The 1980s were a time in which the science fiction and adventure film genres reigned supreme. Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), and Back to the Future (1985) are three of strong examples of classic 80s films that expanded their respective universes to further installments. The sequel, while a sometimes surefire way of making money off of an already established and original idea, can at times continue the adventure and prolong the cinematic magic in wonderful ways.
Filmmaker George Lucas popularized the sequel concept in 1980 with a follow-up to 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope. He had a vision when starting his space opera at episode #4 and The Empire Strikes Back furthered the adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C3P0. It is thought by many to be far superior to its predecessor. A third installment soon followed and so did a prequel trilogy in 1999. These films were all created to piggyback on A New Hope’s success and while not all were artistic and crowd-pleasing, they aimed at furthering Lucas’ story.
Following in this fun adventurous vein, Lucas teamed up with director Steven Spielberg, a man known for his highly imaginative and captivating stories. His creature feature Jaws defined the term “blockbuster” and spawned three sequels, a theme park attraction, and various merchandise. Lucas and Spielberg joined forces for four Indiana Jones films and helped solidify Harrison Ford as an action movie icon. Raiders of the Lost Ark took the classic adventure film serials of the 1930s and 1940s and made it a dazzling and wild ride for audiences of the 80s.
Raiders focused on Indiana Jones (Ford), archaeology professor/rugged adventurer who is tasked with finding the mystical Ark of the Covenant. Along the way, he is met with brute force from evil Nazis, sexual tension from Marion Ravenwood (Nancy Allen), and lots and lots of snakes. The film was a huge success and paved the road for 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a much darker prequel to Raiders, pitting Indy against a powerful and sinister magician. The film was weaker than its predecessor but it did feature some strong action sequences, including a mine-car chase scene that was originally meant to be in Raiders.
Indy’s adventures didn’t end there. In 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade returned to the colorful fun of Raiders and this switch was a very welcome, indeed. In this more humorous tale, Indy had to find the Holy Grail as well as his kidnapped father, played brilliantly by Sean Connery. This film would mark the end of quality Indy films when in 2008; the franchise suffered a slight blow in terms of cinematic bombing. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tried to recapture the magic of the original films but failed miserably. One can respect Ford for donning his Fedora and cracking his whip one more time but the story was too out there and the visual effects, way overused.
1984 was a busy year for film, especially film franchises. One of the strongest films to come out of that year was Ivan Reitman’s sci-fi/comedy phenomenon Ghostbusters, a film which defined an era and provided amazing childhoods for kids growing up in the 80s and 90s. The film focuses on a group of misplaced parapsychologists (played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and later Ernie Hudson) who set up shop hunting ghosts in New York City. They soon come across an interdementional being bent on destroying the world and it is up to the four boys in beige to set things right. The film was a huge success and opened the door to toys, an animated series, video games, comic books, and of course, a sequel.
In 1989, Ghostbusters II was released and wasn’t met too kindly by critics and audiences. It didn’t have the same energy as the original and the plot felt a bit recycled. In it, the four heroes must stop another evil being from taking over the world, this time by possessing Sigourney Weaver’s character’s baby. While borrowing heavily from the first film, GB2 has some fresh jokes, brilliant visual effects, and a kickass 80s soundtrack. The originality may be somewhat lacking but the fun spirit in the script and the performances makes for a rather enjoyable flick.
Similar praises can be given to the sequels of 1985’s Back to the Future, another sci-fi/comedy, which follows Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a 17-year-old slacker who accidentally gets sent back in time to 1955, where he encounters his parents at his age. Christopher Lloyd plays Dr. Emmet L. Brown, a wacky scientist who is Marty’s only hope at getting back to his present time of 1985. The film was and continues to be a film masterpiece, not only in concept but in pure execution. Director Robert Zemeckis teamed up with Spielberg to deliver the adventure and two sequels which continued Marty and Doc’s adventures through time.
Back to the Future Part II was released in 1989 and left many viewers scratching their heads due to its slightly complicated plot and trippy concept. In that film, Marty and Doc venture to 2015, only to return to a warped version of present-time 1985, only to return to 1955 again. This was an ambitious film to tackle but most audiences prefer the original due to its more straightforward narrative. Back to the Future Part III came out the following year in 1990 and starts up right where Part II left off. The film largely takes place in 1885, where Doc’s life is threatened by Buford “Mad Dog’ Tannen, (Thomas F. Wilson) the main antagonist (and variations) throughout the entire trilogy. This installment plays more like a traditional western, with a more straightforward plot than Part II.
With all of these examples of sequels succeeding and failing, it is certainly a crapshoot. More often than not, a sequel can surpass its predecessor like say, The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or Aliens. It is completely random which film will be better in tone and overall quality but the fact remains that whether the film is made to make a profit or to further the artistry of the material, sequels are designed to mature a film, to take it to new heights, and to dare I say, make the original film immortal.