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Looking Back At Back-To-Back

Posted By Brett Harrison Davinger On November 16, 2011 @ 8:29 pm In Movies,Movies & TV | 25 Comments

Even the posters for this series all look the same.

This week, we are “treated” to Bill Condon’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, with the simultaneously filmed second one coming out next year. The conclusion of this “epic” series had to be split into two parts for some reason (money), despite the second two movies being essentially the same (and not really offering much in the way of plot development from the first one). From what I’ve read [1], the only notable things to occur in the final installment are C-section-by-vampire and the werewolf turning into a pedophile, which probably doesn’t require two films. At least Michael Sheen looks like he’s having fun.

However, Breaking Dawn is not the first set of movies filmed back-to-back. Although this cost-saving (and probably continuity beneficial) technique has become more popular in recent years, its “modern history” starts in the 1970s…

Superman: The Movie and Superman II (dirs. Richard Donner, 1978 and Richard Lester, 1980)

Although different directors are credited for the two films, it is well established that Richard Donner filmed the majority (allegedly between 75 and more than 80 percent) of Superman II while making Superman: The Movie. However, during the shooting process Donner ran afoul of the producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who fired him shortly after as he finish the first one; Lester was brought in to complete the second. When Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) spoke out against the way Donner was treated, she was practically ousted from the catastrophic third film (and replaced by Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang) but brought back for the even more catastrophic fourth one (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a film that shames even Jon Cryer). Lester exclusively directed Superman III, which primarily consisted of the slapsticky moments that detracted from the overall quality Superman II. As for the failed comedic moments of Superman: The Movie, Donner somehow gets a pass.

From some accounts, the two Superman movies were to lead into one another. Jor-El’s warning to his son that he shouldn’t mess with human development actually becomes relevant as Kal-El throwing one of Luthor’s missiles into space frees Zod and his army from the Phantom Zone to serve as a cliffhanger ending for the first film. Also in the original plan, Superman doing the Earth-spinning time travel thing doesn’t occur until the conclusion of the second film. However, the way it occurs now (Clark musters the strength to turn back time from sheer emotion) plays better, as spinning back time after a major battle makes it seem like just another everyday power in his arsenal. Whether reversing time to prevent Lois from remembering his secret does a greater disservice to the female lead than the roofie date rape kiss is debatable.

The myth of the “Donner cut” grew in the 25 years since Superman II was first released. People disappointed in the second film believed that what Richard Donner had in mind would fix some of the original sequel’s flaws. In 2006, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut came out on DVD and…it’s probably not as good as the original. In particular, he brings back the spin-around-the-earth time travel meaning that Superman does it twice in the two movies, and now it seems that Superman only used it because he didn’t want to clean up the mess from the Zod fight. Then Clark goes and kicks a guy’s ass for no reason.

Even with the rash of comic book movies over the past decade, the legacy of the Superman films remains important. The first two movies are still heralded as classics of the genre with Christopher Reeve and Terence Stamp as General Zod receiving particular attention. The John Williams score, certain images, and this “ideal” of Superman have been cribbed by Smallville, Superman Returns, and even Green Lantern to varying degrees of failure.

Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1989 and 1990)

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” is one hell of a closing line. It’s probably one of the best set-ups for a sequel ever and a great way to end a universally enjoyable movie. Realizing that they needed to follow up the 1985 film, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Bob Gale, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and the rest of the gang (minus Crispin Glover and the original Jennifer) decided to make the BTTF saga into a trilogy. Moreover, they filmed the second and third movies together thus allowing the second one to conclude with a trailer for the third one.

Did BTTF II live up to the potential of the original? No. For a guy so concerned with affecting the time stream, Doc Brown really shouldn’t have let Marty’s son being arrested for juvenile delinquency warrant bringing Marty or Jennifer into 2015 with him. Sure, it sucks that the McFlys sucked as parents, but it’s not like Marty Jr. was a terrorist. And even if he was… Though I guess after reading the 1955 letter warning about his impending death, all bets were off.

Nonetheless, BTTF II is still a fun movie and memorable enough that Nike released a special edition 2015 Marty McFly sneaker. Gray’s Sports Almanac, hover boards, 1985’s King Biff, the 1980s Cafe, and a return to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance gave the sequel the feeling of a genuine continuation of the first film. Additionally, because II and III were filmed back to back, the filmmakers were able to foreshadow some of the events of the third film- Marty’s skills at gunfighting, Doc Brown wanting to see the Wild West, A Fistful of Dollars, Mad Dog Tannen, Biff as an unrepentant murderer, etc.

Mary Steenburgen does not deserve to be on the poster. Biff or Lorraine has far more claim to that position.

Unfortunately, BTTF III was a major disappointment. Maybe it was a decent wild west action comedy, but gone was the spark of the previous two Back to the Futures. Trapping Doc and Marty in the Old West takes away from the central concept of the movie, that being time travel. They travel through time; they don’t get stuck in one place- that was the point of Mr. Fusion. Also, when where you are (1880s) is so far away and has such little connection to where you should be (1980s), the actual impact of your decisions lack weight.

Despite part 2 easily leading into part 3, part 3 barely seems to have a thematic connection to the first two installments. And giving Doc a love interest harmed the core relationship in the film, that of Doc and Marty. Even Marty’s girlfriend had to spend the majority of the second one unconscious and left in an alley like common street trash.

At the end, everything returns to normal in 1985, except it doesn’t turn back to normal. “Normal” would have been Marty living his crappy life with his meek father and depressed mother. Despite Doc’s warnings about the dangers of time travel or that we write our own destiny so time travel is pointless, Marty (and the McFlys) obtained serious financial gain from going back in time and repairing mistakes. Doc even got a flying, time traveling train out of the deal.

As an endnote, I know that people complain about no one mentioning Marty looking like the guy who was around in 1955. We’ve skipped 18 years of altered history, I’m sure it’s come up before. Probably behind Lorraine and George’s closed door. Where he calls her a whore.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)

One of the biggest undertakings in film history, Peter Jackson filmed all three Lord of the Rings movies together. Considering the massive problems that could have occurred if he had to wait to see the receipts on Fellowship before filming the second two movies, it was impressive that the studio agreed to finance the entirety of the (at one point thought) niche epic.

Showing his love for the craft and the books, Jackson managed to cater to numerous audiences- regular moviegoers, more selective moviegoers, Fanboys, dorks, and Tolkien fans. Did he make everyone happy? Of course not, but he created a rich, effect-laden universe of numerous plots and many characters that turned the series into a highly lucrative film franchise. Avatar could barely maintain a single plot, and the only two character names I remember from that are Jake Scully and Captain Nathaniel Taylor.

I should note here that I’m not even that big a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies (though
I’ve only seen them once and not even in the Extended Editions), but I respect what Jackson accomplished. I should mention here that Jackson is currently filming the LOTR prequel, The Hobbit, as two movies, back-to-back. It should also be noted that Cameron allegedly plans to film his two sequels to Avatar in the same fashion.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (dir. The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

Remember these guys? They…oh, who cares.

When it comes to disappointing follow-ups, the Star Wars prequels rule all. In second place, probably the Matrix movies.

Released six months apart, Reloaded and Revolutions gave the impression that the filmmakers forgot what made the original so popular in the first place, had a misguided view behind its success, or wanted nothing more to do with The Matrix so they torpedoed the franchise.

The latter might make the a lot of sense considering how the plot revolved around the FINAL battle between man and machine that took place in a world/city we’d never seen before populated by characters we couldn’t care about all fighting to their deaths. By the time the second movie started, Neo was apparently done with his end-of-first-movie quest of waking people up.

Nevertheless, destroying The Matrix‘s world wouldn’t be a problem if the movie didn’t make so many other mistakes. Its compulsion to throw in as many random elements as possible (orgasm cake, vampires, a rave scene), as though not to leave any conceptual stone unturned. Fight after fight between people who cannot harm one another and who lack any weaknesses. Endless battles consisting of faceless soldiers in a prototype Avatar MechWarrior armor suit pointing up, screaming, and shooting at mechanical squids. Philosophy no deeper than a freshman philosophy course.

He has a bunch of TVs showing stuff! Let’s freeze frame and see what we can pick out and…oh, who cares.

The biggest flaw with The Matrix sequels wasn’t that they were too deep for audiences, but that they weren’t deep enough. These movies, particularly the second one, tried their damnedest to feign complexity by having people talk in hushed or pompous tones or speak unsolvable riddles in a way that made it seem that only the truly brilliant could understand them; showing others respond to these wise men with wide-eyed, mind-opening awe; bringing back the spoon thing. Thankfully, very few seemed to buy into The Matrix‘s new clothes.

Luckily, the Wachowskis made up for these films with Speed Racer, a children’s movie about stock fraud which was worse than both Matrix sequels.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2006 and 2007)

These sequels to 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were also filmed back to back. I didn’t see either of them, but they deserve to be mentioned. I also didn’t see On Stranger Tides, and I cannot remember if I saw Black Pearl. However, Rango, 2011’s collaboration between the films’ star Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, is easily the best animated movie I’ve seen this year, both in content and design.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2 (dir. David Yates, 2010 and 2011)

This and last year featured another final book of a bestselling fantasy series split into two films. The 759-page tome known as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seemed to contain enough material to warrant being split. Although I’ve never read any of the Potter books, I remember people claiming that even earlier installments should have been divided into two movies. Yates concentrates on the characters in the first film and uses the second one to focus on the Battle of Hogwarts. It seemed to work, but I still felt the epilogue was tacked on and pointless. (And I do know that it appeared in the book itself.)

Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2003 and 2004)

Sometimes movies filmed together weren’t meant to be sequels at all, as is the case with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The two volumes were supposed to play as one movie, but the four-hour running time was deemed unsuitable for theaters, so it was split. Yet the division work, and each Kill Bill contains its own distinct tone. That the majority of the major action takes place in the first half with the second half serving as the more personal tale enriches the entire tale, and the two volumes simultaneously seem like two complete and one whole movie.

I know there’s been rumors of the “full” movie (Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair) receiving a DVD/Blu-Ray release with additional and excised scenes, but from what I’ve read, it’s only had very small, very special theatrical releases.

In 1989, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman also turned the singular sequel to his cult classic The Toxic Avenger into two films, The Toxic Avenger Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie. Coincidentally, Michael Jai White made his first on screen appearance in The Toxic Avenger Part II and appeared in a cut scene in Kill Bill: Volume 2.


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