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For SciFi Sequels, Taking a Chance Makes All the Difference

There’s something almost miraculous about a movie sequel that doesn’t stink. And for one simple reason: Hollywood doesn’t do sequels for anything other than money.

In fact, everyone who produces commercial sequels does it for the money. I’m as guilty of this as anyone: When my novel Old Man’s War became successful, I wrote a sequel, and then another, and then yet another. And the novel I’m currently working on is also a sequel. So I should be careful: Most current writers of science fiction and fantasy are sequel mad.

But when Hollywood does sequels for the money, they really do it for the money. Your average studio movie costs more than most people make in a lifetime, and, if a movie flops, everyone knows about it. So when a film hits, the call for a sequel goes out before the opening-weekend receipts are even counted, and most studios want their sequels to be the same as the original, but with more — with the volume (action, special effects, actual volume) turned up.

This explains any number of science-fiction sequels, from The Lost World to The Chronicles of Riddick to Men in Black II.

What very often does not make it into a sequel are things that might well make a movie better, like character development, an engaging plot, and a script that has the actors saying things that make it look like they’re doing something other than making a studio accountant very happy. But movies that play with an already-established formula are inherently risky, and, for Hollywood, sequels are about risk mitigation.

So how does it happen that, from time to time, a sequel comes along that’s not only as good but better than the original? My theory: It happens when Hollywood’s determination to stick to a formula is undermined. A few examples:

1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
In this case, it was the evolution of cinema itself that made the difference: Cameras became unlocked, musical scores matured, and film acting and writing stopped aping a theatrical model. The medium finally figured itself out.

2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
George Lucas managed to wrangle the rights to the Star Wars sequel from Twentieth Century Fox and was able to made the movie he wanted. He upgraded not just the special effects but also the scriptwriting, which he palmed off to Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. It’s no wonder that so many of the good lines in the Star Wars universe come out of this film.

3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The first Star Trek film, from 1979, was expensive and successful, but many involved thought it was a bit of a dud. When Paramount decided to mount a sequel, it cut the budget drastically (from $35 million to $11 million). The cuts turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Khan was the reboot of the Star Trek franchise. That’s why the subsequent sequels are like it, not the first film.

4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
In many ways, Terminator 2 was the “perfect storm” of science-fiction sequels. In the seven-year interim between it and the original, the director and star had both moved onto Hollywood’s A-list, allowing for an immensely larger budget ($100 million, from $6.4 million). James Cameron employed special-effects technology throughout, and, though the dictate “Everything the same, but more” was still applied, thicker plotting and characterization and better screenwriting amounted to a superior film. Cameron doesn’t get nearly enough credit for stuff like this, but you notice when he doesn’t have it (see: True Lies ) and when a franchise has lost it ( Terminator 3 , which was made without him).

Will Hollywood ever see the wisdom of taking some extra risks in their sequels? Probably not, because, at the end of the day, movies are commercial products — the art happens at the edges — and it’s better for the bottom line to do something reliable than to take a chance. When you see a good sequel, you should salute the filmmaker. He or she got something past the bean counters — and, these days, that really is a miracle.

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.

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