’s a cynical, sickening testament to why when it comes to zombie films, Romero is king.
1986 – Terminator creator James Cameron, who you just might see again on this list, took a big risk on his sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien by drastically changing the tone and atmosphere from Scott’s haunting, deliberately paced film to his version which is a loud, giant kick in the nuts worth of pulse-pounding action and monstrous, acid-spewing creatures you hope to God you don’t ever come across. But as you can see with the final result, it was a risk well worth taking thanks to Cameron’s relentless, pedal-to-the-metal approach, the phenomenal effects work by Stan Winston and, of course, Sigourney Weaver as one of the most enduring bad-ass heroines in all of film. Aliens is proof a sequel can go bigger and loud over its predecessor, and as evident in Ellen Ripley and her ragtag team of soldiers, can do so without sacrificing character.
8) Toy Story 2
1999 – To think that Disney actually once considered writing off this worthy followup to Pixar’s groundbreaking 1995 debut as just another straight-to-video release as they’ve traditionally done with all their other animated sequels. With two films already under their belt (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life), Pixar had their animated craft down to a tee, and the immense details given to the diverse settings Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang find themselves in is absolutely magnificent. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and many of the other returning voice cast members once again provide on-point voice work to the characters that have become their own, with Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer and Wayne Knight joining them as welcome newcomers. But what makes Toy Story 2 ring true with viewers of all ages is what Pixar continues to accomplish to this very day as they’ve done since the very first Toy Story and that’s blend exquisite animation and sharp, witty humor with poignant, relatable themes that strike an emotional cord within us all.
7) The Road Warrior
1981 – Like Cameron did with Aliens, George Miller went the “go big or go home” route, turning his small-scale revenge thriller Mad Max into the aggressive, heart-pounding, hell bent for leather thrill ride that is The Road Warrior. The plot is as straightforward as one can get, but it’s Miller’s vision in creating this desolate dystopian wasteland of maniacs, combined with some breathtaking action sequences, one of which is a climactic edge-of-your-seat extended car chase, that makes this such a tour de force of the action genre. And just as Sigourney Weaver is the heroic heart and soul of Aliens, Mel Gibson is the compelling anchor of this film. If Mad Max didn’t initially reach much of an American audience when first released, The Road Warrior would make sure to correct that.
6) Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1991 – James Cameron’s second appearance on this list, Terminator 2: Judgment Day tops its thrilling 1984 predecessor with a more elaborate story that expands on the mythology established in the first film, exciting action sequences, a formidable villain, a great heroine and eye-popping visual effects that would usher the sci-fi/action genre into a whole new groundbreaking era. But what really elevates this flick to the top of its franchise is the surprising amount of depth given to its characters, both human and, yes, non-human. Who knew it’d be Arnold Schwarzenegger, here at his empathetic best, that would have us tearing up over a robot long before WALL-E would do the same?
5) Before Midnight
2013 – Compared to the other big tentpole flicks that surround it, Richard Linklater’s small, intimate and dialogue-driven Before Midnight sticks out like a sore thumb, but this third and final entry to Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” not only closes Jesse and Celine’s story as strongly as any franchise could hope to do, it just might also be the strongest of the entire series. A slim margin, mind you, considering how great Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are, but still, how many film series can boast their final entry being the overall strongest (it’s rare, but as you’ll soon see, this film isn’t the only one)? Built around Linklater’s understated direction, his poignantly intelligent script, co-written by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and some of the strongest performance work of both Hawke and Delpy’s careers, Before Midnight is one of the more honest statements on love, marriage and long-term commitment of the past decade.
4) The Dark Knight
2008 – Hey, remember when everyone screamed in typical blind fanboy rage over that pretty boy from 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain getting cast as the Joker, and then after seeing The Dark Knight they did a complete 180 and now say he’s irreplaceable? Christopher Nolan already set the bar high enough with his reboot/origin story Batman Begins, and that bar would be raised even higher with his riveting followup. Brimming with brooding, unsettling style and featuring an all-star cast that includes Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and the icing on the cake, the late, Oscar-winning Heath Ledger in an unforgettable turn as Batman’s ultimate foil, The Dark Knight is a tense, anarchic crime thriller that’s more Michael Mann’s Heat than DC or Marvel Cinematic Universe.
3) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
1966 – Like Before Midnight, the quintessential Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly closes out Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” with the biggest bang out of the three films. Led by its titular trio of Eli Wallach’s Tuco, Lee Van Cleef’s despicable Angel Eyes and Clint Eastwood in his star-marking role as “Blondie”, this genre-defining epic benefits, among many things, from its breathtakingly expansive cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score in bringing Leone’s vision to life. The compelling tale of violence, desolation and stark ruin packs such a heavy punch, you’ll be sweating bullets long before the climactic three-way shootout.
2) Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
1980 – The first sequel and reigning champion of George Lucas’s six-film space opera which began back in 1977 improves on its predecessor in every aspect – the performances, tone, atmosphere, dialogue, character and narrative. Directed by Irvin Kershner, the director of RoboCop 2 (no, that was not a typo), and written by Leigh Brackett and Raiders of the Lost Ark scribe Lawrence Kasdan, The Empire Strikes Back takes the whimsical romp of A New Hope and slaps it with a heavy dose of Shakespearean tragedy, with Darth Vader at his most menacing and, most importantly, main protagonist Luke Skywalker receiving the character depth he was lacking for much of the first film. As for the big reveal, to those very few that may shockingly still be in the dark about that, despite the pop-culture parody it has turned into over the years, the answer is… find out for yourself.
And here we are, finally, at the #1 spot. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow… Okay, let’s try this again. If you know me, the answer should be obvious. Drum roll, please…
1) The Godfather Part II
1974 – It should go without saying that following up what many consider to be the greatest film ever made is a daunting task, but Francis Ford Coppola’s continuation of Mario Puzo’s mafia saga would rise to the challenge and succeed in ways that have yet to be just even matched by every sequel that would come after it. This time delving deeper into the Corleone lore through Vito’s past, as well as chronicling Michael’s descent from honorable war hero to fallen angel with blood-stained hands, The Godfather Part II scores big time from its powerful performances by Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton, and its tragic tale of the perversion of the American Dream, culminating in a final scene that is simply unforgettable. If there’s a sequel that has been able to accomplish what this film achieved, I have yet to see it.
Well, readers, there you have it. Those are my picks and I’m sticking to ’em. Agree or disagree? Let me know what some of your favorite sequels are in the comments section. To all those who are miffed that The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends didn’t claim the top spot, I am truly sorry.