Making a great science fiction sequel may be easier than creating a killer comedy sequel, but not by much. Producers have been turning out second (and third, and fourth) chapters to continue stories of space and advanced technology for decades, but with the exception of a killer run of films in the 1980s and early ’90s, most of them stink.
The ratio of bad sci-fi sequels to good only makes the best ones seem even more impressive. The most impeccable sci-fi films are forward-thinking, adventurous, and provocative, and they turn a standalone concept into a formula that works a second time, requiring a rare blast of creative inspiration and no small amount of luck. Direct to video cheapies may have their charms, but they rarely match the original. (Ahem, “Scanners II: The New Order.“) Surpassing the first film is even more rare.
As “Independence Day: Resurgence” swarms theaters, we’re taking a look back at fifteen of the best science fiction sequels to light up the skies. We should note that we’ve avoided superhero/comic book movies as they seem like a distinct subgenre (even though many have science fiction elements), and we’ve also decided against counting reboots as sequels (so no “Mad Mad: Fury Road” or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”) Still, never fear – in the selection below we’ve got plenty: everything from giant monsters to devious corporations to violent clones to robots to a certain splattery bug hunt – enjoy!
15. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” (1964)
The 1954 film “Godzilla” didn’t just turn Japan’s nuclear nightmares into an earth-shaking beast, it created a globe-spanning business in giant monster movies that filmmakers continue to expand on more than sixty years later. This fourth film in the series shows Toho Studio taking a page from the old Universal “monster rally” playbook as it imports Mothra, originally the star of her own film in 1961, to face off against the fire lizard. A decade after Godzilla’s debut the series formula was already feeling familiar – Toho would change things up with the next film, “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” by making Godzilla a hero – but this is one of the most solid examples of the concept, with some memorably kooky effects, before the series threatened to melt down.
14. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” (2012)
As this piece is spurred by the release of Roland Emmerich‘s new “Independence Day” sequel, it’s only fitting that one entry is the latest sequel to his 1992 breakout “Universal Soldier.” The fourth film in the series, or the sixth, depending on how you choose to tally, is a stripped-down B-movie, an extraordinarily violent haze of oblique storytelling that reconfigures the series as something more akin to the films of David Cronenberg than typical action/sci-fi fare. Scott Adkins is a forceful physical presence (if not a great lead actor) and he’s enough to bring us through this series of hallucinations about intertwined conspiracies and clone warfare. Director John Hyams doesn’t hit every mark, but his ambition, his off-kilter vision of a gauzy, empty future, and the shatteringly forceful action sequences are synthesized into a film that captures the specific tone of video game storytelling better than any actual video game movie. Recently, a neural network AI was fed dozens of sci-fi scripts so it could output a new, machine-written story. Feed games, MMA fights, and “Gattaca” into that code and what it would spit out wouldn’t be half as brutal or weird as this “Universal Soldier” sequel.
13. “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982)
Undoubtedly, the “Halloween” series is core horror, but this one film isn’t just an outlier for the series on a story level. Primary boogeyman Michael Myers is MIA as producers experimented with a potential anthology structure. In his place is a company peddling masks to children using an annoying earworm sales jingle. Doesn’t sound too crazy, right? But the organization isn’t merely offering kids a good time on Halloween night, it is using modern technology to tee up a large-scale sacrifice to the Old Gods, and we see hints of the outcome in gleefully gruesome effects sequences and a strange, techno-magick climax. Far more entertaining than its original reputation would suggest, ‘Halloween III’ is a bizarrely effective sci-fi story with a big splash of horror mixed in. Or is it the other way around? In the end it doesn’t really matter, as you’ll be gasping along with Tom Atkins as his character frantically tries to stop broadcasts that could kill thousands of children.
12. “28 Weeks Later” (2007)
Danny Boyle‘s early experiment with digital cinematography, “28 Days Later,” envisioned an England overrun with fast-moving, rage-infected viral victims. The story is continued here in a far more mainstream fashion, a significant budget to purchase a surplus of gore, and some adrenaline-charged filmmaking to amplify familiar zombie movie concepts to arena concert volume. Yet “28 Weeks Later” is arguably even more grim than its forbearer, as the frayed fabric of civilization is further unraveled by human weaknesses and the attempts to build or maintain our familiar family units become ever more desperate. Legions of infected zombies prove to be impossible to avoid, despite the very creative use of a helicopter as an offensive weapon, and even if the “fast zombies” imagined by Boyle and Alex Garland aren’t your thing, watch this sequel to see Jeremy Renner, Rose Byrne, Harold Perrineau, Imogen Poots and Idris Elba in fine 2007 form.
11. “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984)
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke‘s “2001” is arguably the greatest-filmed science fiction story of all time, but it was still more obscure than some people are willing to deal with. And so there’s “2010,” a sequel that takes a much more familiar approach to its story of space programs struggling in the wake of the disastrous Jupiter mission manned by David Bowman. Want to know why HAL lost it, or what happened to Bowman? This movie will tell you as it describes a joint US/Russian voyage to Jupiter in which the explanations and revelations are visualized pragmatically, with little of the awe and wonder that made “2001” the great “turned on” movie experience of the late ’60s. In that respect it is a far more ’80s picture, but in its own right it’s a perfectly decent movie that fulfills an impossible mandate. Far from the long shadow cast by Kubrick’s masterpiece, the simple and effective craft of “2010” stands on its own. (Director Peter Hyams, who had a hand in many strange sci-fi pictures of the ’80s and ’90s, also shot the film, and 25 years later he shot “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” for his director son John, which led to ‘Day of Reckoning,’ listed above.)