Consider the following scenario:
You see a monster movie. You’re thrilled with feelings of fear, paranoia, and uncertainty. Your mind races to figure out the origins of the monster, your imagination is sparked, and the film ends without resolving any of your unanswered questions. You leave the theater with a lingering sense of wonder and mystery; it was a great, resonant film.
But hold on a minute–it seems your questions will be answered after all. Finally, the mysteries will be solved. Anything you might have imagined to fill in the blanks of the story–any images you might have conjured to account for what you saw on screen–can now be discarded. At long last, an official prequel has been announced.
Are you elated? Disappointed? A little of both?
The concept of the prequel, a term first exploited in the marketing material for The Godfather: Part II, is becoming more and more popular and profitable in today’s movie industry. Basically, a prequel is “a work that supplements a previously completed one, and has an earlier time setting.” Recently, we saw the release of X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Later this year, we will see a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Next year, we will see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a project that began life as a proposed prequel to his seminal science fiction film Alien. And let’s not forget George Lucas’s dreaded, unforgivable Star Wars prequels.
As audience members, what is it that makes us crave prequels (and dish out loads of money to see them)?
Simple: it’s our innate human drive for certainty, our desire for order, and our hunger for rational, causal explanations in all things. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes writes:
And first, it is peculiar to the nature of man, to be inquisitive into the causes of the events they see, some more, some less; but all men so much, as to be curious in the search of the causes of their own good and evil fortune.
I might discuss the problem of cause and effect and its relation to science and religion (as explored by Hobbes, Hume, and Nietzsche) at a later date. The important point I want to make now is that we enjoy the feeling of certainty that our mental creation of causal relationships brings to us. We enjoy abstracting a world of being from a world of becoming, even if the abstraction is false. Such abstractions alleviate our fear of the unknown, and they are necessary for our survival. What I want to suggest is that the movie prequel, like science and religion, is a product of the same human desire to explain things as they are with a story of how they came to be. But unlike religion, this does not involve self-deception (confusing our abstractions with reality). And unlike science, there is no authoritative process in place to arrive at the best, most accurate explanation available. This is not a problem in itself; in art, we do not necessarily need an authoritative version of a story. However, whether we like it or not, artists sometimes offer us one. True, this satisfies our hunger for clear, causal relationships. Why, then, are we so often dissatisfied with the results?
In the original Star Wars film, there is a scene toward the beginning where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker about his father. We learn that Luke’s father (Anakin) was “the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.” Indeed, he and Obi-Wan were Jedi warriors in the Clone Wars. Obi-Wan then gives Luke his father’s lightsaber:
Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic crusade like your father did.
An elegant weapon for a more civilized time. For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire.
Anyone who saw the original Star Wars film before the release of the prequels was able, like Luke, to take the bones of Obi-Wan’s story and add flesh to them. We used our imaginations to picture the Clone Wars, to picture a young Obi-Wan fighting alongside Anakin on a “damned-fool idealistic crusade,” and to picture the peaceful time of the Old Republic. It was a mysterious past to Luke, and so it was to us. All of us pictured something magical and unique; none of us pictured what George Lucas eventually realized on film. Yet we all flocked to the prequels (all three of them) in droves. We wanted to see them as much as we worried we would despise them. And this is because, as I discuss above, we crave the pleasure in crafting causal relationships, in solving mysteries, in feeling a sense of certainty about the order of things.
So the prequels fulfilled that desire in us; but still, we hated them. Our own imaginings of the events, which were with us since childhood, were no longer relevant. The earlier absence of certainty had actually forced us to fill the vacuum with our own creative fruit. George Lucas took this fruit and squashed it with his authoritative version of what led to the events in the original three films. He even altered the original films to follow more accurately and seamlessly the three new ones. And he made the unaltered originals more difficult to obtain. This is artistic tyranny.
And this would also have been the case had Ridley Scott’s Prometheus remained an Alien prequel. Scott had said that the movie would explain the origins of the deceased “space jockey” that the crew of the Nostromo discovers before finding the hatchery of xenomorph eggs. The space jockey, one of the most memorable and haunting images designed by H. R. Giger for the film, needs no explanation. It is a mystery to the crew, and so it is to us. Alien is a horror film, and much of the horror derives from our fear of the unknown. We do not understand the xenomorph, a creature of complex biology with an impossible metabolic rate. And this is why it is frightening. We do not understand why the dead space jockey was transporting the eggs, and we do not know what went wrong. That is scary. Explaining it with a tyrannical sense of authority, as Scott would have done, would have detracted from the horror as much as it would have answered our burning questions.
The same can be said of any attempts to explain the events in John Carpenter’s The Thing, an astoundingly good and terrifying film. The opening sequence is probably one of the best in horror movie history. A Norwegian scientist is hunting a dog across the Antarctic wilderness. The dog arrives at a U.S. research base. No one there speaks Norwegian, so no one knows why the Norwegian scientist is willing to risk his own life to kill the dog. The U.S. team can’t get him to stand down, so they kill him. The prequel that will be released this year will tell the story of the Norwegian scientists, how they discovered the alien creature under the ice, and how it subsequently destroyed them and escaped. Don’t we already know all that we need to know? And isn’t it scary enough imagining what must have happened on the Norwegian base? Not knowing for sure?
Not according to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who describes his process this way:
It’s a really fascinating way to construct a story because we’re doing it by autopsy, by examining very, very closely everything we know about the Norwegian camp and about the events that happened there from photos and video footage that’s recovered, from a visit to the base, the director, producer and I have gone through it countless times marking, you know, there’s a fire axe in the door, we have to account for that…we’re having to reverse engineer it, so those details all matter to us ‘cause it all has to make sense.
So what Heisserer has done is taken the few details about the Norwegian base available in John Carpenter’s original film and crafted a fable to account for them. The problem is that his version of events is probably going to be considered official canon. Where does that leave everyone else who has seen the original film and imagined a different (possibly superior) prequel?
In an article discussing the problem of artists altering their own work (specifically, George Lucas altering the shootout between Han Solo and Greedo), Phillip Berne concludes:
[…] I’m much more interested in the opinions of other audience members than I am in George Lucas’s definitive answer.
This is comforting. No one is going to stop making prequels, and no one is going to stop seeing them. However, if we are dissatisfied with the results (as it seems we often are), we do not need to accept them as authoritative. This is art, not science. Across the internet, there are countless sites dedicated to debating different versions of stories, discrediting grand narratives, and yes, even creating new stories for well-loved characters (fan fiction). For better or worse, and in spite of artistic tyranny, our imaginations remain free.