When I was about to write my dissertation, I was told to make sure my title had a colon. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. While watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I realized the practice has hit movie sequels. Is it an effort to make us take the sequel more seriously?
The question of sequels is interesting, especially as we enter a period of movie-making that will be dominated by sequels and remakes. That’s right: Hollywood’s all out of fresh ideas. The conventional wisdom is that almost no sequel is as good as, or better than, the original. Godfather II is at the top of the list of exceptions. In fact, it’s the only movie on the list.
Why are sequels such pale imitations of the originals? I wondered about this as I watched Pirates, which has all the elements of the original: the charming and roguish Johnny Depp, dastardly pirate villains, high-seas hi-jinks, a dash of the supernatural, a beautiful woman, etc. And Geoffrey Rush nicely reprises his hardy-har-har role of Barbossa. Ian McShane makes an excellent Blackbeard, so excellent he takes the movie away from Depp. And Penélope Cruz brings real dimension to her role as Captain Jack Sparrow’s rival and would-be paramour.
So why didn’t the movie carry me away? I didn’t feel drawn into it, captivated by it, awash in it. Instead, I saw it as more of an artifact than as an experience.
And I think I know why.
It has to do with what’s come to be known as the “decline effect,” which I heard about on NPR’s “On the Media.” The idea is that efforts to duplicate the findings of an experiment may confirm the results, but often to a lesser and lesser degree. Subjects were shown a video in which a man robs a bank, his face clearly visible. Later, half the subjects were asked to write down a description of the robber; the other half were not. Then all the subjects were asked to pick the robber out of a lineup. Oddly, those who wrote down the description—the ones you’d expect to have a sharper memory of the robber’s features—were 30% less successful in identifying the robber than the other group. Stunning, right? But even more stunning was the finding that efforts to duplicate the study showed, yes, the same result, but to a smaller and smaller degree, as if the validity of the experiment were slowly fading away.
Is it possible that Pirates has the same elements as the original, but the “decline effect” is at play, causing each sequel to be less and less effective, no matter how faithfully the original has been reproduced? That’s certainly the case with the Harry Potter and Twilight sequels.
Maybe it’s just that all those elements were fresh the first time. And now, as each sequel drags out the same bag of tricks, they’re just not as effective. Remember that wild aerial fight in the ship’s rigging from the first Pirates movie? A similar attempt is made in this one, this time in the jungle, but it’s a lame imitation of the original. And there’s the usual swash-buckling over rickety timbers. Nothing new here. On the other hand, what about the scene in the second movie where Captain Jack escapes by running inside a paddle-wheel like a hamster as the thing crashes and careens through the jungle? That was new, wasn’t it? But it also seemed more like a stunt dreamed up by the Cirque du Soleil team than like something that arose out of the story.
The decline effect suggests that the sequel can never be as interesting or effective as the original. So why try? The corporate (or corp-pirate) answer, of course, is that no matter how bad the sequel, it will make money. But the profit shrinks a little bit with each sequel. And so does your soul.
Hollywood, are you listening? Just say no to sequels.
P.S. The theater had a D-box seat set up in the lobby, so I tried it out. The D-box is a motion-controlled theater seat that shudders, dips, swoops, and rolls in time with the movie’s effects. It was set in front of a screen that showed the Pirates trailer. I’m sorry. To me it felt as though someone were kicking the back of my seat the whole time.