Terminator 2: Judgement Day was by all counts an unprecedented success. It appears on countless lists as one of the greatest science fiction and action films of all time, and most would claim it’s better than its predecessor. It pushed special effects to their limits and beyond, providing the next big step in CGI and paving the road for films like Jurassic Park. It picks up the story from The Terminator eleven years later (even though the movies were only released seven years apart), following John Connor as a teenager, now rebelling against his step-parents. Meanwhile, Sarah Connor is in a mental hospital, committed after nobody believed her story about a killer robot and a hero from the future. But as is par for the course, two characters come from the future to fight for the fate of the human resistance. The twist this time is that both characters are terminators, different models, and one has been reprogrammed to protect John Connor. Sarah, John, and the T-800 attempt to prevent judgement day, the beginning of the nuclear holocaust, the beginning of the war of the machines.
Upping the ante and changing the game. Remember those. They are the keys. The stakes have to be raised, and the genre has to be adjusted. In any given original film, the audience comes to know characters and how they react to a given situation, to the plot. This leads a lot of filmmakers to almost remake the original film for the sequel, considering the audience liked it the first time around. See Ghostbusters II and Die Hard 2: Die Harder for perfect examples of the reheated sequel. Both are entertaining, but not nearly as good as their respective predecessors. It’s because the audience isn’t seeing anything new; instead they watch the same characters react to nearly identical situations. There’s nothing fresh about it.
So the first step is to up the ante. The central conflict has to be ratcheted up, so that something more is learned about the characters. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo had to contend with a single creature. Ripley ended up surviving due to her courage, but she never really directly fought the alien. She opened the cargo hatch, then fired up the engines to kill it. So how does a filmmaker plus that? They add more aliens. Notice the sequel is ingeniously titled Aliens. Cameron put that same character, that the audience already watched and grew to know, and put her in a more dangerous, though similar, situation. It’s an effective continuation of the character’s development, because they’ve already experienced the previous film, so they’d be more prepared the second time around. That escalation is necessary to make sure they’re not certain they’ll succeed or survive.
That leaves Terminator 2, which again is a simple algebraic change. Instead of one terminator, there are now two. And not just the same two, but an advanced prototype as well, that has a whole new set of rules and abilities. Interestingly, a lot of the sequences in T2 are almost direct references to the original, and yet they’ve been imbued with fresh suspense and action. The second addition in T2 is the addition of a second mission: actively trying to prevent judgment day. In the original, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese were essentially the antagonists, trying to prevent the T-800 from killing Sarah. In the sequel, the T-1000 is trying to stop John Connor from leading the resistance. This conflict makes up the secondary goal to the sequel, which runs parallel to the original: trying to prevent the new terminator from killing John. But the heroes also have to locate and destroy the two fragments of the Terminator left behind from the first film, providing a different primary goal from the first. It’s the original, plus more.
Now that the stakes have been raised, there’s still something missing.
Alien was horror. Aliens was horror-action. Terminator was sci-fi horror. Terminator 2 was sci-fi action. First Blood was an action-thriller, with some psychological elements. First Blood Part II was pure action. Note that the genre is never changed, but its specialization shifted. This, in essence, provides for the stakes to be raised and the character to again face formidable odds, as they are also getting thrown into unfamiliar territory. Ripley has to learn how to use guns and basically become a space marine to combat the new threat. Rambo goes from inner torment to reliving his war days, becoming the perfect killing machine again. The characters react to the genre shift, offering something new.In the big picture of things, these two changes make a quality sequel, at least by Cameron logic. But these are overly basic, as surely there are examples of sequels that follow both these rules and still are subpar. However, there are a few sub-rules within the sequels that Cameron returns to in each example.
In First Blood Part II, Rambo must overcome his post-traumatic stress as he actually returns to Vietnam, fighting again. It’s a key way to link the original film but also push the character forward. The audience wants familiarity with the first film, but also something new. This is a simple way to connect the two.
The other two sub-rules deal with the circumstances at the beginning of a sequel. A sequel by its definition is a continuation of a character’s story. And as pointed out earlier, the main character must continue developing in different ways and in different situations.
In T2, Sarah Connor is in a mental hospital because of her account of the original terminator. In the meantime she’s had a son and trained to become a warrior, even if it didn’t really take. Circumstances have changed. Notice that all the characters have, in some way, been cut off from society for a while. Ripley was asleep, Rambo was in prison and Sarah was in an institution. This isn’t an essential ingredient, but an interesting Cameron common thread. It serves the same purpose of putting the audience in the place of the character – we don’t know what’s happened since we last saw these people and neither do they.
This idea of changing circumstances logically may seem obvious, but a few counter examples may prove otherwise.
Die Hard With a Vengeance, even though I supported it for changing the game and upping the ante, falls for this. In the first two Die Hards, McClane saves his marriage and his wife, then saves her again for good measure. Die Hard 3 opens with McClane divorced (or at least separated) and an alcoholic. It not only takes away all the momentum from the first two entries, but it hits him below the belt with a drinking problem. A subplot of the movie then involves him mustering the courage to call his wife. The movie succeeds because it does enough besides this to work, but it’s still a messy spot in what’s otherwise a great sequel.
After that tangent, all it leaves is the last sub-rule. A sequel must function on its own two feet as a solid film, without the original for back-up. However it’s a delicate balance between making sure the film references the original, but not enough to make the sequel confusing.
Compare this to Back to the Future Part II, which picks up immediately after the first, and even takes place largely during the events of the first. Granted, a viewer could catch up with events and characters as it progresses, but it relies heavily on a knowledge of the first, especially because it intertwines with the first. It’s still enjoyable on its own, but it really requires having seen the first to truly be appreciated. As such it only really appeals to those who are familiar with the first. The same can be said for Part III, which while entertaining on its own, makes much more sense when viewed after the first two installments. A sequel must stand on its own. The Indiana Jones series supports this idea, as each film is episodic, and largely unrelated to the others.
“I think sequels should be earned,” said screenwriter, director, and producer Jay Roach. He’s also the man responsible for the Austin Powers franchise. Draw what conclusions you will.