September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
The art of the sequel requires a delicate alchemy. Repeat too much of what worked in the first film, and the new installment feels stale and derivative. Change too much, however, and you’ll lose track of what made the original so special. When a sequel does strike the right balance between callback and innovation, the resulting fresh take on an established series can be a rewarding cinematic experience that deepens engagement and appreciation of both the first film and the entire franchise.
28 Weeks Later
The British 28 [Units of Time] Later franchise is most famous for popularizing the fast zombie. But its innovations don’t end there. 28 Weeks Later forgoes focusing on any of the characters from the original, and instead centers the story on a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, Don. We meet Don as he abandons his wife to save himself. Despite hating him out the gate, we get sucked into his twisted family reunion story. Released 4 years into the Iraq war and making pointed political commentary about the use of excessive force in that conflict, 28 Weeks Later still feels relevant and prescient in 2017.
Army of Darkness
Evil Dead 2 felt more like a remake than a sequel to the original Evil Dead. Raimi changes things up with Army of Darkness and creates one of the all-time great horror comedies. No longer are we stuck following the pedestrian group-of-friends-get-killed-by-an-ancient-evil-in-a-cabin template. Instead, Ash is now adventuring through a peculiar medieval world, kicking ass and taking names with his chainsaw hand and his boom-stick. The plot takes bizarre turns, sometimes into merely incidental tangents and other times into poetic absurdity. If that sounds like criticism it isn’t – Army of Darkness is wondrous fun and infinitely rewatchable.
Batman Returns is the most underrated and artful Batman movie ever produced. After Burton’s success with his first Batman film, he was given more creative freedom and he milks that for all he can. Fortunately, his specific brand of art deco gothic design and operatic characters blend seamlessly with the Batman mythology and the resulting superhero film is unlike any other. Batman Returns brings in complex villains like Michelle Pfeiffer’s ground-breaking Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s deeply disturbing Penguin. Burton’s singular take on the looming visuals of Gotham City envelop the viewer and transform the metropolis into a character of its own.
Bride of Chucky
Chucky has haunted the nightmares of many kids who grew up watching the first three Child’s Play films. After a seven-year hiatus, Chucky returned in 1998 with Bride of Chucky and Don Mancini reinvented his terrifying plastic homunculus. This Chucky is less of a homicidal doll and more of a homicidal weed-smoking smart-ass who happens to be a homicidal doll. Jennifer Tilly is in top form as the titular (and weirdly titillating?) bride, Tiffany. Audiences are then treated to a whole new style of Chucky film: one that isn’t afraid to slay with the hilarious and demented banter of its leads.
Captain America: Winter Soldier
One of the joys in watching a quality sequel is in seeing story and characters you love achieve their potential. Winter Soldier gives us the best action set-pieces of any Marvel movie, the most electric Captain America performance from Evans, and a tight script that wastes nary a second of its running time. It is a film that is funny when it wants to be funny, dramatic when it wants to be dramatic, and insanely exciting when it hits an action beat.
The Conjuring 2
The Conjuring 2 takes a paint-by-numbers plot and executes it flawlessly. The story focuses on real-life demon hunting spouses Lorraine and Ed Warren being pulled out of retirement to investigate the Hodgson house in England. A two-hour running time should be too long to successfully steep an audience in relentless anxiety, but Wan keeps the camera prowling and the jump scares frequent, creating a dizzying and wonderful sense of tension throughout the entire hundred and twenty minutes.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan violates all sorts of pre-conceived notions about what a superhero should be with The Dark Knight. The hero shouldn’t be forced into a background supporting role. There shouldn’t be two main villains competing for plot and screen time. But by violating storytelling norms while delivering incredible action sequences and big budget Hollywood spectacle, The Dark Knight is every bit as intense as Ledger’s epic take on the Joker.
Final Destination 2
To quote Abe Simpson, “Death stalks you at every turn. Ah! There it is! Death!!!” It takes gumption to call something Final Destination and then slap a “2” next to it. It takes true audacity to completely forgo plot, character, and common sense. Director David R. Ellis buckles the hopes for a successful sequel experience into one trick pony concept and, astoundingly, Final Destination 2 surpasses the original. This is nothing more than sheer, campy death. And it works.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The original Guardians of Galaxy got a whole lot of mileage on the joy of introducing its quirky characters. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 manages be every bit as funny as the original without relying on the same trick. Innovative plot twists and a killer soundtrack propel this sequel and make hanging out with this crew a second time just as much fun as the first.
Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban
As Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up, so, too, do the Harry Potter films. Prisoner of Azkaban is the third entry into the series and the turning point into darker territory. With Alfonso Cuaron directing instead of Chris Columbus, true peril enters surrounds Hogwarts, with Dementors, werewolves, and ominous portents. Our trio grow up a bit in this installment as they leave childhood behind and confront a darkly looming adolescence.
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
There are comic book films with bigger budgets, more popularity, and greater cultural cachet. But there are few that even begin to approach Hellboy 2 in entertainment value. Fresh off Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro was primed to continue exploring folk tales, while teasing out surprising interpretations of familiar concepts. The tooth fairies are Hellboy 2 at its finest – exciting, terrifying, and hilarious all at once.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games owes a lot to Battle Royale, but its sequel is entirely its own invention. A gripping action drama with savvy political commentary, Catching Fire builds off the excellent foundation laid out in the first installment. Jennifer Lawrence cements her star status as the mercurial Katniss Everdeen, retaining a calm and collected detachment even as audiences cling to the edge of their seats fearing for her safety. Catching Fire, like its predecessor, flips a lot of the usual scripts about gender and heroics. It is one of the most empowering and subversive big budget films ever produced.
Iron Man 3
Though ostensibly the third Iron Man movie, Iron Man 3 feels more like a sequel to The Avengers. Shane Black takes over directing duties from Jon Favreau and relishes pitting Iron Man against his main comic book antagonist for the first time on film. Robert Downey Jr gives the most nuanced and thoughtful take on Tony Stark yet. The resulting film is an embarrassment of performance riches.
The moment to moment choreography of Jurassic World is masterful. Colin Treverrow never leaves you confused about what you are looking at or where you are. He shows you just enough gore, cuts away at just the right time, and propels a somewhat shaky script forward with clarity and aplomb. Jurassic World is classic summer blockbuster spectacle-fueled romp. The last half an hour is a riveting chase sequence that is a high-water mark for the franchise.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Most stories fall apart a bit in their third act. Return of the King is the rare final installment that delivers and even triumphs, bringing a fully satisfying close to Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. It sticks the landing by retaining the melancholic tone of the end of the novel. Evil might be vanquished, but there is always a cost for our heroes. Even as the Fellowship reunites in a deliriously happy slow-motion laugh-fest, we know that they and their world are permanently altered by their quest. The most heartbreaking outcome is Frodo’s inability to return home. Instead, he absconds from Middle-earth with the Elves, leaving Sam to return to Hobbiton on his own.
The Purge: Anarchy
Wisely abandoning the home invasion setup of The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy broadens the scope of the series by encompassing an entire city and upping the ante on the class warfare themes. The bourgeoisie have always profited by pitting the lower classes against each other, and James DeMonoco gleefully applies that political reality to its most paranoid and exploitative extreme. The result is a suspenseful and surprisingly astute genre masterpiece.
A scientist working for Oscorp becomes a father figure to Peter Parker before an experiment drives him insane and gives him superpowers. After succumbing to his evil insanity, the former father figure turned supervillain kidnaps Peter Parker’s longtime crush to trap Spider-Man. The film just described could be either Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2, but the fact that this sequel is almost a beat for beat rehash doesn’t matter because, in Raimi’s capable hands, this formula works.
As the master of the twist ending, M. Night Shyamalan tends to create self-contained films. They exist to build towards one big reveal. Once the cat is out of the bag, there is no need to further the story. We already know Bruce Willis is dead, there’s no reason to have a Sixth Sense 2. Split takes the risky conceit of a villain with multiple personalities and makes it work, but Shyamalan outdoes himself by having the big reveal of Split be that it is actually a sequel to Unbreakable.
Star Trek: First Contact
The first step to determining whether a Star Trek movie is worth watching is to check and see if it is an odd numbered film, or an even numbered film. First Contact is the eighth one produced, making it an even. And that’s fantastic news! Jonathan Frakes brings clarity and energy into his direction, and the riveting script gives Patrick Stewart enough meaty material to turn into a dynamite performance.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
After the critical and popular failure of the prequel trilogy, the pressure on The Force Awakens was astounding. It seemed impossible to meet the expectations placed on it, but J.J. Abrahams exceeded them by hewing closer to the original trilogy in both design and storytelling philosophy. His diverse new cast had an electric chemistry and blended seamlessly with the Star Wars icons of the original trilogy, making The Force Awakens the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.
Toy Story 3
Is someone chopping onions in here, or is someone watching Toy Story 3? Actors who need to produce tears on their next take have been known to view the final five minutes of Toy Story 3 right before the camera starts rolling. It is not just the hands down best film in the Toy Story series, it is one of the best animated films ever produced.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Scream gets all the credit for being the first horror movie to experiment with genre-awareness and meta-commentary but, two years before Scream debuted, Wes Craven scooped himself two with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, an innovative and groundbreaking deconstruction of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Inventive, self-aware, and scary, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare deserves far more credit than it gets for the role it played in the evolution of horror as a genre.
X2 is The Empire Strikes Back of the X-Men franchise. It outshines the original movie in every fathomable way, and though it did not invent the summer blockbuster it certainly did reinvent it. There is a case to be made that most comic book movie adaptations are the chasing dragon that is X2. It is endlessly entertaining, surprising emotional, and its moments of FX spectacle hold up 14 years later.
X-men: Days of Future Past
Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men franchise is the best X-Men movie since the second one. While other comic book movies were busy blowing up monuments and stadiums faster than any country could reasonably build them, Days of Future Past makes the gutsy decision to scale its destruction towards the emotional as well as the infrastructural. James McAvoy’s Charles and Michael Fassbender’s Erik emotionally anchor the film. Comic book gravitas has a way of easily slipping into camp, but Days of Future Past avoids its many potential pitfalls and makes all its disparate elements come together.
War for the Planet of the Apes
One of the most human and profound summer blockbusters ever produced happens to be about talking primates. War for the Planet of the Apes is that singular sequel that builds upon the complex lore of its predecessors but is ultimately a better film. It ranks with Platoon and Apocalypse Now in the pantheon of great war movies, and it might just be the best movie about what it means to be alive in our current time. The decision to focus mostly on the ape side of the conflict is a bold one, and placing Caesar as our POV cements his status as an iconic genre character. The result is a sequel film that improves upon its predecessors and the war movie formula.
Those were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Remember, we’re not saying these are the greatest sequels of all time, just since 1992. Let us know in the comments which sequels of the last 25 years we missed!
And check out our complete "25 Greatest" lists here.