Tag Archives: Empire Strikes Back

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.)

Movies We Still Care About – 1980

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

Movies We Still Care About

  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Airplane!
  • The Shining
  • Caddyshack

Other Notable Movies

  • The Blues Brothers
  • Friday the 13th

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Ordinary People (Winner)
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter
  • The Elephant Man
  • Raging Bull
  • Tess

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. 9 to 5
  3. Stir Crazy
  4. Airplane!
  5. Any Which Way You Can
  6. Private Benjamin
  7. Coal Miner’s Daughter
  8. Smokey and the Bandit II
  9. The Blue Lagoon
  10. The Blues Brothers

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

(This is a new section to this series, as Rotten Tomatoes only has these lists starting with 1980.  I will include every film with a rating of 90% or higher, up to the top 10 for the year.)

  1. Raging Bull (98%)
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (96%)
  3. Airplane! (98%)
  4. The Shining (92%)
  5. The Big Red One (91%)

(I don’t know why Empire is listed above Airplane despite having a lower rating.  I’m just copying Rotten Tomatoes’ list.)

Movies We Still Care About

The Empire Strikes Back

Everything I said about Star Wars in the 1977 entry applies to this.  Empire expanded on and introduced new pieces to the mythology created by the first film.  Yoda, Hoth, tauntauns, Lando, Boba Fett, Cloud City, the feisty argumentative love between Han and Leia.  And of course, the greatest twist ending in the history of cinema.  The twist by which all other twists/spoilers are measured:

To get a good idea of how shocking that truly is to someone who didn’t know it, watch this compilation of children reacting to seeing that scene for the first time:

I also like when James Earl Jones talked about that scene on The Big Bang Theory.

Here’s a fun fact about Empire that you’ve probably never thought about.  Most movies have what’s called an external plot goal.  It’s the specific difficult task that the heroes are trying to accomplish.  Their efforts to do so are what drives the action forward and moves them from scene to scene.

In Empire, this goal, the thing that drives all the action, is that Han is trying to get the Millenium Falcon repaired.  Seriously, rewatch the movie.  It’s all about him trying to fix his broken down ship.  And all the amazing stuff that happens is because of those efforts.

Airplane!

Generally considered one of the funniest movies of all time, and certainly the best of the pure spoofs.  It’s just a joke a minute laugh riot.  I can’t pick a best joke to include here.  So instead I’ll post one of my all-time favorite moments on Jeopardy, in which Kareem Abdul Jabbar gets a question referencing one of his lines in Airplane, answers “Who is Kareem Abdul Jabbar,” and is wrong.

The Shining

There are so many cultural touchstones from this movie.  The blood in the elevator.  The creepy twins.  “REDRUM.”  “Here’s Johnny.”  The story is largely incoherent, with random elements that don’t make the slightest bit of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book.  But Kubrick is such a master of creepy atmosphere that you end up on the edge of your seat regardless.

Just for fun, check out this recut trailer portraying it as a wacky family comedy.  And note that this is only funny because we already have such an ingrained understanding of what the movie should be.

Caddyshack

The first of what I call the 1980s “laid-back comedies,” where there isn’t much of a plot, and the film is just an excuse for funny people to stand around saying and doing funny things.  Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield act like Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield.  Bill Murray is the crazy groundskeeper.  And Ted Knight chews the scenery as the cartoonishly evil judge.  This is the sort of movie that you just want to hang out with.

Other Notable Films

The Blues Brothers

Everyone knows this movie, but I think few people care about still watching it.  Like many spectacle movies, it doesn’t really hold up.  There are better song-and-dance numbers.  There are better car chases.  There’s better laid-back comedy.  So there isn’t much reason to watch this.

Friday the 13th

Certainly people still care about the Friday the 13th franchise.  But the first film is missing the iconic elements.  Jason is a child who drowns, and his mother is the slasher killing off the promiscuous teenagers.  (Because they were doing drugs and having sex when they should have been watching over him.  This has become a standard horror movie trope, but it actually had a reason here.)  There’s no hockey mask, machete, or Jason as a monster in the first film.  When you think of Friday the 13th, you aren’t thinking of this.

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