One of the most common complaints about the modern film industry (specifically, the mainstream American film industry) is the apparent ubiquity of sequels, prequels and re-makes. Where once the term ‘prequel’ was enough to raise an eyebrow, phrases such as ‘cinematic universe’ and ‘re-boot’ have now entered the everyday moviegoing lexicon. Does this suggest, as detractors frequently claim, that the Hollywood creative machine is simply running out of fresh ideas? While this has never truly been the case – every year, you only need turn to independent or foreign cinema to find an inexhaustible supply of invention – 2017 has brought into question every assumption about the limits and supposed commercial focus of such storytelling.
Serialised storytelling in films has been around almost as long as cinema itself. 1916’s The Fall of a Nation is often considered the first movie sequel, a follow-up to the famous racist diatribe Birth of a Nation. The first re-make preceded this by over a decade: 1905’s The Great Train Robbery. By the second half of the 20th Century, sequels were the predictable by-product of any successful film – particularly genre films. Monster movies (Godzilla, King Kong) were among the first to cotton on to the commercial potential of a movie franchise, and the simple, formulaic structure and distinctive thrills proved the perfect material to replicate. It’s no surprise that Jaws spawned so many sequels decades later.
For most of the century, however, film franchises had little interest in exploring the potentials of long-form storytelling. Some, like the Carry On films, were stand-alone narratives unified by a roster of recurring actors and a distinct, campy sense of humour. Often sequels would be standalone narratives, tied to the original for branding purposes. Sometimes original, one-off scripts would have their characters replaced with existing franchise characters to boost public appeal, such as the fourth Die Hard, which was originally a John McClane-less thriller about cyber terrorism. Perhaps the definitive successful example of this is Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, a follow-up to Yojimbo that began life as an unrelated, but similar enough entity. Towards the end of the 20th century, film franchises began to appear that started to explore and flesh out internal universes. Star Wars and Star Trek are two great examples of this. But it wasn’t until the 21st century, and the imperious box office success of the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ (MCU), that major studios began seriously experimenting with sprawling, intertwined multi-film narratives.
“Monster movies (Godzilla, King Kong) were among the first to cotton on to the commercial potential of a movie franchise, and the simple, formulaic structure and distinctive thrills proved the perfect material to replicate.”
Which isn’t to say the MCU is particularly experimental in most other ways. Its plots are formulaic, the protagonists standard-issue, the cinematography pretty uniform (with a couple of exceptions). But at its heart, the idea of a fully serialised narrative given an unprecedented budget, is an exciting enough prospect to get people hooked. Serialisation is, after all, paramount to the appeal of the comic books they are adapting. Other studios have since tried to mimic this appeal, most contentiously Warner Brothers’ D.C. Universe, whose films, bar this year’s Wonder Woman, have been loathed by critics but defended, near violently, by fans.
The early 21st century has seen another seismic shift in the presentation of screen narratives: the so-called ‘Golden age of television’, and the subsequent era of ‘peak TV’. The line between TV and cinema is increasingly vague. Budgets for TV series now rival or even surpass those for movies – Amazon’s recent acquisition of the rights to a Lord of the Rings TV series cost 250 million dollars, before any production costs, which are sure to represent over double that sum. Illustrious film directors, writers and producers (David Fincher, Martin Scorsese) have turned to television. Even the means of consumption are now less clear; Netflix is now a major player in the film distribution market, and with The Meyerowitz Stories and Mudbound, could be in for a taste of Awards recognition. The rise of the prestige miniseries (and anthology series, such as True Detective or Fargo) further represents a kind of narrative middle-ground.
2017 has seen a number of sequels released; eight of the top ten highest US box office releases are franchise films, the other two are re-makes. But this year also saw the release of two ‘sequels’ that were seen by far fewer people, although both lauded by critics. The first, Twin Peaks: The Return, was revered film director David Lynch and television lifer Mark Frost’s revival of their seminal 90s creation. More than justifying its own resuscitation, TP:TR drastically outstripped the original’s creative ambition. It was arthouse filmmaking unprecedented on television, closer in tone to Lynch’s experimental films Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire than its former iteration. Also, more germanely, it seemed almost intensely interested in interrogating its own status as a sequel. Oscillating between traditional fan service – the bread and butter of the contemporary TV revival – and extreme, confrontational subversion of such fan service, TP:TR was a cacophony of delights, and a revolutionary experiment in the potentials of serialisation. As if to further dissolve the divide between the cinema and small screen, the Showtime series has been included on many critics’ ‘Best Film of the Year’ list, topping Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll.
“Blade Runner 2049 makes a powerful statement about the artistic viability of the big-budget sequel, that quintessentially modern cinematic sensation.”
The other of the year’s ground-breaking sequels also took critics and moviegoers by storm: Blade Runner 2049. Unlike Twin Peaks’ return, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic doesn’t turn in on itself. It weaves elements of the original Blade Runner into its plot and setting while focusing on an original, distinct story with related but altered themes. In many ways, it is in this thematic re-tooling that Blade Runner 2049 achieved its success: posing different, engaging questions when faced with the self-same problem (that being: what makes a human human?). Film sequels have managed to be successful before (The Godfather Part II being the perfect example), but the idea of a revival – a ‘long-awaited sequel’ – is a more recent phenomenon, and one with a patchy level of quality control. Typically green-lit for reasons of commercial viability, long-awaited sequels have such a poor reputation that despite the distinguished talent behind the camera (Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, Hans Zimmer), news of the film’s production was met with trepidation. Blade Runner 2049 makes a powerful statement about the artistic viability of the big-budget sequel, that quintessentially modern cinematic sensation.
Serialised storytelling has been popular for as long as storytelling has existed in print and on screen. The Odyssey was a sequel to the Iliad. Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations (and most of his works) in weekly instalments. The modern scorn for movie sequels belies a rich and artistically substantial history of successful serialised storytelling across all artistic mediums. With the imminent release of The Last Jedi, 2017 may hold one last great surprise up its sleeve. The Star Wars films have a chequered past when it comes to franchising: Empire Strikes Back is a quintessential hit sequel, but George Lucas’ prequels, while infinitely more ambitious, are widely, and for good reason, derided. (Such is the magnitude of Star Wars’ success that its growth has ballooned far beyond the serialised movies: Star Wars now encompasses an entire multimedia mythology of books, video games, comic books and television.) The Last Jedi is another chance for Disney to stake a claim – as Blade Runner 2049 and Twin Peaks: The Return so comprehensively did – for serialised storytelling, and for the artistic and creative potential of the sequel in this: the age of the big-budget sequel that nobody really asked for.
Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.