Have prequels become the order of the day? An analysis by parvathi nayar
Hollywood films based on all-new stories have gone the way of the dinosaur: into inexplicable extinction. You’d think a juggernaut with that many resources couldn’t possibly run out of fresh ideas — and maybe it hasn’t, but what Hollywood is all out of, is the nerve to make films based on them. The recession helps, too, as a convenient whipping dog for studios to explain their loss of risk-taking appetite. So what’s to be done to ensure — supposedly — surefire releases at the box office? “The Prequel” is a solution that’s won supporters.
See, it comes down to familiarity, which, as anyone in the marketing business will tell you, is a very good thing indeed. It’s why collectors flock to buy a particular artist’s works, or tourists hasten to Starbucks for a Java-fix, or moviegoers queue for yet another instalment of The Fast and The Furious. These folks know exactly what they are paying for, satisfaction guaranteed.
But familiarity can breed contempt, with viewers getting tired of rehashes despite liking the franchises. Sequels though hugely popular, are running out of innovative ideas, plot twists and surprises, having churned out so many stories in the world of its characters.
Presto: The Prequel. Star Trek must rank among the best this year, smartly directed by Lost the TV series’ creator JJ Abrams. Abrams gives a textbook lesson on how the prequel is a chance to reestablish the favourite franchise in a slightly different setting, so you have the twin advantages of familiar characters and fresh story-spinning opportunities.
Another prequel that got everything right was Batman Begins by Christopher Nolan starring Christian Bale, which reinstated the dark ambiguities of the original comics. Not to overanalyse — after all, Nolan did say of his film, that “blowing stuff up is particularly exciting” — but Begins did reinvent the franchise. Batman was in desperate need of some talent transfusion, having been reduced to boring parody.
Back to the beginning
The same issue, incidentally, that was faced by the Bond franchise — which, by this stage — left one neither shaken nor stirred. The solution: reboot the franchise and take double-oh-seven back to the beginning. Daniel Craig certainly earned his licence to kill with Casino Royale.
Other prequels are simply about past events that have been mentioned in hit movies. Thus Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, shown here earlier this year, was about the vampire-werewolf war that’s referred to in the first two Underworld films. In this Prequel-as-Backstory category, the trio of films set a long time ago in a galaxy far away must be the most hyped. And the biggest disappointment. Fans of the original loathed the three Star Wars movies that were last released — which are actually the first three in the story.
Writers of prequels should have learnt something from the Star Wars debacle (in terms of artistic merit, that is, as opposed to box office takings): ie, if your intention is merely to put the backstory onscreen, do remember that viewers already know the ending. Which might be why, X-Men Origins: Wolverine — that looks at how Wolverine came to be who he is — has underwhelmed the critics, despite an admirably ripped Hugh Jackman.
Nitpickers may argue about the categorisation of the fourth Terminator (T4) film. Though Terminator Salvation is set in the future, it refers to a time before the first Terminator film — and can therefore be classified as a prequel in a back to the future sort of way. Christian Bale, meanwhile, seems to be developing a bit of a side career as the prequel hero of choice, what with Batman and the hugely entertaining, “let’s kill some machines” T4.
Despite the iconic governor of California not — quite — featuring in T4, it has done stupendous business in Tamil Nadu: the film grossed over a crore for the first week, based on releases in some 100 centres, the majority being Tamil-dubbed prints. Critics and many original Terminator fans weren’t impressed but perhaps they aren’t the target audience of the prequel.
So the brainy move of casting Leonard Nimoy as the “mature” Spock did please some old Trekkies but Abrams, for one, said quite categorically that his movie was not made for fans of the original TV series but “for future fans of the franchise and for people who just want to go on a great thrill ride.” As franchises need new devotees to boldly go where old movies cannot go — way into the future — prequels are probably here to stay.
Some 2009 Prequels in Chennai that have come/are coming to a theatre near you
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Celebratory Prequel — of Hugh Jackman’s body (of acting work) that tells us how Wolverine got his claws.
Back-to-the-Future Prequel — in which Christian Bale kills machines and consolidates his position as the prequel hero of choice.
Star Trek (2009)
The Reboot Prequel — that allows Spock and Capt Kirk to have all-new adventures. Beam me up to the next one Scotty.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Prequel-as-Backstory — where all those burning questions about the rivalry between werewolves and vampires are answered.