Thirty-five years ago, on July 18, 1986, the long-awaited sequel to Alien hit theaters. No one knew what to make of Aliens when it was first announced. With that title, all anyone knew was that there would be more than one xenomorph. Could it live up to the Ridley Scott original from 1979, which was already classic? Wasn’t seven years a long time to wait for a direct follow-up? Could it possibly be as scary as the first? A sequel had many things stacked against it.
20th Century Films
Then, James Cameron’s Aliens arrived, and it blew the doors off the box office. It was a commercial and critical hit, and even garnered Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination. In an era when sequels get viewed as lesser-quality cash grabs, Aliens proved everyone wrong. But how did Cameron manage such a feat? The smartest thing he did was make his second film a different genre than the first. Instead of a “haunted house in space,” like the original, Cameron turned Aliens into a high-octane action movie. Although a frequently scary one.
Once Aliens broke the mold, it gave Hollywood permission to make more sequels that changed genres, instead of just retreading the highlights of the first film. This method gave us some of the best sequels in film history. Here are some examples of genre-changing sequels that may not have been greenlit if not for the James Cameron sci-fi classic becoming a blockbuster.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
New Line Cinema
Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street redefined the slasher genre in the mid ’80s, and gave the world a horror icon in Freddy Krueger. But the first sequel didn’t live up to the lofty goals of the original. (Although it’s fascinating for other reasons). So when it came time to do a third, Wes Craven, now a writer/producer for the third chapter, came up with the concept of taking the fight to Freddy in the dreamscape. And A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors was born.
The terrorized teens of Springwood realized that in the dream world, they all had superpowers, and could take on the villain of their nightmares. In a sense, Dream Warriors was a supernatural superhero movie, with shades of X-Men. The Westin Hills Institute where the kids resided may as well have been Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. And all of this reinvigorated the franchise, and Dream Warriors changed the series going forward. Horror sequels often get derided as the most derivative. But A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors was one of the rare exceptions.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Taking a cue from himself, James Cameron followed up his breakthrough movie with a sequel that totally switched things up from the original. The first Terminator was a sci-fi horror film, with Arnold as a cyborg slasher bent on killing anyone in his way until he gets his victim. Linda Hamilton was very much the “Final Girl” in the classic horror movie mode.
Yes, T2 kept the time travel element. But instead of a slasher, it gave us a bombastic action film. It is one of the best action films ever put to celluloid, in fact. And, by upending his own formula, James Cameron created one of the all-time great sequels. All other Terminator films in the franchise tried to mimic the second one, instead of forging new ground. And most came up short. (We’ve got a soft spot for Dark Fate, though.)
Evil Dead II (1987)
The original Evil Dead in 1981 was a very low-budget affair. But without a doubt, it was designed to straight-up scare its audience. When it came time to do a follow-up six years later, director Sam Raimi instead created a comedic remake of his first film. He even employed the same lead actor in Bruce Campbell.
Evil Dead II was not only one of the greatest horror sequels ever made, but easily one of the best horror comedies ever produced, period. It remains one of the most fun and re-watchable horror films; plus, it showed how Campbell was a genius of physical comedy. Who would have ever thought mixing Three Stooges-style humor with deadites would work? Raimi took a pretty big risk, and it paid off.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America: The First Avenger was a perfect mash-up of retro Indiana Jones flavor with your standard superhero origin story. And Joe Johnston did a bang-up job setting up the foundation for Steve Rogers’ character. What the shield represents matters based on what happened in that first movie.
But unless Marvel Studios did a flashback to World War II, the first Cap sequel had to be totally different. And the Russo Brothers managed just that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Mixing ’70 spy thrillers with the modern and gritty action of the Bourne films, the second Cap totally changed genres. And it did so all while honoring the original, and building on its foundation. Winter Soldier is cited by many as their favorite Marvel Studios film to date.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The Cannon Group
The original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the rawest, most realistic, and most disturbing horror movies ever made. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic shocked audiences back in the day, and continues to do so today. But 12 years after the first, when given the chance to do a follow-up, Hooper made a black comedy instead. Albeit one with a whole lot of gore. This was not what the producers, the infamous production company Cannon Films, wanted. Nevertheless, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 doubled its production budget, and has become a cult favorite ever since. Leatherface proved to work in any context.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The first two Thor films had comedic elements, to be sure. But they were still more straightforward fantasy adventure movies. But when reception to Thor: The Dark World was generally “meh,” Marvel Studios realized it was time for a whole new direction. Enter Taika Waititi, who took his irreverent comedy skills, as seen in What We Do in the Shadows, and applied them to the God of Thunder.
And the result of Thor: Ragnarok was action/comedy gold. Who knew that Chris Hemsworth was that much of a comedic genius? Or that Hulk would be so hilarious? Or that Korg was everything? Ragnarok is arguably one of the funniest MCU movies, with only Guardians of the Galaxy giving it a run for its money. We probably wouldn’t be getting a Love and Thunder if Ragnarok had not broken the mold in the first place.
The Dark Knight (2008)
On the surface, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight isn’t all that different from Batman Begins. It’s certainly not as strong a departure from its original film as the rest on this list. But the first film in Nolan’s Bat-saga was still a pretty classic superhero story. There was an evil genius, a plan to destroy the city—all the standard tropes. It just did it all with more panache and maturity than audiences were used to.
Then The Dark Knight went full-on crime thriller. It had more in common with films like Heat than a typical “capes and tights” movie. They paid more attention to schemes and heists and mafia machinations than before. There is a reason many still consider this one to be the gold standard of the comic book movie genre. Yes, all the usual fighting scenes and action beats one expects were in there. But The Dark Knight switched genres on us from the first entry pretty fast, and many of us didn’t even notice. Nolan did it all on the sly.
20th Century Films
And these are just the best of the best. There are lots more. But it’s hard to imagine that most of them would have happened if Aliens had not worked like gangbusters in the way it did. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Lt. Ellen Ripley, Newt, and the survivors of LV-426. Oh, and let’s not forget James Cameron, who had the foresight to create a sequel that the audience was not expecting. Now, let’s see if Avatar 2 is a musical or something. Wouldn’t that be wild?