With J.J. Abrams well underway with Star Wars: Episode VII and with the first part of The Hobbit nestling comfortably in the back of our minds, isnʼt it time that the whole subject of movie prequels and sequels was tackled head on?
Is Episode VII anything to get excited about? The franchise was derailed for many after the train-wreck of the last three films. What hope is there for the new ones? What about ‘The Hobbit’ – a splendid piece of filmmaking, but was it a patch on Lord of the Rings? Was it ever going to be?
Abrams will have a huge advantage over Lucas. Not because he can learn from the others mistakes (Jar Jar) but more that he isnʼt hindered or hobbled by dramatic restraints. For all the Star Wars prequels flaws, the primary one, the biggie, which hampered the films from the very start was that you knew the character paths before they even happened.
The curse was there from the very start. Remember the Episode 1 tease poster, of the snotty little kid with the looming shadow of Darth Vader behind him? Clever, yes, but how can you expect any dramatic tension, the heart of driving the narrative forward, to keep you glued to the screen, if you know the characters you are supposed to be interested in and care about will actually be fine. They will live to fight another day.
In fact, the stand-out moment in the entire three films was the Darth Maul fight with Qui- Gon Jinn, purely because you didnʼt know what was going to happen.
The Hobbit is another reminder of how restrictive movie prequels can be (The film isnʼt strictly speaking a prequel but it certainly has evolved into one). I remember reading the book many years ago (before I had read Lord of the Rings), and I can still recall the feeling of tension that runs through it. A small, physically weak and innocent pacifist thrown into a world of complete horrors and danger. A journey he canʼt possibly survive. He is totally out of his depth. The entire story hinges on you, the reader, recognizing and connecting with the perilous and of the hopelessness of Bilboʼs plight. A bit like if you stuck a 6-year old into the middle of the Battle of Stalingrad. Youʼd want him to succeed, to survive somehow, but you wouldnʼt see how he possibly could. Youʼd be with him every step of the way because of that.
The films cannot hope to achieve this, and they never will. They are prequels now. We know Bilbo will be alright, sitting safely back in his hobbit-hole writing his memoirs. We know that from the moment it begins to the moment it ends. Even the other character that we have a rapport with suffers the same impervious fate. Gandalf. He too makes it and will be chuckling away with his pipe in no small amount of time. The only thing that keeps the Hobbit story driving forward is our empathy for Bilbo. Can he make it? The book succeeds as a result, can the film say the same?
Imagine, the year is 2015, you are sitting in the darkened cinema. You are poised on the edge of your seat, you are into the last act of Star Wars: Episode VII and the hero / heroine ignites their lightsaber. He/She wanders around a gloomy swampy expanse, looking a little afraid, sweat prickling their brow, then from out of the darkness the villain explodes like a ninja from hell, lightsaber flashing. An epic battle ensues. We worry for the hero, nothing but a rookie, the enemy is potent and powerful. Their bright blades clashing again and again as the rain streaks down soaking them…
It is this moment that we begin to see how much better the sequels could be, should be and must be. Because we simply have no idea whatʼs going to happen next. The hero could be decapitated and have their head shoved on a spike. They could kill each other, they could kiss unexpectedly, or break out in a dance off. Who knows, and that is the beauty of it all, something the prequels were sadly lacking to any extent. The characters who we care about, who are directing and influencing the story could be killed at any moment.
Film Sequels will always trump prequels in my book, as they have something which helps give movies their magical quality. Potential and the power of the unknown. Origin stories are ok, but sometimes they are best left to the imagination. The Shining prequel? Really?