There’s not much to do at 7 p.m. when it’s still 103-degrees and windy in the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop. Your best option? Watching a movie in the air-conditioned Bishop Twin Theatre, the only theatre in town. Twice my dad and I have topped off breathtaking mountain hikes with breathtaking Christopher Nolan films—The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010).
To our surprise, we almost didn’t get seats for The Dark Knight. The movie had opened a week earlier, but apparently half of Bishop’s 3,428 residents turned up to relive Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel. And “relive” is the right word—watching the film in a packed-out theatre was more a relational experience than an aesthetic one. We all gasped, laughed, sobbed, screamed, and cheered in unison.
This summer, Dad and I anticipated the same ecstatic movie-watching when Inception premiered a week before our trip to Bishop. Again, we expected to fight a mob to get good seats.
The theatre was nearly empty. A grey-haired couple demurely speculated behind Dad and me, nine boys in baggy jeans bickered across the aisle, and three couples my age made out in the second row. And that was it. Needless to say, the movie-going experience was not the same.
The Dark Knight gathered over twice as much gravy in its first three weeks in theatres as Inception did in the same time frame. Yet most people applaud both films’ artistic excellence. The average critic gave The Dark Knight an 8.5/10 and Inception an 8/10. That .5 difference doesn’t warrant such a drastic difference in revenue.
What explains The Dark Knight’s massive $1 billion paycheck and Inception’s comparatively measly $8 million? Not the economy—the “Great Recession” was in full swing during The Dark Knight’s 2008 release and had struck out by Inception’s 2010 release. So let’s try this hypothesis: The Dark Knight was a sequel, but Inception was an original idea.
Sequels have been money-making ventures from Hollywood’s start. Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. directed Hollywood’s first sequel, The Death of a Nation, in 1916. According to film scholar Mevlyn Stokes, Death was a “clear attempt to cash in on the success” of The Birth of a Nation (1915), a controversial and profitable film directed by Dixon’s colleague, D. W. Griffith.
Though film sequels appeared in the silent era, Hollywood produced only two or three sequels per year for the next six and a half decades. But everything changed in the 1970s and early 1980s, when four sequels smashed the box office: The Godfather: Part II (1974), The French Connection II (1975), Jaws 2 (1978), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). In the post-Star Wars world, sequels are the most profitable films by far. Since 1980, eleven of the thirty-one worldwide top-grossing films were sequels, and another ten spawned sequels.
Summer 2010 continued this trend—four of the five worldwide top grossing films were sequels. Moviegoers around the planet spent $9.6 billion on Toy Story 3, $737 million on Shrek Forever After, $692 million on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and $622 million on Iron Man 2. The only exception was Inception, which has earned $823 million worldwide thus far.
Hollywood makes sequels because we’ll pay to see them. But why do we? Do we merely wish to spend our money on something familiar?
Our willingness to watch sequels isn’t simply economic. After all, sequels didn’t start with The Death of a Nation in 1916—they’ve been around since Homer followed up his visceral Iliad with the delightful Odyssey. Homer didn’t write the Odyssey to drum up drachmas. If neither Achaeans nor Americans spurn sequels, people must naturally crave endless stories.
Humans are narrative creatures. We explain the universe and process traumatic experiences through stories. We understand who we are through stories.
Humans are mortal creatures. More than anything, we fear death. Since stories explain life, a story’s end is a kind of death. An original film—with no promised sequel—aggravates our death-anxiety. To avoid that negative emotion, we flock to flicks like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Spiderman (2002) that guarantee sequels and virtual immortality. As Cobb tells Eames in Inception, “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.”
Inception, this summer’s only non-sequel blockbuster, can help us understand our need for never-ending stories. The protagonist, Dom Cobb, is an “extractor”—in other words, he uses sci-fi technology to steal information from a person’s subconscious while he or she dreams. Cobb hopes his team’s last assignment will enable him to return home to his children, who have been orphaned by their mother’s death and father’s absence.
Cobb uses the dream technology to relive moments with his wife Mal that he regrets. Mal is dead; his life with her is over. Cobb promised Mal that they’d be “together forever.” Now that she’s gone, he wallows in a dream-world in which his wife isn’t dead. “In my dreams,” Cobb says, “we are together.”
For Cobb, ceasing to dream about Mal would mean accepting her death and the reality of life without her. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb can’t complete his last job—the job he needs to go home to his kids—unless he confronts his grief. To go home, Cobb has to overcome his death-anxiety. To move forward into a new story, Cobb must allow the old one to end.
To enjoy a new story, we must allow the old ones to end. Our favorite characters, like all mortal things, must die. It’s scary—a story’s end reminds us of our own deaths. But if we want filmmakers to produce original art instead of slipshod sequels, we need to savor stories that end. To save the film industry, we need to confront our death-anxiety and realize that we and our beloved characters won’t be “together forever.” We need to echo Cobb’s words to Mal: “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go.”
[In case you’re wondering, I did love Toy Story 3.]
 “The Dark Knight,” Rotten Tomatoes, http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_dark_knight.html (accessed November 28, 2010).
 “The Dark Knight,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=darkknight.html (accessed November 27, 2010).
 “Inception,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=inception.html (accessed November 27, 2010).
 Mevlyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Film Ever Made” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 268.
 Michael Avila, “What Was the First Movie Sequel?” Life’s Little Mysteries, http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/what-was-the-first-movie-sequel-1043.html (accessed November 27, 2010).
 “Toy Story 3,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=toystory3.html (accessed November 27, 2010).