Can't we just ban sequels for a few months?

Ryan Gilbey wonders why <em>Despicable Me 2</em> had to be made.

I have no time for sequel snobs but lately I have found myself fantasising about a small breather from the Part 2s and Episode 3s, a brief but significant moratorium on the whole franchise farrago. These thoughts were prompted by seeing Despicable Me 2, a completely redundant follow-up to the perfectly delightful 2010 original. The friction in the first film arose from the mismatch between the professional bad guy Gru (voiced splendidly by Steve Carell) and the three cutie-pie orphan sisters whom he adopted as part of a plan to foil his rival in super-villainy. Knowing that Gru would surrender to his mushy paternal impulses and renounce evil by the final scene did nothing to spoil our enjoyment at seeing his beastly façade fall away piece by piece. The challenge with the sequel is where to take Gru now that his heart has thawed. Despicable Me 2 fails completely to provide an answer, floundering around instead for 100 minutes searching for inspiration. There’s nothing left for Gru to do. How many life lessons can one super-villain learn?

My plan – and I appreciate fully that this would sound to some people like super-villainy itself – would be to arrest all production on sequels for six months. Too harsh? Okay: how about three? Just enough time to give inspiration an opportunity to flourish among the major studios, in much the same way that Glastonbury is sometimes suspended for a year to allow the land a chance to recover from all those hobnailed boots traipsing from the Pyramid Stage to the falafel stalls and back again. One precedent is the Pop Strike proposed in 2001 by Luke Haines, when he called all fellow musicians and consumers of music to down tools for a week. It was never going to work – I’m sure it was never intended to – but it was enough to make audiences think about the presence of music in their lives. I wouldn’t suggest a similar black-out for the whole of cinema, but a hiatus from sequels might give everyone – filmmakers, distributors and audiences alike – room to contemplate a populist cinema that didn’t depend only on known quantities.

I’m under no illusion that this would automatically result in works of startling originality. Sequels are not the only source of complacency. Occasionally they even become towering achievements in their own right, the obvious examples being the second Godfather and Toy Story films or the recent Before Midnight. But that’s rare. What an interesting winter period we might have next year, though, if all sequel production were to be halted in the next few months, thereby clearing a gap in the release schedules for Christmas 2015. I don’t think we could help but feel refreshed by an absence of the numbers “2” and “3” from cinema marquee displays. Children would gaze up at those unfamiliar titles, those celebrations of the zero-recognition factor, and ask plaintively: “What’s that film about, Mum?” And Mother would smile at her wee ragamuffin and say: “I don’t know, sweetheart. Why don’t we go and find out?” Cue twinkly, uplifting music and a soaring eye-of-God crane shot looking down fondly as parent and child seek sanctuary and inspiration in the cinema.

It’s moving, isn’t it? And it’s an especially tantalising project as we look over the upcoming summer releases: The Wolverine, The Smurfs 2, Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc), Red 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Grown Ups 2, Kick Ass 2. And there’s more to come in the rest of the year: Insidious 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Paranormal Activity 5, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

But those of us who yearn for a tiny reprieve might look to the box-office figures and despair. Monsters University has taken over $105m in less than a week on release in the US. This year’s Fast and Furious 6 has grossed $647m worldwide – and rising. Iron Man 3 – a highly enjoyable sequel, as it happens – has taken over $1bn internationally since its release in May, and even a lacklustre knock-off such as The Hangover Part III has converted audience goodwill into a staggering $325m. The numbers are against us. But we can dream.

Despicable Me 2 is released 28 June

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in Despicable Me 2.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit