It has become the final rite of a director’s career: the decades later slumping home to the beloved film of their youth. In the past, directors would have contented themselves with speaking at a MOCA retrospective of the film, or perhaps talking to Premiere Magazine for an oral history. Later would come the Special Edition Re-releases. But as Hollywood’s definition of bankable properties has become narrower, sequels to the greats of film history are no longer considered sacrilege but smart marketing, and one after another, the lions of film all seem to be stepping through that door. But for almost all who have taken up the gauntlet, the belated sequel has not proven a triumphant return, but a quagmire from which their reputations emerge scarred and bloody as almost to a film, the follow-ups only serve to deflate impossible expectations and disappoint ardent fans.
Last month, Peter Jackson finished shooting his trip back to Middle Earth as The Hobbit wrapped principle photography a full nine years after the last Lord of the Rings film hit the screens. And then, apparently overcome with joy about being back on solid ground after his long hero’s journey through King Kong and Lovely Bones, he announced that now that he’s back, he’s here to stay - informing the world via his Facebook page that the Hobbit will be not one, but three films. A triology of prequels to a trilogy!
Jackson is just the latest example of a trend that has exploded since Francis Ford Coppola returned to the land of Corleones with Godfather 3 in 1990.
Once when the great directors were young and at their their creative peaks, they left the sets of their career-making blockbusters confident that the future held only more of the same. But after the downs and ups of long careers, more and more auteurs are crawling back to their early hits like the Prodigal Director come home.
For a director looking to for on steady ground, there is a lot to be said for returning to the scene of your greatest triumph. Particularly if you are coming off a string of flops later in your career, picking back up with those now beloved characters is a sure fire way to gin up a little excitement. The problem is however, with excitement comes sky-high expectations. If you are going to make a follow-up to one of the most beloved films of all time, the millions of fans whom have memorized every word of the film, who know it perhaps better than its own creator, come into the theater looking forward to another slice of the same cake.
Unfortunately, while inhabiting the same body, these are not the same directors they were when they made the original masterpieces. It took directors brimming with vitality and ideas to create these perfect films, beloved across generations. But no director, no human being, maintains that nuclear powered excitement forever and when they return to the hallowed ground, they come back perhaps wiser, but often with their creative killer instinct perceptibly dimmed.
Worse still in the interim since the original, the canonical directors have lived as Hollywood Directors, about the closest thing we have to royalty in our society. Decades being coddled, kissed up and catered to by the entertainment establishment will wipe away anyone’s memory of what it is to be a mere mortal, and even worse, of what it is to be a normal popcorn eating moviegoer. Too many of the belated follow-ups show the touch of less attuned to the world than the sensitive, fearless hands which guided the originals.
Here then are the recent spate of director returnees and how they fared on their voyages home:
George Lucas: The definitional catastrophic return. For 16 years, the original Star Wars trilogy sat at the very apex of film blockbusters and George Lucas reigned as Sci-fi’s God. By the end of The Phantom Menace’s crawl, all that was wiped away. Just a few hours with Jar Jar Binks in the updated but now incomprehensible Star Wars universe and Lucas became the geek universe’s most wanted man. Although the films with their dazzling effects made enormous amounts of money, Lucas’ alleged heresies against his creations would never be forgiven. A documentary film last year, The People Vs. George Lucas summed up the sense of betrayal his very name now invokes.
Francis Ford Coppola: When the legendary director returned to what were perhaps the most iconic characters in film history, he was not just messing with fanboys. The original two films were the only pair in history to earn two Best Picture Oscars for a single series. In the years since, their grandeur has only grown. Coppola meanwhile, returned to the Corleone nest off a string of box office flops including Tucker, Gardens of Stone and the Cotton Club. He thus took on what was seen as the most perfect of films at a time when his hand seemed most uncertain.
The production of Godfather III was instantly star-crossed. Paramount in need of material for a Christmas release gave Coppola and author Mario Puzo all of six weeks to write a script. Robert Duvall, whose Tom Hagen characters was one of the few cast members still standing at the end of Godfather 2, dropped out over salary disputes. Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder both backed out of parts, leaving Coppola to turn at the last minute to his own daughter Sofia to take on the role of Michael’s daughter. Sofia’s unsteady performance became the rallying point for lukewarm reviews. While critics were generally respectful of the master’s return, their disappointment in having to nitpick a Godfather film seethes through. Rotten Tomatoes records a 68 percent favorable rating, so-so for an ordinary film; damning with the faintest of praise for a film with the medium’s very highest pedigree.
Ridley Scott: For so long, a sure fire hit machine, Scott revisited Alien riding an almost unbroken decade long losing streak. When he announced he was returning to his spare, terrifying space thriller, expectations and excitement in the sci-fi community were instantly through the roof.
But when the curtain rose, Sir Ridley had created a world calculated to annoy purist fans of the original. Where Alien was stripped down and brutally tense, Prometheus was elaborate, airy and didactic. The film became one of the most debated of the year, with many confused by its landscape of open questions. In the end, Prometheus received marginally favorable reviews and did middling box office for a summer tentpole film. disastrous compared to the enormous expectations aroused. Next up: Scott plans to continue the nostalgia tour of his early career with a follow up to Blade Runner.
Steven Spielberg: It turns out the best way to quiet demands for a new episode is to make one. If ever a character was meant for unlimited sequels, it was Indiana Jones, Lucas and Speilberg’s modern update on the B-movie serial heroes of their youth. In the 19 years after the Last Crusade, hardly a season passed without a fresh rumor about a new Indy script in development. For nearly thirty years, Indy enthusiasm stayed at a fever pitch. And then at last, they made it.
In the end, Crystal Skull did just fine at the box office. Drawing upon the most cherished of action brands, it grossed ¾ of a billion worldwide before it was done. From the critics and fan community, however, the feelings were far more subdued. The visceral excitement of the Indiana Jones chases lost much of its pure adrenaline in the CGI universe as he raced cartoon ants. A convoluted script and absent chemistry between Ford and the series new star, Shia Labeouf, cast as Jones’ son, made what had been an experience of pure cinematic joy feel flat and tepid. The backlash was swift and severe with the ultimate verdict delivered in an episode of South Park depicting Spielberg and Lucas sexually assaulting their title character. Eventually, Spielberg himself felt obliged to publicly back away from the film, throwing Lucas directly under the bus as the man responsible for the weak script.
Wes Craven: How far to push a horror series is a question that has tried the minds of industry mavens since the dawn of Hollywood. 7, 15, 20 installments are not unheard of. So when Wes Craven walked away from his post-modern blockbuster Scream after a mere three episodes, he must have felt he was leaving the door open to milk a little more out of the Munch masked killers. His Nightmare on Elm Street series has inspired eight follow-ups and counting. Coming back to the series after 11 hitless years, however, Craven was very much in need of a hit. The public however, had moved on. Scream was never just a slasher film, but a commentary on slasher films and by the third go-around the public may well have felt that commentary had run its course Scream 4 earned a weak $38 million, about a third what the original took in.
Oliver Stone: After another Wall Street meltdown, the urge was irresistible to see how Gordon Gekko was responding to chicanery he could never have dreamed of in his heyday. But while the will was strong, the flesh proved weak. 23 years later, Gekko had lost much of the spring in his step and so, it seemed, had Stone. The meandering 2 hour and 17 minute film was lambasted by critics as preachy and unfocused. “A trite and pious lullaby” said EW. Iconic though he may have been, Gekko would not stand astride a second financial meltdown.
John Carpenter: Only modestly successful during its initial release, Escape from New York quickly gained a following in its afterlife and became a cult classic. Escape from LA, however, did not. Seven years later, few other than the die hard Snake Plissken devotees turned out. Escape from LA ultimately grossed the same 25 million in 1996 as New York did in 1981.
John Landis: During its release, the Blues Brothers rambunctious spirit captured the mayhem of the late 1970’s. Exactly 20 years later, with a grayer cast and crew, and John Goodman in for the anarchic John Belushi, the bedlam was gone and audiences responded to the the Brothers return with a yawn. The film earned a mere 36 % favorable from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a miserable $14 million at the top office, a tenth the take of its predecessor.
Sylvester Stallone: Remarkably, the one auteur who knew how to do a belated sequel right was the long-derided Stallone. Returning to his signature, Oscar-winning character 16 years after he had driven the franchise into the ground with four increasingly ludicrous sequels, Stallone surprised everyone by not trying to re-capture the spectacle of Rocky films past, but by making a small, intimate, elegaic piece about a once great destined to live in his own shadow. The low key film earned a very respectable $155 million worldwide and the praise of critics who seemed shocked to find themselves actually liking a Rocky film once again. He followed up on the other end of the spectrum with a return to Rambo, which delighted fans of the no-frills action series.
Despite the miserable track record, the train of re-visits will not end anytime soon. Not only are Jackson’s three Hobbit films in the works, along with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner 2, and he has hinted, follow ups to Prometheus, but in development: returns to Top Gun and Independence Day from their original makers. Auteurs beware!