Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Trouble With Sequels


While reading Dara Marks' Inside Story (review coming up as soon as I finish it), it suddenly struck me why so many sequels don't deliver the goods, despite bigger budgets, more pyrotechnics, SFX, gory kills or extreme comedy situations (since most sequels fall into the action, science fiction, horror and comedy genres).

And the reason is: the story of the protagonist has been told.

In the original film, both the character, the plot lines (external and internal), and the specific style of the film (and this can include the basic formula on which the sequels will be based) are new. The external plot and the internal plot (external conflict and the transformational arc of the protagonist) generally reinforce each other. And the protagonist is transformed at the end of the movie, meaning that his/her main flaw has been adressed and overcome.

Which means that in a sequel, a crucial part of the attractiveness of the original film is no longer available for storytelling purposes (unless the same pyschological problem is rehashed literally).

What remains are the external elements of the original. Which are amped up to eleven, in an attempt to provide the same visceral thrills as the original film - but only more so. However, what made the original special was the interplay between the two levels of storytelling (and, quite probably, the thematic level as well).

So the result in most cases is (literally) more of the same, yet simultaneously less of the same.

The Die Hard series is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

In Die Hard, John McClane has to save his wife from the terrorists who have taken the Nakatomi building hostage. In doing so, and facing the reality he may never see her again, he realizes that he was mainly at fault in their marital crisis. When they are reunited in the climax, it's clear to the audience that this couple has gone through hell and has come out on the other side reinforced and more 'together' than ever before.

In Die Harder, McClane's wife is up in an aeroplane while terrorists have taken the airport hostage. He has to save her once again, but this time there's no internal struggle to engage the audience. The McClane marriage is safe and sound, and the threat against it is purely physical.

In Die Hard With A Vengeance, the internal flaw is back - with a vengeance. The McClane marriage is over, John is now a drunken wreck of a cop who has to save the city of New York which has more or less been taken hostage by a group of terrorists. The internal flaw here is only active in the beginning of the movie, however - once the action starts, McClane sobers up almost instantaneously and performs at peak potential throughout the adventure. And the climax and theme of the film have no connection with his new psychological weakness. Let's not forget that the film was based on a script which had nothing to do with the Die Hard series, and was shoehorned into it at some phase during its development. This may very well explain why there's no satisfactory arc for the McClane character.

In Die Hard 4.0, finally, all attempts at transformation have been abandoned. McClane is an invincible superhero masquerading as an everyday Joe from the start. He starts out as a concerned parent and ends up as a concerned parent. In fact, the character doing the transforming in this film is the sidekick - the irresponsible young hacker who learns to take responsibility for his actions.

So we see that only in the first film there was an actual integration of the external and the internal plots (and to be honest, the integration wasn't 100% perfect - though good enough to give the film its extra emotional and psychological richness).

Of course, seeing McClane patch things up with his wife four times in a row also wouldn't have worked. So, frankly, the sequels were doomed from the start to be inferior to the original - not because of the action being less spectacular (if anything, it got to be far TOO spectacular), but because of the humanity of the protagonist getting lost from the first sequel on out. Because his story had already been told.

And it was precisely this element of humanity which made John McClane such a compelling protagonist, and which catapulted Bruce Willis out of the ranks of 'TV stars making a failed bid for movie stardom' to one of the most succesful and popular film stars of the '90s.

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