Some sequels deserve every ounce of the scorn heaped on them: Caddyshack II, anyone? Maybe a little bit of Jaws IV: The Revenge? Those films are unsalvageable, the bastard children of successful movies that should have been taken out behind the barn and shot before they ever had a chance to be unleashed on an unprepared world.
But there are also those sequels that don’t truly deserve their foul reputations. Whether by comparison to a classic original or association with further bad sequels that followed, they’ve had their names dragged through the mud. Here’s 10 sequels that are, in reality, significantly better than popular opinion would suggest.
Expectations were set high after the unexpected success of the Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 original. Mass-released sci-fi films with that level of invention and gleeful wish-fulfillment weren’t common then, and they still aren’t common today. The second installment builds on the mythology the first film established with ambition, showing us a much wider world in the machine/human conflict. The scenes in Zion aren’t exactly a highlight, but they give a human face to the stakes in this war.
The criticisms leveled at the film were largely targeted at its conclusion, and especially the scene wherein Neo meets “The Architect.” These overly wordy exchanges look particularly bad today because we see them in context of the truly dreadful, exceedingly overambitious follow-up, The Matrix Revolutions, when the Wachowskis truly went off the deep end. But judged purely on its own, Reloaded is actually a great middle chapter. It sports fantastic, ground-breaking fight scenes and maybe the best chase/vehicular combat scene of the 2000s. It sets the stage for a truly epic conclusion that Revolutions completely failed to provide. Unfortunately, it gets lumped into the same pile as the third film for that reason, but The Matrix Reloaded, on its own, is a thrilling action/sci-fi picture.
Horror fans could be forgiven for believing there was no point in seeing The Exorcist III after the abomination of Exorcist II: The Heretic. It’s difficult to put into words how unpleasant to watch the second movie really is, and on a surface level, The Exorcist III is a bit of a tougher watch as well. However dour it may be, though, it’s also a very creepy, atmospheric horror film. Original author/director William Peter Blatty was back in the saddle, and despite some tampering by the studio/producers, he manages to craft an unnerving final product.
This film is actually an adaptation of Blatty’s novel, Legion, and was never meant to be given the “Exorcist” title. After the name-change, studio heads demanded the addition of an actual exorcism scene, and Blatty’s disgust at having his vision compromised is easy to see in the way that the priest is quickly dispatched. The “exorcism” ends up being inconsequential, but the inspired acting by the likes of George C. Scott and Brad Dourif remains. The film also features a few of the greatest jump scares ever, one after another. YouTube isn’t really the place to see this, when you know something is coming—imagine it in a theater, out of nowhere.
Yes, Kate Capshaw is incredibly annoying as Willie Scott, and no kind of match for the gruff, world-trotting Indy, but beyond her this movie has always held up. Perhaps Short Round doesn’t do it for you either, but can you imagine how much darker still the film would be without him? By far the most dire movie of the series, it’s buoyed by gorgeous set design and a classic sense of comic book pulp in the vein of Doc Savage. It’s got one of John Williams’ best scores, a scary villain in Mola Ram and some great action set-pieces. No, it’s not in the same tier as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s not nearly so far from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as some people would like to believe.
And by the way, if you didn’t realize—Temple of Doom is actually a prequel to Raiders. I find it amazing how many people don’t realize this, but if you’re wondering why Marion isn’t there and Indy hasn’t developed any faith from his experience with the Ark, that would be why. Temple of Doom takes place a year earlier.
Sofia Coppola is as bad an actress in this film as everyone has already pointed out, but mostly it just suffers in comparison to Part II, so often considered Coppola’s masterpiece. Things are more convoluted this time around, but it still features great performances from Pacino in particular, whose weathered take on Michael Corleone is appropriate, given the hell he has been through. He plays the role with the dignity of a man who has learned some terrible lessons since he was a kid who wanted no part of “the family business.” Over the years, some critics have absolutely demonized this film, but it’s still better than 90 percent of the two-bit crime movies that followed in the wake of The Godfather.
A bit of an overlooked film in George A. Romero’s original “of the dead” series, Day of the Dead isn’t despised, but it doesn’t get the praise it deserves, either. It has literally everything that makes one of these movies great, from characters to FX to a great setting. Dawn of the Dead is frequently cited as the best Romero film, but for my money, Day is where it’s at.
Taking place some number of months after the zombie plague effectively ends normal life on Earth, the film follows a team of scientists working in an underground bunker, studying ghouls and the zombie virus. Unfortunately, the soldiers meant to be their protection eventually become their de facto dictators, lording over the compound in a perfect case of absolute power corrupting absolutely. The practical FX take a huge jump up in this installment, and it features the amazing character of Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan, who is the first person to prove that a zombie in the Romero universe is capable of learning and/or remembering its past life. It’s not only a worthy sequel, it’s one of the best zombie films ever.
Alien 3 is such a perplexing film, a case where you can clearly see the outlines of a great movie buried under tons of reworking and studio meddling. The worst sin it commits is immediately killing off Newt, Hicks and Bishop, invalidating how hard those beloved characters fought to survive the events of Aliens. It’s a mistake, no doubt about it.
Visually, though, the film is often beautiful and unique to look at. The conception of the penal colony fits right in among the rusty, septic feeling of most spaceships in the Alien series, and immersing Ripley in this setting leads to some interesting themes of human predation as much as danger from aliens. The “Special Edition” released in the 2003 Alien Quadrilogy is especially revelatory, featuring a version of the film that is nearly 30 minutes longer, with a significantly different plot. The alien isn’t even born from a dog in that version! It’s a cow! How weird is that? It’s a thoroughly different Alien 3 from whatever you’ve seen before.
Most of the arguments I made for The Matrix Reloaded also apply here. Dead Man’s Chest was an ambitious expansion of the premise of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, opening up the scope of the world and introducing some threatening new maritime powers. Chief among them is Davy Jones, a fabulous character played with aplomb by the wonderful Bill Nighy. The first Pirates has a lot of goodwill in our memories that is largely unearned, and if you go back and watch it today you’ll likely find it more “kiddie” than you remember, particularly in its heavily pun-based humor. Dead Man’s Chest, on the other hand, bumped up the maturity factor and gothic beauty.
Unfortunately, as with the Matrix series, our memories of the second installment have been poisoned by a horrific third movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which was a bloated disaster. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of Dead Man’s Chest, however. In fact, to me this is The Empire Strikes Back of the series, a film that raises the stakes and sets the stage perfectly for an epic conclusion. Unfortunately, that conclusion never happened.
It’s a fair question to ask if a filmmaker has a responsibility to his audience to duplicate his earlier work when creating a sequel. Joe Dante would almost certainly say, “Hell no,” because when he set out to make a sequel to his unexpected smash hit, Gremlins, he had an entirely different idea in mind than he did the first time around. Here, he minimizes the horror and violence of the first installment in favor of humor and a pointed critique of corporate America. The film is like a big love letter from Dante to every movie that’s ever influenced him, a series of goofy, light-hearted parodies of everything from the Looney Tunes to Marathon Man. Audiences weren’t prepared for it, didn’t get it, and walked out on it, but Joe Dante knew what he was doing.
Commonly considered the worst of the Back to the Future trilogy, I’d strongly consider the possibility that Part III is actually better than Part II. Reining things in from the time-jumping craziness of the second movie, Part III offers significantly more character development for everyone’s favorite character, Dr. Emmett Brown. It’s a film more strongly centered around its characters and less around the concept of time travel itself, and it doesn’t revel quite so much in “Oh god, it’s my past/future self.” Instead, it lets Doc and Marty just react and have a more simplistic, fun adventure. It’s more sweet-natured than the depressing second installment, reinvigorates the timeless “Biff” as an adversary and ends with a perfectly silly stinger that implies Doc is willing to travel through time simply to pick up his dog from home.
This is the poster child of all underappreciated sequels. The main knock on it is totally valid—that at its heart, Ghostbusters II is basically just the same film as Ghostbusters. The similarities in characterization and plot are undeniable. But guess what? Ghostbusters is one of the greatest comedies of all time, so even when its actors are simply imitating its first installment, the results are still pretty darn good. Even when they’re piloting the Statue of Liberty with a video game controller.
There’s so much other great stuff, though—ghostbusters on trial! Bill Murray ad-libs! The amazing and underappreciated comedic performance of Peter MacNicol as Dr. Janosz Poha! As he once so sagely observed, your criticisms of Ghostbusters II “ARE LIKE THE BUZZING OF FLIES!” to director Ivan Reitman.
Jim Vorel is a Central Illinois-based entertainment reporter and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.