ByTim Gruver, writer at
Freelance writer and self-professed geek. As seen on GamesRadar, CG Magazine, and We Got This Covered. Need a writer? Let's talk.

I can still remember seeing Star Wars for the first time. To my knowledge, it was the first film I ever saw and I was converted the very minute that the film’s opening had a Star Destroyer lumber onscreen. Like every kid, I read any book and played any game that took me back to a galaxy far, far away. This would continue well into my adulthood until only recently for lack of money and shelf-space. One of the last editions to my burgeoning Star Wars library was Sean Williams’ novelization of 2008's video game The Force Unleashed.

The Force Unleashed has a tepid reputation among gamers and sometimes serves as a prime example for how great movies inspire less than great tie-in games. The game itself functioned as a God of War clone for better or worse. I can remember enjoying it a lot on Playstation 3 despite its misguided efforts at melee combat and ham-fisted storytelling. Its premise essentially bridges the gap between Episodes III and IV through the eyes of Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice – a young man named Galen Marek, one of the last casualties in the wake of the Expanded Universe's demise.

While the game ultimately failed to do much with the dull anti-hero at its center, the novel fleshes out its supporting cast quite nicely, including Vader himself. He’s someone who is allowed a great deal of further development here, including his own twisted love for a son he never had. Here, Vader is unassumingly suspicious of his own master, training an heir of his own and a mirror by which to see his failings every day. That arc has already made many great books and it gave Williams’ novel a human edge that Haden Blackman’s video game script sorely lacked.

You would never know what kind of character Vader was created as here by playing the game. Instead, Vader is allowed little more than a glorified cameo as a Sith ball-and-chain of sorts, wagging his gloved finger and ranting on about some dark side psycho-babble. Flashbacks are a great storytelling trick – one used by movies like The Hateful Eight, among others – because it smacks of folklore. That you can hear Eclipse's thoughts on the page is luxury that a cheesy voiceover narration simply wouldn’t allow for in a game.

The Circle is Now Complete

That’s one of the reasons why prequel movies are so popular – because they flesh out the mythology of already beloved characters. And origin stories are what’s on the menu for the next decade to come, from Star Wars: Rogue One to whatever X-Men: Apocalypse is. These join recent prequels like Monsters University and Prometheus, and the wave of prequel TV shows like Hannibal, Bates Motel, and Gotham. If there’s a story you love, someone is probably out there right now writing the prologue.

What’s odd about the prequel binge, though, is that the big daddies of them all – Star Wars Episodes I through III – are widely scorned because of what could be dubbed “prequel-itis.” I don’t hate everything about the Star Wars prequels, but the reasons why I like them have little to do with their obsessive gap-filling. The fundamental flaw in the Star Wars prequels – besides their painful dialogue, incessant politicking, and childish comic relief – is that while George Lucas pretends that the Star Wars saga is designed to be watched in order from I to VI, most of the big dramatic scenes in the first three episodes will resonate most with diehard converts. When Anakin Skywalker dons the mask for the first time, or when Luke and Leia are born, he’s winking to the old crowd, not making moments that have their own innate power.

Haven't I Seen You Before?

This is the way of things with prequels: they're all about the known. If there’s a catchphrase or a weapon or that the hero of an older movie series is known for, prequels build to the scene where they use one of the above for the first time or they make a joke about how the character is not going to use it – a joke that only people who know the franchise will get. X-Men: First Class may come closer than any other prequel film to being a worthy successor to its predecessors and even a good film overall. But no matter how well it develops characters and stories distinct from the originals, you know that anyone you don't recognize (i.e. that guy with the fish gills) is going to die a quick, if not irrelevant death simply because they have to and you won't care either way.

Therein lies the problem with prequels. We know what is to come and what has already come – a horror movie where we already flash-forwarded to the end. The simplest explanation is the most cynical one. The two things Hollywood loves most right now are pre-sold properties and young people, and prequels (along with reboots and revamps) allow studios to make a movie about a character that everyone loves, without having to cast the old coot who played the character originally. I could easily argue that the prequel’s purpose is purely mercenary, not derived from any deep need to reimagine an icon. I don’t need to know who Dracula was or who’s really under Boba Fett’s mask, nor do I necessarily want to. I like to think of myself as smart enough to imagine what happened offscreen. That’s what blogs are for, right?

I believe the dilemma has everything to do with very nature of geek culture at large. Ever since action-adventure TV shows became more serialized and mythology-driven, fans have begun loudly and publicly holding their creators to impossible standards, demanding long-range planning from a medium in which writers are just scrambling to fill their allotted air time each week while trying to keep networks from pulling the plug. In TV production, it can take months before the writers and producers of a show know if a storytelling decision is working with fans and by then, they already have a half-dozen more episodes in the can.

As a result, even series that are meant to play out like novels have dead ends and superfluous characters. As geek culture grows ever larger, we only expect to sink deeper and deeper into its arms until we forget why we fell in love with it.

Taking The Red Pill

The same is true with big movie franchises. When George Lucas made Star Wars, or when the Wachowskis made The Matrix, they had no way of knowing whether those movies would be popular enough for them to get to make another installment, or what elements from the films would become fan favorites. That’s why the storytelling in franchise film series gets so messy. The focus shifts from film to film, actors drop out (or die), and new technologies come into play, until eventually it becomes harder to tell that the latest movie in a series has any connection to the one that started it all. This would also explain why there are so many franchises today shoot three or four films, one after the other, to better control the overall vision.

Prequels (and reboots) are a way of starting all again and telling the story “right.” Since the new creative team already knows the parts of the mythology that audiences respond to, they can ignore all the sloppy bits from later in the narrative, and just redraw a lot of what fans already know, but cleaner.

This approach to storytelling isn’t as satisfying as The Force Unleashed, or the way that George R.R. Martin weaves the long history of Westeros into the main narrative of his A Song Of Ice And Fire books by having characters reflect on the past while in the middle of a present crisis. It’s not even as satisfying as what so many TV series do, throwing in an episode that looks back at how the characters met, or what their lives were like before the show began like Better Call Saul does so hilariously. The problem with prequels is that they don’t work like flashbacks. They mainly tell fans what they already know, working like lengthy footnotes to the original movies. Then there’s the case of the multiple Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series, which are footnotes to footnotes.

The flood of prequels coming our way tells me that we’re going to spending a lot of time over the next five years sitting by the campfire hearing the same old stories again. Unlike a flashback, which fills us in right when we need it, prequels generally don’t lead us to anywhere that we haven’t already been. I know the tree in my back yard came from a seed – I don't need to see it grow again. What ye shall sow, ye shall reap, and I'm just a bit weary of Hollywood sowing these fields with prequels again.


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