Not to sound like a pessimistic Cassandra, but I think it’s about time someone sounded the alarm bells about the current state of mainstream cinema. In a year that has snatched the record for the highest number of sequels ever released (27 if anyone’s counting) and in which 8 out of 10 of the top-grossing films qualified as sequels or reboots, it seems just about certain that Hollywood is on the verge of losing their footing on the edge of that most perilous precipice: the slippery slope of serialisation. Such a fall can only end badly (never mind in a decidedly derivative and played out fashion). And the skies show no signs of clearing; next year promises to continue the trend, offering up a veritable smorgasbord of sequels, reboots and shameless knockoffs.
So why are sequels such a problem? They certainly aren’t by necessity. Done well, the sequel can be glorious, providing an opportunity to enrich an already established story with new layers and twists, and a chance to further plot and characterisation in a manner not necessarily possible in a stand-alone film. Adaptations of previously established series, such as the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter franchises, are particularly good examples of this sort of success, largely because of their premeditated nature. Still others – take the Toy Story or Godfather follow-ups, for instance – shine as compelling continuations of the original that nonetheless exude plenty of charisma and narrative flair on their own.
The issues begin when sequels become a financial fallback – a cheap ploy employed by studios to squeeze money out of an established franchise with minimum effort and creativity, and one calculated to tap into preexisting audiences for an easy profit. Often rushed and ill thought out, these sequels provide a safe bet for investors, something that seems to be increasingly popular in this economic climate. And unfortunately, this low-maintenance, cash-grab flavour of sequel is almost invariably bad.
On a good day, series composed of these cinematic train wrecks might be merely labeled insipid, perhaps partially justified by a strong first outing. At their worst, they descend into cycles of creative annihilation; devouring and regurgitating themselves like bloated, self-cannibalistic monsters, they eventually come to resemble nothing so much as a desiccated mockery of their former selves, sucked dry of their spark and originality and left rehashing the same hackneyed tropes that might have proved exciting four installments ago. Yet more often than not, they make money. And when films as deplorable and mind-numbingly repetitive as Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Fast Five rank within the top 5 highest-grossing productions of the year, it all gets rather depressing.
Because the real problem is, not only do sequels such as these constitute spectacularly terrible works in and of themselves, but they also have a debilitating domino effect on the entire industry. One can’t simply circumvent the issue by refusing to acknowledge the growing deluge of substandard rubbish being hurled our way, as this rubbish – by its very existence – affects the production and release of other, far better, films. More and more, major studios are using sequels and established franchises as tent pole projects – event films that command the lion’s share of both production budget and marketing hype. The fallout, of course, is that more original, daring films suffer due to restricted funding and often end up abandoned, causing the overall quality of big budget films to deteriorate. Such conditions scarcely seem conducive to innovation or artistic flair of any kind.
This isn’t entirely a new problem, of course. Sequels have existed for decades – just think of the (seemingly endless) Bond franchise – but the difference is that they have never before featured so prominently on the yearly checkerboard of mainstream cinema releases, or in the boardroom schemes of industry giants. We can only hope their grip does not develop into a stranglehold, for such a trend bodes badly for Hollywood’s artistic future, to say nothing of the mental well being of any prospective viewer.