Looking Back Instead of Ahead

September 26, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

In general, I don't like prequels. Rarely have I truly been satisfied after reading/watching/experiencing a book/movie/TV show that falls into this category. Maybe that's because I prefer a linear progression when it comes to storytelling. Maybe it's because the average prequel lacks dramatic tension. Or maybe it's because many prequels seem developed to fulfill needs of the creative team rather than those of the faithful masses who consume the product. Yes, I'll get around to the Star Wars prequel trilogy in a few paragraphs, but first I want to make a few general points.

To limit the scope of this discussion, let me focus exclusively on movies, although I could come up with dozens of examples from literature. Most of the time, prequels exist because there's a built-in audience clamoring for more material and, for one reason or another, the filmmakers are unwilling or unable to move the story forward. The average prequel is little more than a glorified expansion of an established backstory. "You may think you know what happened, but here's how it really went down…" Unfortunately, because the future events - including the ending - are known, it's tough to get too excited about any prequel. It's an exercise in filling in the blanks and, if it had been sufficiently interesting in the first place, that's where the story would have begun.

I arrived at this subject because of something I wrote on Tuesday. I was asked about the quote, "Where's Annie?" Those are the words spoken to a mirror by a Bob-possessed Agent Cooper after returning from the White Lodge at the end of the second season finale of Twin Peaks. It would have been a great season-ending cliffhanger but it turned into a series-ending chasm. What a way to keep us hanging. But, wait… Shortly after ABC officially confirmed that the ratings-challenged show was not coming back, David Lynch announced he was going to bring Twin Peaks to the big screen. However, instead of providing some sort of resolution for the devotees who served cherry pie and damn good coffee at Peaks parties every week, he elected to go the prequel route. So Fire Walk with Me was born - a rehash of events leading up to the TV series' pilot. Granted, it was nice to see how Laura behaved while still alive (and freed of TV censorship), but FWWM was just an exercise. As it begins, we know how it's going to end up (with Laura dead, her body wrapped in plastic) and who's going to be responsible (Bob, inhabiting Leland). There were some great moments in the film but, to someone who watched the TV series, it seemed a little redundant.

Star Wars has become the poster child for unsatisfying prequels. I will admit up front that I enjoy them for what they are and I think they work well when placed into the context of a six-film series (assuming one watches them in story-order, not the order in which they were released). However, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that George Lucas misstepped by opting to make Episodes I-III instead of Episodes VII-IX. Wouldn't the money have been better spent advancing the story rather than fleshing out the details of how Anakin became Vader? That was established "history." Fans knew the beats, if not the details. And the fact that the story was less dramatic than some aficionados expected laid the groundwork for a backlash.

I'm not sure when Lucas decided that Star Wars was Vader's story, not Luke's. But it's not the only time he changed direction with the series. When Star Wars was initially released, it was not Episode IV. That was added for a re-release as a nod to the old serials Lucas loved so much, not because he was planning to make three prequels. When a second Star Wars movie became inevitable, Lucas applied some twists to the standard elements of the first movie: Leia fell not for the clean-cut Luke but for the scoundrel Han; Vader was not merely the embodiment of evil, he was Luke's father; and Luke didn't avenge Ben in the lightsaber duel everyone knew was coming, but was soundly defeated. One of the reasons The Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the Star Wars movies is because it defies certain conventions and offers some major surprises. The prequels are incapable of surprising, so they become exercises in backward extrapolation. Maybe the truth is that Lucas didn't know where to go after Vader's death and the Empire's fall. So, when fans demanded more Star Wars, he took the safe route and told a story everyone already knew.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom fails not because it's a prequel but because it's not a very good movie. But there's no real disadvantage to setting this movie before Raiders of the Lost Ark because the films are disconnected. The Indiana Jones series isn't about continuity; it's episodic. We know Indy is going to live, so the question is how he gets out of the scrapes he finds himself in and whether the process of getting from the mountain at the beginning to the end credits is worth the journey. That's why Lucas could jump all around in time with his Indiana Jones TV series. Each adventure is self-contained.

J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek is being touted as a "prequel with a twist." Okay - but why? Is there a belief out there that Star Trek isn't Star Trek without Kirk, Spock, and Bones? 20 years ago, I might have agreed, but The Next Generation changed the parameters. I don't understand the need for recasts. Shatner is Kirk, Nimoy is Spock, and Kelley is McCoy. Let's move on. Make more Star Trek but set 100, 200 years beyond The Next Generation. Let the actors develop their own characters rather than try to inhabit the skins of icons. Maybe Chris Pine will change my mind, but will there be any long-time Star Trek fan who won't be watching this prequel and comparing Pine to Shatner? In all my years of reviewing films, I don't think there will be a more difficult movie for me to write about.

Finally, a word about The Hobbit. It's less of a prequel than an entirely different story that happens to feature some of the same characters who would later show up in The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is very much a stand-alone tale, and was written first by Tolkien. Admittedly, fans are going to be familiar with the story before seeing the movie (the same was true of LotR). This is more about being swept away by the realization of a filmmaker's vision.

Perhaps the real attraction of prequels is that they can be made by lazy filmmakers. Often, the screenplay virtually writes itself and there's no need to worry about the ending - that's already established. As a viewer, I find it hard to become excited about a prequel - even harder than a remake. The direction in which to take characters and storylines is forward, not backward. I want to wonder where things are going, not know with certainty how they're going to end up. In theory, the concept of a prequel might not be a bad one but, in practice, it's rarely executed well.