Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Forget About the Gold Standard, What About the Godfather Standard?

This weekend, 20th Century Fox releases Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated prequel to Alien (1979). I haven’t seen it yet, but the buzz around it is mostly good and expectations are high. As a result, I've been thinking about prequels in general and wondering what they should do, besides give us a story with familiar characters and a familiar world. I don't have a concrete answer yet, but the model I'll be holding Prometheus up to this Friday is none other than The Godfather Part II.

Of course, this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, The Godfather II is technically a sequel, not a prequel. And second...well, if you've seen it, you know how great it is. I really don't expect Prometheus to come anywhere close to matching what Coppola does in that film.

Still, despite all this, you can't deny that The Godfather Part II isn't at least a sort-of prequel. After all, once you take away Michael Corleone's storyline, what are you left with if not all the makings of a prequel? You've got a young actor (in this case Robert De Niro) playing a familiar character in a storyline that traces his roots and shows us how he became the man he did.

What makes it more than just a sort-of prequel, though, is that young Vito's storyline isn't there just for the sake of giving us more; it's there to add meaning and context to Michael's downward spiral. To understand what kind of monster he is, we have to see him in the light of another violent man--his father--who acted as he did to survive and to make a better life for himself and his family. Technically, I think we can say they're both "bad men" in that they murder and steal, but their different motivations force us to view one as better than the other.

It's this dialogue that so many prequels and reboots are missing. The Star Wars prequels gave us more characters, more set pieces, and a few great thematic and visual allusions, but did they force you to reevaluate the original trilogy in a significant? Or how about movies like Red Dragon or Hannibal Rising? How well did they engage with Silence of the Lambs? Or to keep the discussion on Prometheus, what about the two Alien vs. Predator films? Did they just give audiences more, or did they add context and meaning to the original films?

Your answers may differ on a few of these, and that's fine, but my overall guess is that none of these did. Which is part of why critics and film lovers often equate words like "prequel" and "reboot" with a word like "cash-grab." When one movie fails to engage with the other in a meaningful way, it often just feels like a chance for the studios to take our money.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that as I head into Prometheus this weekend, I'm hoping that it does more than just give me more. I'm hoping that enters into a dialogue with its famous predecessor, Alien, and that it creates a more complete picture. To turn a Ridley Scott-themed quote on its head, yes, I'm sure I'll be entertained, but is that all I can expect?

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