In the first two installments of this series, we’ve looked at some of the unfortunate baggage that prequels carry with them, both in concept and execution… including one of the most troubling: the tendency to shed the ‘baggage’ of the work they’re based on. And one of the most subtle ways that this occurs is in the realm of the aesthetic; this filmmakers, unwillingness to forgo the newest and shiniest toys (the general ruination of modern Hollywood for many reasons) end up distorting the ‘secondary world’ of the fictional universe.
In short, it is an issue of technology levels, both inside and outside of the fictional universe: prequel-makers seem unwilling to constrain themselves to the level of technology demonstrated within the original work. Prometheus and Star Trek: Enterprise (and arguably, though with some in-story justification, the Star Wars prequels and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films*) have all presented us with casual technology- and most especially graphical displays and interfaces for their computer systems- far in excess of anything the franchise’s original entry could boast, yet set decades beforehand.
Lack of restraint in special effects technology (because after all, in modern Hollywood, SFX are an end unto themselves rather than a tool to enhance the story) results in a prequel universe which bears almost no technological or aesthetic resemblance to its forebearer/descendant. This basic visual discontinuity makes it intuitively difficult to accept the two entities as the same, even if it is intellectually claimed or known… the kind of emotional barrier that works very much against everything that a sci-fi filmmaker is trying to achieve with consistency and suspension of disbelief.
Obviously, the filmmakers don’t want to hold themselves to a 60s or 70s look for set design, computer monitors, or character equipment, instead substituting a more modern visual sensibility for each. But in the process, the prequel becomes an unintended reboot, simply because few in the audience can realistically believes that the high-tech, Tony Stark-style holographic display technology that they see onscreen could ever come full circle and become the 70s-styled, CRT-screen technology that they remember from the original. (Ship designs and interiors face similar issues).
This is an especially poor choice for science fiction. A science fiction universe should be treated like a period piece; it is a fictional setting that needs a consistent world to function. When making a movie set in the 1940s, we don’t give the participants iPads just because we have now developed them for ourselves. Instead, in a modern film set in the 40s, we give them only the technology that was present in the 1940s- just as we gave them only the technology that was present in the 40s when we made period films fifty years ago. Technology has changed vastly in the real world- but the technology of the 1940s has remained constant, because it is a separate historical venue. The question was never ‘what do we have now?’, but ‘what did they have in the established setting?’
In science fiction, just as much as in history, the setting has already been established. The parameters and nature of the world have been demonstrated. But thanks to the unrestrained nature of modern effects (which often balloon to swallow the story), the creators of prequels seem compelled to add whatever the most current concepts and VFX software bundles allow them to portray… rather than the technology that has already been demonstrably evidenced within the universe.
An argument could be made that this is designed to keep the setting suitably ‘futuristic’ and ahead of current technology… but the counter-argument could be made that in a few years, these graphics will look just as dated, leaving the franchise with a major discontinuity and nothing to show for it.
This phenomenon also seems to stem from a bizarre belief in audience-identification (the same one that has given us nothing but young women from the contemporary year as Doctor Who companions since the show returned in 2005). Creators seem to believe that the audience cannot involve themselves in anything that does not closely resemble what they see around them now. ‘The audience wouldn’t believe in the bridge of a starship that still has buttons and levers and floppy-disk cards and a 70s aesthetic; we already have plasma screens and touch-screens and flashy graphic displays, so a prequel starship must have those, too.’
(And if modern graphics will look dated to audiences 40 years from now, how much much more nonsensical is it to make sure that ship construction 200 years from now reflects the technology of this decade, rather than a few decades’ past? Considering the span of time, much akin to quibbling over whether a modern naval destroyer should have rigging tied in the style of a 1760s schooner or a 1790s sloop! By now, the difference of a few decades in centuries-old technology is beyond academic.)
Nonetheless, current filmmaking wisdom holds that it would make no sense for technology to go from the fledgling 3D and holographic technology of today to primitive early-computer, 70s-style line graphics several hundred years in the future!
…Even though having the technology in a film like Prometheus or a show like Enterprise then causes an even GREATER technological divide, requiring the technology to go from advanced CGI interactive holograms down to 70s-style CRT screens, or plasma touchscreens down to tape reels and manual levers in the several hundred years after that. Thus, for viewers watching the films or series ‘in order,’ the filmmakers have just created the same technological regression dichotomy, at a worse level, than the one they’d ‘avoided’ with real life.
This tendency to treat new entries in a pre-existing science-fiction universe as a testbed for the most advanced graphics technology that can currently be envisioned, rather than an internally-consistent setting with pre-established definition and context, leads to an unfortunate inability to maintain any sort of continuity or consistency in the deeper ‘feel’ or ‘tone’ of the universe- damaging it’s ability to achieve ‘reality’ in the suspension of disbelief. The result is a disjointed franchise that makes for nonsensical viewing when viewed ‘in order’ by a newcomer, as both the sequels and prequels lack the fundamental aesthetic and feel of the film universe upon which they’re based.
And yet, paradoxically, the new viewer is precisely the target of such reboots- and indeed, the focus of the modern franchise. The majority of decisions seem to be predicated on hooking this mythical franchise-neophyte who knows nothing about the property they’re watching- perhaps this is the very reason that the visual continuity is being ‘ditched.’ In an effort not to tie-down or confuse new viewers with adherence to the original (because, it is believed, nothing draws in a newcomer like eye-candy; ‘filmgoers are like magpies, aren’t they- attracted primarily to bright, shiny objects?’), the filmmakers are making a short-sighted decision- trying to hook newcomers into the current entry of the franchise, whilst simultaneously making it more difficult for newcomers to become involved in the franchise as a whole. The shiny lure to get their opening weekend dollars now is a direct conflict with the aesthetic they’ll find if they try to pursue other entries in the franchise.
But then- far more than that is done in the name of these franchise-neophytes; continuity far beyond the visual is readily abandoned lest it serve as a ‘barrier’ to the newcomer. Indeed, we’ve spent the last three posts discoursing on continuity- both narrative and visual. And the question must inevitably rise before all is said and done… is continuity a bad thing, as the franchise-makers say? Is it worth all the trouble? Does its burdensome presence negate everything that we’ve discussed here, because all is said and done, in some way, in service to an outmoded ideal; this ‘continuity?’
Next post, we’ll look at modern media views on continuity, and its place in an ongoing franchise. (With a fairly hefty digression into theological territory for a tertiary point!)
*The Narada’s arrival can’t account for technological changes already present when it arrives, unless you get into some serious Back to the Future-esque notions involving present alterations affecting future time-travel events- say from Abramsverse Picard and crew- who make later travel even farther back into the past of this divergent timeline and create greater changes, which are already present at the time the originating Narada arrives because all time travel affects the present simultaneously, even if it hasn’t happened yet…! Does your head hurt yet?
About the Author Andrew Gilbertson
Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so. He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…