First Amongst Prequels
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the column you can safely ignore. This week I'm going to bend my usual 'no mixing old and new reviews' rule, partly because I think we can learn something about the art of the prequel by doing so, but mainly because it's my column and I can do what I like with it.... er, right, Shazz?
The Cakes of Wrath
When is a prequel not a prequel? This question occurred to me while watching Chuck Russell's The Scorpion King, which is being marketed as a spin-off from the massively profitable Mummy franchise.
Set long before the rise of Imhotep, the film finds the ancient world ground beneath the iron heel of Memnon (Steven Brand), warlord of Gomorrah, who is invincible in battle thanks to his sorcerer's prophetic powers. The inevitable alliance of rebels hires a trio of warrior-assassins to eliminate the sorcerer - but they're betrayed and two are killed. The survivor, Mathayus (played by the Rock, who's played by Dwayne Johnson) reaches his target but - understandably - hesitates when the sorcerer turns out to be the very glam Kelly Hu off TV's Martial Law in a chain mail swimsuit (her role in the movie is an essentially decorative one but any criticism of this on my part would probably sound rather half-hearted). Escaping the understandably irked Memnon and acquiring the compulsory comedic sidekick (Grant Heslov) - according to the IMDB his character is actually called that! - Mathayus vows revenge on the man who killed his brothers...P>
And it's rippling beefcake and alluring cheesecake all the way from this point onwards. Now I can't stand American 'wrestling' and for me alarm bells were ringing from the start at the memory of how the CGI Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns was a better actor than the flesh and blood version, but Dwayne is absolutely fine here. It isn't a tremendously deep or demanding role, which is probably just as well as Dwayne's range as a thespian is roughly that of the desk at which I currently sit, but he looks the part, beats stuntmen up with convincing aplomb (hardly surprising seeing as that's his day job), and delivers a one-liner better than Arnie. He's well supported by a fairly eclectic cast including the equally muscled Michael Clarke Duncan (I particularly enjoyed the fisticuffs between the two of them) and Bernard 'Yosser Hughes' Hill, who actually seems to be doing his own stunts.
Speaking of Schwarzenegger, this film reminded me of his outings as Conan the Barbarian more than anything else. It's totally unsubtle, faintly formulaic in places, and could only really be described as cutting-edge cinema inasmuch as Dwayne scimitars his way through an improbable number of goons before the proceedings are concluded. But it has something of same tongue-in-cheek style as last year's A Knight's Tale, which adds to its charm enormously.
However, it seems to have been edited for length fairly rigorously, to the detriment of the story (two quite major characters pop up, unexplained, having previously been left in very different circumstances). Part of the plot seemed to me to be very obviously nicked from Live and Let Die. But my biggest complaint would be that this is a Mummy spin-off in name only - a bit of a cash-in, truth be told. There's only the vaguest possible of references to Dwayne's ultimate destiny as a malevolent special effect, and the ending gives no clue as to how he becomes the nasty piece of work seen in the prologue to The Mummy Returns1.
Taken on its own terms, though, The Scorpion King is a cheerful, rip-roaring adventure packed with energy and fun. I can smell what the Rock is cooking, and while it may be a cheesy stew, it's still tasty stuff.
The making of prequels is a practice fraught with difficulty - the only really successful ones I can think of, off the top of my head, are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and possibly Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Certainly one such effort which fell a long way short of expectations was 1999's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas.
It stills feels odd to realise that the next Star Wars movie is only weeks away from release: compared with the build-up three years ago, there's a virtual media blackout in place. Now this is probably partly due to the enormous impact on fantasy cinema of Lord of the Rings and also the fact that this is a bumper year for SF and fantasy blockbusters, but the general perception of The Phantom Menace as a failure - one celebrity fan routinely refers to it as The Phantom Sh*tbox - must also play a part.
Like The Scorpion King, this movie deals with the formative years of a character destined to be the big bad guy in the earlier, which is to say later, movies. In this case the lad in question is Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave on the desert planet of Tatooine. Distinguished only by his supernaturally quick reflexes and vague precognitive powers, Anakin's life is turned upside down when he's dragged into a great adventure involving two Jedi Knights (beardy Liam Neeson and hasidic Ewen McGregor), the Queen of the planet Naboo (tranquillised Natalie Portman), a strange guppy rastafarian (he'll-be-trying-to-live-this-down-for-the-rest-of-his-career Ahmed Best) and R2-D2 (lives-down-the-road-from-me Kenny Baker). It's all to do with Trade Federations and the Galactic Senate with a bit of podracing and some sword fights slung in for good measure. You already know the plot, after all...
Now my routine defence to criticisms of The Phantom Menace at the time it came out was that this is a different style of film - rather than 'plucky rebels fight evil empire' this is a story of the rise of darkness and the loss of innocence, and so it's of necessity got a different mood and tone to it. But the problem is, it hasn't - the film succeeds best when in territory not really covered by the first, which is to say middle, trilogy (I'm beginning to wish Lucas'd made these films in the right order after all), such as that of the political thriller and the faux religious epic, but struggles to accommodate the action sequences and chases which the audience expects from a Star Wars film. Part of this problem is the opening, which is of the same in media res ilk as its predecessors, but is really a mistake in what's supposed to be Episode I and the absolute beginning of the story. As a result the new-style material looks incongruous and disappointing. The crass and obvious comic relief would still have felt hugely out of place, though, no matter what.
Beyond the main problem of approach, there are plenty of minor flaws in the way it's scripted. Of course, I'm not the first to point out that the Jedi aren't nearly as likeable or charismatic as leads as their predecessors, which is to say their - oh, never mind. There isn't the same level of energy in any of the performances and you do realise how much the originals relied on Harrison Ford's slyly comic performances for their success. The film doesn't even hint at the darkness within Anakin that will ultimately consume him. There's also Lucas' total fumbling of Portman's dual role, both in script and direction, and it's not made clear exactly why main villain Darth Sidious is helping the Trade Federation in the first place (he seems to benefit more when his schemes go belly up). The Federation are rather craven bad guys, too, perhaps the main evidence that this film is more interested in setting up future plotlines than in telling a good story of its own.
But I still think this film isn't anything like as bad as it's often held to be. Darth Maul (Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz) is a memorable bad guy, even though he only seems to be in the film as a plot device to ensure a couple of good saber battles. The final duel is the best to date in the series. The special effects are, of course, immaculate, although with the rate at which modern special effects advance, the vistas of CGI armies on the march already look a bit dated.
In the end though, it comes down to this: the original Star Wars succeeded so amazingly because it retold a primal familiar myth in a visually unprecedented way. The Phantom Menace, if it fails at all, does so because it tells an unfamiliar kind of story in a visual style the audience has become very familiar with down the years (interesting, given that both films clearly owe a debt to Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress). It's too Star Wars-y when it doesn't need to be, but not Star Wars-y enough where it counts. There's still potential left in the saga, though, and hopefully the producers will have learned from The Phantom Menace's mistakes. We'll find out soon enough.