Thursday, December 9, 2010

Is the IIIrd time ever a charm?

What do the murderous, sadistic Jigsaw and Santa Claus have in common? Besides an affinity for red and keeping lists of who’s been naughty, they’re both returning in the third installments of their respective film series, “Saw III” and “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.” But will there be a fourth?

The pivotal third film is the one that can make or break a franchise. Almost any movie contains enough elements to be mined for one sequel, but to become the tentpole for a lasting, successful series, a film needs to possess certain elements that allow it to continue without simply rehashing itself.

For example, 1983’s “Psycho II” was a smart, thrilling sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, showing what happens to Norman Bates upon release from the mental institution after 22 years (the poor guy finds he had even more mother issues than he thought). But “Psycho III” (1986) has nowhere new to go and ends up being nothing more than the first film reimagined as an Eighties slasher flick.

As indelible a character as Norman Bates may be, there are aren’t a lot of stories for him to carry. Genre films that are based on colorful characters in fantastic situations can more easily work through the Roman numerals. “Star Trek,” Batman, Harry Potter and the champ of all franchises, James Bond have all proven that there’s no finite ending to their respective sagas (unless J.K. Rowling decides to off her teenage wizard).

So it’s always puzzling when filmmakers and actors say they’ll only do another (for example) Spider-Man movie if they can come up with a good story. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics has been publishing new Spidey yarns multiple times a month for 44 years. We’re not saying that they were all gold, but the point is there are many more webs to spin.

Studios often feel that with successive sequels, they have to go bigger and more spectacular. With comic book movies, that means adding more characters. One of the things that made Sam Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies great was that each film had just one costumed foe, leaving lots of time for storytelling. Next year’s “Spider-Man 3” ups the ante by having the wall crawler do battle with not two, but THREE villains (something that did not work so well for Batman, but we remain hopeful).

There’s a perceived laziness in just giving the audience more of the same in a sequel. But the alternative can also be of a detriment. Filmmakers reluctant to just repeat themselves sometimes push too far in a direction that just doesn’t make sense.

After the success of the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, the producers felt that they needed to bring something entirely new to the table for “Superman III.” Unfortunately, that something was a wildly out of place Richard Pryor, playing a computer savant who gets sucked into a plot to destroy the Man of Steel. The 1983 film lost the delicate balance of the first two movies, tipping towards comedy that was both out of place… and not funny. Still, at least they didn’t give Supes a kid…

But even when a story that doesn’t star costumed adventurers can logically continue to a third installment, that doesn’t always mean that the end result works.

1974’s “The Godfather Part II” is widely considered the best sequel ever made. So when director Francis Ford Coppola announced he was going to bring the Corleone saga to a close with a third chapter, expectations were initially high. But by the release of “The Godfather Part III,” 16 years had passed and some of the key players were either missing or no longer at the peak of their powers. A sometimes convoluted script by Mario Puzo and Coppola was further hampered by campy performances from Talia Shire and Andy Garcia. But the loudest hisses were aimed at poor Sofia Coppola, who was enlisted as a last minute replacement for Winona Ryder as Michael’s doomed daughter Mary. Sofia’s awkwardness wasn’t entirely her fault; she never wanted to be an actress (and has proven herself a much better director, as “Lost in Translation” showed), but the scathing reviews she received added to a pall cast over a once grand film series. In hindsight, a third film was an offer they should’ve refused.

Still, expectations on “III”s are usually low. Did anyone really think that “Rambo III” (1988), “RoboCop 3” (1993), “Poltergeist III” (1988) or “Home Alone 3” (1997) were going to bring anything new to the table? Some of these movies may try to freshen things up by changing the cast or the setting, but they still smack of nothing but crass opportunism.

So it can be almost refreshing when the third film is designed to be the last. Realizing that a fourth installment would be too much, “Back to the Future,” “American Pie,” “The Omen” and “Blade” all opted to close the books on their respective stories with their third films (although TV would decide to continue “The Omen” and “Blade”). Would that “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid” and “Jurassic Park” had shown such foresight.

Initially, David Fincher’s “Alien (to the third power)” (1992) seemed designed to end the saga of reluctant monster-fighter Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as she dives into a vat of molten steel at the film’s climax. While the movie is reviled by many fans of the series for its bleak nihilism, at least every entrant in the “Alien” series was markedly different, something that can’t be said of most fright franchises.

In most horror series, numbers are irrelevant since they’re all basically the same film. Series like “A Nightmare of Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” or “Final Destination” just retell the same basic story with a different cast of characters or different methods of murder. You can’t tell a 3 from a 5 or a 2.

But isn’t the propensity for repetition short sighted? By “Beverly Hills Cop 3” (1994), Detroit cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) knows his way around Los Angeles and is buddy buddy with the Beverly Hills PD, thus eliminating the whole “fish out of water” theme that made the first film so great. If the first film would’ve begat an Axel Foley franchise that continued to place the character in strange environments (imagine Axel dealing with some redneck southern police department in “Appalachian Cop” or dealing with foreign intrigue in “London Cop”), the franchise could’ve remained fresh and lasted a bit longer.

In the early ‘80s, Hollywood dusted off an old gimmick for some tertiary installments. “Friday the 13th Part 3” (1982), “Amityville 3-D” (1983) and, most notoriously, “Jaws 3-D” (1983) all had the audience strap on those cardboard red-and-blue glasses in order to experience severed limbs, flying weapons and sundry projectiles coming off the screen and into the audience. But all three films are actually better viewed through blindfolds.

There have been examples of film series that set out from the beginning to be trilogies, perhaps anticipating the public’s short attention span. George Lucas wisely decided to split his “Star Wars” series into three part arcs, a tactic that worked even better for Peter Jackson with “the Lord of the Rings” (but not so much for the Wachowskis with “The Matrix”).

A film series petering out usually has more to do with the public’s short attention span than a dearth of ideas. Somehow, we doubt that “Saw III” will be the last time Jigsaw makes someone eat their own leg (or whatever). But we’d bet that Tim Allen’s done donning the Santa suit. Sad as it may be, history has shown that moviegoers have a bigger thirst for blood and guts than holly and jolly. After all, movie making is a cutthroat biz!

POSTSCRIPT, December 2010:

Well, turns out SPIDER-MAN 3 was indeed a stinker. A few things have also changed since this was written: Harry Potter is finally coming to an end, and so is Batman.... at least as far as Christopher Nolan's concerned.

No comments: