I’ve always wondered who thought prequels are good ideas. I mean, the ending is a foregone conclusion. It has to end as the other film started. No matter how much danger your leading character is place in, he has to live through it. In fact, the very idea of a prequel is to play out events that you’ve heard about already – so even then you know roughly what’s going to happen and how it’ll turn out before the film is even written. Sure, there are particulars that need to be specified, but it’s an incredibly risky venture – those particulars need to be really awesome in order to justify the film.
What got me thinking about this was the revelation that director Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class will feature the opening scene to Bryan Singer’s X-Men, recreated practically shot-for-shot. Don’t get me wrong, the sequence set in a Nazi concentration camp is powerful stuff – it was shocking to me the first time I saw it and I think it shook a lot of viewers. It demonstrated that simple terms like “goodie” and “baddie” weren’t so easy to apply in the X-Men universe. However, any image repeated loses its power. It seems redundant to offer the exact same imagery again, even if it fits in with goal of “filling in the blanks” between the powerful open scene to the conversation between Magneto and Charles Xavier we witnessed a few moments later.
The problem is that most viewers really don’t need that particular blank filled in. It’s the same problem that a lot of viewers had with the Star Wars prequels (although the bad writing and acting certainly didn’t help). the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Not least of which the fact that, according to producer Gary Kurtz, the Star Wars saga wasn’t planned as one giant story:
Lucas came up with a sprawling treatment that pulled from Flash Gordon, Arthurian legend, The Hidden Fortress and other influences. The document would have required a five-hour film but there was a middle portion that could be carved out as a stand-alone movie.
So, assuming that Star Wars: A New Hope is the middle-section of a five-hour film, that means that there was about an-hour-and-a-half of material that could have formed a prequel cut out. And that ninety minutes would be stretched out to well over six hours. That’s a lot of padding for the audience to sit through.
I can’t help but wonder if the dreaded “reboot” might even be preferable to a prequel. At least in that case you aren’t fenced in by an ending and don’t have to worry about everything synching up perfectly at the end. Sure, the vast majority of reboots and remakes are incredibly bland and predictable, but at least they don’t have to tailor their endings through ridiculous contrivances to match everything up.
Because, when you’ve got a defined ending, you want to at least create the illusion of freedom. You want to play with twists and turns – to somehow trick the audience into thinking “anything can happen”. That said, how many mainstream “original” movies have entirely unpredictable endings? I mean, most action movies will end with the good guy winning. Most romantic comedies will see the leading couple get together. Sure, there are exceptions (and many of them better movies than their more generic brethren), but by and large it’s true.
Still, that sense of predictability is particularly untrue when you’ve got a whole other film (or franchise) to follow. Still, that doesn’t excite audiences, so you play with them. You have particularly crazy and ridiculous things happen while relying on a magical ending to fit it all back into place. X-Men Origins: Wolverine stands out as a fairly obvious example, where the movie tried to be as ridiculous and action-packed as it could be while racing towards a foregone conclusion (literally relying on “a magic bullet” to fix things).
On the one hand, you have a story designed to portray something with which the audience is familiar, but has never seen first hand. On the other hand, the word “predictable” is not one who want associated with your story. So you’re caught in a paradox: you want to do some old and familiar, but also new and fascinating. The Dune prequel books written by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert were particularly disappointing in this regard. They had to show us glimpses of things hinted at in later volumes, but shoehorned in ridiculous plot developments which felt out of place with the universe the original books established. The original planned ending for Terminator: Salvation – which was, in a way, a prequel to the original – featured a similar sort of twist: something entirely different from what you promised and yet the differences ultimately meant nothing.
All that said, prequels aren’t necessarily a bad thing by default. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is actually a prequel to A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More and yet is the commonly regarded as the best of the three films. However, even the most observant viewer couldn’t have spotted it before a relatively quiet conversation between Blondie and a dying soldier about three-quarters of the way through the film:
It is at this point in the movie that Eastwood’s character acquires the signature poncho that he wears in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More—both movies were shot before this one, but take place after the Civil War, and to the extent that the three have any continuity, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a prequel to the other two. As it happens, the two other films feature Eastwood as a cynical but not dishonorable trickster who tries to deal fairly with those who seem to deserve it. So the visual implication is that Blondie has been “transformed” into a (somewhat) nobler character by his encounter with the soldier.
In which case, the movie works as an exploration of character, rather than events. It’s an important moment for Blondie, but never one that we’d heard about or felt like we needed to know about. The biggest reference to what came before (or after) is the fact that he picks up his wardrobe here.
And while Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is by no means the most beloved of the Indiana Jones films (though it would have to try pretty hard to be more hated than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), it’s also a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It doesn’t attempt to offer an origin or to set up the events which occurred in the earlier film, rather it works as a standalone film that just happens to take place before the film which preceded it.
It’s just tough to see the need for a prequel, or how a prequel can be particularly compelling from a storytelling perspective, unless the fact that it is a prequel is almost incidental (and the thing about the above two examples is that not too many film viewers would call them “prequels” offhand). Of course, we can argue about plotting and narratives, but most of these sort of films sell themselves as a journey – it’s about where we end up. Unfortunately, with prequels, we know before we even start.