Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Before and after

Note: Let me say up front that I will be referring to some key plot points in the new Star Trek movie, which would have to be considered spoilers—although I cannot imagine that there is anybody cares who does not already know about them. But, for what it’s worth, you have been warned.

A few weeks ago, I was reading a preview article in The Irish Times for Star Trek. The piece had a sidebar detailing how there have been a rash of movie prequels about popular characters in recent years. The examples included many of the ones you would expect, such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the relatively recent Batman Begins and Casino Royale. Personally, I would classify the latter two as reboots rather than prequels but the writer, Donald Clarke, pretty much uses the terms interchangeably.

What is the difference? Well, a prequel aims to maintain narrative consistency with the movie or movies that it is a prequel to. A reboot doesn’t, necessarily. The real give-away is when the supposed prequel not only changes some of the known facts about the characters and the history but also takes place in the present day which, by definition makes the action seem to be happening after the earlier movies instead of before. A prime example would be the Smallville TV series, which is meant to be a prequel of sorts to the various Superman TV shows and movies, but which clearly takes place in the 21st century. Casino Royale is confusing because it could nearly be a true prequel (aside from the fact that Daniel Craig looks nothing like Sean Connery or any of the other actors who have played James Bond) except that M is played by Judi Dench, whom we associate with the latter-day Pierce Brosnan version of 007.

Clarke also references the Hammer re-boot of its Frankenstein series in the 1970s but not George Lucas’s most recent Star Wars trilogy, which are prequels in the truest sense of the word. Clarke even brings in “prequels” of actual historical figures, in movies like Becoming Jane and Miss Potter. Finally, he brings in Terminator Salvation as a prequel, although he allows that maybe it should count as a sequel. And that is the interesting question about sci-fi movies that involve time travel.

Terminator Salvation can be considered a prequel because it chronicles the events leading up to the events in the original Terminator movie, i.e. how a cyborg assassin came to be sent back in time to prevent the birth of the leader of the human race’s resistance against the machines that had taken over the world. But those same events in Terminator Salvation follow the events of the two previous Terminator movies, making it pretty unmistakably a sequel. Clearly, it can be seen as either—since the overall narrative doubles back on itself because of the cyborg (immortalized by the current governor of California) traveling back in time. We could stretch things by arguing that the new movie is also a reboot, since none of the characters that have appeared in any of the previous movies is played by any of the same actors. But there is a slight exception to this, which does tie it to the other films, which was clearly the intent of the filmmakers: Linda Hamilton’s voice is heard on some old tapes.

This chicken-and-egg/prequel-or-sequel conundrum also applies to the new Star Trek movie. And we have the added complication that the movie gives every indication of being a reboot rather than a prequel, i.e. all new actors are on board playing established characters and there is no constraint to be consistent with the old narrative. But, unusually, the changes in narrative actually get an explanation. We learn that this movie is transpiring in an alternate universe created by the time traveling intervention of Eric Bana’s renegade Romulan character. So we are actually meant to see this movie as fitting into the already known Star Trek meta-universe. This, despite the fact that no explanation is given how the Romulan’s tinkering with history has caused Jim Kirk to look like Chris Pine instead of William Shatner. But we are clearly meant to leave that aside since, after all, re-casting of well-known characters is an inevitable part of franchises that go on for multiple generations.

Star Trek can be seen as a prequel since in the chronology of the history of the Trek universe, it precedes any of the earlier movies or TV series (well except for Enterprise). But, if we view the movie as being on the personal timeline of the character of Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy and in this flick designated as Spock Prime, the movie is a sequel. Taking place after the events of any movies or TV shows to date, the narrative follows Spock as he travels back in time and experiences the first voyage of the Enterprise anew. If Spock Prime is our reference point, this movie comes after the eleven other Star Trek movies. As with Terminator Salvation, the narrative has doubled back on itself.

Could this plot device be used to revitalize other movie franchises? Obviously, only those that dwell within the genre of science fiction. Only sci-fi fans are rabid about such consistency. There is no need, for example, for James Bond to go back in time and relive his first assignment with better stunt work and special effects. Just make it a new movie with new actors. Nobody cares anyway.

To summarize: here is a glossary of the various ways that movie studios get extra mileage out of hit movies or extend franchises:

  • Sequel: Ostensibly continues the narrative from the previous movie. Ideally, it maintains consistency with any earlier movies, but only if the writers do not feel unduly constrained by this or unless they can’t be bothered to do research. In practice, these are almost always remakes of the original movie but with the action juiced up even more.

  • Prequel: This is what the studios do when the stars of the original movie are dead, otherwise unavailable or too expensive. It is a device for hiring younger, less expensive actors to play established characters. It can also be a device for bringing back a popular actor whose character was killed off in the earlier movie. Like the sequel, it is meant to be consistent with the narrative. Sometimes it is a way for successful filmmakers to compulsively film all the backstory notes they made for their earlier films.

  • Re-boot: This is basically a studio wiping the slate clean and starting over. New actors, partially new story, but keeping the character identification that is worth millions in marketing. For writers and directors, it is also a chance to show some real creativity.

  • Remake: This is what you do when you run out of ideas for new movies. Take a film that has already been made and do it again. Make it relevant to a new generation by taking advantage of such technical innovations as using color instead of black and white or by casting hot new young actors that the kids have actually heard of. Budgeting tip: change the title, the names of the characters and a few other details and you don’t even have to pay royalties to the people who wrote the original. If you get caught, call it an homage.

    -S.L., 4 June 2009

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