The problem with prequels

As the Bourne franchise potentially heads to prequel territory, we wrap our head around one of Hollywood's favourite trends right now...

Problem prequels

Yesterday, it was reported that Matt Damon had told Empire magazine that his next Bourne movie was still set to be around five years away. In place, he suggested, Universal might instead choose to go with a prequel story, a young Jason Bourne with a new actor and director involved.

And you can see Universal’s thinking if it did. It’d be hedging its bets in a not dissimilar way to how Sony did when it commissioned a James Vanderbilt Spider-Man script alongside all the drafts that were done for Spider-Man 4. Thus, when the Spider-Man 4 project collapsed, it had a rebooted version ready to go.

In the case of Bourne, it’s arguably the other way round. Right now, Matt Damon is Jason Bourne on the big screen. Matt Damon is also expensive. Were Universal to push ahead with the prequel Bourne story, then it’d get a chance to try the franchise out with someone else in the lead role, full in the knowledge that Damon was there to call on a year or two later should things not work out.

In short, the best end result for Universal would be that a cheaper prequel Bourne would be such a massive hit that it wouldn’t need to go chasing the costlier pairing of Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass several years down the road. It’d have the same franchise, just less expense.

Ad – content continues below

Prequels, though, are littered with problems. Right now, on TV we’re following Caprica, a show that’s predating the storylines of Battlestar Galactica by over 50 years. Yet, it’s still having to intricately balance how to thread everything together. We know where the story of Caprica has to go, and that immediately is something that the writers have to work against. That’s a difficult trick to pull off, one it remains to be seen how well Caprica can do. Early signs are encouraging, to be fair.

It does highlight the problem with a prequel, thought. Because in many ways, a prequel is a harder job and a harder sell than a sequel, simply because, by definition, it doesn’t automatically feel like you’re getting anything new. And more crucially, you know exactly where it’s going. Also, in the quest to find narrative surprises, you find yourself digging back into things that often don’t need digging into, hindered by the fact that the audience already knows where pretty much everything and everyone needs to be by the time final credits roll.

That’s not to say that films and TV programmes where the narrative has to get from a starting point to an ending that you already know when you sit down to watch can’t work. It’s just that they usually don’t. Often, you’re left with the impression that the story has been laboured over to the point of taking any fun, spontaneity and enjoyment right out of it. That the pressure of so tightly fitting an already-established narrative framework is too much, that the constraints are too tight.

The obvious example to cite is the third Star Wars prequel movie, Revenge Of The Sith. Sith‘s job actually wasn’t that complicated on paper: it had to take a mildly perturbed Anakin Skywalker at the start of the film, and in just over two hours, turn him into Darth Vader. I’m firmly in the camp that Revenge Of The Sith was and is a massive disappointment, labouring enormously over a story of, bluntly, someone turning bad. The problem being by the end of the film, I wasn’t ultimately convinced as to why he’d done half the things he’d done, and worst of all, nor did I care any more. Plus the massive “Nooooooooo” didn’t help either.

I was left with the overwhelming feeling, though, that I’d been told a story I didn’t actually need to be told, and that it capped a trilogy of films made for the wrong reasons.

Yet, the graveyard of prequels is full of franchises that simply ran out of ideas, and went for the origins or preceding story instead. And usually there’s a cynical reason for them happening in the first place. So there’s Dumb And Dumberer (needed a sequel, no way Jim Carrey was coming back), Exorcist 4 (needing more blood out of that particular stone), Red Dragon (not helped by the fact that Manhunter had done the same story much more effectively, but even so, by this time Hannibal Lecter’s origins was all they had left to explore in the Anthony Hopkins run of films), Little Mermaid 3 (Disney milking the franchise to death, there’s more than one example of how its direct to DVD films did this) and many more that can, no doubt, trip off the tongue.

Ad – content continues below

But there are times when it works. Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, The Godfather Part II and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me could all be chalked up as successes, for instance. Yet these seem to be the exceptions to the rule. Further exceptions? That’s where the reboot comes in.

For when prequels work, it’s usually when there’s some sort of reboot involved, although then it also helps that personnel in front of and behind the camera are changed too. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins are all technically prequel stories. They’re also genesis stories of varying degrees, which themselves can be laboured with problems, but generally seem to work better than a straight prequel story (we’re looking at you, Wolverine).

Thus, prequels, by definition, aren’t always a bad thing. But the problem is that they’re being seen as an increasingly lazy option when there’s nowhere to go in a particular franchise. They’re being introduced for business reasons, when a franchise needs re-casting, or simply to get a series out of a narrative hole. When an entire franchise needs refreshing creatively, there’s at least a reason to hit the prequel button, and these are the times when the prequel seems to work the best.

If Universal does pursue a Bourne prequel, its motivation is clearly twofold. Firstly, it simply wants a new Bourne film in cinemas in the next couple of years, and knows it can’t get Matt Damon back in that timeframe. And secondly, it knows that it might save itself a lot of cash. Neither of those strike us as a massive recipe for success, but just as with Sony’s rebooted Spider-Man project, whose narrative appears to be heading back in time too, we wait and see whether it can yet emerge victorious from prequel hell. Several before it have failed to do so…