“How much more of this crap is there?”
Until the end of the last century, it was the sequel glut that infuriated audiences the most; sub-standard remakes at best, cynical re-treads at worst. The marketing sought to bribe people with their own money to act against their interests by seeing a film that bespoiled their favourite narratives with unnecessary and often ruinous continuations. That was the business model and it worked. It still does. But in 1999 something changed. George Lucas, who introduced Hollywood’s money men to a new frontier, a land of ancillary consumables, did it again by showing the commercial potential of a hitherto unplundered revenue stream; the prequel.
Of course they’d been prequels before; some of them, like Psycho IV: The Beginning, highly worthwhile, but Lucas’ contribution demonstrated that given the right property, the backstory could be as alluring as the follow up. Suddenly, studios stuck for sequel ideas saw the potential; franchises could be expanded in both directions. The only question neither asked nor answered was, yeah, but should they be?
Received wisdom is usually the enemy of sense but one old filmmaking truism always stood up; the backstory was just that, background. It could and should remain opaque. Its function was to set up the real story, the one you’d paid to see, and whereas these details would, if the film was successful, be enjoyable curios for devotees of the characters; how did Marty and Doc Brown meet, for example; both filmmakers and audiences alike understood that this was part of the meta-narrative, it being neither necessary or desirable to give it definitive form. Fruitless speculation is one of the movies’ many pleasures, a parlour game we all enjoy. Playing it allows the audience’s imagination to escape the confines of the frame. This is an indulgence that filmmakers have consciously facilitated for years, creating the notion that you’ve been dropped into a story that began without you at the very point things got interesting.
The Star Wars backstory was vague; a blank canvas that Lucas was free to smear in shit and ejaculate, but John Carpenter’s The Thing left little to the imagination, just enough. Kurt Russell’s troupe found the first batch of victims where they fell; frozen corpses, the signs of the struggle; they came across the ship, encased in ice and the sheet the alien had been cut from. Why show any of this? Because Carpenter wanted to foreground the horror to come, showing proxies for Russell’s retinue. This, he was saying, is what’s going to happen to my characters…and soon. The dead Norwegians were a plot device, nothing more; we were never supposed to spend any time with these Scandinavian dullards, yet now we must. Consequently the suspense of the parent picture is killed; its shock blunted as the novelty from Carpenter’s events is retrospectively removed.
Matthijs van Heijiningen Jr didn’t want to remake the 1982 film because to do so would be like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, he said. Yet his prequel does worse. Sequels and remakes leave the original film inviolate; you’re free to discount them as inconsequential cash-ins or alternative versions, but a prequel is different, it can’t help but change the movie it precedes. Heijiningen is reverential to a fault with the look of his film; the hostile environs, the haircuts, the narrow corridors of the arctic cabin; his visual effects team ape Rob Bottin’s seminal makeup effects using CGI, and in so doing strip out the disgust with an inorganic replicant; but beyond the hero worship, he’s made the same mistakes as that other cultural vandal, George Lucas. His new characters have none of the distinctiveness or humour of the originals. Their struggle, designed to be imitated by Russell’s band, is derivative when dramatised. Were the two films watched in chronological order, Carpenter’s film would now be devoid of surprise.
Heijiningen, like Lucas before him, fails to understand that the best prequels get played out in the imagination. There they can retain the mystery while fixating on the irrelevant details until the brain turns blue. More importantly the original article retains its mystique. Without it, movies like The Thing lose all their light and shade; they become lesser films.
As a symbolic representation of the Thing itself, Heijiningen’s imitation is note perfect. It mimics the appearance of the original, parasitically adopting all of its formal characteristics. However, like the alien’s attempts at passing for the absorbed object, there’s something cold and awkward about this copy. Worse yet is the knowledge that the genuine article has had its DNA forever changed; The Thing’s not a movie in its own right anymore. Once it’s over, the only mystery that remains is why the Universal logo of 1990-97 is tethered to a movie that prequelises a film made in 1982. A slow hand clap for all concerned, please.