In an age of excessive sequels, prequels, reboots, and even so-called “legacyquels,” you’d think that more great re-entries into popular film settings would be more common. And while we’ve been getting some very good films, we also get a lot of movies that don’t match the originals neither in plot nor in technical execution.
It’s not that easy to make a new chapter in a beloved saga. A sequel, regardless of genre, needs to do several things to fit in after a seemingly concluded storyline, to prove that such franchise is worthy of a return. In the past few years alone, we got a lot of unsuccessful movie reboots, but we also got box office hits like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, which proved that it’s still possible to make a sequel that’s not only good, but great. In sci-fi, a few gems managed to stand out in the crowded genre. In no particular order, here’s a list of 5 great sci-fi sequels!
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
One of the most impressive sci-fi sequels ever made has to be Terminator 2: Judgement Day, sequel to the 1984 hit that revolutionized the genre with the tale of a cyborg hitman named T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the future who hired by an AI and sent back in time to 1984 to complete a difficult and dangerous mission. The mission in question? Killing a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), as her unborn son would play an important role in preventing an apocalyptic event from happening.
Of course, no Terminator sequel would ever match the original, but Terminator 2 is just as ground-breaking as its predecessor, due to a more complex script and director James Cameron’s ability to craft incredibly gripping, human stories with impressive attention to detail. Terminator 2 – a film so widely referenced in a variety of fields that it even has its own brand new game of roulette – takes place eleven years after the first movie, but it has a new villain. This time, it’s the shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick) who has been sent back in time to complete T-800 ‘s mission of killing John Connor (Edward Furlong). But the twist, here, is that T-800 assumes the role of the protector, in one of the greatest battles between good and evil we’ve seen in sci-fi. Not only that, but Sarah Connor also grows into a self-trained soldier, needing to start to trust the very thing that relentlessly hunted her previously, which makes for even more compelling storytelling.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Max Max: Fury Road is the rare sci-fi sequel that surpasses the original, to the extent that it’s often the first film that comes to mind when anyone thinks of the franchise. The post-apocalyptic saga began in 1979 with the first film, which introduced us to its titular character, Australian Main Force Patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), and kicked off the original trilogy. To this day, there are four films available, with 2015’s Fury Road – the fourth sequel – often regarded as the best Mad Max movie, and a highly anticipated prequel movie – Furiosa, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth – scheduled to be released on May 24, 2024.
So why is Mad Max: Fury Road so acclaimed? Because it absolutely nails the balance between spectacular action scenes and chase sequences and fantastic storytelling, made even better by the acting on display. The film mainly revolves around Max (now played by Tom Hardy) and war captain Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who are initially on opposite team but then join forces to defeat the franchise’s main antagonist Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). It’s best to leave it at that to avoid spoilers, but Fury Road is definitely a journey worth taking.
3. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien film is one of the most acclaimed and beloved sci-fi movies of all time, and the franchise it kicked off – directed by multiple filmmakers and spanning nearly forty years – is just as successful and important. While no film would ever surpass the original, even just due to its sheer significance for the genre, there’s one film that comes very close, and it’s James Cameron’s sequel Aliens.
Aliens mainly succeeds because it takes Scott’s first movie and preserves its essence while also delivering something new: a tense, spectacular, slow-burning blockbuster that will have you on the edge of your seat for its entire screen time. But that doesn’t mean the film is devoid of plot: Aliens also boasts a Sigourney Weaver in spendind form as one of the best sci-fi heroines to ever appear in a movie.
The film mainly follows her character. Ripley, who has been in stasis on her spaceship for 57 years, alone and lost in space, after an alien killed her entire crew in the previous film. In Aliens, Ripley is rescued by a colony of Marines and taken to their ship. Needless to say, our resourceful protagonist soon finds herself battling the titular creatures once more, as the team finds a bunch of eggs and unwittingly bring said creatures on board. If the plot sounds straightforward, think again: Aliens is jam packed with twists you won’t see coming and incredibly tense moments, with a spectacular ending that absolutely delivers what you didn’t even know you needed.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
While certainly not as high sci-fi as most of the others on this list, at least not in this trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly did a great job of furthering the downfall of humanity and Earth to the apes set up in the first of the prequel trilogy. Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 movie Planet of the Apes revolves around three astronauts who find themselves on a remote, unfamiliar planet and soon discover that they are not in charge of things. On the contrary, humans are slaves and highly intelligent apes are in control, so much so that they have devised their own socio-political system. The film follows our three protagonists as they are imprisoned by said apes and try to get back home, and teaches us a lesson or two about our own social and cultural dynamics.
Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield, The Batman) 2014 sequel takes place in our own world, ten years after most apes and humans have been wiped out by a deadly flu. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes mainly revolves around a genetically enhanced chimp named Caesar (the ever-excellent Andy Serkis), who has set up a peaceful colony in San Francisco. But Caesar soon has to deal with something new: a group of humans who have survived the flu, and who reach his colony and ask him for help. And so, the question becomes whether or not an alliance can be formed between the species, and brings with it a series of philosophical and socio-political dilemmas that are even more complex than they were in the original. All of this comes from excellent acting and spectacular CGI, making this great post-apocalyptic sequel a must watch.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It’s tough to argue against Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back being one of the greatest sci-fi sequels ever made, as it just so happens to be one of the best sci-fi movies in existence. The Empire Strikes Back continues to tell the story of a group of rebels – jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), lovable smuggler/pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) – who form a rebellion to defeat the tyrannical Galactic Empire, led by evil Sith Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones). But if A New Hope mainly served the purpose of making us fall in love with George Lucas’ characters and worldbuilding, The Empire Strikes Back is much more complex and unpredictable, while preserving the same technical achievements and creative visuals and narrative as the original.
Here, our heroes take separate paths: while most of the group continues to fight the Empire, eventually finding refuge with a former friend of Han’s, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Luke and R2-D2 set off to Dagobah in search of Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz), who isn’t exactly what Luke had imagined but ends up teaching him something more valuable than a few Jedi tricks. Eventually, Luke has to leave to join his friends and face Darth Vader, in a battle that will bring our young “padawan” big revelations and a life-changing decision to make.
Though The Empire Strikes Back is much slower than the kind of sci-fi films that are made today, it’s still as gripping and dazzling as it was upon release, and it stands the test of time as one of the best sci-fi sequels ever made.
Alien, Max Max, The Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, and Terminator are all fantastic, ground-breaking sci-fi movies that had a huge influence on the genre. But what’s even more impressive about them is that their respective sequels are just as great, if not even better. The 5 great sci-fi sequels listed above are all gripping, well-executed examples of the best the science fiction genre has to offer.