Why Most Movie Sequels Aren’t as Good — Part Deux

So, where was I?

Oh, that’s right. I was about to address your concerns regarding why sometimes a movie sequel can be equal to, or in rare cases, better than, the original movie upon which it’s based.

I used for my example The Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day as a prime example of how a sequel can surpass the original (with a bigger budget and the right premise).

But you pointed out, helpfully, that the follow-ups on the success of T2 were horrid failures. And you’re right, they were. At least, from the standpoint of viewer satisfaction they were.

To their defense, both Terminator: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation seemed to succeed on some level. T3 made enough money to buy them time to produce T4, and with the bigger budget, special effects and yes, bigger stars, what could go wrong?

And yet, they did go wrong, didn’t they? They weren’t as good. Why?

Let’s check and make sure we have the ingredients the same as in T2:

  • A hero who has to survive to lead the resistance – check.
  • A set of characters we’re somewhat familiar with – check.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs base-level goal – check.
  • A terrifying, seemingly unstoppable cyborg from the future bent on humanity’s annihilation – check.

Um…okay, so whuhapp’n’d?

Missing Ingredient

Before we say “check” to everything, we’d better go back and see what’s what with the ingredient list.

It’s number three on the list which is the culprit here.

You blink at me. “But…we have exactly the same premise as in the first two movies. How can it not be the same here?”

I’ll tell you why – the producers and directors of the second movie didn’t do something new with that premise. They did the exact same thing as T2 did – a robot has been sent into the past to destroy John Connor before he can become the leader of the resistance.

So? What’s the problem?

In The Terminator, remember what I said – the ending was left open. The audience sees Sarah Connor riding off into the coming storm, uncertain where the future will go, how it will unfold, what will happen.

In T2, we see something much different. We have much better answers to the question “What will happen in the future?” Because the running theme is, “The future is not set,” nothing is definitive. Anything can happen. But let’s face it, and be very honest about facing it – that loop was basically closed off in T2 and inadequately reopened in subsequent movies.

This is the problem. The characters moved up the hierarchy in the first two movies. In the next two movies we see them trying to stay put on the hierarchy rather than trying to move up. (Getting up the hierarchy is what our lives are about, remember, at least in Maslow’s theory.)

So when Sarah and the gang moved up a rung on the hierarchy, that storyline is closed, fini, done. Time to move on. Time to leave well enough alone.

Ah, but Hollywood can’t do that, can they?

So T3’s approach was to reprise the role of the hero robot. You know, the one who killed John Connor in the future. Dun-dun-duuuuuuunnnn!

Doesn’t that put enough spin, enough uncertainty, enough newness into the plot? Huh? Doesn’t it? Huh? Huh?!

Suspension of Suspense

Nope, sorry. For one thing, we see that John Connor’s right here, right in front of us, going through the movie. We can see he’s okay, doing his thing, and he’s both the central character and the protagonist, so we know nothing’s likely to happen to him through the course of at least most of the film. Suspense killer number one: Check.

We also know his wife, the love interest in the movie, is the one who captures and reprograms the assassin robot to be a guardian, just like John Connor did in T2’s future. So we know the love interest will survive the film. Suspense killer number two: Check.

Because both of the suspense killers above are in place, we know the odds of success for the new girl robot (see here for the joke which NEVER ceases making my wife and me laugh) aren’t good. Suspense killer number three: Check.

So, why do we care about this movie? Oh, that’s right…we don’t.

We aren’t worried about our group of protagonists at all. We know the killer-turned-hero robot won’t survive the film – it’s basically the same movie as T2 after all, and he didn’t survive that one – so we don’t worry about him. The humor and nods to the earlier films didn’t work well. And there was no Sarah Connor to inject psychotic randomness into the movie, so we have a subplot with the love interest’s father, a computer virus destroying the Internet (*snicker*), and because things in the world really changed between 1991 and 2003 (when T2 and T3 were made, respectively), the shift had to be made from a hardware-based monster to a software-based one. Skynet, the evil, self-aware antagonist producing the killer robots, isn’t a robot after all. It’s a computer program.

Niiice. (No.)

We simply don’t have anything to care about. The special effects and the smokin’ hot blond “Terminatrix” are all we want to see. (She is running around in red leather, after all.) After that, the movie had nothin’.

But what about Terminator: Salvation? Didn’t it have The Dark Knight, Christian Bale, one of the hottest names in Hollywood, starring? Didn’t it have the biggest budget for special effects, the impact of Transformers driving the CGI, and a new premise?


Well, sure. Those things are all true, at least to some degree, for the franchise’s fourth, and God willing, final installment.

So, why didn’t it succeed?

Well, primarily because we violate the Maslow thing yet again, and we have a number of suspense killers in it. Again.

Killing the suspense is key to making a movie a failure. One of the reasons we go see a movie series, or read a book series, is because we like the characters, or we worry about the characters. Since we never really get to love John Connor in the long-term the way fans love Harry Potter and his friends or James Bond, there isn’t a continuity across the stories to endear the hero(es) to the audience in the Terminator series.

So, each film requires its own character building arc, making the character sympathetic to the audience. Somehow.

Did that happen in T4? What do you think?

Checklist? Again? Yep.

The suspense killers started with casting one of Hollywood’s biggest draws as the lead in the film. Think Christian Bale is going to be killed off, now that he’s firmly established as Batman, and one of the biggest action heroes in the biz? Suspense killer number one: Check.

What about the unset future thing? Isn’t that the premise the film takes on? Because the future’s not set, John Connor isn’t the leader of the resistance, isn’t saving humanity, and is facing a new set of machines and challenges he didn’t anticipate. “This is not the future my mother told me about,” the movie’s trailer says. So, why didn’t it work?

Because in addition to SK1 (Bale won’t die), we have an unsympathetic protagonist in John Connor. He’s already part of the resistance when the movie opens. We’re supposed to be disoriented by this because it shows it’s not the same future Sarah Connor prepared him for. But we also know the machines have already taken over by 2018 and are hard at work producing machines to eliminate their enemies. And because we’re not familiar with this universe, we have to have time to get into it. After all, we had three movies with something like the same universe before this one. So this is more like a reboot in a way.

Lack of story development. Suspense killer number two: Check.

Too much of a good thing is bad for you. And so, with a dystopian future getting more dystopian by the moment, we have a situation in which John Connor must find a way to kill Skynet. Sounds familiar. But he’s going to need help. And usually, that help comes from a robot turned good. So you know that convention is going to continue in this film, and sure enough, we have it. It’s Sam Worthington’s character in this movie.

Predictable. They didn’t even try to hide it. And that, my lovelies, is suspense killer number three: Check.

Three suspense killers, plus rehashing the same ol’ movement on the hierarchy? Yeah, a formula for failure despite big name actors, big special effects, and a sound byte of Christian Bale being one of the biggest a$$holes alive going viral.

Then What’s the Answer?

How do you fix it then? How do you write a movie sequel, or even a book sequel, and make it work?

Next time, m’pretties. Next time.



While I love taking credit for great achievements, I can’t take full credit for the information you’ll find here. Most of it comes from reading the works of David Baboulene, a great thinker of story theory and a clever guy. You can find him here.

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