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Rise of the prequel

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THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING The trend of prequels like Wolverine
THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING The trend of prequels like Wolverine

PARVATHI NAYAR

Have prequels become the order of the day?

Sequels, though hugely popular, are running out of innovative ideas. The prequel is the recession-proof solution

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 J.J. Abrams.

Abrams gives a textbook lesson on how the prequel is a chance to re-establish 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.

The same issue, incidentally, 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.

Back to the future

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): i.e., 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.

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.


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