Tag Archives: Return of the Jedi

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 – 1983

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

Movies We Still Care About

  • Return of the Jedi
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation
  • Scarface
  • A Christmas Story

Other Notable Movies

  • The Right Stuff
  • Risky Business

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Terms of Endearment (Winner)
  • The Big Chill
  • The Dresser
  • The Right Stuff
  • Tender Mercies

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Return of the Jedi
  2. Terms of Endearment
  3. Flashdance
  4. Trading Places
  5. Wargames
  6. Octopussy
  7. Sudden Impact
  8. Staying Alive
  9. Mr. Mom
  10. Risky Business

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

  1. Risky Business (98%)
  2. The Right Stuff (98%)
  3. National Lampoon’s Vacation (95%)

Movies We Still Care About

Return of the Jedi

Many people consider this to the be the least of the original trilogy, and some will even go so far as to rank it among the prequels in quality.  (Which is just plain crazy.)  But I would argue that this really has a lot going for it, and is the equal of the other two.

Yes, many people find the Ewoks annoying.  But it’s not like they’re Jar Jar.  They’re cutesy and a bit silly, but what’s wrong with that?

Moreover, the Ewoks fit into the overall theme of the movie, which is that love and respect are more powerful than hatred, fear, and oppression.  The Empire treats the Ewoks with contempt as beneath their notice.  Luke, Leia, and Han treat the Ewoks as friends, and in doing so are able to use their help to defeat the Empire.  (They do lie about C3PO being a god.  But that wouldn’t have worked if they weren’t treating the Ewoks with respect.)

Jedi also has the moment where Darth Vader, the #1 biggest and best known villain in modern mythology, is redeemed through love.  That’s the entire point of the whole series, and to dismiss Jedi is to throw that theme away.

On a personal note, Return of the Jedi is the first movie I can remember seeing in a theater.  That’s what gave me a life-long love of film.  And to this day, the Jabba’s palace/barge sequence is my all-time favorite sequence in the history of movies.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

This is one of those movies that people just like to hang out with.  It’s the sort of laugh-a-minute thing where people have such affection for it that their like for the movie becomes part of their identity.  Consider that in the Blink 182 song “Josie,” the fact that the singer’s girlfriend is up watching Vacation at 3:00 AM is evidence of how great she is.

Scarface

The quintessential tale of someone who comes from nothing, and through his willingness to break the rules and be tougher than everyone else, rises to the top.  Then he becomes a victim of his own excess and is destroyed.  It has become a favorite of rap culture, which is a bit weird considering how it turns out, in one of the all-time most memorable endings in film.  Say hello to my little friend!

 

A Christmas Story

Another of those movies that people can watch over and over again.  For many, it’s a tradition to view this every Christmas, and it brings people back to their childhood.  The fact that it can do so either through people remembering similar childhood experiences as are portrayed in the film, or through remembering watching the movie itself, is a testament to how much this has become part of our culture.

Other Notable Films

The Right Stuff

Like with biopics, movies based on well-known true events tend to have their legacy overshadowed by the legacy of the actual events.  The Right Stuff was quite popular when it came out.  But today, people interested in the story are more likely to view the early episodes of the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, or any of the tons of documentaries about the early space program.

Risky Business

We all remember Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear to Old Time Rock and Roll.

But the rest of the movie is not so memorable.  For example, check out this clip from Tosh.0, where two girls who made a video recreating that scene admit they’ve never seen the movie, and are shocked to find out what it’s about.

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