‘Sequels are whores’ movies’, the great screenwriter William Goldman once opined. As with so much that Goldman said, it’s pithy, witty and often accurate. All of us have been lured into cinemas with the promise of the continuation of a great film, only to be sorely disappointed by the cynicism of a lazy cash-in. Several of these have deservedly gone down as some of the worst pictures ever made: there is no need for any sensible person to watch Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights or Jaws: The Revenge.
Yet there are also examples of sequels that equal, even surpass, the original, where either the original filmmakers return to a story with new passion or a new director manages to revitalise a narrative with vigour and enthusiasm. Leaving aside some of the obvious choices – Return of the King, masterpiece though it clearly is, stands as the third part of a very long film rather than as a sequel per se – here are six of the very best follow-ups ever made.
A brace of James Cameron sequels to begin, but Aliens is an anomaly in Cameron’s filmography for several reasons. It is one of the two sequels that he has made to a film he didn’t direct (Piranha 2 being the other) and the only time that he worked in England, an apparently miserable experience for him. Yet grumbling crew aside, his sequel to Ridley Scott’s still-brilliant Alien is a textbook example of how to mount a thrilling sci-fi action epic, as the first film’s sole survivor Ripley returns to the aliens’ home planet with a squad of heavily armed marines.
After a long but always interesting build-up, it explodes into non-stop tension and adventure about an hour in, as Cameron co-ordinates set-pieces that combine edge-of-seat horror with incredible spectacle and unexpected plot twists.
It is a shame that, in an unusually auteur-driven franchise, none of the follow-ups were anything near as entertaining, although I have a great deal more time for Alien: Covenant than most people, thanks to its wonderful central performance by Michael Fassbender and thrillingly bizarre mish-mash of creature horror and Romantic poetry.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
James Cameron’s first Terminator film was a gritty, thrilling sci-fi film, made on a relatively low budget. His sequel was an operatic, special effects-laden masterpiece, with several indelible action scenes that act as textbook examples of how to choreograph, edit and shoot this kind of kinetic cinema. After all, this is a picture that casually stages a nuclear holocaust nightmare halfway through. Yet its greatest appeal, as so often in Cameron’s work, is the unexpected character work.
Arnie has probably never been so easy to like or root for as here, as the ‘good’ Terminator, and he is matched beat for beat by a chilling Robert Patrick as his shape-shifting nemesis the T-1000 and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, one of the very best of Cameron’s feminist icons. The greatest surprise comes at what an enormous emotional punch the ending packs, ensuring that even the hardest of fanboys will find themselves complaining about ‘something in my eye, man’. Shame that all of the subsequent sequels were so redundant.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Steven Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is rightly regarded as one of the best blockbusters ever made. Yet if given a choice, the one I’d always rather rewatch is the third in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s one of the funniest films that Spielberg – not a director usually associated with comedy – ever made, thanks to the pitch-perfect comic performances from Sean Connery, as Jones Sr, and Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody, an academic so unworldly that he once got lost in his own museum. Even Harrison Ford manages to expand his range and at times comes across like a more pugilistic Cary Grant.
An uncredited but hugely effective Tom Stoppard rewrite worked wonders with the witty dialogue, and, as ever with this series, the action scenes are thrillingly inventive. The series could happily have ended here, and probably should have, but Spielberg spoilt things with a redundant fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and a fifth, directed by James Mangold, looms on the horizon.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan is rightly lauded for having directed the finest ever Batman film in The Dark Knight, just as Joel Schumacher was castigated for putting the series on ice with the dire Batman and Robin. Yet Nolan’s great achievement was to approach a potentially fantastical story, with characters dressing up in bizarre costumes and losing half their faces, in an entirely naturalistic manner, as if he was directing some great lost Seventies crime classic.
Although the set-pieces are spectacular, the film is at its most interesting when it allows its cast, most notably an Oscar-winning Heath Ledger as the villainous Joker, the opportunity to interact with one another, without the distraction of special effects or moving vehicles. If it isn’t quite as perfect as its reputation suggests (the Bruce Wayne character barely registers and the action scenes occasionally lapse into incoherence), it’s still a towering piece of cinema that was unaccountably passed over for major awards, save for Ledger.
The Bourne Ultimatum
It is a rare series of films where the third instalment is comfortably the best (Iron Man 3? Back To The Future Part 3?), as usually the well of inspiration has run dry by then. Yet Paul Greengrass’s second Jason Bourne sequel was a truly outstanding thriller, refining the formula began in Doug Liman’s original and then finessed further in The Bourne Supremacy.
As the taciturn, troubled Bourne, Matt Damon delivers a performance of subtlety and nuance, and Greengrass uses his documentarian background to stage some remarkable, tension-building set-pieces that stand comparison with anything in Hitchcock or Brian de Palma’s filmography; the key action scenes at Waterloo station and in Tangiers are masterclasses in editing and hand-held cinematography.
It would have been a fitting conclusion to an excellent trilogy, but unfortunately two more films followed, the utterly redundant Jeremy Renner spin-off The Bourne Legacy and the disappointing Damon/Greengrass reunion Jason Bourne.
The Empire Strikes Back
A confession: I have always been, and probably always will be, a Star Wars agnostic. But the film of the series that I will always happily watch for entertainment, rather than out of professional duty, is Irvin Kershner’s sublime Empire Strikes Back. It deepens and darkens the storyline and characters of the original, dares to end on one of cinema’s most jaw-dropping twists and features one of John Williams’ greatest ever scores, not least the iconic Imperial March.
Yet it’s also got a fine script – by no means a prerequisite of this series – written by Lawrence Kasdan and The Big Sleep screenwriter Leigh Brackett, which allows Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia to enjoy a flirtation that isn’t so very far removed from the glory days of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and many instances of the dialogue – ‘I love you!’ ‘I know!’ – remain sublimely quotable.