For most of us, the plague that keeps threatening to devour modern day blockbuster cinema is that of remakes. We’re at the stage where even films from the early 90s are being discussed for possible remake or revisiting potential – Total Recall, anyone? – and with no sign of the remake express stopping, it seems that we’re going to have suffer them en masse for some time to come.
Then there’s the reboot, which, for my money anyway, has delivered some half-decent films over the past few years (Casino Royale, for starters), yet is now being used as a lazy way to concrete over piss poor earlier films, with the hope that we simply don’t notice. That’s a tactic that isn’t going to work for a great deal longer.
Yet sneaking under the radar of these two is the increased obsession with origin and prequel stories. These are the films where, bereft of new adventures to take a series of characters on, we’re whisked back into their early days to see what makes them tick. Never mind the fact that you know for certain that they’ll make it to the end of the film, given you know much of the story that’s happened since. Prequels and origin stories are an increasing modern day obsession, whether they’re interesting or not.
And, to be fair, when they work, they can work really well. Batman Begins rebooted that franchise by digging back into the genesis of the character, and fleshing it out exceptionally well. This summer we’ve seen Star Trek that’s gone the same way, with the argument being that in that particular franchise, so many stories had been told post the development of the main characters, that the only way to find fresh angles to play with was to go back much further.
But both of those films had strong thinking at the heart of them, and the writers concerned bothered to flesh out a rounded story that wasn’t just a group of characters being introduced into worlds we already knew oh-so-well.
For, increasingly, these prequels and origins tales are being used to extend franchises lazily. And we’re not talking about mooted projects that never happened, such as the once-suggested prequels to Gladiator and Titanic, for instance. We’re talking about those that did, where studios look for fresh ways to try and get blood out of the proverbial stone.
This summer, we’ve seen a good example in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first in a series of such spin-offs from Fox. Here, we got to see how James Howlett became Wolverine in the first place, although it quickly became clear that there was simply no great, interesting story there that Fox wanted to put on the screen.
Instead, we got – and this is endemic to many such origins stories – a dark, miserable film, where people walk around in a bad mood, and where two hours later they seem to have finally made that fun guy who was in those other X-Men stories. Not that we’re ever really allowed to see him. It was odd: there was nothing they seemingly wanted to do with the character, other than get him back on the big screen for two hours, and subsequently count the cash. Magneto is next in line, as well as more Wolverine In A Bad Mood. We can’t wait.
That same downbeat mood also permeated George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, which for some reason decided that what the franchise had been doing all along was not take itself seriously enough. Thus, with the exception of perhaps two or three sequences, glum and moody people spent the best part of seven hours getting us to a stage in the story we knew, without actually fleshing out much in the way of an interesting angle on the way there. Batman Begins too, even though it was a far better film than Wolverine or the Star Wars prequels, decided it needed to be the best part of two hours spent in a right old grump.
Why is this? There are, clearly, some great stories to be told about the origins of characters, but few people seem to be looking to tell them. Instead, it feels like we’re following surly teenagers around for a couple of hours, only leaving you at the bit in their early 20s when they bother to lighten up. You can have the fun later, seems to be the deal, but only if you’re good and buy another ticket in a couple of years.
The blunt truth, of course, is that prequels and origins stories extend franchises that would otherwise have nowhere else to go. So we get Hannibal Rising, where we find out why the title character chooses to eat off menu so often. We find out how the Lycans rise in Underworld 3. Heck, twice now we’ve gone into the back story of The Exorcist.
And these, along with the bulk of other prequel projects, all have the same thing in common: they lack a damn good idea at the heart of them. Instead, they roll off a corporate cookie cutter production line, devoid of much in the way of genuinely creative thinking, and add another disc to the size of the box set.
This is not a new thing, of course. Butch & Sundance: The Early Days arrived in 1979, as a way of circumnavigating the fact that the title characters might not, er, be around for a second chapter any other way. But as cinema has become more franchise-dependent, the simple fact is that studios back themselves into a corner, and thus have little choice but to explore origin stories.
It’s a depressing trend, given how few of these films are actually that interesting, but Wolverine‘s box office tally this summer all but guarantees it’s one that’ll continue for some time next. Just this morning, it’s been revealed that Blade is getting a prequel story trilogy of sorts. I sit here, having enjoyed the Blade movies, simply wondering if it actually needs one, or are we just dancing around the fact that Wesley Snipes is in chokey?
All that said, it’d be remiss not to point out that there’s an exception to the rules, though. On television, prequels do seem to work better than on the big screen. But then there’s space to explore the story in a more rounded way, and there’s time to flesh out the changing emotions of the characters concerned.
Whatever your thoughts on Enterprise, Caprica, Young Indiana Jones and Smallville, they’ve each offered something extra to the respective Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Indiana Jones and Superman franchises, for instance.
It’d also be wrong to overlook prequel and origin stories that have been skilfully woven, in a way you believe was planned very early on, into major film series. The Godfather Part II, for instance, is exceptional and powerful cinema, and even something like Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom – set before Raiders Of The Lost Ark – is a fine and underappreciated movie. Some argue that The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is a prequel, too, although it’s an exceptional film no matter what side of that argument you land on.
Younger Harry Potter?
Yet primarily on the big screen, prequels and origin stories are lazy, tired, and increasingly unwelcome. Sadly, it can surely just be a matter of time before Warner Bros looks to extend the Harry Potter franchise with some trick once the eight planned films are complete (Hogwarts Origins: Hagrid, perhaps?). Could we get the young John McClane tales once Bruce Willis decides he doesn’t want to make Die Hard films anymore? And you just know that one day, the early adventures of Jason Bourne are coming.
It’s a scary collection of thoughts. And, with one or two exceptions, the prequel and origins gold rush is surely one of the most depressing trends in modern day cinema.
When they start then inevitably remaking the prequels? I’m outta here…