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Why 2000 is the year of movie sequels

The follow-ups might not be awful, says Mark Harris, but where have all the innovative new films gone?

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Why 2000 is the year of movie sequels

I could dance around it. I could try to put it gently. But let me instead lay the ugly word that will be the subject of today’s Hot Topic right on the table: Sequels. You know what I’m talking about, and you know why I hate them: They’re the bacteria that are inexorably laying waste to Hollywood, and it looks as if the plague years are about to begin again.

Lost in all the excitement about how 1999 was a watershed year in cinematic creativity was one hideous fact: Three of last year’s four top-grossing movies — ”Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace,” ”Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and ”Toy Story 2” — were sequels. And the sum total of their contribution to movie culture was Jar Jar Binks, Fat Bastard, and another couple of Randy Newman songs. (Okay, so ”Toy Story 2” was pretty good. But not, absurd hype notwithstanding, better than the original.)

This year, the picture is no better. In fact, it’s worse. The top two grossers of 2000 thus far: ”Scream 3” and ”Next Friday.” THEIR collective contribution to movie culture? Uh… welllll… moving right along, the rest of the year looks positively bleak. On your movie menu are the following: ”The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas,” ”Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps,” ”Mission: Impossible 2,” ”Pokémon 2,” ”Rugrats in Paris,” ”102 Dalmatians,” ”Godzilla 2000,” and ”The Blair Witch Project 2.” Now throw in the remakes and straight-from-TV adaptations — ”Bedazzled,” ”Shaft,” ”How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” ”The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” ”Get Carter,” ”Gone in 60 Seconds” — and you have a 2000 lineup that’s collectively low on inspiration and high on the fearful flop sweat of an industry terrified to take chances.

I’m not disparaging these movies individually. Some of them may, in fact, be pleasant surprises; I’m personally looking forward to seeing what John Singleton does with ”Shaft,” what John Woo does with ”Mission,” and what Ron Howard and Jim Carrey do with the Grinch. But add them all up, and this lineup is a dull drag.

Not to mention a dangerous one. Rosters this sequel heavy carry a lot of baggage: enormous budgets, bloated sales plans, and hyped expectations, all of which siphon money, manpower, and energy away from grown-up movies based on original scripts, which should be the industry’s bread and butter. Oh, but finding a great original script is so HARD, studios whine. Bull. Last year yielded ”The Sixth Sense,” ”American Beauty,” ”Three Kings,” ”Boys Don’t Cry,” ”The Straight Story,” ”Being John Malkovich,” ”Magnolia,” ”Topsy-Turvy,” and ”The Limey,” as well as a slew of great adaptations, from ”Election” to ”The Insider” to ”The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Finding these scripts isn’t that hard at all: Oscar-nominated ”Malkovich” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman alone has three hot screenplays floating around Hollywood right now. What’s hard is committing the resources of a studio — from development to marketing — to a project that’s valuable on its own merits rather than for the plush toys, Happy Meals, TV spin-offs or Underoos it may yield. But come next Oscar season, I guarantee you those will be the films we’re talking about.