A Movie Entry – The Trouble with Prequels

I don’t see very many movies in the movie theaters.  I actually don’t see that many movies, period.  It’s not because I have high standards for cinema or anything like that.  I just don’t want to spend that much of my life (plus gas and driving time and waiting in line and dealing with rude patrons who can’t shut their damn phones off for two hours…) for something I’m not 95% certain I’ll enjoy.  Now, I can enjoy movies both on their own merits and also as something to snark at.  Still, 90 minutes (plus driving time and waiting in line and previews and pre-previews) is a lot of time I could spend doing other things (like the writing I’m supposed to be doing).

I’m also picky about the genres I’ll watch.  I don’t watch horror because I am really squeamish and even the obvious fake gore in a movie like the original Evil Dead is enough to squick me out.  This is why I see a lot of superhero movies (because I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy them) and animated movies (because they tend to be better movies than a lot of live action).  I don’t watch heavy dramas (the types that win Meryl Streep Oscars) because I figure real life is depressing enough without watching fake people have fake depressing lives.  I don’t watch romantic comedies because I have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and as I’ve already theorized, all romances follow two trajectories.  I also don’t tend to watch regular comedies because I really don’t find a lot of them that funny.  I do love parodies and I heart Mel Brooks (“put the candle back!”).

So, this is getting long-winded already and I was going to talk about prequels.  Sequels are hard to pull off successfully.  Prequels are even worse.  The problem with prequels is that the characters generally have to be slightly less interesting than they are in the first movie.  The prequels also need to contain references to the first movie but have a coherent story of their own.  Basically, the purpose of a prequel is answer this question – How did Character X become Y?  Y could refer to an emotional state, or a change of personality, or so on and so forth.  The trick of making this work is ensuring the prequel focuses on the right characters and also does not get bogged down with too many references to the original.

The most famous set of prequels are Star Wars: Episodes I-III.  And they were awful.  And quite unfortunately, the “Hobbit” series is not shaping up to be much better, and worse still, the “Hobbit” series actually has a coherent story to work with.  The planned three movies are muddling up a lot of back story that doesn’t need to be there (because The Hobbit is only barely a prequel to the Lord of the Rings) and making the overall story less coherent.  But anyway, I’ll focus for a moment on “Star Wars” because those prequels did pretty much everything wrong.

1) The prequels did not answer the question, “How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?”
2) The prequels answered the wrong question, “What are the backstories for R2D2 and C-3PO?”
3) The prequels put in so many references to the main trilogy the universe actually got too small.
4) The prequels’ characterization of the original characters completely messes up the original movies’ characterization.

There are actually many more flaws, mostly related to a simplistic story, badly written dialogue, mediocre acting, non-existing directing, and gratuitous use of special effects (it’s not as though Lucas is the only filmmaker to fall prey to this).  But I believe the four items above reflect what is wrong with many prequels.

1) The whole purpose of the prequels in this case was to find out how Obi-wan’s student, who he said in the original movies was a good man, ended up Darth Vader.  Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned flaws, the answer was – Anakin Skywalker was never a good man.  He was a cute kid that grew up into a creepy stalker teenager that presumably Jedi-brainwashed Amidala into loving him and it was a surprise to no one whatsoever when he tried to strangle her for his perceived betrayal.

2) Too much time was taken up answering questions about certain characters’ backstories that exactly no one cared about except George Lucas.  Apparently Lucas really loved those droids and thought that every other fan really wanted to know where they came from.  That was the wrong question to ask.  No one cared where the droids came from.  Or rather, everyone assumed they came from a factory.  The first shot of the droids in Star Wars IV: A New Hope is of C-3PO and R2D2 walking down the hallway and in the background is a droid that looks exactly like C-3PO except that it’s silver instead of gold.  The Jawas deal in used droids like modern people deal in used cars.
2a) Likewise, no one cares where the hell Boba Fett came from either.  He was a bounty hunter with a jetpack and frankly that is all anyone needs to know.

3) It is an absolutely unbelievable coincidence that every important person in the original trilogy met/interacted/knew each other in the prequels.  Anakin built C-3PO, Obi-wan already knew R2D2, the evil Palpaltine was from Amidala’s home planet, the Wookies were present in the final battle, all the Stormtroopers are clones of Boba Fett’s father, Senator Organa from Alderaan is the only guy willing to help the Jedi try to stop Palpatine, and Owen’s father buys Anakin’s mother.  Everything comes back around to Tatooine, which is a backwater hell planet.  Hell, the only person who didn’t even get a mention was Lando!  So much coincidence and such a small universe just stretches the bounds of believability too far.  Some questions are better left unasked and unanswered.

4) Presentations of certain characters were simply incompatible the versions in the original movies (or the older characters timeline wise).  Not only for me did the timeline get messed up, but the character of Obi-wan Kanobi was completely destroyed.  Instead of the wise old man in the original movies, the prequels show him as a reckless kid who is barely competent enough to hold a lightsaber the right way.  He’s too young to be a master, and while Anakin is a terrible person, some of offhand remarks he makes in “Episode II” make it sound like Obi-wan had ended up in a bad situation more than once and Anakin had to save him!  And when that movie starts, Anakin is only 19 years old, so what in the hell was Obi-wan up to that a literal child had to save him?  Also, based on his actions in “Episode III,” he is absolutely the worst Jedi EVER.

So, you may ask, what prompted this?  Well, I finally saw a prequel that was really well done.  It answered the right questions, it contained references to the original without being obnoxious (see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), it was true to the characterizations in the original, and it had a self-contained story.  That movie was Monsters University (which is of course the prequel to Monsters, Inc.).  Pixar has made some missteps in the past few years, but they are one of the more reliable movie studios for quality (such as I judge quality anyway).  I was a bit hesitant anyway because of the difficulty with prequels, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Mike and Sully are not actually less interesting in this movie than the original (a rare feat indeed).  In fact, after watching the prequel, the characters of Mike and Sully are deepened for the original movie because now we all know where they came from.  I actually like the characters more in the original movie!  That’s what a prequel should be about.

In short, Monsters University is now my gold standard for prequels and a fine movie on its own.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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