• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Looking at it Sideways: 2012, The Year of Unconventional Franchise Narratives…

By now I think we’ve all become quite familiar with the cycle of Hollywood movie franchises. I’m not inherently opposed to the concept – I think that Sturgeon’s Law applies at least as much to original and independent films as it does to big-budget franchise films. The prospect of movie sequels, reboots, prequels and remakes isn’t a new thing, after all. Hollywood has always had a tendency to emulate financially successful movies, finding a way to exploit the movie property to maximise the profit off the back of it. It’s an inherently commercial prospect, but virtually any form of mass media must be in order to be viable. However, I’ve been fascinated with how the Hollywood franchise train seems to be working this year – it seems like we’ve been getting stuff that’s a little different than the conventional reboots, sequels and remakes.

It’s a whole other universe out there…

In most series, there’s a fairly clear logical progression – sequels tend to lead into one another, developing the plot and following on the action. So, for example, James Bond first meets Blofeld in person in You Only Live Twice, faces him again in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and then once more in Diamonds Are Forever. There’s a clear progression and causality there, with the second film following on from the previous installment. Even if it’s a loose connection – like Star Trek: Nemesis to Star Trek – it’s easy enough to follow.

Occasionally there are kinks or variations. Get Him to the Greek is a spin-off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, following a particular character from that film, rather than the lead. The Jaws sequels tend to focus on different characters (and different sharks) but there’s a clear connection. Even if you have a prequel, there’s a fairly clear line between that prequel and the original film. Minor continuity mismatches aside, Magneto’s character arc in X-Men: First Class follows through to the character’s actions in X-Men. If you’re rebooting or remaking, the angle is just as clear – you are repeating the same characters and plot points albeit in a slightly novel setting.

You don’t have to be especially sharp to make the connections…

So, I’ll confess that I’ve found the plotting of some of this summer’s franchises to be quite interesting – if only because some of the films represent significant departures from that standard formula. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of the more straight-forward sequels, prequels and reboots around – The Amazing Spider-Man is a fairly typical reboot, while The Dark Knight Rises will connect quite linearly with The Dark Knight. However, there are several films this year that don’t connect in such an obvious or straightforward manner.

Consider Prometheus, which is being released Stateside next week. All during its production, there was a lot of idle gossip about whether or not the film was a “prequel” to Ridley Scott’s iconic Alien. It was suggested that it would be a direct lead-in to that science-fiction masterpiece, explaining the origin of the mysterious “space jockey” found on LV-246 with a not-quite-so-mysterious hole in his chest. The notion seemed to be that the end of Prometheus might be a “set-up” for Alien.

Logical continuity helps keep my head straight…

That turned out not to be the case. While the movie did explore the notion of the “space jockey”, it didn’t offer the back story of that particular space jockey. It took place on an entirely different planet, rather than setting the scene on LV-246. While there’s a possibility a sequel might tie-in more directly, it seems that there was no direct connection to Scott’s Alien, just an overlap of concepts.

The design aesthetic, the android David and the “engineers” are all concepts shared between the films, but there’s no direct causal link that I can see. As Damon Lindelof explained, “The sequel to Prometheus is not Alien. The sequel to Prometheus, if it does well and people like it, would be another movie that goes off in its own direction and runs tangentially to Alien.” It’s a fair summary of the relationship between the two – there’s no causation. Alien doesn’t happen (or, at least, we have no reason to believe it happens) because of what happens in Prometheus. In fact, Prometheus’ explanation for the origins of the eponymous critter is something that a lot of people have believed for a long time, rather than some epic missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

Casual fans must be Bourne in mind…

Part of me suspects that the reason for the somewhat lukewarm response to the film is somewhat due to that gulf between creators and audiences – audiences seem to be expecting a direct prequel, rather than a movie that clearly fits within the same framework, and answers certain conceptual questions, but doesn’t have a definitive cause-and-effect link. I suspect that had Prometheus been marketed as a stand-alone science-fiction film rather than an installment in some shared series, the response would have been a lot warmer.

And Prometheus isn’t the only film to play with that sort of link between movie continuities – the idea that movies can coexist in the same shared fictional space without following a logical progression. I’d argue that The Avengers occupies a somewhat similar niche. It builds off the threads established in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America, but isn’t really a direct sequel to any of them.

Did somebody say “crossover”?

It plays off what the viewer learned about each of the characters and their worlds in those films, but it doesn’t necessary follow the same causality. It’s simultaneously a sequel to five movies, without being a direct sequel to any of them. Instead, it pulls various narrative threads from each together to weave its own story. It’s possible to watch and enjoy the film without having seen any of the lead-ins, and none provide any truly “essential” information. I think it’s a fascinating narrative experiment, something that took a lot of courage from a major Hollywood studio and is a little outside the conventional blockbuster franchise format.

By the looks of the preview trailer, The Bourne Legacy might be something similar. Of course, we don’t know everything yet, but it looks to tell a story that is at least a little in parallel to the original trilogy, rather than a direct sequel – weaving a mythology”between the scenes” of the three movies we’ve already seen. Indeed, the trailer seems to indicate we might be seeing certain films from another angle. It seems like a slightly more creative approach to the franchise than simply following on directly from the three movies, or rebooting, or even making a prequel.

World building…

I’m not arguing that this is a new era of originality for Hollywood or anything, but I do think that this approach to developing franchises is a bit more interesting than the more conventional approach that we’re used to. I remember during the nineties when studio thinking was so rigid and linear that the prospect of a Superman vs. Batman film was an impossibility, as was the idea that a writer and director might explore a previously established fictional universe through any method other than a direct sequel. I find it interesting, from a purely narrative point of view.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: