Monday, July 20, 2009

He Died, but Then He Got Younger: The Prequel Perplex

Ryan Gilbey suggests that, now that it's barely even fun anymore to complain about sequels and remakes, we should shift gears and reserve our disgust for the concept of prequels. By some accounts, the term "prequel" was coined by George Lucas to describe the young-Don-Vito sections of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 The Godfather, Part II. However, the first time the term was widely used in the press to label a feature film which had no other discernible reason for being may well have been in 1979, when Tom Berenger and William Katt starred in Richard Lester's Butch and Sundance: The Early Years.

This was not the first time that somebody had built a new work around a speculative history of what happened to the characters in an earlier work before they reached the point in their history where they made the audience's acquaintance in the first place. Even before The Godfather, Part II, this approach actually had a tony literary pedigree. Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea (filmed by John Duigan in 1993) filled in the pre-history to Jane Eyre, and the 1971 movie The Nightcomers, with Marlon Brando, attempted to lay the groundwork for Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. But Butch and Sundance established the basis for regarding prequels as a singularly uninspired and parasitic form. Apparently it was made because some genius noticed that the tenth anniversary of the money-making Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was approaching, and it seemed a shame to waste such a ripe excuse to try to cash in again. There was just one problem: the first movie ended, famously, with Butch and Sundance being turned into Swiss cheese by the Bolivian army. So a sequel was out of the question, but it might be possible to go backwards. And since there was this new actor in town whose major qualification for stardom seemed to be that he looked a lot like a young Robert Redford...

In the end, Butch and Sundance tanked, William Katt transitioned from starring in movies to appearing on TV each week in The Greatest American Hero and looking as if he was praying to take a bullet between line readings, and it looked as if prequels might turn out to be one of those momentary fancies of the movie industry, like disaster epics or Steven Seagal. A few more prequels did trickle out in later years, ranging from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Amityville II: The Possession. But the concept wasn't revived big time until, yes, George Lucas decided to jump-start his fantasy of actually making another Star Wars trilogy, beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace. Even now, though, prequels, which are much more commonly found in the ranks of the straight-to-video than among actual theatrical releases, tend to occur only when a franchise has been tapped to pitiful death (see Hannibal Rising) or when the producers are desperate for a gimmick that might help to compensate for the fact that the original stars want nothing to do with it (see Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd).

We might also want to define our terms a little. Gilbey, anticipating the day when movie prequels themselves become "respectable", cites Guillermo del Toro's forthcoming The Hobbit, as a prequel to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, but J. R. R. Tolkien wrote the book that del Toro is adapting before he wrote the Rings books; surely that matters more than the fact that the books have somehow managed to get themselves filmed in the wrong order. On the other hand, J. J. Abrams's Star Trek straddles the line between "reboot" and prequel: it means to reinvent the old franchise, but in the process of doing so, it introduces the audience to James T. Kirk and his merry band at an earlier stage of their development than Gene Roddenberry dared, or cared, to go. Ideally, this kind of thing might be done with a little humor, teasing the audience with the shared knowledge we have of what these characters are fated to become. At worst, it might give us the chance to see what it looks like when fan fiction is perpetrated with a $150 million budget.

Of the high-profile releases about to come barging through the door, Wolverine is closest to the dreaded prequel prototype. The signs are pretty much there, except in reverse: the X-Men franchise has been pronounced dead, or at least mothballed, but everybody's favorite moody mutant is indestructibly immortal, and Hugh Jackman is still at an age where he can pull off the role. So maybe the best way to try to squeeze a little more money out of the character, minus his familiar supporting cast, is to zap back to before most of them were born and fill in some of the bad boy's back story, which apparently goes back for fucking ever. Wolverine's director, Gavin Hood, who readily acknowledges that "Prequels are usually bad," adds that, since "most of the audience knows what's coming... the excitement should be not 'what?' but 'how?' It changes the emphasis. Usually a movie is about what will happen. Here it's 'How will what we know will happen, happen?'" That sounds about right. And it's true that even when you think you know exactly what's going to happen, the movies can still surprise you. For instance, I saw Gavin Hood's previous films, Tsotsi and Rendition, and now, people who may well have seen them too have hired him to direct a big-budget summer movie. Boy, am I surprised.

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