2005 was something of a historic month. No, we didn’t achieve peace in
our time, but we did see two of the biggest sci-fi franchises reach
their respective conclusions, two franchises that by sheer coincidence
(or… was it coincidence?) have both been in prequel mode for years. This past month, Star Wars fans finally got to see Anakin Skywalker don the famous black helmet and become Darth Vader, while nearly simultaneously, Star Trek
fans finally got to see the birth of the Federation that will
eventually launch James T. Kirk’s Enterprise. The future of both
franchises is unclear—George Lucas has promised a weekly Star Wars TV series, but what shape it will take remains to be seen; Meanwhile, no one knows for sure if there will ever be any more Star Trek. But there’s one thing we’re certain to get a lot more of: Prequels.
Thanks to the mind-boggling success of Episodes I through III,
prequel-mania has hit Hollywood, and hit it hard. Over the coming
months and years, you’ll be seeing the formative years of many a
well-established character, in movies like Fletch Won (Kevin Smith directing Jason Lee as the reporter who will grow up to be Chevy Chase), Young Hannibal (yet another prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, this time focusing on the Cannibal’s childhood), Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power (Jay "Crazy/Beautiful" Hernandez as a young Al Pacino, co-starring with none other than P. Diddy [!]), Batman Begins
(though, for my money, not technically a prequel—Does anyone
seriously think Christopher Nolan is showing us the sequence of events
that leads up to the Joel Schumacher films?), and if they can ever
untangle all the legal issues, Peter Jackson might just direct an
adaptation of The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien’s prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With this spate of releases on the horizon, would anyone really be surprised if the next 007 movie turned out to be Jimmy Bond: The Prep School Years? (Laugh all you want, but they’ve already published a novel along those lines.)
This whole prequel craze got me to thinking about the nature of
prequels in general, about movie prequels specifically, and about where
that word "prequel" came from in the first place. "Prequel" is nearly
synonymous with the modern Star Wars
trilogy, so much so that a lot of people think George Lucas himself
coined the word. After all, the current prequels were first promised to
us 25 years ago, when audiences attending the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back saw an opening crawl that began with the words "Episode V". After the initial bafflement of How did we suddenly jump from the first movie to the fifth movie?,
the answer became clear: What we thought was the first movie was really
the fourth movie, and there were actually three stories set
chronologically before the freshly re-titled Star Wars: A New Hope. They just hadn’t been filmed yet.
It seemed like a revolutionary concept back in 1980, but prequels had
been around a lot longer than that. The first citation of the word is
in a 1972 volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
and just a few years later, several novelists would lay claim to
coining the word. (Including JRR Tolkien himself, while discussing his
upcoming Silmarillion. It doesn’t surprise me that so many
would allege to have invented it. The brilliance of a word like
"prequel" is that even if you’ve never heard it before, you know
exactly what it means.)
And the basic concept of prequels goes back a lot father than the
actual word, if you take into account the realm of comic books. Comics
have been reaching back in time to tell the origin stories of
established superheroes for decades, from the most peripheral to the
most famous. After all, what was DC Comics’ long-running Superboy series, if not an extended prequel to the Man of Steel’s concurrent adventures?
So in some ways, this prequel craze is nothing more than Hollywood finally discovering the origin story. But even movie prequels go back a long ways; 1979 to be exact, with the release of Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
was a monster hit for 20th Century Fox back in 1969, so they were
obviously keen on making a sequel. Unfortunately, the fact that the
first movie ended with the two outlaws rushing to their imminent deaths
sort of put a damper on plans for a direct follow-up. Making a
traditional sequel to Butch and Sundance would have been akin to making Thelma and Louise 2,
with an opening scene depicting the female fugitives’ car making a
gentle landing on the opposite side of that canyon and speeding off,
ready to raise more hell.
And considering there was no amount of money that would lure either
Paul Newman or Robert Redford back, it became clear that the only way
to return to Butch and Sundance was to turn back the clock. To travel
back in time to when the two men first met, long before Robert LeRoy
Parker became Butch Cassidy, and way before Sundance became a film festival. And thus Fox begat Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, starring Tom Berenger as Butch and William "Greatest American Hero" Katt as the Sundance Kid.
The two actors are likable enough in these inherited roles, and the
film does a pretty good job of emulating the lighthearted (and
softheaded) tone of the original. Director Richard Lester (who would
later kill the Superman
movie franchise and eat its babies) actually reigns in his natural
tendency towards screwball antics here, and turns in a classy,
entertaining follow-up. Unfortunately, despite Tom Berenger’s desperate
attempt to convince audiences that he, in fact, was Paul Newman, audiences weren’t buying these substitute outlaws.
I must admit there was a moment in Butch and Sundance: The Early Days
that got stuck in my craw, so to speak. In the movie, the two men meet
long before they pick out their outlaw monikers, and thus, both men are
well aware of each other’s real names. How to reconcile this, then,
with a scene early on in the original Butch and Sundance, where each man seems to be learning the other’s real name for the very first time?
I went through all kinds of mental gyrations—maybe Butch and Sundance
had merely forgotten each other’s real names after so many years, or
maybe they were just joking around in their typically dry manner and
pretending not to know—until it finally hit me: I was doing exactly
the same thing as droves of Star Wars and Star Trek fans who try to
rationalize and explain away every inconsistency between a prequel and
its original source.
Rationalization is the dance of the prequel. In thinking this hard about Butch and Sundance, I was really no different from anyone who tried to make sense of Obi-Wan having no memory of R2-D2 in A New Hope,
or anyone who tried to explain how Romulans could have cloaking devices
a hundred years before Spock seemed surprised that such devices even
existed at all. And that was when I realized I’ve been analyzing movies
way too long.
Nevertheless, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days may have been the first true movie prequel, but it certainly wasn’t the last. In the intervening years between it and The Phantom Menace, we got Amityville II: The Possession (the "true" story of the brutal murders that led to the haunting of the Amityville residence in the first place), Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (Chuck Norris fights the Vietnam War all over again), Psycho IV: The Beginning (the childhood memories of Norman Bates), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (the events leading up to Laura Palmer’s murder, in what’s probably the only movie prequel to a TV series), The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (the long-awaited depiction of the very first meeting of Fred and Wilma), The Sum of All Fears (better known as I Was a Teenage Jack Ryan), Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (basically, the entire population of Perfection transported to the 1800s), and not one, but two prequels to The Exorcist in less than a year. Whew!
In retrospect, the current rash of prequels doesn’t seem all that
outlandish. It’s been a tactic employed for years, not just in movies,
but also on TV, with Smallville, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, and of course, Star Trek: Enterprise being the most recent examples.
(And since we’re on the subject of Indiana Jones, one movie that always seems to escape the prequel label is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, despite taking place one year prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark,
at least, according to the captions shown on screen. The reasoning
behind the time shift is never revealed—perhaps the events of Temple are what make Indy more wary of booby trapped sanctuaries in Raiders, but that’s only a guess—and it even causes continuity issues of its own: After the occultist activities Indy witnessed in Temple,
why would he be so reluctant, just one year later, to believe the Ark
of the Covenant really had supernatural powers? But there I go, doing
the dance of the prequel again.)
There are a few reasons why studios dip into the prequel well, but
they’re generally pretty easy to figure out, based on the movies
they’ve churned out so far.
First, prequels are an easy way to continue a series when the original
actors have moved on to greater fame and fortune. This is how we end up
with films like Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, a facile attempt to replace a too-pricey Jim Carrey with a younger look-alike, or Red Dragon,
an attempt to carry on the saga of Hannibal Lecter long after it was
clear Jodie Foster had no intention of ever reprising the role of
Prequels are also an easy way to "reinvent" older franchises for a
newer audience (read: younger demographic). A warm reboot, if you will.
Some franchises, like Young Indiana Jones and Smallville,
are relatively upfront about wanting to appeal to a younger crowd,
while others aren’t so upfront, but ultimately, that’s certainly the
goal of almost all prequels.
But the most obvious reason we’re getting so many prequels these days is simple: It’s because the Star Wars
prequels have been so successful. And if there’s anything Hollywood has
shown us over the years, it’s a total inability to look back farther
than six months when it comes to deciding what will be successful in
In that respect, prequels aren’t much different than any other type of
sequel. A sequel that takes place before its predecessor is still a
sequel, after all, and in the wrong hands it’s just another childhood
memory to be plundered, another pop culture touchstone to be overturned
in search of a quick buck.
The good news is that this trend probably won’t last long, because the
prequels we’ve gotten so far can be summed up in a word: pointless. Was
there anyone outside of hardcore Exorcist
fans really that eager to learn about the youthful exploits of Father
Lankester Merrin (in two separate films)? Did we really need to know
how Klingons got their ridges? Does anybody really care about the
childhood of Hannibal Lecter? Eventually, studios will have to face
facts: If the prequel films were instead titled Pouty Guy with Glowing Sword Gets Evil, no one would have cared in the slightest.
Sooner or later, we’ll reach a point where people will get tired of
watching uninspired prequels, and they’ll stop making them. And then
the studios will dutifully go back to making childhood-raping films
that take place chronologically after the movies you grew up watching. I can’t wait!