With ‘It Chapter Two,’ ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ and ‘Maleficent,’ Hollywood’s sequel game gets creative
Studios call them re-imaginings, reboots, revamps — anything to prevent an upcoming movie from sounding like a dreaded rehash.
At a time when it’s increasingly difficult to attract Americans to movie theaters, even Hollywood sequels need to feel somewhat original to succeed. Forget the cynical cash grabs of old. If your sequel doesn’t have a compelling reason to exist — a “big idea,” as a studio executive might put it — good luck drawing crowds to the multiplex. That’s especially true for well-worn franchises like “Terminator” and “Rambo,” both of which have new installments coming soon to theaters.
After a sequel-heavy summer that ran the gamut from surefire hits (“Toy Story 4") to overachievers (“John Wick: Chapter 3") to massive flops (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “Men in Black: International”), the film business will unveil a varied fall lineup that will once again prove that not all sequels are equals. Studios are taking vastly different approaches to their follow-ups while still giving audiences what they liked before, including Pennywise the Dancing Clown, gory zombie slapstick and Angelina Jolie as a powerful yet sympathetic Disney villain.
Some, like “It Chapter Two,” are natural continuations. Others, such as “Rambo: Last Blood” and “Zombieland: Double Tap,” have taken more time, wrangling and false starts to get to the big screen. “Doctor Sleep,” meanwhile, may technically not be a sequel at all.
Here’s how the studio strategies compare.
“It Chapter Two” (Sept. 6)
It was a wise move by Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema to split Stephen King’s 1,200-page novel “It” into two movies. The first part, which focused on the kid versions of King’s characters, was a $700-million global hit, making it one of the biggest horror films ever. “It Chapter Two” is likely to open with a huge box office number.
Though New Line executives had always planned a second chapter to complete the story, they didn’t have a script going until the release of the first “It” in 2017. They had envisioned “Chapter One” as a horror movie blended with “Stand by Me,” while “Chapter Two” would be more like a King-ified “Big Chill.” The second chapter showcases the grown-up Losers Club, played by actors including Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, with a standout performance by Bill Hader.
The success of the first movie emboldened director Andy Muschietti and writer Gary Dauberman to take some major creative risks, executives said. The film is nearly three hours long and mimics King’s narrative techniques, toggling among the different timelines of the story. That approach allowed the filmmakers to take advantage of what worked best in the original hit, such as the interplay among the child actors.
“The audience’s reaction to the first movie, and how broadly it played, gave us a lot of confidence that ‘Chapter Two’ could justify a broader storytelling palate,” said New Line President and Chief Content Officer Carolyn Blackwood.
“Rambo: Last Blood” (Sept. 20)
In the time-honored Hollywood tradition of the epic sendoff, “Last Blood” promises Sylvester Stallone’s final explosive mission as former Green Beret John Rambo.
The action franchise that began in 1982 with “First Blood” had an attempted revival with 2008’s “Rambo,” produced by Millennium Films, which bought the rights. “Last Blood” went through fits and starts in development, and Stallone at one point suggested he was done with the character. Lionsgate will distribute the new picture, which pits its hero against a vicious Mexican cartel.
The 2015 “Rocky” sequel “Creed” proved audiences would still buy tickets for a reboot of a Stallone classic. But it remains to be seen whether the emotionally wounded vet Rambo has the staying power of the Italian Stallion and the filmmakers can bring a fitting end to the action saga that started in the Reagan era.
“I believe it will be a satisfying conclusion,” said Stallone, in a written statement. "[P]eople who have followed Rambo’s journey realize that, because of his demons, ‘peace on Earth’ is almost impossible for him to achieve. Hopefully, we will be with him every step of the way and will be satisfied — and surprised — by the conclusion.”
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” (Oct. 18)
When Disney released “Maleficent” in 2014, the Mouse House strategy of re-imagining its animated classics as CGI spectacles was still somewhat novel.
Not anymore. The follow-up, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” comes after Disney retooled much of its vault — including this year’s “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Dumbo” — grossing billions of dollars in the process.
And yet, “Maleficent” stands apart from the other Disney reboots, telling the “Sleeping Beauty” folktale from the point of view of Jolie’s dark fairy, who is more of a misunderstood outsider than the iconic cartoon villain.
In the new movie, Maleficent’s goddaughter Aurora accepts a marriage proposal from Prince Phillip, whose mother, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, vows to take the young woman in as her own. Maleficent is not pleased, and that tension forms the “emotional core” of the story, said director Joachim Rønning, who previously worked with Disney on another sequel, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The introduction of Pfeiffer’s formidable queen made for compelling toe-to-toe action on set, he said.
"[Pfeiffer] is one of the few actresses who can go up against Maleficent,” the Norwegian director said. “Those were some of my favorite days on set — to see Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer going at it in front of my camera.”
“Zombieland: Double Tap” (Oct. 18)
Immediately after “Zombieland” became a box office hit in 2009, director Ruben Fleischer and his team developed a sequel that was, in his words, “conceptually a little misguided.”
“We kind of said, ‘The first one was sort of lightning in a bottle,’” Fleischer said.
But a few years later, Fleischer revisited the idea of returning to the world of the horror-comedy. The new film endured a protracted development process. The original screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, initially weren’t available because they were working on “Deadpool.”
Eventually, it came together, with Jesse Eisenberg returning as the unlikely slayer of the undead, along with Woody Harrelson’s Twinkie-loving gunslinger and fellow survivors played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin.
“Double Tap” picks up a decade after the original, which gave the filmmakers an opportunity to imagine what a zombie-plagued world would look like after all that time, Fleischer said. Even the zombies have changed.
“We took the opportunity to expand our world a little bit,” he said. “There’s not that many people left, the zombies have evolved in their own right, and nature has started to take back the world.”
“Terminator: Dark Fate” (Nov. 1)
One approach to reviving a tired franchise is to pretend the worst sequels in the series never happened. Such was the tactic Universal Pictures and Blumhouse took with last year’s “Halloween.” And so it continues, in a way, with “Terminator: Dark Fate,” directed by Tim Miller.
“Dark Fate,” from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Media, uses the series’ time travel element to reset the clock and create a direct sequel to 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” thus eschewing other installments like 2015’s critically panned “Terminator Genisys.”
Miller, best known for the irreverent R-rated superhero movie “Deadpool,” harbors no illusions about the natural skepticism among fans.
“You can’t deny the announcement of a sixth film in a ‘Terminator’ series is a cause for saying, ‘Enough is enough; the well is dry,’” he said. “At the same time, every fan of the series has this small kernel of hope that maybe this will be good.”
Linda Hamilton, who’s now 62, returns to the series as Sarah Connor, joined by Mackenzie Davis, who plays a cyborg-human hybrid. Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role, and even Edward Furlong will return in some capacity. James Cameron, who created the series, was also critical to the making of the new movie, keeping Miller’s wildest ideas in check within the rules of the Terminator universe, as well as weighing in on the visuals.
“He’s the star around which we all orbit,” Miller said.
“Doctor Sleep” (Nov. 8)
Warner Bros.’ teaser trailer for “Doctor Sleep” features some well-known visuals from the Stanley Kubrick horror classic “The Shining,” such as Danny Torrance’s tricycle ride through the Overlook Hotel, the elevator of blood and the creepy twins.
And yet, the film is probably the least traditional follow-up of the bunch.
“Doctor Sleep,” based on King’s 2013 sequel to his beloved 1977 novel, stars Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Danny who still has his powers and is haunted by the memory of what happened at the Overlook. King, credited as an executive producer on “Doctor Sleep,” has long expressed his dislike of Kubrick’s film, which diverged widely from the book.
So, is “Doctor Sleep,” directed by Mike Flanagan (“The Haunting of Hill House”), a sequel to “The Shining?”
Not really, producer Trevor Macy said.
“We are embracing the canon of Stephen King, while honoring the cinematic language that Stanley Kubrick created,” Macy said. “We were really trying to thread the needle for fans.”
The filmmakers won the blessings of both King and the Kubrick estate to make a film that incorporated elements from both the books and the 1980 movie.
Marketing the movie has also posed a challenge.
“For us and Warner Bros., it was really important to communicate to the audience that this is its own thing,” Macy said. “But it has ancestors.”
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