Tag Archives: Transformers

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.)


Absurdity of the Day

Absurdity of the day: When someone laughs about how ridiculous it is that Optimus Prime is waving a giant sword while riding a giant alien robot fire-breathing dragon, and then someone else feels the need to correct them that he’s actually riding a giant alien robot fire-breathing dinosaur.

Because that’s totally different.

Movies We Still Care About – 1986 – Part 2 (L-Z)

(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

Little Shop of Horrors

This is just a solid, well-made musical, whose performances elevate enough to pass the test of time.

It’s interesting to note that the ending of the movie radically differs from the stage play.  I saw Frank Oz, who directed the movie, speak when I was in film school.  He talked about how the original ending matched the play, only was bigger and more wacky, with the army coming in to battle Audrey II.  But the problem with the original ending is that Seymour and Audrey die. When they did test screenings, the audience clearly loved the movie right up until that happened, and then abruptly hated it.  Frank Oz said it got one of the worst scores he had ever seen a test audience give.  He argued that the reason what worked on stage didn’t work on screen was because of the power of the close-up.  He made the audience care about Seymour and Audrey, and they wouldn’t forgive killing them off.  So he hastily reshot the ending to make it happier.

There’s an interesting lesson in that: You often hear people bemoaning films being driven by test-audiences and other interference that gets in the way of the director’s vision.  But directors aren’t always perfect.  They make mistakes.  And the best directors are the ones that can recognize when they’ve screwed up and fix it.  Which is exactly what the test-screening process allows them to do.

Anyway, here’s the original ending:


Stand By Me

In my write up on Goonies I talked about how a lot of movies are wish-fulfillment fantasies, and what made Goonies special was that it featured ordinary kids, making it easier for the children watching it to put themselves in the characters’ place.  Stand By Me builds on this by having realistic ordinary kids face a realistic situation.  There are no bank robbers, mutants, or pirate treasure.  Just dogs, trains, bullies, leeches, and their own emotional issues – things that normal kids are likely to encounter in their normal lives.

Rather than a fun adventure, it’s more of a coming of age drama.  But through it all, the heroes discover an inner strength, which makes it really resonate with an audience that themselves feels weak and powerless.

Which is why the “suck my fat one” scene works so well.

Top Gun

Top Gun perfectly encapsulated the spirit of 1980s Cold War machismo.  It showed that America would beat the commies because we have the manliest men with the most powerful machines.

The screenwriter for Top Gun was my adviser in film school, so I’ll pass on some random tidbits that he mentioned.  (As an aside, he’s a humble guy, and was mildly embarrassed to be showing his own movie in class.  But he said that every year students asked about/demanded it, so finally he relented and made it part of his regular curriculum.)

  • He said that the main reason he took the assignment to write it was because he (correctly) thought the producer would be able to get him a ride in a fighter jet as part of his research.
  • After being taken through high-speed fighter jet maneuvers and realizing the physical toll that takes on the body, he decided to structure Top Gun as a sports movie.  If you think about it, Maverick is essentially an athlete who wins the big game.
  • While writing the film, he was picturing Tom Cruise as Maverick, even before he had been cast.  The writer had previously seen Tom Cruise in the football movie All the Right Moves, which further reinforces the sports movie theme.
  • The writer is a happily married heterosexual, and did not write the volleyball scene. (And I just now realized when looking up that scene on YouTube that the music playing is actually entitled “Playing with the Boys.”)
  • He argues that in the mid-80s, nobody noticed all the homosexual undertones to the movie.  But he does have a sense of humor about it.  Immediately after showing the movie in class, he followed it up with this Quentin Tarantino rant about how the entire movie is a metaphor for Maverick overcoming his sexual confusion and embracing his homosexuality.

Other Notable Films


This is one of those movies that people loved when they saw it as a kid.  It’s mostly been forgotten by those who are either too young or too old to have appreciated it in the 80s.  But for those who are the right age, it’s still something that affects them and that they strongly care about.

Star Trek IV

I think that most people would consider the best original cast Star Trek movie to be Star Trek II.  But there is a significant minority that prefer IV.  Its plot of the Enterprise crew traveling back in time to the modern day made Trek more accessible to the masses, bringing in a new and younger audience and laying the groundwork for The Next Generation TV show/films.  Plus it has Walter Koenig running around asking for the “Nuclear wessels.”


Three Amigos

This was a huge movie at the time, and remained culturally relevant for a time, but has fallen out of relevance by today.  It really doesn’t hold up.  It’s full of racial stereotypes and broad slapstick humor that today’s audiences don’t find appealing.  Plus incoherent nonsensical scenes like this one, where for two minutes they establish that the rules of the world include magic, which is never mentioned again:


Transformers: The Movie

Another movie that had a huge impact on people who were of the right age to enjoy it at the time, but has been mostly forgotten by anyone younger or older.  This was especially impactful for kids who were into Transformers at the time, because this is where Optimus Prime dies.  That’s certainly not something you would expect, and for a child would be quite shocking.

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