Sunday Night Rants
I’ve been building a head of steam this summer about some of the most blatantly lazy trends in Hollywood film making. Those who I’ve worked with in the past can recall fondly how after a long week, all of the irritations and frustrations would boil over on Sunday nights into what became affectionately called Neil’s Sunday Night Rant. People would gather from far and wide to hear these diatribes. Some were profane. Many of them were funny. All of them involved a liberal dosage of honesty sauce (read: beer.) So I’ve decided to relaunch this time honored tradition, and to vent my spleen (and liver) upon a subject I love dearly, Movies. First up in the cross-hairs: Prequels.
Take a brief moment and think off all of the prequels you can recall. Perhaps write them down. Now cross out all of the ones you recall disliking. Any films left on that list? Here’s my version of that exercise:
The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith Prometheus
- Batman Begins
The Hobbit(parts 1-6? How many of those damn things did they end up making?) 300: Rise of an Empire Carlito’s Way, Rise to Power Dominion(The Exorcist) The Flintstones Viva Rock Vegas Hannibal Rising
- The Godfather Part II
Ong Bak 2 Oz the Great and Powerful
- The Good the Bad and the Ugly
The Scorpion King The Transporter Refueled X-Men Origins Wolverine, X-Men First Class
- Puss in Boots
Pan Dumb and Dumberer Fast Five
So there you have it. By no means an exhaustive list (I left most of the horror movie series out of it, because the 3rd movie is ALWAYS a prequel nowadays.) Five out of twenty. Let’s punch that into the old Ti-82 and the answer is…Fail. Not a close margin, either. If you get that score on a quiz, you get asked to drop the course. So why does Hollywood keep making these films?
Why Make Prequels?
There are several reasons, in my opinion:
- Name recognition. Audiences clamor for more of what they already love, and a prequel means you don’t have to even generate a plot. We all know where the story of Anakin Skywalker is going to end up. Just throw some explosions and lightsabers into a blender and poof, you’ve got another Star Wars movie, ready for fans to gobble up.
- There’s no room for growth. If the series has petered out, been over-exposed, or even just wrapped up in a satisfactory manner, there really isn’t much blood left to squeeze out of further iterations. If the sequels petered out, you can promise fans that your going back in time to when the movie universe wasn’t spent. If the movie is over exposed or has become bloated, you can promise to pair down the cast and plot back to a manageable moment in their history. And if the series ended up with everyone happily ever after, you better not dare screw with that ending…so your only option is to go back in the timeline to when the series still had a going concern.
Your franchise only really has one big character. How are you going to take apart a larger universe in order to get at the one character who is really driving interest in the series? If you just throw everyone else overboard in a sequel (Chronicles of Riddick) you’re going to piss off fans who at least acknowledge other people besides your heavy exists. You need an origin story!
- They’re easy as sin. You have an installed fan base, a well known roster of characters, a well defined universe, and a definite goal to work towards. You don’t need to take any risks, and in fact, are hell bent on not taking any. You just need an excuse to push people’s nostalgia buttons, to the tune of 10$ a ticket. Of all the prequels up on that list, very few lost money. Even The Trasporter Refueled made back double it’s budget when the final numbers were toted up. And that movie was shit!
Why Do Prequels (Nearly) Always Suck?
All of the reasons to make a sequel pertain to how easy it is to get people to buy a ticket that have nothing to do with how good the movie actually looks. None of those reasons are based upon the artistic necessity of a prequel existing. The films that had the most success were mostly side stories. A like-able character is taken out of context and given a chance to shine in a way that will ultimately affect nothing in the larger universe of the films. Of the worst offenders, I have to say that the origin story is far and away the quickest route to making a terrible film. Here’s why:
- You can’t change anything important in a prequel. An origin story has a clear end point, one that everyone knows. You’re hands are pretty much tied about how your film has to end. If you deviate from the cannon, you’re going to discover the righteous fury of every fan with a keyboard. You likewise can’t mess very much with who is important, how they are related to other characters, or how they develop. By the end of your flick, Bruce Wayne had damn well better be Batman, and Anakin had damn well better have developed a raspy breathing problem and a suspiciously deep voice. You can’t mess with the accepted facts…
…So you mess with everything that’s not important. You need some sort of novelty for your prequel. If your story starts with the Alien just sitting on a space rock for two hours, waiting for Ripley to wander by in the Nostromo, you’re going to get howled out of the movie business. You need to innovate…just not in a way that actually introduces anything major. Great. Cue the addition of villains or companions who look suspiciously like main characters from the original films, with just a little tweak. Now your Peter Pan can battle pirates…just not a particular pirate named Captain Hook. Because that was the original. In prequels, you see characters sprout up and get thrown away like kleenex. If your character does become beloved (Darth Maul) too bad, he’s still gotta die by the time the prequel is over, because if he was so damned cool and still alive, why wasn’t he in the original films? Once again, you can’t create anything that will last inside the prequel because nothing can change. So generic events populated by generic characters that lead to nothing of major import. Rivetting film making there.
You’re telling people what they already know. To press that nostalgia button good and hard, you’re going to have to tell stories that people are already familiar with. We know Vader was once a man. We know that Peter Pan must have gotten to Neverland somehow. We know that Batman wasn’t always a bat-shit crazy kung-fu vigilante with a sweet car. But good original stories always do at least SOME backstory, even if only in a few throw-away lines. Guess what? You are now making a full movie about two or three throw-away lines from a beloved classic. Holy hell, are you boned!
- You’re going to contradict what people thought they knew. Let’s say you want to really tell a new story (well, not really new, you are making a prequel, after all.) So you’re going to do a bit of jiggery-pokery with the established story lines and perhaps fudge those stories into something altogether novel. And, by God, people are going to hate your for it! How dare you change the fearsome Alien into a puppy-seal with teeth looking thing! How dare you make Vader a wuss! How dare you take the spotlight off of our ordained hero to explain the story of some other schlub who turns out was way more important in the fictional genesis of the franchise! Even if don’t try to re-invent the wheel, you are going to contradict the audience at every turn SIMPLY BY TELLING THE STORY AT ALL!
Doomed to Annoy
For me, that is the biggest sin of a prequel. When I’ve invested my imagination in a series, I’ve already taken the liberty of filling in the backstory. When you told me Anakin was a great pilot, I pictured a grizzled young man, fighting bitching dog fights in space. I certainly didn’t picture a mop headed poppet futzing around in a pod racer! I already had a perfectly working history of Hannibal Lecter (mine involved pirates and zombie shark cannibals abducting him at a young age to serve as their galley boy) so when you come around and tell me that I was dead wrong, I’m going to resent the hell out of it. Prequels squeeze all of the wonder out of the story precisely because they obsessively fill in the gaps. The future of a series is extremely speculative, and I can get miffed if it doesn’t go how I hoped, but I’m not going to get nearly as angry as when you punch my personal version of a film’s history full of holes, especially since by leaving the details out in the first place, you tacitly invited me to create my own.
Prequels seem like an especially barren patch of soil, imaginatively, for a studio to explore. It’s not new stories or new characters. A prequel that doesn’t operate as a “what if?” side story feels like a bossy older sibling who comes over, grabs your toys, and tells you that you’ve been imagining their stories all wrong. Well sorry, Hollywood, me and my angry but talented young star-fighter pilot named Anakin are going to blow up the Technodrome and save He-Man from the evil empire. Now go piss off and ruin some other kids favorite make-believe! (May I suggest the kids playing with the Garfield stuffed toys? Seriously, fuck Garfield and his stupid toy line. Those plastic eyes on those toys were lethal weapons!)