A Brief Taxonomy of Movie Four-quels
When a popular series reaches the fourth installment, what else is left to say?
A totally predictable thing happened in the 12 years between when Jaws burst across screens as an instant horror classic and when its third sequel, Jaws: The Revenge, stumbled in through the back door. The series stopped giving a rip about the people who were paying to see it.
Co-star Michael Caine knew the fourth Jaws was a farce when he made it, and went down in movie history by gamely acknowledging as much. “I have never seen it,” he once said, “but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
Long after creativity, energy, vision, and artistic integrity have evaporated, the fourth installments of movie franchises lurch onward, zombie-like, and usually as braindead. This week Jurassic World joins that dubious legacy. With some trepidation we thus slouch toward a fourth round of T-rex chases and pterodactyl attacks, complicit in the recycling of an idea that used to seem pretty awesome and now — maybe will be all right? We hope? Like fourth margaritas and fourth marriages, fourth film installments tend to produce steeply diminished returns that fit into four major categories. To wit:
Thank your favorite long-winded young adult writer for these. Continuations go through the interminable motions either because they’re based on books that already extend past a trilogy or because the trilogy kept raking in dumptruck-loads of money.
The exemplar of the four-quels hit both of those categories: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was part of the Potter-novel cash machine as well as a pretty decent movie in its own right. No doubt the folks behind the Narnia series had similar designs, but for whatever reason, just couldn’t make movies to match their ambitions. Three adaptations in ever-plummeting quality have been made of C.S. Lewis’ seven-part series. Another sequel looks doubtful, unless a Fox accountant decides they could really use a $100 million write-down.
A newer, crasser trend is stretching literary trilogies into four movies. The Twilight and Hunger Games flicks raked in such stupid amounts of dough that filmmakers decided to keep adding zeroes to the total. Split the third books into two movies? A noble treatment, they said. Preserve the integrity of the authors’ vision, they said. Donuts in their new Ferraris, they did.
Other four-quels are just continuations of stories that audiences have come to enjoy. Nothing inherently wrong there, and in fact, there are some not-terrible movies in this mold. Rocky whipped Dolph Lundgren’s ass (and maybe/definitely won the Cold War?) in Rocky IV; once Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom’s shivered each other’s timbers in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Captain Jack Sparrow went off on his own treasure hunt in On Stranger Tides; when Judgment Day happened and blew up modern civilization as we knew it T3, we needed to find out what new shenanigans Skynet got itself into in Terminator Salvation; and everybody knew John McClane would die hard again at some point, so they made Live Free or Die Hard, which everyone saw and then promptly forgot.
Other four-quels are not as lucky. Knowing that the title alone will lure audiences, studios slop up a bunch of whatever. Batman & Robin inflicted batsuit nipples on fanboys; Alien Resurrection laughed in the face of the pristine claustrophobic horror of the earlier movies and replaced it with a cockamamie alien/Ripley hybrid mishmash; and Superman IV: Quest for Peace should just be tried for war crimes.
These are the gawdawful last straws before a franchise gets abandoned or rebooted (which we’ll get to later). The kingpin of this junkheap is the aforementioned Jaws: The Revenge. It posited that another killer shark follows the wife of the main character from the first two movies to the Bahamas and preys on her family. It bore the hilariously on-the-nose tagline of “This time, it’s personal.” Roger Ebert took this fiasco to task with a delightful bit of drive-by calumny that begins with the spot-on diagnosis: “Jaws the Revenge is not simply a bad movie, but also a stupid and incompetent one — a ripoff.”
Prequels and Reboots
Other crappy fourth installments hit reset altogether, or shoehorn origin stories into completed trilogies. The crowning achievement in telling a story everyone wanted to know but didn’t need to be told as a pandering toy commercial: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the prequel that flipped off your childhood for 136 minutes straight. Same went for Peter Jackson’s woeful first chapter of The Hobbit, the first boring three hours of a beyond-bloated nine-hour trilogy built out of a 300-page book.
No amount of fanboy fervor can justify these abortions. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for some unimaginable reason, features Black Eyed Peas rapper will.i.am as a teleporting mutant that sports a cowboy hat, turquoise rings, and goofy-as-hell shades. Why.
Re-dos are at least interesting, as they’re a tacit shared acknowledgment between the filmmakers and the audience that yeah, shit was getting pretty tired. Sometimes franchises don’t deserve second/fourth chances. Reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Bourne Legacy just lazily re-tread the stories they meant to replace. This is the equivalent of re-animating a corpse a la Weekend at Bernie’s or wiggling a dead mouse in front of your cat to make it seem alive.
The lone exception seems to be Transformers: Age of Extinction, the mindless fourth installment of Michael Bay’s robot franchise of explosions, explosions, top-boobs, and explosions that just up and threw away the characters and continuity from the first three movies and still made some serious bank.
Still, some re-dos stick the landing. Fast & Furious, the fourth installment of the improbably popular Fast series, isn’t one of the better movies of the bunch, but it did reunite the main characters from the original and set up the next three movies, some of the best action flicks of the past decade. Similarly, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (aka Ghotocol) had absolutely no business being as good as it was. Despite introducing a new character played by Jeremy Renner that was supposed to take over the spy series for Tom Cruise — because hey, what’s one beefy, short movie star from another — Ghotocol exceeded critical and financial expectations to become the most popular installment of the series.
The nostalgic four-quels tend to pull together details from each of the three previous categories into one sentimental mess, and are usually defined by the suspiciously long gaps of decades or more between them and the previous installments of the series. Like the continuations, they continue stories because they can. Like mockeries, they pale in comparison to the originals to such an extent that they become ironic or laughable. Like prequels or re-dos, they take an easy gamble at imagining their next stories in a much different context.
Stallone revisited one of his most iconic characters for a fourth movie, Rambo, 20 years after the third movie. The results were mixed. The actor more resembled a gigantic pile of walking leather than an action hero, but it was given a pass because it wasn’t completely atrocious and had some gnarly 950-cal. carnage. Even Steven Spielberg exhumed the Indiana Jones franchise for a fourth time, nearly two decades after the third installment, and put up a clunker that ranked with the worst of his career with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Its awfulness even spawned its own meme. These nostalgic entries didn’t add much to their previous popularity, but they also didn’t subtract from them either.
Most of the time these glorified vanity projects produce middling results, but the recent success of director George Miller’s fourth Mad Max movie, Fury Road, one of the baddest-ass accomplishments in this or any other decade, could portend more throwback franchises.
Fury Road succeeded largely because it respected its audience, assuming our familiarity with an established universe and then sprinting ahead, knowing we’d either keep up or die in the desert. Can Jurassic World likewise thrive on its merits rather than name recognition? Its dinos-run-wild-again action seems to fit all of the above categories. It continues the harebrained attempt for greedy capitalists to open a dinosaur amusement park; it has the chutzpah to try apologizing for the unloved sequels by not giving a shit about certain continuity details; and it’s straining to hark back to Spielberg’s original, to a degree that approaches parody.
Like the doltish visitors who return to a park where you have a very good chance of being torn apart by genetically modified dinosaurs, America will trudge back to the theater for more. And if Jurassic World doesn’t screw up its lineage, despite its inauspicious status as a fourth, we can likely expect a fifth.