Tag Archives: Aliens

Spectacle and Sequel

This is some screenwriting/story theory geekery here, but I think that if you like movies you’ll probably be interested in this. It’s a theory I’ve developed about why some movies work and some don’t.

There are certain movies that I call Spectacle Movies, which throw out all the craft of storytelling and instead focus on the spectacle. Either with compelling visuals, thrilling action, hilarious comedy, or engaging song and dance. If the spectacle is spectacular enough, the movie can work despite having massive logic problems and flawed, cliched, or non-existent story and character development.

Examples include the original King Kong, Marx Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, most musicals, and (though I wasn’t personally a fan of these) 2001 and Avatar. These aren’t stories. They’re showcases for tangentially connected bits.

Just to be clear, I’m not using Spectacle Movies as a pejorative. Two of my all-time favorite movies are Raiders of the Lost Ark and Singin’ in the Rain, which are both horribly crafted stories if you ignore all the ways the movies are awesome. Singin’ in the Rain literally has an entire sequence that consists of someone saying “I thought of a good song and dance number,” and then it cuts to his imagination for ten minutes. But it works, because it is a really good song and dance number.

But spectacle isn’t a binary thing. It’s a continuum. With the exception of straight drama, all movies have some element of spectacle. And the more spectacle a movie has, the more story and character problems it can get away with.* For a well-crafted story, adding spectacle will make a good movie better. (We all love Jurassic Park, but who would remember that movie if we never actually saw the dinosaurs?)

I would define spectacle as “Showing something amazing that the audience hasn’t seen before.” The more a movie can do that, the better it will be. This is true regardless of the quality of the underlying story.

Now lets talk about sequels, and why sequels so often leave the audience feeling empty.

Movies that get sequels are almost always movies that have a lot of spectacle to them, whether or not they also have good storytelling. There are two reasons for these. The first and most obvious reason is that spectacle movies do well at the box office, especially internationally, and financially successful movies attract sequels. But the more subtle reason is that in a well-crafted story, the end of the story is the end of the story. The problems are resolved. The character has completed an arc, and no longer has room to undergo a completely new arc.** Whereas spectacle movies end when the bad guys are defeated and the explosions stop. But you can always find new bad guys to generate new explosions.

But remember when I said that a key element of spectacle is showing something we’ve never seen before? That presents an inherent problem with sequels, because by default the sequels are showing us exactly what we’ve seen before.

So sequels tend to lose the spectacle aspect that made people like the original. Which means that as a baseline sequels are going to be much less compelling.***

There are two ways for a sequel to overcome this: It can either ramp up/change the spectacle, or it can improve the story.

Examples of movies that ramped up or changed the spectacle, so it was still showing us something we hadn’t seen before, are Aliens, Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Avengers.

Examples of movies that improved the story are Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, Toy Story 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Terminator 2, and The Empire Strikes Back. (T2 and Empire both ramped up the spectacle and improved the story.)

But most sequels just give us more of the same. More of the same doesn’t work for spectacle. And without a story to carry them, they’re left with nothing. Which is why most sequels are so bad. They may be commercially successful, and in fact usually are, which is why Hollywood keeps making them. People show up based on how much they liked the original.

But I judge the quality of movies based on how much the audience cares about them. By that measure most sequels fail. Which is why Transformers 4 had a hundred million dollar opening weekend but only 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. (And keep in mind the Rotten Tomatoes percentage is only from people who saw the movie. Meaning that among people who *thought* they would want to see a movie where a giant alien robot truck rides a gianter alien robot dragon while waving a huge sword, only 16% actually did enjoy it.)

* For example, the 2009 Star Trek was obviously much dumber than Looper. But Star Trek keeps you moving too fast with exciting action to think about how little sense it makes. Whereas Looper is slow and contemplative, which leaves you with time to contemplate all the story and logic problems.

** The only example I can think of of a successful sequel to a movie that didn’t rely on spectacle is The Godfather 2. And that only half-worked by focusing on flashbacks of a supporting character that didn’t have an arc in the first movie. In my opinion, the Michael half of Godfather 2 didn’t work and aside from one or two scenes was entirely forgettable.

*** One interesting point here is that perceived quality depends on the order you see a film. We all think Raiders of the Lost Ark is great and Temple of Doom is mediocre. But if we saw Temple of Doom first, would we think that was the great one? Or consider the 1964 movie A Shot in the Dark, which is a sequel to the 1963 The Pink Panther, and recycles all of the jokes from the original. If you watch The Pink Panther then Shot in the Dark, you’ll think Shot in the Dark is boring and pointless. But if you watch Shot in the Dark first, you’ll think Pink Panther is the boring and pointless one. (Or if you don’t like 1960s slapstick humor, you’ll think both are boring and pointless.)

Mother’s Day – Sort Of

At my day-job office, they put seasonal photos up in the elevator.  In honor of Mother’s Day, they have stills showing Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2, the Alien Queen from Aliens, and the desiccated corpse of Norman Bates’s mother from Psycho.

The latter two at least don’t seem to be particularly in the spirit of Mother’s Day.  But they do feature mothers, so I guess these count as Mother’s Day movies in the same way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Movies We Still Care About – 1986 – Part 1 (A-H)

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

Movies We Still Care About

  • Aliens
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • Highlander
  • Little Shop of Horrors
  • Stand By Me
  • Top Gun

Other Notable Movies

  • Back to School
  • Big Trouble in Little China
  • Crocodile Dundee
  • The Fly
  • Labyrinth
  • Star Trek IV
  • Three Amigos
  • Transformers: The Movie

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Platoon (Winner)
  • Children of a Lesser God
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • The Mission
  • A Room With a View

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Top Gun
  2. Crocodile Dundee
  3. Platoon
  4. The Karate Kid Part II
  5. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  6. Back to School
  7. Aliens
  8. The Golden Child
  9. Ruthless People
  10. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

  1. Aliens (98%)
  2. Hannah and Her Sisters (93%)
  3. The Fly (91%)
  4. Stand By Me (91%)
  5. Little Shop of Horrors (90%)

Movies We Still Care About

Aliens

This is one of the best intense action movies of all time.  I think what’s really interesting about this is that it’s a sequel to one of the best horror movies of all time.  I can’t think of another example of a sequel to an excellent movie that completely changed genres, and ended up even better than the original.  (The closest would be the mindless action film Rambo: First Blood Part II following the psychological drama First Blood.  But neither of those are in the same league as Alien or Aliens.)

Aliens was the first time James Cameron was given a big budget to play with, and he showed what he can do with it.

It also has one of my all-time favorite one-liners:

And one of my favorite speeches.  This is a great thing to watch/listen to when you want to get pumped up. (As long as you ignore that Hudson later turns into a sniveling coward.)

And one of the best openings to an action scene:

 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

This movie continues to resonate with audiences today because it perfectly captures the wish-fulfillment fantasy of absolute freedom.  Ferris is able to do whatever he wants with complete liberty and no consequences.  For both teenagers and adults, when we are at our most libertine we wish we could be Ferris Bueller.

The sad reality is that we spend far too much our lives trapped in a humdrum Ben Stein world:

And whenever we are in a situation like that, we wish we could instead twist and shout:

A few side-notes:  I was on Win Ben Stein’s Money in 2001.  It really annoyed me that one of the bonus round questions was about the Hawley-Smoot tariff.  I got it right, as did Ben Stein, but it didn’t seem fair to ask him a question that was more or less quoting one of his most famous lines.

Next side note: In the original script, Ferris talked about how he used to have a depressed friend who he tried to help, but failed.  The kid ended up dropping out of school and becoming a druggie.  This was Charlie Sheen’s character, who meets Jeannie at the police station.  It explains why Ferris was so eager to help break Cameron out of his depression.

And then there’s a fan theory saying that Ferris didn’t exist at all, and was just a figment of Cameron’s imagination.  Which makes the movie a whole lot more depressing if you buy into it.

Highlander

This isn’t a great movie and it doesn’t really hold up.  But the idea of highlanders has entered our culture, as has the phrase “There can be only one.”

And yes, I know that technically Highlander refers specifically to Connor MacLeod (and Duncan MacLeod from the TV show), who were from the Highlands of Scotland, and not to immortals in general.  But much like how Frankenstein is the scientist and not the monster, the incorrect terminology has made its way into our popular lexicon.

Other Notable Films

Back to School

This is a movie that a lot of people have forgotten about.  But it’s worth revisiting, sheerly for the comedic brilliance of both Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison:

 

Big Trouble in Little China

This has more or less fallen to cult status.  It has its hard-core fans. (Including my former roommate, who runs the biggest BTiLC fan site on the internet, and will be happy to sell you a variety of t-shirts.) But most people have forgotten about it.  Which is a shame, as it’s a really fun comedic adventure of the sort you rarely see these days.  It’s certainly worth another look.

Crocodile Dundee

This doesn’t really hold up, but we all remember this scene:

I tried to find the Simpsons scene spoofing that, but my google-fu failed me.  So instead, here’s two random dudes reenacting the Simpsons scene spoofing Crocodile Dundee:

 

The Fly

A weird creepy cult horror movie that is still beloved by fans of weird creepy cult horror movies.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.