Prequels are a dangerous game. Sequels are hard enough, and prequels have the added burden of telling you a backstory you probably already know parts of. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to build dramatic stakes in an environment when the outcome is one most people already have a firm grasp on.
And yet, in an era when franchise extensions are everywhere, the lure of a prequel can be hard to resist. There are several more coming to movie screens shortly, and Hollywood more generally doesn’t seem to be concerned with the challenges they pose. Making a good prequel is hard, to be sure, but it’s not impossible. These movies all managed to find a way to do it, and the best even managed to use it to their advantage.
The man with no name trilogy is one of the best in the history of cinema, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is undoubtedly the best of the three films. It’s true, of course, that this movie is only incidentally a prequel, and its only connection to the other installments in the franchise is its central figure. Even so, the film is so thrilling all on its own that it more than earns a spot on this list. This may not be the movie you want if you’re interested in building out the world or learning more about backstory, but if you just want a good movie, you couldn’t do much better.
Alien and Aliens are two of the very best sci-fi movies ever made, so the bar was pretty high when it was announced that Ridley Scott would be making a prequel that told the story of how the aliens came to be. One of the most daring moves made in this first Alien prequel is to almost completely ignore the aliens that have made the franchise so successful. Instead, Prometheus is heavy on questions about the nature of existence and filled with some of the lushest sci-fi imagery you’ll find anywhere. It’s not for everyone, but the movie has enough heady ideas, plus a terrific performance from Michael Fassbender, to stand on its own.
Featuring a truly stellar ensemble cast that includes young Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, and Zoe Kravitz, X-Men: First Class is a pretty terrific exploration of the world of X-Men back in the swinging ’60s. The movie’s climax, which takes place during the Cuba Missile Crisis, feels precisely on the right scale, and it gives us plenty of time to understand the friendship between Charles and Erik, and the ideological differences that would eventually tear them apart.
Another movie that functions perfectly well whether you know it’s a prequel or not, Casino Royale finally provides us with the foundational trauma at the heart of James Bond. He fell in love once, and he got burned. While that love story is what fuels Casino Royale, it also proves to be a completely thrilling introduction to Daniel Craig’s version of the character. The action is so sharp and the poker is so thrilling (yes, really) that even after 15 years of playing the role, Craig’s very first outing proved difficult to top.
Perhaps one of the most foolhardy ventures in the history of cinema, making a sequel to The Godfather should have been a disaster. Instead, this sequel/prequel totally measures up to its predecessor. While only part of the movie is a prequel in this case, the prequel sections of The Godfather Part II, which star a young Robert De Niro as young Vito Corleone, are the most thrilling in the film. De Niro’s performance is so thoroughly compelling that he won an Oscar for the role just two years after Marlon Brando had won for playing the same character.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again follows the sequel/prequel route established by The Godfather Part II, but to very different ends. The prequel part of this story works so well thanks in large part to Lily James, who plays a younger version of Meryl Streep’s Donna with such verve that it feels like she may actually be the sun. The musical numbers here are vividly staged, and while it’s basically a total load of nonsense, that’s part of the appeal. Beautiful people singing ABBA songs in Greece! What more could you want?
The entirety of the latest Apestrilogy are prequels, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the one that most effectively shows us exactly how the world of the original Planet of the Apes came to be. What’s more, the movie is also a wonderful action adventure in its own right. Following Caesar, the ape from Rise who escapes into the wilderness, Dawn establishes that the apes have set up their own civilization in the woods of California. When men stumble upon their secret hideout, though, questions begin to arise about whether apes and humans can live together in peace. It’s thrilling, and not just because the motion-captured actors playing apes look tremendous.
The strongest of the Star Wars prequels, Revenge of the Sith finally bridges the gap and shows us exactly how Anakin transformed into Darth Vader. As it turns out, Anakin falls to the dark side after losing his love and realizing that the Jedi Order he’s pledged his allegiance to is far from pure. Revenge of the Sith is pretty bluntly political, and it feels more relevant now than when it was released. On top of its smart politics, the movie also features several genuinely great lightsaber duels, including the climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar.
We get hints as to who Diana Prince is throughout Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it isn’t until Wonder Woman that we fully understand where she came from. As it turns out, Wonder Woman would be something of a high point for the DCEU. Thanks to some smart directorial choices and a sharp script, Wonder Woman is a fun action movie, a sweet romantic comedy, and the movie that proved, maybe once and for all, that Chris Pine is the best Chris in Hollywood.
When David Lynch made Twin Peaks, he started the television series with the shocking death of the most popular girl in school. We never meet Laura Palmer on the series, but in Fire Walk With Me, Lynch rectifies that by showing us exactly what happened in the run-up to her death. The resulting film is deeply tragic, but the heartbreak all feels quite intentional. Sheryl Lee’s performance here is startlingly great, so it only made sense that Lynch wound up bringing her back to play a crucial role in Twin Peaks: The Return more than 25 years later.
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