Every time a prequel craps all over movie goers' expectations from high atop a pile of money, there seems to be a common refrain among disappointed fans: How could they waste all that potential?! Afterall, a franchise loses its luster with each passing sequel. But the prequels should reverse the aging process, since they rewind the storyline to back before the original movie was ruined. The brainless jack offs in Hollywood must be trying to ruin these franchises. One thing you rarely hear people bring up is that it might be literally impossible to make a good movie prequel. After all ...
The Past Was Better Before We Saw It Happen
When a magician hears the audience gasp and say, "How'd he do that?" he does not turn around and loudly announce, "Oh, the rabbit's in my assistant's ass." Similarly, professional writers know that there are some questions that their audience doesn't want answered, even though they think they do. Like a magician, a writer wants his audience to live in that space between knowing and wanting to know. That's what keeps them coming back for more. Unfortunately, when Hollywood studio executives hear the audience asking questions, they hire someone to start writing a prequel.
Questions invite thought, and audiences hate that.
Hannibal Lecter became a pop culture icon in part because he was gleefully engaged in the taboo act of cannibalism without any specific reason motivating him to be such an evil bastard. 2007 brought us Hannibal Rising, which explained that Lecter was a tortured youth during WWII who got tricked into eating his dead sister.
If we're going to call the young Vito Corleone scenes in The Godfather Part II a prequel, we'll go ahead and bestow the same status on the first 30 or so minutes of Rob Zombie's remake of John Carpenter's Halloween. The film delves into the childhood of Michael Myers, making crystal clear exactly how a young boy could commit such brutal murders. The short version is "He grew up in an abusive environment surrounded by a bunch of shitty rednecks."
Queue the tune from Deliverance.
Of course, this completely undermines exactly what was so scary about Michael Meyers. Carpenter went to great lengths to make Meyers straddle the line between inhuman nightmare cipher, and guy next door. He grounds everything in the real world by giving him a name, and putting him in a mental institution. But then he gives him a mask and motives that are intentionally vague. Carpenter knew that the blank mask allowed us to project whatever we wanted onto the character and that this is what we found scary. Rob Zombie apparently knew a few things he picked up about human psychology while watching Law and Order: SVU.
But the grand prize for supplying information that the audience doesn't need or want goes to the Star Wars prequels. The very thing that made the original films cool was that they combined Eastern mysticism with the typically dry sci-fi genre. Well, it turns out that all that mysticism was an accident. As the prequels explain, the Force was grounded in science, not mysticism. It's a bacterial infection.
This is what makes telekinesis possible.
Characters Need to Be Less Interesting to Make Sense
The natural inclination of a film franchise is to show the main character progressing and changing. If the movie works, the character is a little different at the end. Writers want the characters to evolve and so do we. A prequel hits "reset" on this process. You're starting with a character that is either the same one we wanted to see change when the original movie started, or one that's worse, and had to become more interesting to become that less interesting version the franchise started with.
Badass murder cyborgs > Whiny little shits.
In the Star Wars prequels, Anakin spends three movies whining about the inevitable change we all know is coming. It's the opposite of suspense. It's like listening to a joke that you already know the punch line to being stretched out over six hours. Unfortunately, that's what's needed to make Vaders bad ass nature in episodes IV-VI an act of progress.
Man's inhumanity to man is a terrible thing to behold.
The other problem here is that casting is borderline impossible. Despite giving a much better performance as Sabertooth, Liev Schreiber seems like he's pretending to be someone we've already seen played by Tyler Mane. The problem isn't Schreiber, who can act circles around Mane. It's that his character by nature has to be less interesting. Otherwise, he makes no damn sense.
Speaking of which ...
... Or They Can Just Make No Sense
The other option is to go ahead and ignore everything we know about what the character becomes in the future, which is what the Star Wars prequels did to Yoda. When we meet him for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, he's a wise old Muppet who tells Luke that war and battle do not bring glory and that a person shouldn't be judged by his size or fighting abilities.
"Size matters not..."
Unfortunately, the second movie, which took place several decades before he dispenses his wise advice, needed an awesome sword fight for its climax. So we get Star Wars' answer to Gandhi hopping around like a coked up-circus monkey, flailing his lightsaber around before leading clone troopers into a glorious battle against a droid army.
"...as long as you have a laser sword and super powers."
Comparing his actions to what he tells Luke in Episode V gives the impression that Yoda has either:
A) Turned into a bitter old hypocrite who is conveniently neglecting to mention that he didn't always live up to the standard that he's setting for others
B) Conveniently forgotten everything that happened a couple decades ago, making him more deserving of his cultural reputation as a stoner than previously suspected.
C) Is sabotaging Luke by steering him away from the violent tactics he knows get results.
The Star Wars prequels are so excessively guilty of abandoning logic to shoe horn characters in that fans had to make up a bunch of wild theories to try to make a couple of characters fit better. The absolute silliest excuse was when they brought in C3PO so that viewers could enjoy more of his witty banter with R2D2. Turns out that Luke's dad built him when he was a little kid. Fans had to put up with that little gem of WTF so Lucas could have more of his beloved robot comedy duo taking up screen time. But this means that the characters know way too much for any of the subsequent movies that everyone loved to make sense. Are they pretending to be in the dark with everyone else about who Vader really is? Are they secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes?
What's the Opposite of Suspense?
Even if film makers can avoid all of the pitfalls mentioned above, there's one problem that's almost guaranteed to sink a prequel before it even sets sail. It's called suspense, or rather the lack thereof. The vast majority of movies that get prequels are action films, a genre that's driven by the conceit that death is around every corner.
No matter HOW cool your costume looks.
A prequel crushes this tension right from the get go. In Star Wars Episodes I through III we know that Anakin, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Palpatine, R2-D2 and C-3PO all have to be alive at the end. Same thing goes for Wolverine, Cyclops, Sabertooth and Stryker in Origins.
But you don't need it to be a movie with sword fights for a prequel to suck. Once the question of "Where's this going? Is this character going to make it?" has been eliminated, the question at the back of our mind becomes "How are we going to get there? Is it going to live up to the vague versions of events I've already supplied in my mind?" Instead of getting swallowed up by the film, the audience is passively judging it. It's the same reason people who have read the book always say they liked it better. The version you had in your head was made specifically for you by your brain. Instead of getting involved in the story, you're sitting back judging how the movie version is different from the choices you made.
We would have given Hannibal a 'fro.
This is probably what tricks us into thinking that prequels are easy to make. We're seeing someone tell a story that we've already told ourselves. This leads us to believe that telling the story our way would have been better. And it would have been. For you. But the rest of the audience would hate your answers just as much as you hated George Lucas'.
There Are Only Two Good Movie Prequels (And They Weren't Really Prequels)
Of course, it can't be impossible to make a good prequel. Right? Cinephiles generally point to two films for proof that the concept can work. The first one is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Wait, you didn't know it was a prequel? That's because the only signal that we've gone back in time to before the events of Raiders is the title card at the beginning that mentions that it takes place in 1935 (Raiders took place in 1936).
In fact, according to Lucas and Spielberg, the only reason it took place before Raiders was because Lucas didn't want the Nazis to be the villains again. If he set the film after Raiders, it would have to have taken place during WWII. They just made another movie with the same central character and called it a prequel so Indiana Jones would be remembered as an adventurer instead of that guy who fights Nazis with a bullwhip. It was a prequel in as much as an episode of Seinfeld from Season 4 was a prequel to an episode from Season 5.
Of course, there's no way to discredit Godfather Part II which, according to prequel defenders, invented and perfected the idea of the movie prequel at the same time by showing how Vito Corleone rose to power.
And provided fodder for this comedy classic.
Except the second Godfather was even less of a prequel than Temple of Doom. Almost exactly one hour, or way less than a third, of the movie takes place in the past. Michael Bay puts more of his movies in slow motion. The idea of setting so many scenes in the past worked brilliantly alongside the story that was unfolding in the present, just like it did in Lost when it was called a flashback.
This was back before his wine years.
Hollywood seized on the flashback part, and over thirty terrible prequels later, they still haven't learned what Coppola knew when he "invented" the convention. And unless Hollywood starts hating money, Ridley Scott's upcoming Alien prequel isn't going to slow the onslaught. We'll all probably go see it, even though we know we'll be disappointed. At least now we'll all know why.
As long as they go over Hicks' past as a college foosball champion.