Insipid Sequels

This blog post is born out of my frustration of watching so many film sequels which are, frankly, not worth the discs they’re coded onto.  The latest example was my attempt to watch the entire Jurassic Park trilogy.  Although the original film isn’t the best film I’ve ever seen it did manage some awe-inspiring effects and was genuinely frightening in places.  It’s only big problem was the thinly constructed storyline.  It was abundantly clear that the film-makers wanted to make a thriller using their newly developed CGI; every element of plot in the film brings the characters to this point where they’re hunted by dinosaurs through the Park.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it just leaves the plot seeming rather stale, but the film mostly manages to hold its own in spite of this.

The problem arises when, as with many highly successful films, it’s decided to make sequels in order to capitalise on the popularity to gain greater profits.  This is an assumption on my part but the desire to make a profit seems to be the primary reason for making the sequel, rather than the film-makers have a burning desire to make another film.  Hence the complete lack of vision which Jurassic Park: The Lost World seemed to possess.  I’ll confess I gave up on it after half an hour of watching* – I was bored to death by the total lack of a storyline and none of the reviews I found suggested it improved, nor that the third film was any better.  Circumstances force the characters back to an island covered with dinosaurs, where they proceed to engage in banter regarding the lead’s girlfriend and his daughter, getting into danger solely through the characters’ own stupidity (“I’m going to go look at this dinosaur!” “No!” “Your girlfriend is crazy, lol.” “Ahhh, I’m being attacked, help me!”).  These seem to be common attributes of these insipid, profit-driven sequels: poorly written character-focused drama in which the characters create the film’s drama through their own unconvincing stupidity.  This does nothing to endear the audience to the film or its characters.  I’m aware The Lost World is based off a book, as is the first film, though I believe it’s quite a loose adaptation (and looking at the synopsis for the novel on Wikipedia, it doesn’t look particularly inspiring either).

The Lost World is [probably] a poor film; I could have left it at that, except this is a pattern I’ve seen so often before.  The worst offenders are often Disney films.  A couple of examples of sequels which absolutely ruined the legacy of the original which come to mind are Mulan II and Brother Bear 2.  The latter particularly annoyed me when I watched it – Mulan was a fantastic film with one of the best female leads Disney has produced, which the sequel reduced to an unbelievable romance film.  I’d also include sequels to The Matrix, my hatred of which I’ve already written about extensively.  There’s plenty of other examples, you just need to Google “worst film sequels” to find lists upon lists of terrible films, most of which I’ve mercifully never been exposed to.

Although universally popular, I’m not including sequels in franchises such as the Star Wars prequels or Pirates of the Caribbean.  The quality of these films may be up for debate – I personally quite like them – but I think most people would agree they’re different from the films I described above.  They do at least have plotlines which run throughout the entire film series and feature real character development across the films, rather than being 90 minutes spent emulating a sitcom (although the latest PotC film has begun to head down this direction…).  Other successful examples are The Lion King and Toy Story sequels. The difference is that, although these films were made because they were guaranteed successes at the Box Office, the filmmakers had a vision for the films they wanted to make.  So I’d say to screenwriters, producers, directors, and everyone else involved in sequels, by all means make a follow-up to the latest Box Office success but, please, have a vision which can justify it.  Perhaps if profits were determined by the quality of reviews rather than the number of sales we’d see more sequels with a justifiable existence.

Also, the reason I’ve focused on films rather than books is that although many terrible sequels to books exist, most do tend to have a certain minimal degree of plot and character development.  Perhaps this is because novels are usually the creation of one mind, who can easily stamp their vision into them, whereas film sequels seem to be the product of money-hungry film executives.

Have you got any examples of film sequels you feel fall into this category of ‘insipid sequels’, or ones you feel worked successfully?  Please let me know in the comments box!

*I know, this makes me sound such a lazy critic!  I’ll redeem myself when I review Ulysses

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The Matrix (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Matrix (1999) is one of those cult films which enjoys massive popularity and is frequently parodied or referenced to the extent that even if, like me, you are slow on getting around to watching it, you will know the basic premise and concepts of the film.  The images I had in mind were of immersive, frantic worlds based on green numbers and revolutionary action sequences involving that ‘slow motion floaty-through-the-air thing. (My interest in film making is a bit amateur…)  Directed by the Wachowski Siblings, I had very high expectations.

The film starts off with an action sequence as Trinity, armed with seeming superpowers, escapes from mysterious authorities.  This establishes the action-orientated tone of the film which, for the time being, I enjoyed.  The narrative then cuts to Neo in an initially confusing sequence of events as he becomes embroiled in what appears to be various conspiracies.  I particularly enjoyed the scene where, on the phone to the elusive Morphius, Neo must escape from his high-rise office block only to submit himself to the authorities.  However these sequences are detriment to the idea that Neo’s life takes place within a virtual reality.  When the final reveal comes it lacks the impact it could have had if Neo’s life in the false reality had been sufficiently developed.  That said, the reveal alone was expertly handled, in a gloriously horrific scene where Neo wakes in a luminescent bath of fluids, his body punctured with metal tubes, suspended in a darkened cavern surveyed by superior technology.  I felt physically uncomfortable and terrified watching this, making it one of the most successful scenes of the film and quite possibly my favourite.

The central concept behind the film, that humanity and artificial intelligence went to war and humanity lost, becoming enslaved as a use for fuel for the machines, is fascinating and chilling.  It also bears striking similarities to a script I wrote three years ago, which is quite unnerving.  The concept is both ‘shown’ and ‘told’ to the viewer in a narrated sequence which works effectively.

It’s at this point, however, that the film declined.  The plot seemed to dissolve in favour of mindless action scenes.  It developed a bizarre obsession with Eastern martial arts as a means of fighting the AI forces policing the reality.  And guns.  Lots of guns.  Too many guns.  Although I liked the idea of ‘downloading’ these abilities to the characters, even if I’m not entirely convinced it made any sense.  Slipping in and out of the virtual reality and the action which ensued did create tension, although more could have been made of the concept.  It’s difficult to explain, but I felt the false world was not clearly defined.  Perhaps that’s intentional, but having seen similar ideas done (Doctor Who’s Silence in the Library and the film Inception, to name a couple) The Matrix’s world pales in terms of development.

After the convoluted and, ultimately, pointless Oracle, and the more effective betrayal from Cypher as he kills half of the resistance team in a genuinely shocking series of events, the film becomes, basically, a shoot-out.  The team leader, Morphius, has been kidnapped and Neo decided to launch a full-on assault of The Matrix to rescue him.  It’s clearly a suicide mission and, for that reason, nobody has ever tried anything like it before, which Neo somehow takes as proof he’ll be successful.  I know the action scenes are one of the main selling points of the film and I’ll concede that they are brilliantly executed – there’s just far too many of them!  My only memories of 20 minutes of the film consist of shooting, punching, escaping in a helicopter, more shooting, more punching, various action shots, running, shooting, etc. etc…

The climax of the film is a final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith, during which Neo is killed.  At this point, I was hooked once again.  Did they really have the bravery to kill off the protagonist, I wondered.  Was this the natural extension of the film’s bleakness? No.  Which is fine, if there’s been a good reason behind it.  Instead, due to some nonsensical prophecy from the Oracle, Neo is “the one” and can somehow defy death.  Okay.  The words deus ex machina spring to mind – readers of recent reviews will know this is a technique I absolutely loathe.  And a romantic subplot is thrown in from out of nowhere, just ’cause.

The film was very well directed, however, and it is from the direction that I can understand from where the film has derived such praise.  I abandoned my desire to pursue a film-making career a couple of years ago, so I couldn’t go into exactly why The Matrix was a revolutionary movie at the time, but I think the fact the effects still stand up well today, 14 years on, in this age of CGI mania, is a testament to the direction.  The Wachowskis do really well to create the bleak tone – is ‘grimy’ the right word?  Or ‘gritty’.  It’s not to my personal taste – along with the excess of guns and sunglasses, which have ruined many a film for me – but I can see it’s done with success.

The acting was, overall, pretty good.  Hugo Weaving’s excellent performance as Agent Smith is the only role which particularly stood out to me, and perhaps Jon Pantoliano as Cypher, but there were no lacklustre performances either.

The Matrix makes up the first film in a trilogy, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge it alone.  Yet, having watched a trailer for the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded, which involves more shooting, more punching, more running about and beating up poor Smith, I feel no desire to watch it.  And I generally feel compelled to finish any story I’ve begun.  I’ll certainly watch it if the opportunity is thrust upon me, but I feel no desire to seek it out myself.  Overall, although there is a lot enjoy in The Matrix and much to marvel at, I was, on the whole, disappointed.  Maybe my expectations were just too high.

Final Rating: 7/10

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012 Film) Review

(Contains spoilers)

I’ve fallen so behind with my posts!  In what became an added stress to a generally fantastic, if busy, week, I only arrived home from the screening of The Hobbit last Wednesday at midnight, so didn’t have time to write up a review.  This will be a very short review, summarising my thoughts, and probably reiterating what many better film reviewers have said.  It’s also from the perspective of someone who’s read the book before, albeit half their life ago.

I was very excited about this film.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy would easily rank among my favourite book/films, and I expected The Hobbit to be just the same.  I had heard that it is nothing like LOTR, which is to be expected.  You don’t even have to read the books to see the vast differences in tone, simply noting the difference in font size gives a clear idea!  The Hobbit is much lighter than LOTR with far more comedy.  So how did it do?

Not bad.  The Hobbit is far from perfect, but it is an admirable addition to the franchise.  Visually, it is possible to see the development of computer generated imagery in the last decade, which is prevalent throughout almost the entirety of the film.  This gives it a very fantastical, sometimes almost ‘cartoony’ feel, which matches The Hobbit’s tone.  However, I feel this sometimes goes too far.  While the landscapes are absolutely stunning, I agree with many critics that the film gains no favours from having computer-generated orcs and goblins.  Particularly in the case of major characters, such as Azog and the Goblin King, who would have benefited by the physical presence of an actor.  One reviewer stated it was watching a video game, and I quite agree.

The acting was, on the whole, brilliant.  I was interested in seeing Martin Freeman as Bilbo, having previously seen him as John Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock, and he did not disappoint.  He will forever be Bilbo to me, and carries on well the character which Ian Holm first developed in LOTR, bringing his own attributes to the part but clearly playing the same character.  Returning characters were excellent as ever, if sometimes clearly 10 years older – there did not seem to be much attempt to hide Ian McKellan’s ageing.  Christopher Lee played Saruman well and had the same presence he always brings to roles, which is admirable considering he turned ninety earlier this year.  The dwarves were much as I imagined them, though few were developed to any significant degree and were mostly used for comic effect.  I’m not a great fan of unnecessary comedy so most of this passed me by, but it was good for what it was.

But the clear standout of both the effects and acting was Gollum.  Andy Serkis gives an astounding performance once again as the deranged, deadly yet pitiful character.  Gollum looks ever so subtly younger, though it is difficult to state how – a tribute to both the acting and animation.  The difference between ‘Sméagol’ and ‘Gollum’ is immediately noticeable; the eyes flash from cute and innocent to calculating and dangerous in an instant.  I expect more awards to come Gollum’s way in the near future.  Gollum also has the honour of providing some of the few genuine laughs I had during the film – particularly, during the game of riddles, his schizophrenic exchange: “Oh, I know, I know!” “Shut up!”  And, put simply, he was so cute!  I felt his despair upon losing the Ring, however wrong I knew it to be.  Easily the most sympathetic and pitiful character in the whole film.

One major problem the film had was pace.  I appreciated the cinematic display of backstory to open the film, giving it the same grandeur feel which LOTR had.  However I felt it was unnecessary to include ‘modern-day’ Bilbo and Frodo.  This assumes the audience has seen the LOTR trilogy and makes it appear to be a spin-off rather than a film of its own right.  The Hobbit was published before LOTR and it feels wrong for the film to be cast along as a ‘younger sibling’ in this way, as it often is.  The film takes far too long to leave Hobbiton and truly get started – about an hour, compared to around 10% through the book.  And once it does leave Hobbiton, despite following the book closely, is simply a series of dangerous situations followed by a fight and victory – particularly once the party enter the Misty Mountains.  I found myself bored by fight scene after fight scene, each one similar to the last, so that the final climactic battle between Thorin, Azog and Bilbo had little effect on me.  I was merely glad once it had ended.

Finally, the film is less realistic than LOTR.  Perhaps this was intentional, but it leads to more potential criticisms of an overly fantastical nature and being like a video game.  The two main examples occur during the fight scenes to escape from the Goblin Kingdom.  Firstly, and this is also a criticism I have of LOTR, the Dwarves must be astonishingly accomplished fighters to take on the entire Goblin army and escape unscathed.  Their invincibility continues as they plummet into the depths of the mines, bouncing from the walls, and again land unscathed.  Are we to assume that dwarves in fact contain several layers of blubber?  There are various other fantasy elements which feel out of place, such as the fight between the giants, which although not unrealistic in themselves – clearly, as this is a fantasy film – the lack of explanation leaves me wondering how it is possible.  Though there are no limits to the imagination in fantasy worlds, they must have rules and explanations, otherwise the story has no boundaries and feels unconvincing.  This is something Tolkein usually achieved to great success within his work, causing this to jar even more.  And most confusingly, why couldn’t the eagles fly them all the way to Erebor rather than planting them in front of a deep, dangerous forest?

I’ve heaped much criticism onto The Hobbit, but I do need to reiterate that I heavily enjoyed the film.  It was never going to live up to the legacy of LOTR, and that aside it didn’t, in my opinion, quite reach its potential.  Despite that, it’s still an excellent film that will long be remembered, if doomed to be eternally shadowed by its older sibling – much like the book itself.

Final rating: 8/10