by Adam-Troy Castro
And so, this quick synopsis. Last time out we categorized sequels into multiple types, including Unrelated Adventures of the Same Guy, Reversing What Happened Before and Starting Over Again, The Same Thing Happens Again and You’re Willing to Pay For It, It Happens Again To A Cast We Can Pay Less, and As Long As There’s Money, We Will Not Stop Doing This While a Breath of Fresh Air Remains In Our Lungs.
We left you with the one we didn’t have time for, which is We Thought It Out, and Here are The Implications.
And one of the things we really do need to establish right off is that this is a particularly important story engine for the genre that drives this magazine.
With other genres, repercussions are not always all that important.
With the suicidal depression suffered by Detective Riggs resolved in the first film, every subsequent movie in the Lethal Weapon series began with a nigh-total reset. Think about how remarkable this is. The second film ended with Riggs in the process of bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds, after all his friends at the job have been murdered, and after he and his partner Murtaugh have put aside their legal restrictions as cops to slaughter those responsible in an open and unapologetic stab at revenge — one targeting the embassy personnel of a foreign government, yet — and even so, by the next film, Riggs is not only a hundred percent healed, he’s not only shrugged off the grief and trauma of having all his co-workers and one fresh girlfriend murdered, but he’s back on the job with Murtaugh, suffering no legal or professional or medical repercussions whatsoever. About all that’s changed for him is that he has a new perennial annoyance, Joe Pesci. Would there be greater repercussions in real life? Sure. Is anybody really worried about those repercussions? Of course not.
You can tell a story in that genre that does involve a character who changes from installment to installment, but those changes are acceptable only as long as they permit the character to still function in a manner that permits the kind of stories he’s known for. Michael Connelly has written a large number of mystery novels involving his Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch, source of an Amazon TV series I haven’t seen. They’re pretty much all great; and yes, that character does change from one book to the next, at one point resolving the murder of his mother, at another learning that he has a daughter and forging a relationship with her, at a third very late in the series retiring from the force and becoming a private detective. If you read the novels in order, you will certainly see Harry get older and more cynical as the years go on, and you will note the various alterations in his living circumstances as they occur. But young or old, cop or private investigator, he is still Harry Bosch. He is still the guy who’ll go out and find the truth.
You will not see a Harry Bosch novel that takes place after he’s too old to function. No, strike that; you might, if Connelly ultimately decides that he wants to play with that. (Bosch investigates a murder in his nursing home! And this would not be unprecedented, either; Agatha Christie did eventually give us a nearly-decrepit Poirot.) But if and when it happens, it will be a sign that the series ain’t gonna spawn all that many additional sequels.
Very late in his career, in his sixties or seventies, Clint Eastwood was asked whether there was any chance of him ever bringing back his signature character, Dirty Harry, protagonist of five films over two decades. He said something to the effect that if Harry was even still alive, he was living in retirement and fishing off the side of a houseboat somewhere. So with Bosch, eventually.
So the implications that need to be thought out in the sequels are small, or brushed aside.
They’re not unknown. Spencer Tracy and Steve Martin both made films called Father Of The Bride, which both wrought situation comedy from the travails of a Dad whose little girl was getting married; and both films spawned the inevitable sequel in which that Dad had to deal with the implications of soon becoming a grandfather. This indeed qualifies as the next question being asked, but it’s hardly rocket science. No, the progression is not universal, but it is common enough to have formed its own playground taunt, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes,” and you know the rest.
But science fiction and fantasy are twin genres driven by thinking out the implications. You posit a device that does X, you don’t write a story about how wonderful it is that a device can do X, but you ask what happens to the world after the introduction of a device that does X. Your first story can be about that. But if you produce a sequel to that story, said sequel must progress those implications further, to a point that equals X… plus some unknown, Y.
And it is here that many science fiction films fail the test.
Let us go to the Alien franchise. Many millions of words have been expended about which sequels work dramatically and which don’t, to the point where I really don’t want to add to the debate. I speak only of the engine used for story generation. So you have the first film in which a woman named Ripley is the last survivor of a monster’s assault on a space freighter; and following that the second film advancing that premise in which a traumatized Ripley, now sporting the first name Ellen, accompanies a bunch of ill-fated space marines on a mission to investigate the world where the creature was encountered. That, right there, is a repercussion, a story that asks and answers the next logical question. Now examine the third film, which I could slag at considerable length but which I’m aware has its fervent advocates. I don’t want to get into whether it’s any good or not. I just want to address its method of story generation, which is not so much an attempt to take the next logical step, or ask the next logical question, as it is to say, “How can we trap this lady with another of these things?” So again, her life pod goes off course, and again, she finds herself somewhere she doesn’t want to be, and again, she finds herself the voice of courage in the face of an alien infestation. Sure, the movie also makes her an unwilling host of an alien embryo, and derives some mileage from that, but in most dramatic terms it amounts to, “Sheeze, but that Ripley lady sure has some consistently terrible luck in space.”
I’m among the many who believe that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t need a sequel, and I’m not going to get into whether Arthur C. Clarke’s follow-up novels or the sequel film 2010 were worth the trip — my answer, too long for this installment, amounts to, “It’s complicated” — but as far as sequel generation is concerned, it is certainly possible to concede that the first at least, did ask the next questions. How would the people back on Earth react to the fate of Bowman’s crew? What were the aliens up to, out there? What would the Star Child do, upon its return to Earth?
You may not like the answers. You may think that any answers cheapen the questions asked by the original. You may even do what any audience member has the right to do with a sequel, and personally declare it non-canonical as far as you’re concerned. I might even feel sympathy for your position. But nevertheless, the story was generated in the way that is necessary for science fiction: asking those next questions in the first place.
It was impossible to make a sequel to the alien-invasion film Independence Day (1996) without asking some of the next questions. In that movie, whatever you think of it, alien invaders slaughter much of humanity, including almost all great cities. Their technology falls into our hands and so, unless a sequel takes place right away and covers what would have to mass starvation and struggle over resources, it would have to show us the substantially changed Earth of subsequent decades. As it happens, the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) was not made for another twenty years and all the actors they managed to or wanted to bring back were the appropriate number of decades older, so the evidence on screen had to reflect that; and so we have a version of Mankind that has spread out throughout the solar system, as is only proper, and the actual plot involves a benevolent alien species living in opposition to the evil ones we now call the Harvesters, and in the final minutes a promise that with their help we will now go back to the world the city-destroying sons of bitches came from and kick their asses.
All of which reflects the asking of the next question. Full disclosure: I have not seen the film and therefore have no opinion of its quality. I merely have suspicions. But I have seen a clip establishing that the movie does fail the repercussion test in one key respect. To wit: since the key image and headline attraction of the first film was the wholesale destruction of recognizable world cities, there really was no way for a sequel seeking to capitalize on its popularity to get away with not showing us more of the same, and so we are told and shown that the incinerated metropoli of the first film were rebuilt. This so we can see London being razed a second time, when the nasty bugs come back.
As an audience member, your friendly columnist is more than willing to buy this. After all, in just the last actual century and a half, vast sections of San Francisco, Dresden, Tokyo, Chicago, for that matter London itself, and literally dozens of other world cities have been leveled by war or other natural disasters, only to be put back together. The premise that London would be too important a city to just leave as smoking rubble, and that we as a species would rebuild it, if possible, is entirely believable.
What is honestly harder to buy is that the London twenty years past Independence Day, in a world that now has much advanced technological resources, would have been rebuilt “brick by brick” to the point where it looks identical to the London we have now. In a movie so driven by CGI, wouldn’t it have been logical to ask the next question and posit that some of the recognizable buildings would not have been put back together in quite the same way, that there would be structures we wouldn’t recognize, buildings that reflect the history of this alternate world? Just look at how the Manhattan skyline was altered, by the aftermath of 9/11. We rebuilt. But not the exact same way. And so that shot of poor unfortunate London not catching a break, being incinerated yet another time, causes a hiccup in the flow of the story, the inevitable thought: wait a minute, didn’t all that go bye-bye?
Of course, maybe I’m full of crap. As I’ve stated, I haven’t seen the sequel and don’t know for sure that there weren’t shots reflecting an otherwise unrecognizable alternate London and a Big Ben and Parliament that have been rebuilt as tributes to those old buildings, much like the version of the Eiffel Tower that now stands in Las Vegas. In such a case you can send me emails detailing how much crap I’m full of. But I’m confident in my guess: they wanted the city being destroyed to be recognizable and so they laid their CGI over images of modern-day London, not bothering to think the proper questions. It’s the difference between what makes a good movie and what makes a dopey one, between doing the work that should go into the making of a sequel in this genre, and letting that work slide.
Just don’t get me started on Jurassic World.
Adam-Troy Castro’s most recent novel is Gustav Gloom and the Castle of Fear, finale to the six-volume middle-grade series.