Movies are fixed (for the most part) but our opinions of them are fluid. You might see a movie and hate it, then see it again five years later and love it. Maybe your tastes changed, maybe the context changed, but for whatever reason the exact same movie generated two wildly different reactions. One common factor in these divergent opinions are sequels: a great sequel casts a rosy light on a predecessor (think “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”) while a crummy sequel retroactively diminishes our feelings about the original (think “The Matrix” and “The Matrix Revolutions”).
To measure the impact of sequels on their franchises and our opinions of them, Nick Fortugno created the clever Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale. It’s an effective way to pinpoint the degree to which one film reflects positively or negatively on the rest of a series. It’s named, of course, for the “Star Wars” prequels, which introduced all sorts of dopey retroactive continuity, most infamously the idea of “midi-chrlorians,” microscopic blood-dwelling organisms that were revealed in “Episode I” to be the source of Jedi’s magical powers. As Fortugno puts it:
“I’m sorry, the Force comes from bacteria?!? That’s just stupid. And not only is it stupid, it makes Jedi, some of the coolest warriors in all of science fiction, completely lame. Can you even WATCH the first three movies anymore? All I see when I look at Luke is a guy with a really rampant infection, and that’s not heroic or cool. It’s just embarrassing, and I would argue that thanks to midi-chlorians, so is admitting to liking ‘Star Wars,’ anything of ‘Star Wars,’ now that the later movies exist.”
According to Fortugno, that would make the “Star Wars” prequels a -6 out of -6 on the Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale (MCRS), because “the later content destroys the narrative such that the early work, which was widely loved, is no longer even passable in quality. The brand is completely and irreversibly destroyed.” That ranks it above (or below, I guess) “The Matrix Revolutions” with an MCRS of -5 (“it is possible to respect the original property, but only by utterly ignoring the bad material and treating it like it doesn’t exist in a willful violation of the truth of the imaginary entertainment environment.”) and “Alien Resurrection”‘s MCRS of -3 (“The brand is effectively dead from that point on. Once the changes have been established, you can’t go any further, because it’s all become too lame. But this doesn’t ruin earlier instances — they can remain cool in isolation from later work.”).
Fortugno’s highest grade is a 0, which he gives to sequels that have no negative impact on previous films; his examples are the many “Star Trek” sequels. I do think the MCRS should be revised to allow for positive scores for rare movies like “The Godfather Part II” which provide interesting and beneficial retroactive continuity (like De Niro’s sequences as the young Vito Corleone). But overall, I really like this rating system.
In fact, I dig it so much I thought we should apply the MCRS to some of this summer’s franchise tentpoles. I say some because according to industry experts, every single movie released in the last fifteen weeks was a sequel or a reboot or a prequel or a remake or a prequoot (otherwise known as a simultaneous prequel and reboot) of some kind. Rating them all would take days, but here are a few notable ones. I’m maintaining Fortugno’s 0-6 score, but I’m going to note the instances where I think a positive MCRS score would be applicable. For instance:
MCRS Score: 0
Here is a sequel that definitely improved its previous films in retrospect and deserves a score better than 0: not only was it absolutely the most satisfying film in the series since the original “The Fast & the Furious” but it also made me truly excited for a “Fast Six” that continues the film’s numerous plotlines. The final post-credits teaser retroactively made the big plot twist in the earlier “Fast & Furious” more intriguing, and the seamless incorporation of characters from previously disparate installments of the franchise (Roman from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Han from “Tokyo Drift,” and so on) created a sense of this giant mythos that didn’t exist before.
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”
MCRS Score: -1
The third “Transformers” film introduced a ton of heretofore untold backstory for the perpetually feuding Autobots and Decepticons, including a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) alien ship crashed on the dark side of the Moon, a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) former leader of the Autobots, and a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) weapon that could turn the tide in their war. Most of these elements were fairly dumb, but then most elements of every “Transformers” are fairly dumb, and the ones in “Dark of the Moon” did little to harm the ongoing continuity of the “Transformers” franchise (it is really hard, by the way, to write the phrase “ongoing continuity of the ‘Transformers’ franchise” and not burst out laughing). Still, “Dark of the Moon” would surely rate better on the MCRS than its predecessor, “Revenge of the Fallen” which introduced its own set of characters and MacGuffins, most of whom were borderline racist stereotypes.
“X-Men: First Class”
MCRS Score: -1
This is a tough film to grade. “X-Men: First Class” was one of my favorite films of the summer, but there’s no denying that it featured a lot of borderline absurd retroactive continuity. How does Cyclops have a brother who’s at least thirty years older than he is? If Emma Frost was around in the 1960s, who was the teenage girl that was introduced as the same character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine?” And if mutants got involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, how did they keep their existence secret from the public for another thirty years? That’s why I’m giving the movie a -1; these things are undeniably dumb but, as Fortugno puts it, they’re “trivial enough that it doesn’t effect your view of the series as a whole” and I “still wholeheartedly like the originals and continue to like the brand.” “Wolverine,” though, would have to rate at least a -2 or maybe even a -3.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
MCRS Score: 0
Like “Fast Five,” this is another example of a sequel that improves upon the fictional universe built by its predecessors. The origin story of the Planet of the Apes provided in the original ’60s and ’70s films was convoluted to the point of unintentional humor. In contrast, the revisions offered by “Rise” were clear, believable, and scary. The plot machinations of prequels often feel awkward and forced — things happen not because one beat follows logically to the next, but because the demands of previous films require them to — but that wasn’t the case with “Rise.” Almost everything felt believably motivated by the actions of Caesar, the leader of the ape rebellion. Maybe that’s why “Rise” has surprised a lot of people at the box office. It’s a
prequel prequoot that feels like an original film.