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Netflix’s potential ‘Chinatown’ prequel series is five kinds of wrong

David Fincher and Robert Towne are bringing ‘Chinatown’ to Netflix, and we have concerns.

Netflix’s potential ‘Chinatown’ prequel series is five kinds of wrong
[Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Every day, a movie studio announces a new brand extension on existing IP, in the clinically dry but unfortunately appropriate parlance of how we talk about movies and shows now.

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Some of these announcements hurt worse than others. They’re rebooting Clue. They’re rebooting Clueless. They’re rebooting Ghostbusters, again, and this time it’s a straight sequel. The latest announcement, however, doesn’t hurt as much as it boggles the mind.

When I first read about the Chinatown prequel series potentially coming to Netflix, I thought I’d misread the sentence. Surely it must have been a reference to the ill-advised Big Trouble in Little China reboot, not an exponentially iller-advised revival of the 1974 Oscar-winning, nostril-slashing classic. But a revival of the classic it was. The original screenwriter Robert Towne is on hand, along with David Fincher, who has delivered Netflix hits like Mindhunter and House of Cards.

Obviously, we have some concerns about this project. When someone says “That’s wrong on so many levels,” they often mean it’s wrong on one or two levels. In the case of Netflix’s Chinatown prequel, though, this is wrong on at least five levels.

  • Who is this for? Is it for boomers who just gotta have more Chinatown? Is it for Zoomers who are familiar with Chinatown, the place, and think it might make for a cool setting for a series? (Fun fact: Chinatown was not, in fact, set in Chinatown.) Is it for fans of de-aging tech who want to see a svelte young Jack Nicholson make love to the camera again? Even as a cynical calculation, this project sounds off. “Make more Chinatown!” seems like something a cliché executive would bark in a terrible comedy about the streaming wars.
  • Chinatown is a complete story. It needs neither further explanation or additional context. Towne and Jack Nicholson proved as much in 1990 when they reunited for a sequel, The Two Jakes, and the few people who actually saw it said it sucked. Chinatown isn’t the kind of nostalgia property that’s oozing with possibilities. There’s no juice to squeeze out of Chinatown. It’s just one of those 1970s masterpieces that can only benefit from a rewatch, not a reboot. Nobody wants a prequel to The Deer Hunter, and nobody needs to see the further wacky adventures of Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul after The Conversation. This is among the least necessary remakes of all time. Everybody would complain like hell about a Godfather limited series, and they would be right to do so, but they would definitely watch it because every dark corner in the Corleone world is potentially worth exploring, whether we like it or not. The same cannot be said for Chinatown, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
  • Why now? Better Call Saul plucked one character from a larger story and showed his earlier adventures, but that show works because it came out shortly after its mothership show (Breaking Bad) flew away. What about this moment seems like the perfect time for Chinatown to come back? Are there not enough shows to watch about detectives? Not enough ways to watch them? Sure, the plot of Chinatown involves shady overlords manipulating the system, but that’s a timeless topic that only happens to be relevant at the moment because it’s a particularly fraught moment.
  • Robert Towne is 85 years old. I’m not saying I definitely don’t trust him to be up to the task. That would be ageism, and in this house we respect our elders such as Martin Scorsese, who continue to deliver the goods. But unlike Scorsese, who is eight years Towne’s junior, Towne hasn’t made a movie in 13 years, and that movie was the incredibly forgettable Ask the Dust.
  • It wasn’t the plot or the mythology or even really the characters that made Chinatown special. On paper, it sounds almost boring: a film about the manipulation of California’s water supply. The reason Chinatown is a classic, however, is because of the thrillingly twisty way it tells its story, with great performances. The plot unfurls or contracts on a whim, leaving viewers with the feeling of never being on steady ground. It’s an unsustainable vibe that doesn’t lend itself to episodic television. According to Deadline, the prequel series would focus on a young Jake Gittes (Nicholson’s character in the original) as he comes into contact with rich people embroiled in corruption involving land, oil, and gangs. So in other words, it’s a show about a detective. It sounds like it could be any show, so perhaps it should be any show besides Chinatown. If you want to re-create the magic of that 1974 masterpiece again, just reinvent storytelling.

So, in short, all we have to say about this project is: “Forget it, Netflix. It’s Chinatown.”

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