Prequels: Not Always a Disappointment
Whenever a new movie prequel is announced, even the core audience that loved the original work sometimes responds with a resounding ugh. Who can blame anyone for dismissing out of hand the marketing formulation that gave us 2007’s Hannibal Rising, 1979’s Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, or 2004’s Exorcist: The Beginning? Prequels tell stories where the end has been predetermined, often without beloved key actors, prompting unflattering comparisons to inimitable classics. (Like what happened with the Star Wars prequel movies.) But once in a long while, prequels can also tell new stories that experiment with stylistic shifts and new characters. At their best, they can deepen an existing story, or offer additional dimension and insight into familiar characters. (Like what happened with… the Star Wars prequel movies.) Prequels have become an overly familiar go-to move for anyone hoping to reverse-engineer a hit. But maybe the form has gotten a bad rap. A good prequel can be an escape hatch from dead-end sequels and tangled continuity. Sometimes they’re just baggage-shedding fun. With that in mind, let’s have a look at 10 prequel movies that actually are surprisingly worth your time.
The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Where to watch: Currently in theatrical release
Has there been a 21st-century film series as successfully built around a single star as the Hunger Games movies are built around Jennifer Lawrence? The original Hunger Games movie quadrilogy features a stacked cast of Oscar nominees, but Lawrence’s steely resolve sells the humanity behind the world-building. So how the hell does a Hunger Games prequel manage without Katniss Everdeen? Songbirds & Snakes makes the attempt by shifting character focus, turning the villain (President Snow, previously played by Donald Sutherland) into a good-looking, young pre-fascist, caught between a corrupt institution and more idealistic friends, and falling for an irresistibly feisty brunette. (Sound familiar? It’s the Attack of the Clones approach.) While Suzanne Collins’ books and Lawrence’s performance gave Katniss a directness and aversion to artifice that made her a compelling and unwilling Tribute, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) and his Hunger Games mentee Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) have more complicated, less clear-eyed relationships with their respective worlds — and with each other. That adds an element of unpredictability to a story whose ultimate ending has already been dramatized. Circling back to explain how certain aspects of series lore developed in-world can be a risky, hardcore-fans-only strategy, so it’s all the more impressive that The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is by turns brutal (for a PG-13 fantasy) and entertainingly daft. (At some points, it resembles a musical.) It’s also notable that the movie, perhaps owing to its literary source material, doesn’t tease a whole world of prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, even if some fans will hope for them anyway. The book and movie simply tell a compelling, sometimes haunting story that feels complete even in its ambiguities. In that way, it even outdoes its predecessors, none of which were expected to stand alone the same way.
Director: Ti West
Where to watch: Showtime, Paramount Plus
Knowing the full backstory of Pearl, the elderly killer who picks off the cast and crew of a porn movie in Ti West’s superior slasher X, can diminish the way X evokes a lifetime of thwarted dreams. But at least West and his star Mia Goth came by Pearl’s story honestly: While quarantining prior to filming X in 2021, they wound up working out a character history and accompanying screenplay, shooting this companion prequel on the fly alongside the original film. That explains why Pearl feels like a bit more of a low-key creative exercise compared to the fully developed X — but what an exercise! Pearl pulls from 1950s Technicolor melodramas, its Silent Era period setting, and its status as a contemporary pandemic production, all tied together with Goth’s fierce performance. It avoids killing X’s vibe because Pearl never feels especially opportunistic: It’s a prequel that stays true to its conception as an artistic experiment.
Orphan: First Kill (2022)
Director: William Brent Bell
Where to watch: Prime Video, Paramount Plus
Orphan: First Kill is undoubtedly cheaper-looking than the slick 2009 original. It also has a counterintuitive reversal worthy of Benjamin Button: While the first movie has then-tween Isabelle Fuhrman playing a little girl who’s secretly a murderous grown woman with proportional dwarfism, the 2022 prequel uses camera tricks and good old-fashioned great acting to have now-adult Fuhrman play the same character when she’s supposed to look even younger. Orphan: First Kill uses the audience’s presumed knowledge of the first movie’s wild twist as a distraction, unleashing a second, unrelated but brilliant twist upon a seemingly straightforward story that has Esther (Fuhrman) claiming to be the long-missing daughter of a well-to-do suburban couple. It’s a too-rare case of a horror prequel playing better — cleverer, weirder, more daring — for viewers who keep the original’s triumphs in mind.
300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
Director: Noam Munro
Where to watch: DirecTV; streaming rental
Following up Zack Snyder’s influential megahit 300 was always a fool’s errand, one especially unlikely to succeed without Snyder directing or Gerard Butler starring. (In retrospect, it seems amazing that this seven-years-later prequel made it past the $100 million mark at the box office essentially on branding alone.) That said, maybe fool’s errands would have a better reputation if more of them featured Eva Green. In 300: Rise of an Empire, Green plays Artemisia, naval officer and secret architect of an ongoing conflict between the Greeks and the Persians. For Green, that entails kissing a severed head on the lips, wearing a shiny dress while occupying a boat-throne, and having rough recruitment sex with the enemy. (She even gets a mini-prequel-within-the-prequel to explain her origin story.) Her movie-star energy may make the rest of the movie dim by comparison (the Snyder-knockoff battlescapes had greater exploitation-movie kick in the film’s 3-D theatrical release), but that makes sense — she dominates the original 300 in the same way.
Director: Ridley Scott
Where to watch: Streaming rental
George Lucas must have felt a lot less lonely in the decade following the end of his Star Wars prequel trilogy, as a host of directors beloved of surly Gen-X males, like Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix), made their own ill-regarded prequels and sequels. In 2012, it was Ridley Scott’s turn to make an underappreciated prequel to his sci-fi classic Alien. Like another film on this list, Prometheus feels meaner than its predecessor. (Though Alien: Covenant, also good but less of a prequel, is even nastier). That alone feels like a refreshing rejection of the fan service prequels often represent.