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The Fourth Wall

A Film and Television Blog

The Weekly Listicle: Franchises that REALLY should have quit while they were ahead!

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September 10th, 2010 at 9:24 am

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First, there was the Resident Evil video game. The people were satisfied with their zombie killing and conspiracy theories and gorgeous zombie-killing dames, oh yes. Then Milla Jovovich, who had already dive-bombed her way into geek hearts (and other organs) as flame-haired Leeloo in The Fifth Element, tackled the role of Alice in the Resident Evil film. The geeks were still fairly happy. A combination of good effects, the Umbrella Corporation’s all-too-plausible conspiracy, and hot women seemed to keep everyone on an even keel.

Resident Evil: Afterlife poster

And the series played on…

This weekend, Screen Gems is releasing the fourth Resident Evil film. The first two were enjoyable. The third was terrible. I can’t imagine the fourth will be much more than fun effects, and on top of that it’s taking advantage of every studio’s favorite cash cow, 3D. I’ll be there with an open mind (promise!) to see how the movie fares.

But we here at The Fourth Wall have some strong opinions on those movies that killed their respective (often great) franchises. The horror and action genres are the usual suspects in the heinous crime of tapping a delicious keg and then making us pay for the disgusting foam, but we’ve found some unlikely culprits in the mix. Join William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and me (Julia Rhodes!) for this edition of The Weekly Listicle as we lament Hollywood’s ability to take a good thing and make you want to bang your head against the ticket counter.

Julia’s Picks:

The Saw franchise (7 movies, 2004-present)

Cary Elwes in Saw

Yes, Cary Elwes, cell phone addiction is a very real problem…

James Wan’s Saw is actually a smart, tense, indie horror flick. It features brutal kills, good scares, and a genuinely spooky villain in Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). In Saw, two men awaken to find themselves trapped in a terrible underground prison, and struggle through the tautly edited film to find out how they got there and how to escape. In this first film, heroin addict Amanda (Shawnee Smith) survives a reverse bear trap “game”—that would have ripped her head in two—by cutting open another victim to retrieve a key. Other victims endure similar torture and don’t often make it out alive. Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II features a group of shady people in an enormous, booby-trapped mansion and pitted against one another Cube-style. In the second film, Amanda gets tossed into a pit of hypodermic needles—something to give nearly anyone nightmares, but particularly those of us who fear pokey metal things. Another character reaches into a pair of traps that cut off her hands when she tries to extract them. Saw II isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either. The deaths are nothing short of memorable, as in the case of the Final Destination movies—yet another franchise that probably should’ve ended, but that’s for another article.

Saw 2

The games continue…and continue…

In the first three Saw films Jigsaw is a cancer survivor who feels a certain subset of people should die because they don’t value their lives enough. Ostensibly he’s setting people up to kill themselves due to their own depravity; a serial killer playing God is not a new thing in horror movies, and weak people get absorbed by the ones who play God, so when Amanda becomes Jigsaw’s accomplice and apprentice it’s not a surprise. But after they both die, things get pretty old pretty quickly. While the first film scored a decent cast featuring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, and Monica Potter, the second movie had the likes of Donnie Wahlberg and “Seventh Heaven”’s Beverley Mitchell. After that, it just goes downhill.

I mean, really, enough already. We’re on the sixth movie in a short six years. Someone decided the first couple movies, which always released around Halloween, made enough cash that the series should go on…and on…and on. After the third movie, they’ve gotten stupid. This year marks the release of Saw 3D, which surprises absolutely no one. What? The creators of a cash cow series that should’ve ended five years ago are banking on the horribly overrated 3D trend? You don’t say.

The Land Before Time franchise (13 movies, 1988 – present)

Littlefoot and Mom in The Land Before Time

Irresistibly adorable: Littlefoot and Mama in The Land Before Time.

Don Bluth’s striking cel animation adds an element of surreal beauty to even the kiddiest of stories. An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Secret of NIMH, and The Land Before Time are some of the best animated movies outside the Disney sphere. The Land Before Time follows baby Brachiosaur Littlefoot, who loses his mother to the Big Earth Shake. He sets out on a journey with a group of other baby dinosaurs to find the Great Valley, a lushly verdant land of water and trees that is a nearly mythological contrast to the arid deserts across which the dinosaurs trek. The movie is melodramatic, overly adorable, and ridiculously endearing. Its quirky characters, beautiful animation, and lively story have made it a favorite of both adults and kids.

Land Before Time The Wisdom of Friends

What are those things? And it’s been 20 years, hasn’t Littlefoot grown into Bigfoot yet? (Wait a minute…)

In the early 2000s I went to work in corporate video rental stores for five years, and was flabbergasted by the five sequels already on the kids’ section shelves. Then the franchise started up again in 2001, releasing six (count ‘em, six) more movies. To this day, there are thirteen Land Before Time movies—and all but one went straight to video. Oh, and don’t forget the short-lived TV series. Bluth tapped into an untold resource: kids love dinosaurs (and let’s face it, so do adults); kids love singing; grownups love those movies they can use to teach their kids “valuable lessons” about “great giving” and “the wisdom of friends.” Someone recognized these themes in the original film and ran with them. Enough is enough. Why couldn’t the studios just let an adorable sleeping brachiosaur lie?

The Star Wars prequels (6 movies total, prequels: 1999, 2002, 2005)

Star Wars

Star Wars: a G-D cultural phenomenon, and for good reason.

The first three Star Wars movies made George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher household names in the late 70s/early 80s. They were, in fact, a gosh-darned cultural phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who isn’t at least peripherally aware of the films—and a very precious few who haven’t seen them at all. (Those who haven’t are usually the kind of kids you meet who think their tastes are better than that deemed likeable by “mainstream society” or who have just avoided watching the films to be different.)

The Phantom Menace

Even Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor couldn’t save it: The Phantom Menace.

Cut to twenty years later: Lucas releases the fourth movie in the series, but calls it Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Firstly, this is wholly confusing. Secondly, holy balls, was it a terrible movie. Jar-Jar Binks is universally acknowledged to be one of the worst characters in film history. Jake Lloyd, playing Anakin Skywalker (who would eventually become the original films’ arch nemesis Darth Vader) is completely devoid of personality. Even with the addition of Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson, the movies are still awful. The special effects are better; there were massively enormous technological advances between the 70s and the 90s. And don’t get me wrong: I was there in theaters, sometimes at midnight, to see these movies. Like I said, they were a straight-up cultural phenomenon, especially among the geek subset. The second prequel was almost worse—Hayden Christiansen’s pretty face and substandard acting skills can’t carry the role of tortured Jedi Anakin. The coolest character by far is Yoda, who much-less-impressive-is when created by a computer, as opposed to his original Frank Oz rendering.

Jar Jar Binks

Is there a more offensive, obnoxious film character? Probably not.

A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are pure, pleasurable science fiction cut with incredible special effects, overacting, and one-liners to make you grin. But anyone with a brain can admit the prequels were dreadful, and Lucas should’ve quit after Episode VI (which was of course released in 1983). Maybe I have no heart, or maybe I was built for the critics’ box, but in the last scene of the final prequel (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) when a newly robotically enhanced and super evil Darth Vader awakens and yells “NOOOOOOO!” I couldn’t stop laughing. I love you, George Lucas, but you should’ve quit while you were ahead.

The Joel Schumacher Batman movies (2 movies, Batman Forever, 1995, Batman and Robin, 1997)

Batman Forever

Just…no.

Hot Topic staple (I kid, he’s one of my favorite directors despite some recent misses) Tim Burton made the first two theatrical movies to revamp the old “Batman” TV series, first Batman in 1989 and then Batman Returns in 1992. Burton’s dreamlike, almost neo-noir sensibilities and tendency toward grotesque comedy made the first two Batman films totally pleasing. Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman is arguably a better choice than Christian Bale, who plays a damn good Bruce Wayne but a really silly, gravelly-voiced Batman. Jack Nicholson at his spookily overacted best is a perfect Joker; Danny Devito’s shape and size make absolute sense for the Penguin; Michelle Pfeiffer can purr at us all she wants as Selena Kyle/Catwoman (Halle Berry should never have had this role). Long story short, Burton knew exactly what he was doing, and he did that series right.

Batman Returns

Burton with Keaton and Pfeiffer.

Enter Joel Schumacher, for whom I have a deeply seated admiration (the man made The Lost Boys and the new Phantom of the Opera). Mr. Schumacher cast Val Kilmer in Keaton’s place for Batman Forever in 1995, and that in itself was a horrid mistake. Then he brought Jim Carrey on as the Riddler, which may have seemed like a good idea at the time—but Carrey’s best when he’s doing drama. Add in Tommy Lee Jones and Nicole Kidman and you have an A-list cast with absolutely nothing to work with. The film ended up being a Technicolor disaster, without the self-deprecating humor, dark sensibility, or moral compass of the originals. For Batman and Robin in 1997, Schumacher cast George Clooney as Wayne/Batman. Clooney’s charm can get him out of almost any situation, but sorry, Intern George, you don’t get a pass for this one. Chris O’Donnell as Robin and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl just made the thing even worse.

Luckily for all of us, Christopher Nolan rebooted the series again in such a way that his versions aren’t even comic book movies. They’re wonderfully tense action-dramas that just happen to feature a self-made antihero of sorts. I’m a huge fan of the Burton and Nolan Batmans. Let’s just forget the Schumacher ones ever happened, shall we?

DAN’S PICKS:

The Indiana Jones series (5 movies, 1981 to present)

With the invention of Indiana Jones, Hollywood pals Lucas and Spielberg gave the world a unique gift. Harrison Ford’s globe-trotting archaeologist was an adventure hero the likes of which this generation had never seen. He was an artifact of the pulpy novels and serials popular in the 1930s, brought to life in the 80s with a modern sensibility and wit. The Indiana Jones pictures were meant to be thrilling, over-the-top, and above all, lots of fun.

Harrison Ford Indiana Jones

The opening sequence of Raiders promises great adventure and plenty of it.

So began Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Not only did Indy brave the wild places of the world to unlock its deepest questions, but he found himself constantly battling and thwarting those bad ol’ Nazis, who were always after historic relics for occult military applications. And what a brilliant move by the writers. Nazis are the perfect villain to drive a period adventure piece, and for once they found themselves outside a war movie. It was innovative and fairly plausible, not that it needed to be for the purposes of the story.

Things got even crazier in The Temple Of Doom. Indy found himself in the bowels of a dark temple of a Thuggee cult, whose blood rituals to Kali mean big trouble for careless interlopers. It’s very spooky, a little gross, and chock full of high-speed action and ghoulish atmosphere.

The Last Crusade, the third and presumably final film – until recently – introduced the memorable character of Indy’s dad, Dr. Jones Senior (Sean Connery, having the time of his life). It’s another fun outing with the Third Reich, this time chasing the Holy Grail(ha!). Though this film keeps the pace up and has achieved lasting popularity, it is notably thinner of plot than its predecessors, and feels a little recycled. It does not hold up so well against Raiders, but fans were presumably forgiving when it looked like there would be no more Indiana Jones.

Part of the fun of Indiana Jones is the lurking supernatural element. At some point Indy always realizes he may be tangling with grave supernatural forces, usually bare seconds before some foolish villain unleashes them on all present.

So what’s up with The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull? In 2008, fans were absolutely crazy with anticipation of the long-rumored return of their hero. And what happened? Lucas and Spielberg completely tossed the universe they had built out the window. I won’t give away the Big Secret of this film, but it doesn’t remotely stand up to the wrath of God or the bloodlust of Kali. The plot is a swampy mess, and half the characters are present only as baggaged to make Indy’s travels difficult.

”Harrison Ford Indiana Jones

You know, boy, in my day we didn’t have none of these fancy flash-lights and atom bombs.

Having to battle Nazis with your stodgy old dad in tow is funny… once… but racing Cold War Russians (NOT suitably menacing in this day and age) while dragging around your family and a host of other underwritten allies is simply not Indy’s style. Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and a rather matronly Karen Allen are all in attendance, and none is given material up to their potential.

In keeping with the Star Wars fiasco, Lucas’s chief concern seems to be making snarky references to the previous films for the benefit of his geekiest fans. Even they must hunger for something more substantial.

Lest I overlook the whole Young Indiana Jones phenomenon… well, it really was its own separate franchise. The television series enjoyed all-or-nothing popularity with fans of the films. Some ignored it almost completely, but compared to Crystal Skull it was a rather inoffensive spinoff, of no great consequence to a debate over the film series. Fans of Young Indy, please chime in with your thoughts for our collective edification. I limit my comments to the things I know well. There is enough betrayal and disappointment in Crystal Skull alone to justify the wish that The Last Crusade had been exactly that.

The Hellraiser films (9+ movies, 1987 to present)

”Hellraiser

Uncle Frank Cotton begins Hellraiser with a little ill-advised summoning

Clive Barker’s florid, exotic style made an interesting mark on movie history with the arrival of Hellraiser, directed by the author from his book The Hellbound Heart. Though most famous for its primary monster – master demon Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – the Hellraiser franchise is, at its roots, no mere slasher but a somber morality play about the dark lines people will cross in the pursuit pleasure and desire.

Frank and Julia are illicit lovers who allow neither death nor damnation to stand in the way of their union. When Frank goes AWOL from eternal torment and enlists Julia to make blood sacrifices for his resurrection, she gamely gives it a try. Only then do the Cenobites – a clan of grotesquely mutilated demons – arrive, looking for Frank and all who shelter him from his just reward. You see, he fooled around with a mysterious puzzle box, whose sole purpose was to deliver twisted pleasure-seekers into eons of outlandish depravity and torture. Enter their niece Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence), a good-hearted soul who just wants to keep her family together. Bad idea.

For the length of the original Hellraiser and its first sequel, Hellbound, the ups and downs of Frank, Julia, and Kirsty in and out of various dimensions make for a pretty compelling horror tale. Then the puzzle box begins turning up at random for any average joe with a wicked streak to find, exploit, and plumb the depths of the human soul with. The third film, Hell On Earth, has its high points, but is definitely the product of an idea in decline.

YouTube Preview Image

A pretty good trailer for a pretty good sequel. After Hellbound the downward slide began.

From then on the films went straight to video, and the fourth film, Bloodline, is even credited to Alan Smithee, a Hollywood inside term for a film whose director has disowned it. That should tell you plenty. It is rare for movies of this kind to survive even a second installment, and the continued attempts to cash in bespeak the popularity and influence of the original. However, enough is enough. In fact, enough was enough a long time ago.

”Ashley Laurence

”I won’t let you make any more! I won’t!” says Kirsty Cotton. If only…

The only other really watchable film in the series of eight-and-counting is number six, Hellseeker, which is more of an artsy mystery film than its siblings. Still, don’t even bother if you’re not into the first two films, and possibly the third as well. The Hellraiser films held on longer than most long-running horror series, but in the end they could not escape the dreadful sludge of multiple-sequel syndrome.

The Hannibal Lecter story (5 movies, 1986 to present)

”Anthony Hopkins Lecter

The Doctor is in. And yes, he can still get you from in there.

For purposes of clarity, this analysis is aimed at the franchise built around the Anthony Hopkins interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. This skips Michael Mann’s 198* film Manhunter, a fairly loose adaptation of the book Red Dragon. The movie is a free-standing piece, entertaining but not outstanding, and most notable for the unsung original portrayal of the cannibal doctor by fabulous character actor Brian Cox.

In Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs, Hopkins burned the Lecter character into the annals of film history. Seldom, if ever, has a leading player made so much hair stand on end. The movie won five Academy Awards, and rightly so. It had a great script, a skilled director, and an outstanding set of performances by Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, and Ted Levine.

The original two Hannibal Lecter stories play out as fantastic suspense thrillers. Lecter, an incarcerated psychopath aiding a criminal investigation, would be a minor player in each plot, but for his ability to infect those around him with fears and doubts that plague them in everyday life. Secured as he is to prevent violent attacks, Lecter always gives you the feeling that, if he wants to, he will get you somehow anyway. If he can’t get his hands on you now, he will get inside your head and stay there until your own carelessness puts you in his grasp.

Some years after The Silence Of The Lambs, a passable remake of Red Dragon came out featuring Hopkins, but even though it was more faithful to the superbly scary book than Manhunter was, it felt like a recycled Hopkins vehicle which featured him more prominently than the plot required.

”Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter

Hannibal “I’ve Got a Movie Named After Me Now!” Lecter on the loose. Actually much less scary.

The real disaster struck when author Thomas Harris penned a sequel to Lambs which expanded the ambiguous romantic undercurrent between Lecter and Agent Starling into a full-blown and nauseating waste of time. The book and subsequent film play like extremely bad fan fiction, adapted by an author from his own work. How sad is that? Briefly, Hannibal’s frightening power was his nearly supernatural ability to victimize people while locked behind bars. Once you set him loose to walk the streets, what do you think is going to happen? The character’s mystique goes up in smoke before Lecter has enjoyed two minutes of freedom. Now he’s just an ordinary killer in a gross and stupid film. The prequel which followed, Hannibal Rising, is hardly worth mentioning, except to say that it further undermines the character by weaving a clumsy but highly improbable history around the roots of his madness. None of it makes any sense or is worth a dime.

Ultimately, shame on Harris for letting money and success go to his head. The stories of Hannibal and Hannibal Risingare so poor and distasteful that they could only have been written for the purpose of hasty adaptation and filming. It is a skillful writer indeed who can invest such a monster with uncanny charm. But once you ennoble and humanize him, he loses his power as a monster and becomes a badly written character. The latest two chapters of the saga insult the intelligence of readers and movie watchers everywhere.

Gaspard Ulliel Hannibal Lecter

Later, in a Burmese boarding school, young Bruce Wayne learns he is in fact Luke Skywalker’s daughter. Or something.

Harris and his producers would have done well to remember that whatever compelling role Lecter may play in the first two stories, he is still a dangerous, antagonistic character. Nowadays no one, least of all the modern storyteller, seems to believe that human beings are capable of being just plain evil for its own sake. Horror films have suffered especially from the trend of investing villains and monsters with all manner of quasi-Freudian motives for the wicked things they do. And when your monster becomes a victim, no one will be afraid of him. Congratulations, your story is now garbage. It happened to Halloween, it happened to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it happened to Hannibal Lecter in spades. No more, we beg of you. No more.

WILLIAM’S PICKS:

The Living Dead franchise (9+ movies, 1968-2010)

Night of the Living Dead

The original Night of the Living Dead. Still a classic. You’ve gotta hand it to them.

How fitting that a franchise about the living dead refuses to die. George Romero invented the modern zombie myth with Night of the Living Dead, a classic horror film from 1968 that cobbled together bits and pieces of Cold War paranoia, siege movies and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to create something that at least felt new. The idea spread like wildfire and zombies have perhaps become the monster for the new millennium, representing an egomaniacal species’ greatest fear: That we could get knocked down to the bottom of the food chain, after spending all of human history desperately climbing to the top.

Curiously for a horror franchise, it took ten years for the first sequel to hit theaters. Many horror aficionados consider 1978’s Dawn of the Dead to be the best film in the series. I certainly don’t, but there’s no denying that it’s a grand film in its own right and in many respects the perfect kind of sequel, introducing new and compelling characters, raising the stakes of original and expanding upon the world created by the first film. In contrast, 1985’s frustrating Day of the Dead feels like a misfire, but an interesting one. Supposedly Romero’s budget got slashed at the last minute, forcing him to make severe changes to his original storyline, but intriguing concepts like Bub the increasingly self-aware zombie make it a worthy, if lesser entry.

Asia Argento

See? Sexy Asia Argento in a fetish outfit. Land of the Dead wasn’t so bad after all!

But for most horror fans there’s no denying that the series has past its prime, with other, distinctly Romero-less living dead films routinely surpassing the last few “proper” Living Dead films in quality. Some say the series jumped the shark with Land of the Dead, but that’s an unfair assessment in my eyes. Land of the Dead represents a shift in tone from the rest of the series, focusing on a conventionally post-apocalyptic world with more action-centric set pieces and a broader sense of humor, but it’s a well-made piece of big budget zombie entertainment. No, I officially lost interest around the same time that George Romero officially lost interest: When he made Diary of the Dead, the Living Dead movie that sacrificed strong characters and cutting social commentary for the sake of a gimmick. “Oh, isn’t that cute. They’re filming the zombie holocaust and putting it on the internet.” Well, it might have been cute if the characters weren’t written so badly that even the mildest attempts at cultural relevance are telegraphed to an insulting degree. And Romero’s conceit that this new zombie holocaust takes place in a reality without Romero’s zombie movies might seem humble, but it results in an unrecognizable universe full of characters who are the intellectual inferior of even the most generic audience member.

Diary of the Dead

Ah, the protagonists of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead! Who could forget the time they… Um… No, it’ll come to me…

This year’s Survival of the Dead was marginally better, but once identical twins start becoming your major plot twist you know it’s time to call it a day. Romero, you’re better than this. Monkey Shines, Creepshow, hell even Bruiser was superior to your last two zombie flicks. For the sake of audiences everywhere, stop doodling sketches for your hardcore fans and get back to your masterpieces. Please.

“The X-Files” franchise (9 seasons of TV and 2 films, 1993-2008)

Mulder and Scully

Ah, a young Mulder and Scully. I wonder if they’ll ever kiss?

“The X-Files” seemed like a brilliant idea at first, and maybe it was, but the most compelling elements of the franchise weren’t properly calibrated to maintain a consistent level of quality for 15 years. The skeptic can only realistically remain skeptical for so long, and the believer ceases to be the underdog when he’s proven right 9/10’s of the time over hundreds of episodes. The vast, unknowable conspiracy becomes less compelling the more the audience learn about it (particularly the part in which it doesn’t make any sense), so after a while the series fell back on increasingly gimmicky, though often exceptional “special” episodes aping Titanic or Frankenstein, while the teasers shifted focus away from the compelling high-concept monsters of the week and instead asked the question, week-in and week-out, of whether Mulder and Scully will finally kiss. They couldn’t, of course. That was the only card the franchise had left to play. Like “Twin Peaks” before it and “Heroes” afterwards, “The X-Files” was a cult hit that became too big for its britches. As a result, they all became pop culture’s bitches.

But that’s just the TV show. The series also became that rare television hit to release a feature film during the course of the series and it… was just okay. I mean, it was a conspiracy episode, and it had all the same problems as the typical “X-Files” conspiracy episode: It took itself so seriously that it wasn’t very fun. The series took a dive in quality afterward, although there were still some classic episodes in the making. When Duchovny finally left, supposedly out of money but sheer boredom may have been a factor as well, they trotted out new character after new character in an attempt to rekindle even the most basic chemistry between the leads, but alas poor Doggett was a joyless shill, and by the time Annabeth Gish reared her pretty head I – and most of America – had completely tuned out.

The X Files I Want to Believe

Ah, an older Mulder and Scully. I don’t give a sh** if they ever kissed.

Enough time had passed between the end of the franchise and the most recent movie installment, The X-Files: I Want To Believe that hope sprang up like a particularly tenacious weed. You knew it shouldn’t be there, that it was a bad idea to let it grow, but dang it, nothing kept it down. It was a standalone film, written and directed by series creator Chris Carter (with help from Frank Spotnitz). Carter had directed many of the better, zanier episodes of the series, but alas our weed got whacked when the danged thing finally came out and was duller than a dull bag of dull dull things. Of dullness. Honestly, I’m having trouble even remembering what it was about. Something about a pedophilic priest who’s psychic? That’s a filler episode, Chris. That’s not even a good filler episode. Where’s Fluke Boy? Where’s The Post-Modern Prometheus? Hell, we’d have settled for another “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas.” It seemed clear at last that the franchise was dead, and should have been for a long time, now that the creators are phoning in event films in an attempt to revive the franchise. Of course, the franchise died years prior. Did nobody tell Chris Carter? Or was it all some kind of massive conspiracy?

The Matrix franchise (3+ movies, 1999-2003)

Neo in The Matrix

Bullets, have you met Time? Time, Bullets?

So The Matrix was a pretty good film, if you’re into that sort of thing. Like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead it married some familiar ideas from disparate mediums – in this case hard science fiction, film noir aesthetics and Yuen Woo-Ping – and the result was something that felt newer than perhaps it was, but it was arguably the first intelligent, high-minded action film in years. Certainly the first successful one in then-recent memory. Audiences went nuts for it, and while I wasn’t the biggest fan, I was at least pleased that people were enjoying a movie with more than half a brain. And The Wachowski Brothers, who have yet to go back to the awe-inspiring level of their debut film Bound, were smart enough to leave room for sequels: Many elements of the Matrix-verse remained unexplored in the first film, and even the last shot implied dazzling action sequences to come and even hinted at the plot of the follow-up movie. And those follow-up movies were being filmed at the same time, decreasing the inevitably excruciating wait time between sequels and implying that The Wachowskis had one truly epic story to tell and were being given the room to do as they pleased.

And they all sucked.

The Matrix Reloaded

Seen it…!

It’s rare to see a franchise go so very wrong so very quickly (Chronicles of Riddick, I’m looking in your direction), and especially from such auspicious beginnings. One of the popular beliefs is that the low-budget origins of the first Matrix, which people sometimes forget was considered a B-Movie before its release, forced The Wachowski Brothers to be more creative than a larger, more forgiving budget would in the sequels. That could be a factor, but it’s only a small one. There’s just no denying that for all their clever ideas the wunderkind writer/directors just completely dropped the ball at the script stage. Neo was elevated too quickly to godhood, resulting in a series of action sequences whose conclusions were foregone before they could even go to bullet time. The crux of the story took place outside of the Matrix, meaning that the only part of the world audiences could associate with was relegated to an afterthought, while the actual world of Zion was a poorly executed mish-mash of Post-Apocalyptic ideas and Hot Topicalyptic rave sequences.

An entire world to play with, and even the crazy concept of computer viruses within The Matrix which could actually challenge Neo, and the best The Wachowskis could do was an orgasmic cake sequence, a couple of easily dispatched “ghosts” and a bunch of Agent Smiths (obviously tacked on as an afterthought due to his surprising popularity in the first film) wandering around with confusing motivations explained haphazardly in awkward, unconvincing exposition. There are a few too many intriguing concepts in the Matrix sequels to consider them a total wash, but they were a mistake from page one. What made the original Matrix so compelling was that it combined seemingly unconnected concepts with a solid structure (even if I do think the pacing lags in the middle). At some point while The Wachowskis were making their franchise, they forgot to make a movie, or for that matter even tell a cohesive story. In retrospect, our love of the original Matrix and its franchise possibilities seems pretty naïve.

“Why, oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” My thoughts exactly.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    I’m just going to say it – Hellraiser: Bloodlines isn’t nearly as bad as that Alan Smithee credit makes it sound. It’s not a great film, but then I never thought any of the Hellraisers were great films. Bloodlines may just be the last respectable entry in the franchise. Pretty ironic for a movie that gets absolutely no respect.

  • DeVore

    William, maybe I had my dumb-hat on while I watched it, but I liked “Chronicles of Riddick”. It was completely different from “Pitch Black”, and I thought that despite some problems with the script, it was still a blast. The visual design was interesting, and the prison planet seemed like the first truly alien planet I’ve seen in a sci-fi movie in recent memory.

    What’s your beef? Just curious.

  • http://www.fieldspointpictures.com Dan Fields

    Long as we’re lining up to confront William…
    Actually no. I confess to having seen Bloodline and Inferno only in scattered bursts. And I actually bought a copy of Hellseeker.

    For a little extra credit, I submit one big franchise we overlooked – Dirty Harry. I contend that Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, and the Enforcer all rock. Sudden Impact is mighty shaky, and the Dead Pool blows. Any advance on three of five?

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    Devore, it’s 3:30 in the morning so I might not be as lucid as I’d normally like, and frankly my problems with The Chronicles of Riddick are numerous and varied enough to necessitate an entire article of their own. Suffice it to say that I do not begrudge you any entertainment value you got from the film. The biggest fundamental problem with The Chronicles of Riddick is the way it mangles its own fictional universe as introduced to us in Pitch Black.

    Pitch Black, you may remember, was a small film that took place in a very practical science fiction universe. In a way, it was a lot like the original Star Wars movies: It felt lived in, plausible. Things broke down, planets rotated around the sun, characters were addicted to drugs. This was a human universe, and not just because there weren’t any aliens of human (or higher) intelligence, but because everything seemed flawed.

    In The Chronicles of Riddick that universe devolved into a Robert E. Howard-esque mishmash of science fantasy, negating the original film’s premise of taking place on the fringe of a world based in science fiction. I’m all for expanding on the concepts introduced in the original film – you’d kind of have to, since Pitch Black was so limited in scope – but The Chronicles of Riddick leaped into the supernatural and never looked back. What’s worse is that it brought some of the more compelling elements of Pitch Black with it. Riddick couldn’t just be a bastard with a tragic past who made amoral choices, he all of a sudden had to be the last of a special race of badasses, and for all intents and purposes a chosen one. They couldn’t even leave his eyes alone, instead retconning his plausible backstory into an unnecessary lie to justify why nobody else could have night vision. And why they hell couldn’t they have night vision? What would that have changed, exactly? You’re telling me you couldn’t afford the contact lenses? I’LL buy the contact lenses. These are the kind of poorly conceived revelations and bizarre shifts in tone and emphasis that brought the Star Wars prequels such derision, compared to their predecessors.

    Add in the awkward and unnecessary attempts to bring back characters from the first film, a rather uninspiring antagonist and an alien planet which seems kind of neat but strains credulity to me (They’re outrunning the rotation of the entire planet? And if it’s that damned hot shouldn’t it leave a residual effect on the thin sliver of the planet that ISN’T bathed in sunlight? And how the hell is this planet even inhabitable underneath the surface?), and you’ve lost me.

    The one thing I’ll give Chronicles of Riddick though, and the one thing I’ll gleefully compliment at any given moment, is Thandie Newton’s delightfully batshit, overly theatrical performance. It’s like nobody told her that The Chronicles of Riddick wasn’t written by Shakespeare. She gets the spirit award in my book.

  • TonyM

    Nolan’s Batman movies aren’t comic book movies? Lol??

  • http://calitreview.com Julia R

    TonyM-

    They are certainly not comic book movies in the same sense that the Burton or Schumacher ones were. Sure, they’re based on comic characters, but they don’t have the same fantasy tone as Burton’s or the jokey, alternate-universe setting of Schumacher’s. Nolan’s Batman films are action and drama to the extreme, and they take place in a cityscape that’s all too familiar to most Americans. As a genre, comic book films have their own tone–they’re often plainly escapist superhero movies. Nolan’s films are action packed nail-biters that take seemingly fantastic concepts and make them realistic. That’s what I meant by “not comic book movies.”

  • Marvin Arnold

    I think one franchise is sorely missing here: ERAGON. They should have quit BEFORE the first movie…

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