The Best Second Films

Sequel.

The word inspires different thoughts to different people. For some film enthusiasts, it is a money-grubbing attempt to cash in on what was already a brilliantly done idea. For filmmakers, it is a chance to expand on themes, ideas, and characters, take them to the next level, and yes, make some money while they’re at it. For many people, though, the term sequel conjures up images that can be summed up in the fake action series in Tropic Thunder, the Scorcher series, which is a transparent, horrific concept that is done time after time, but somehow makes enough money to justify another one. Seriously, there were how many Halloween movies? Scary Movies? There were four Batman films in the first continuity.

However, this list is not about Scorcher VI, Rocky V, Alien: Resurrection, or Saw IV; it is all about the second film. See, any film can make enough money to justify a sequel, especially in this era of straight-to-DVD and low-rent cable channels. However, some follow-up features leave us breathless, and in a few rare cases, make us ask the question “was that better than the original?” These are those films.

To qualify for the list, the film can only be the second in the series; given the substantial number of reboots that have come out of late, I consider any such reboot that is a clean break (classic example: Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise) to be a separate series, whereas any franchise which maintains some continuity (such as the new Star Trek line of films) to not be. Additionally, the second film must have been planned as a second film, which, for instance, disqualifies Kill Bill: Volume II, since Kill Bill was planned as one film; however, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers qualifies because it was meant to be separate, even though it was filmed concurrently with the first and third films.

(A suggestion if you are bored, try the drinking game associated with this post: everytime I use the word “sequel” or “follow-up”, you take a shot, or a drink. For legal reasons, I am required to remind you that any bad things that result are your fault and not mine. Good luck!)

1. The Godfather: Part II

It is perhaps the greatest cinematic achievement of the second half of the 2oth Century: putting together a follow-up to The Godfather which itself is a classic. I mean, really, who would have thought that such a film was possible? The answer: Paramount. Okay, Paramount was probably looking at dollar signs more than artistic achievement, but it was still something they wanted to shoot for, and oh boy, did they pay to get it. After the tense standoffs with Francis Ford Coppola on the first film, Coppola exacted a huge price: full creative control, full financing on a project of Coppola’s choosing (which became The Conversation), amongst others.

The Godfather: Part II succeeds because it is expands the universe, develops the characters, and shows us facets of the story the original didn’t touch. As with the first, the brilliant cinematography, great dialogue, characters, and development takes us to a dark place, but that is the path we all see and feel going in, and it is the inevitable one we must go on. The darkness of the present is mirrored by the growing light of the past: Vito’s rise illustrates his ability to balance business and family, not take his work home with him, something his son misses.

2. The Silence of the Lambs

The hell you say? Before you complain, remember that the first film involving Hannibal Lector had been made by Michael Mann six years prior: Manhunter, an adaptation of Red Dragon, was a very eighties film that had the character of Jack Crawford working alongside Willie Graham, who is referenced in the novel The Silence of the Lambs by Lector. In any case, both from my perspective and those of the lawyers who represent producer Dino de Laurentiis, it is the second film, so let us move on.

Silence of the Lambs is one the greatest thrillers ever made; told from numerous points of view, including that of the serial killer Buffalo Bill, we end up having a full understanding of the situation; in a way, it’s too much of a full understanding, but in any case, moving on…

The best scenes of the movie are the back-and-forth between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector, but you already knew that; I think the reason we like those scenes so much is because we enjoy the fact that she is the one with Hannibal Lector inside her head and not us; not to mention that Lector’s callous remarks about humanity are, for better or worse, usually true, or at least partially true. The supporting cast is incredibly deep, and few parts fall short in the film.

3. Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Anyone who knows me knows this film is going to rank pretty high on my list, and here it is. I’ve heard people say that Empire isn’t science fiction or space opera; quite frankly, while I disagree, it is ultimately irrelevant, since the finished product is so damn good.

For starters, George Lucas handed the writing duties to Leigh Brackett (who tragically passed away) and Lawrence Kasdan and the directing duties to Irvin Kershner. As a result, the writing matured, the acting improved, and coupled with the advancements at ILM, all this made for a better all-around film. Yeah, I said it: Empire is better than Star Wars. However, this carries the caveat that Empire is not a stand-alone movie, and one must enjoy Star Wars to fully appreciate Empire.

I know that a lot of people view the dark ending of Empire as a detriment, but I don’t. The Star Wars trilogy was a three act play, and the second act ends on a downer note to make the third part all the more significant and important. Not to mention that we see the character’s humanity a lot more: Han gives us a glimpse of the man behind the mask, Luke becomes a man and furthers his journey, and Leia shows us how tough she really is. Even the droids have moments in the sun, or ice, or whatever, you know what I mean. Oh yeah, we see Darth Vader being, well, totally evil, and we love every minute of it.

One element that shows maturity of the filmmaking process, and helps the film, is that more of the film takes place in space, through a chase and a few action scenes; something that surprises people, when you point it out to them, is that the original Star Wars actually doesn’t have that much action in space.

Empire works because it establishes several threads (POVs of Luke, Han & Leia, Darth Vader), all of which intersect at the end, providing the opportunity for heartbreak, revelation, and dare I say, heroism. The fine acting solidifies all of it, and makes it work.

4. Aliens

I regret to inform James Cameron haters that he makes this list twice; fortunately both times are prior to Titantic and Avatar. Take heart in that, because the films I’m choosing are from his best professional era.

Aliens did something that hadn’t been done very often: it took a science-fiction horror film and followed it up with a science-fiction action-adventure film, taking the classic horror creatures and playing a complex game of cat-and-mouse. As a result, it is far from a duplicate of the original, but more an expansion of the universe and a continuation of the original story.

The terrifying idea of waking up, only to find that 57 years had gone by, then to realize that the grave threat you escaped from is near a human colony, then summoning up the courage to face it again, is something we view as heroic, or something along those lines. The choices facing Ripley are stark, and it is fascinating watching her try to convince others of what she saw, as well as her having to deal with the company she worked for.

Of course, the marines make the film: their banter, the humorous yet tough leadership of Apone (“another great day in the corps”), as well as the specialization and guts they show drive the second act. The rather brilliant addition of Bishop, whose relationship with Ripley goes from being antagonistic to symbiotic, gives the film its humanity, whereas the continued dark shadow of the company (something from the first film, but also a common feature in Cameron films) shows how dark human nature can go.

5. The Dark Knight

Warner Brothers did something really intelligent: after the devastating failure of Batman & Robin, they took their time with their prized franchise. They gave it a few years to let the stink get off of it, then handed it over to Christopher Nolan, who gave us one of the best reboots in an era full of reboots: Batman Begins.

Following that up is no easy task, and it’s something Christopher Nolan didn’t take lightly; he took time, did The Prestige (another incredible film), and returned to the world of Batman with a clear head, and what came out of that was more brilliant than Batman Begins and The Prestige combined.

The Dark Knight doesn’t pull any punches: the worst of humanity rises to the surface, and the best of humanity fights back. Batman is taken to the limit, and Bruce Wayne suffers as a result. The hope of cleaning up Gotham falters when a menace arises: The Joker, who doesn’t play by any rules, has literally no inhibitions, and in the words of Alfred, is a man “who just wants to watch the world burn.”

What I love about the film is that the puzzles the Joker puts in front of us: some of them don’t seem like puzzles, which is why we are surprised when they manifest the ways they do. The film requires some intelligence to understand the motives of the Joker, and in some cases Batman, which makes the characters of Alfred and Gordon, who are devoted to preserving Bruce Wayne’s humanity and peace and justice, respectively, all the more important.

Once described an allegory on the War on Terror, I prefer to view it as being a battle of two great, and thoroughly different, minds, where neither man can be truly victorious.

As if to make The Dark Knight even greater is that its follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, made it a key part of one of the greatest cinematic trilogies of the last few decades.

6. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

While I am biased, because I am a Trekkie, let me try to sell you on the significance of Star Trek II. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Star Trek franchise was dead in the water; in the words of Leonard Nimoy, the state of the franchise was like a “beached whale”. The Motion Picture didn’t do well critically, and while financially successful, was not handled right; it nearly derailed the franchise.

Come along Harve Bennett, a television producer, and Nicholas Meyer, a small-time filmmaker, who together resurrected the franchise, setting the stage for (as of 2012) ten more films (with one more planned for 2013), as well as the return of Star Trek to television for a twenty-five year span. The project that kick-started all of this was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

In addition to being a sequel of The Motion Picture, it was also a sequel to a specific episode of Star Trek, called “Space Seed,” in which Khan nearly defeats our heroes, and is exiled. The film, which has themes of family, love, loss, revenge, as well as aging, works because the characters are free flowing, similar to how they were in the original series; McCoy is brilliant, especially when yelling at Kirk to stop feeling sorry for himself because he’s getting old; Kirk is feeling old and reacts to it in a very Kirk-like way, by being mopey; and Spock is well, Spock.

However, the heart of the film is the manner in which the threads of the story come together. The battle between Kirk and Khan soon draws in all the characters, prompting relationships to change and evolve, and resulting in terrible losses for our heroes, including the death of Spock; victory coming at a price.

The last part of the movie, after the death of Spock, is why the film is so great; we have seen the crew struggle, we seen the loss, we have seen the heartbreak; after all that, we see our heroes rise up and look to the future with some optimism, as Spock would have wanted. This optimism, a cornerstone of Star Trek, revived the franchise.

7. From Russia With Love

The idea that establishing a franchise requires a strong second outing can almost single-handedly be proven by From Russia With Love, the second film in the James Bond franchise; unlike the reboot’s second outing, Quantum of Solace, which lacked a general cohesion, From Russia With Love works because, while it has a lot of elements, those elements are tied together in a manner the view can understand.

From Russia With Love was one of President Kennedy’s favorite books, which is why it was chosen as the second film in the series. The film, which continues MI6’s battle with SPECTRE, is about SPECTRE trying to humiliate MI6 by having a Soviet woman seduce James Bond, release a tape of them making love (a bold concept in the early 1960s), and in the process ransom a valuable piece of spy technology back to the Soviet Union.

The climax of the film, changed from the dark and dreary ending of the book, works because the whole of the film has built to it, and in the end, all the threads have been tied off. The film’s legacy within the Bond franchise is that it introduced us to the character of Blofeld, the franchise’s greatest villain, and it reinforced that the Bond films were going to be around for a long time.

Honorable mention:

Toy Story 2

Especially when you know the story behind it, it is a worthy film to the original, taking our characters and pushing them in a different direction. The vocal work of Kelsey Grammar is very well done. The continued character development of Buzz and Woody, coupled with the humorous antics of the supporting cast, makes this a great film, beyond a great family film.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

One of the more amusing sequels, T2 was actually envisioned prior to the original; James Cameron wrote the original and waited for CGI to advance to the point where he could do this film. Arnold’s Terminator makes a solid heroic turn, and even Edward Furlong is not that bad. The story’s development (i.e. things are not going well; Sarah Connor is in a mental institution; John Connor’s in a foster home) makes the necessity of Arnold’s Terminator’s mission all the more significant.

Evil Dead 2

After the cliff-hanger ending of the original, the second Evil Dead picks up, resolves it quickly, then turns into a horror-comedy film that evokes as much laughter as it does fear. If anything, the ending of the film is worth the whole of the film. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to crash land to discover that they’ve been transported back in time several hundred years?

The Matrix Reloaded 

For all its faults, Reloaded was an exciting action film; although the sci-fi part of it is reduced in favor of action, the philosophical parts are still there, and the film works as a whole. Although there’s a few scenes which should have been cut down (the Neo vs. 100 Smith fight in particular), most of the extended action sequences have a rhythm that doesn’t make them feel too long.

The worst second films:

2 Fast 2 Furious

Bad dialogue, not a good plot; pretty much the only exciting part is the car chases, and that’s when you suspend believability (standard fare, for a Fast and Furious film). Still, if you’re a fan of the franchise, it’s a guilty pleasure.

XXX: State of the Union

Probably the only film that the infinite badassness of Samuel L. Jackson can’t save was this one. William Dafoe is genuinely sinister as the villain, but the two of them can’t patch up a bad script, a lot of bad acting, and a lot of questionable plot points.

Chronicles of Riddick

A guilty pleasure; this sequel to Pitch Black loses most people at the premise (intergalactic Crusaders vs. a vicious murder, with some complicated backstory); the effects are good, the action’s good, hell, most of the story works when you think about it; there’s just a lot lacking. I think that’s the best way to phrase it.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Michael Bay overdid it on the Michael Bay-ness on this one. Parts of it are too cheesy, the hip-hop characters are too hip-hoppy; it seems like he thought he was doing Bad Boys III, and then realized it was Transformers midway through production, so he thought, “the hell with it,” and pressed on anyway.

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About brettryanclu

I reside in California, and I am a graduate from California Lutheran University, where I received my Masters in Public Policy and Administration. I like to write, talk politics, and exchange comments and opinions.
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