What Makes a Good Prequel?
G-FUNK lays out some truth…
Prequels. So few words are as reviled by cinema snobs as this one. It inspires more groans that ‘sequel’, ‘reboot’ and ‘gritty’ combined (but not ‘video games adaptation). This isn’t without good reason, the track record speaks for itself. Hannibal Rising, The Thing, Ring 0, anything that claims to be associated with The Exorcist and of course The Phantom Menace.
On the whole, prequels suck. Yet sometimes we get a prequel that not only rocks but makes the original film a richer experience. With movies like X-Men First Class, Infernal Affairs 2, The Godfather Part 2, Star Trek and Rise of the Planet of the Apes proving to be massive successes it’s clear that there is a way to get thing right. Let’s look at the ways this can be achieved…
Keep the Trivial Things Trivial
Some characters have distinctive gimmicks and costumes that people strongly associate with the part. It’s interesting to see where the characters get these items – but it shouldn’t have any extra importance given to it. To do so is pointless and serves as a distraction from the fact that that you don’t have a story. Sure, include these moments, but keep them brief. Don’t create characters and dedicate half and hour of pointless screen time just to show us how Boba Fett got his helmet.
Done Badly: Halloween (Zombie) included scenes dedicated to how Michael Myers got not just his mask and his weapon of choice, but also his boiler suit. On what level is this something that needs to be explained? Dedicated this much time to such a trivial item implies that his choice of wardrobe is in some way important to the growth of the character. Instead there could’ve been a short clip of Myers grabbing it from a laundry cart on the way out of the hospital.
Done Well: Wolverine in First Class. Quick, funny and well tied into the series.
Don’t Skimp of the Big Stuff
At the end of the day, what was the point of the Star Wars prequels? To showcase the rise of Darth Vader. With three films dedicated to this purpose who’d think that they’d have a pretty epic tale to tell. The reality is that only a small proportion of the movies are about Darth Vader, the rest of the time he sits in the background while boring shit happens. If a good writing was on the job anything not directly linked to creation of the iconic villain should’ve been on the cutting room floor.
Done Badly: Escape the Planet of the Apes served to turn the series full circle by having time-travelling apes put the evolutionary jump into action, but they spent 90% of the movie with the apes shopping and getting comically drunk.
Done Well: Magneto in First Class is more than just a bad guy getting his helmet. We see him develop as a character, try and deal with his tragic past and become a better person.
Make it Relevant
Sometimes a prequel is called for. The unspoken history between Xavier and Magneto is well worth a film, and it actually enriches the original. Finding out what made Darth Vader switch to the Dark Side would’ve been amazing (but it wasn’t). Most of the time they get made simply because there’s a buck to be made.
Done Badly: Just look at any prequel that has nothing to do with the original: Smoking Aces 2, Psycho IV, From Dusk till Dawn 2 & 3…
Done Well: Rise of the Planet of the Apes – actually makes it seem possible.
Include a Fully Developed Character Arc
A strong character is the spine of a good movie. It holds it together and makes to stand up strong. When it comes to prequels some directors seem to feel that we, the audiences, don’t need to see the character’s story come full circle because we’ve already seen the next chapter. This couldn’t be further from the truth – an incomplete character arc is an incomplete story.
Done Badly: Star Wars. Even after three films Anakin doesn’t get his big pay-off. He grows up, gets angry, turns evil and then…we just go back and watch the original films again?
Done Well: It would be easy to go with X-Men again, but let’s not ignore The Godfather Part II. Vito Corleone goes from his troubled and tragic past to becoming his own man, dealing out justice and eventually learning that there’s nothing more important than his family. Even without the original movie this story could hold its own.
Don’t Mess with the Mythos
One thing that beginner film makers learn is that you must stick to the rules of your fictional universe. Sure you make those rules up, but once it’s done it’s done. After you’ve established that some people are born with the ability to control the ‘Force’ you can’t turn it all around an start claiming that it’s really a bunch of microscopic organisms in your bloodstream. Doing so causes confusion, annoyance and stupidity.
Done Badly: Seriously, fuck you George Lucas. Doesn’t that mean people can get a blood transfusion and become a Jedi? So much for being a chosen one.
Done Well: Abrams Star Trek kept within the boundaries of a large, complicated and established world and pleased both fans and new viewers.
End of the day, if you need a simple guide, just remember the ‘Indiana Jones’ Hat’ rule (which I just made up).
Indiana Jones’ hat was given to him in The Last Crusade comes at a time when the character comes into his own as an independent person who has a new life goal. Using the hat to symbolise this turning point fits in well with his attachment to the hat later in life.