You can get away with almost anything in Hollywood – from replacing an actor after a movie has already been made to pretending a bus can jump over a hundred-foot gap in a freeway. But there’s one thing that even the bravest soul should never try: making a sequel to a Steven Spielberg movie.
Regarded as the most commercially successful director in Hollywood history, Spielberg had made profitable movies in virtually every genre – from horror and sci-fi to romances, dramas and period pieces. But these movies tend to be such complete stories and so saturated with the master’s touch that trying to make a follow-up is a fool’s errand.
It’s clear that almost no other director has ever been able to make a sequel to a Spielberg flick that is worth the time of day. What’s even more interesting is that the legendary director himself has often faltered in this regard: Some of his own worst efforts have come in trying to recapture the magic that he himself created in the first place.
Below we outline those missteps.
Jaws pretty much invented the summer blockbuster and changed the way Hollywood thought about movies and profit. It was Spielberg’s breakout film. The first sequel, Jaws 2, came out two years later and for a long time had the distinction of being the only sequel to a Spielberg film that didn’t stink up the joint. Directed by Frenchman Jeannot Szwarc, with no participation by Spielberg in any way, Jaws 2 is an entertaining action and horror movie about a bunch of kids on wrecked sailboats getting swept out to the open ocean while a giant shark snacks on them.
Notably missing was Spielberg’s ability to create immediately engaging, three-dimensional characters – not to mention his talent at visual suspense. Along with the lightness of his touch – the best Spielberg movies are infused with his gentle, sly humor – it’s these things that other directors almost always struggle to replicate.
Two more sequels followed – Jaws 3D in 1983 and Jaws: The Revenge in 1987 – and managed to immediately jump the, ahem, shark, turning the series into little more than slasher flicks on the high seas. Watching them, it’s clear that the concept behind the original movie wasn’t what made it great or monumentally profitable. It was the Spielberg touch.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The talent involved in bringing Raiders of the Lost Ark to the screen was formidable. Based on a story idea by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, the film was written by Lawrence Kasdan, but it was Spielberg who welded everything together to create the highest-grossing movie of 1981 (which made nearly twice as much as the number-two earner On Golden Pond).
Perhaps the quintessential ’80s Spielberg film, Raiders combines a charismatic hero, a torrid love story, a boyhood adventure tone and a rousing defeat of the Nazis. Just like all of Spielberg’s non-sequel films, it tells a complete story. As the Ark of the Covenant disappears into a government warehouse in the final shot, it’s hard to imagine a sequel being made. This didn’t stop Hollywood, however, which pumped out three sequels: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – all directed by Spielberg.
While The Last Crusade managed to reinvigorate the franchise with the help of Sean Connery, the other two are among Spielberg’s worst efforts. Temple of Doom gives a clue as to the reasons, and also proves that even the master director isn’t immune to his own sequel curse. Raiders offered Spielberg a fresh sandbox to play in, giving him the chance to create a character and a world, and to tell a story that belongs in that world. But the sequels hemmed him in, forcing him to try to retell a tale he’d already told. Rather than develop the character of Indiana Jones, Temple finds him trying to put too much weight on gimmicks: a fast-talking sidekick, a new love story and bad guys who can’t quite match up to the evil of the Nazis in the first movie. At least part of Spielberg’s genius lies in the way he develops characters and rounds out story arcs; these sequels didn’t let him fully do that.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The third of Spielberg’s directorial efforts to be turned into a franchise, Jurassic Park was again the highest grossing picture of the year – more than doubling Ms. Doubtfire, which came in second, and almost tripling The Fugitive, itself a massive hit. Once again, it finds the director playing to his strengths: a story about a disrupted and then reconstructed surrogate family unit threatened by perfectly imagined monsters. It’s touching and terrifying, has a backbone of closely observed and carefully developed characters and relies on extraordinary filmic technique to create its action sequences.
And, exactly like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park‘s sequels have had a difficult time living up to the original. Spielberg himself directed the follow-up, The Lost World, in 1997, and the result feels a lot like The Temple of Doom. Despite a great cast, you can feel the director retreading rather than creating. And in the final act, when the dinosaurs make it to civilization, it feels more like a gag than an awe-inspiring turn of events.
Perhaps because of this, Spielberg turned over three other installments – Jurassic Park III (2001), Jurassic World (2015) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) – to other directors, although he remained at the top of the franchise as an executive producer. Of varying degrees of quality (Jurassic World is probably the best), the movies are entirely lacking in any of the magic that animates the best films Spielberg is associated with. Instead, they feel like the interchangeable franchise installments that dominate contemporary filmmaking. The big-name stars come and go, the directors have no distinctive voice and marketing nostalgia has replaced artistic vision. These are the sort of things Spielberg himself had in mind when he noted long ago that “making a sequel to anything is just a cheap carny trick.”
Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984)
Even though neither Poltergeist nor Gremlins was directed by Spielberg, they both bear the heavy imprint of his fingers. He produced the former and unofficially codirected with Tobe Hooper; he purchased the script for the latter and gave it to his old friend Joe Dante to direct while staying aboard as an executive producer. As a result, both films feel like Spielberg movies: They revolve around families beset by monsters, have an action-adventure feel, take place in exquisitely crafted worlds and demonstrate genuine storytelling skill.
And both movies resulted in sequels that almost immediately went off the rails. Poltergeist II (1986) is a disastrous affair that manages to look cheap, rely on bigoted stereotypes about Native Americans and be almost alarmingly unengaging. Like the Jaws sequels, Poltergeist III (1988) seems to strive to tear the heart out of the franchise, turning it into yet another slasher-flick knockoff. The 2015 remake feels like a dollar-making enterprise and little more.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) has its supporters, and in many ways may be the most interesting sequel associated with Spielberg. But absent the director’s guiding influence, Dante leaned into his campy side, creating a movie that serves as much a satire of its predecessor as it does as a true follow-up. On the flip side, the movie is far thinner than the original, enjoyable more because of its references than because of its content. And it earned less at the box office than it cost to make, as opposed to the original, which earned 20 times its budget in theaters.
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