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15 of the best movie prequels ever

Made after the original film but set before it? That's a prequel, baby – and here are the very best of them

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, one of the best prequel movies of all time

The word ‘prequel’ may be the sort of neologism that sends English language professors apoplectic with rage, but the concept – a literary, dramatic or cinematic work with a story that precedes that of a previous work – is old. Even going back to ancient Greece, the idea that an audience might want to know what happened before the hit play or epic poem they’ve previously enjoyed was a strong one.

Today, we see it in most often in books, TV shows and, of course, movies, which love to tell us characters’ origin stories – how this hero obtained that scar, or just why this villain is frightened to death of crocodiles. We’ve sat down and thought long and hard about the finest cinematic prequels around, so buckle up and prepare to join us on a journey into the past.

The 15 best movie prequels ever, in no particular order, are as follows…

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Despite being saddled with an unwieldy title created by Fox’s marketing department, this recent prequel to Planet of the Apes is an engaging effort.

James Franco plays a scientist who’s trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s; in the course of his experiments he creates the genetically mutated chimp Caesar, played by Andy “Gollum” Serkis using CGI performance capture.

The human drama is a bit trite, but Caesar’s journey from pet to person to leader of an ape army is compelling stuff, thanks to Serkis’ nuanced performance. Time to give performance capture its own category at the Oscars…

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The best (or least worst) of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels finally gave long-suffering fans what they wanted to see from the prequels – Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the Dark Side of the Force and his rebirth as Darth Vader.

Ian McDiarmid once again steals the show as a Mephistophelian Emperor, corrupting young Anakin – though in the event Darth’s turn to the Dark Side is a bit abrupt.

Despite some truly dismal dialogue, true Star Wars fans can’t help but get a kick out of the climactic lightsaber fight between Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan and Hayden Christensen’s Vader.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

A prequel wrapped in a sequel, Francis Ford Coppola’s second Godfather film flits back and forth between newly-minted Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and flashbacks to his father’s early life. Robert De Niro portrays the young Vito Corleone, doing a first-rate impersonation of the young Marlon Brando – showing how he rose to power, as Michael mirrors his father’s corruption years later.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender take over from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in this prequel showing how mutant pioneers Professor X and Magneto came to blows – right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Great timing, guys.

The early ’60s setting gives director Matthew Vaughn plenty of opportunities to play around – from the pop-art villains (they have a submarine!) to Magneto’s first-act hunt for Nazi war criminals, which feels like Fassbender’s audition piece for James Bond.

As a film, it’s hugely entertaining. As a prequel, it’s… well, riddled with continuity errors that contradict the earlier (later) films, as this entertaining video from IGN shows.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Sergio Leone’s third film in the Dollars trilogy relocates the action to the American Civil War, as Clint Eastwood’s Blondie hunts for a fortune in Confederate gold in the face of competition from ne’er-do-wells Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). In truth it’s not a prequel so much as another film featuring Eastwood’s archetypal Man with No Name – though there is a nod to the future films as Blondie gradually acquires the Man With No Name’s iconic costume over the course of the film.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Twin Peaks left a lot of loose ends dangling when the series was cancelled, so creator David Lynch naturally decided to ignore all of them and deliver a prequel to the show.

Making absolutely no concessions to people who weren’t familiar with Twin Peaks, the film bombed at the box office – but for fans of the show, it’s an interesting coda. Plus it has David Bowie as an FBI agent. What more do you want?

Red Dragon (2002)

After the success of The Silence of the Lambs, its producers were naturally keen to milk Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of cannibal doctor Hannibal Lecter for all it was worth. Following a so-so sequel, 2001’s Hannibal, all that was left was the book that introduced him; Red Dragon, previously filmed as 1986’s Manhunter.

Director Brett Ratner dialled up Hopkins’ role for the remake and stuffed the film with a bevy of big names, including Ed Norton, Ralph Finnes and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Despite that, Red Dragon doesn’t equal the original Silence of the Lambs – but Hopkins is clearly relishing the opportunity to get his teeth into Lecter one more time.

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

18 years before the events of the first Paranormal Activity, more spooky goings-on are caught on camera as sisters Katie and Kristi (seen in the previous films) are faced with a case of the night terrors.

A better effort than Paranormal Activity 2, the third entry in the series enlisted Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, directors of 2010’s Catfish, to use their documentary smarts, giving the film a more authentic flavour.

Zulu Dawn (1979)

An all-star cast including Peter O’Toole and Burt Lancaster were marshalled to depict the Battle of Isandlwana – which preceded the Battle of Rorke’s Drift seen in the original Zulu. This film is a more nuanced work than its precursor; not surprising, since the intervening decade and a half between films had seen the Vietnam War and Watergate play out, and audiences were less keen on rousing celebrations of British imperialism of the sort seen in the original Zulu.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Yes, the second Indy film is actually a prequel, taking place a year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which makes the bit where Indy reprises the “shooting the swordsman” gag from Raiders a bit weird, but oh well.

Made while producer and director George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were both going through breakups, Temple is a somewhat darker effort than Raiders. The villains are a murderous cult engaged in child slavery and black magic, while there’s an extended human sacrifice sequence that led to the creation of the PG-13 rating in America.

Ginger Snaps Back – The Beginning (2004)

The previous entries in this werewolf series took place in the present day – but Ginger Snaps Back relocates the action to 19th century Canada, where sisters Brigitte and Ginger fetch up in a fort that’s under siege from lycanthropes.

Where the first film used lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty, this is a more straightforward period horror – but stars Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle are well-established enough in their roles that the change of scene is enough to keep the film ticking along.

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005)

Paul Schraeder’s Exorcist prequel was shelved by the studio after executives complained that it was too cerebral – it was replaced by Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning, shot on the same sets and using the same actors.

Schraeder’s film was eventually released as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, proving itself to be an interesting meditation on the nature of evil. Still, it’s let down by some truly ropey low-budget CGI, a consequence of its limited release.

Star Trek (2009)

The Star Trek franchise was in urgent need of rebooting – but its rabid fanbase would shun any actor who dared to take over the role of James T Kirk. How to square the circle?

Enter Lost creator JJ Abrams, who cleverly used time travel as a plot element to create a film that’s simultaneously a sequel to the previous films, a prequel recounting how Kirk, Spock and Bones met, and a reboot that rewrites established Trek history.

All that would count for nothing if the film wasn’t any good, though – fortunately Abrams delivers a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure with space battles, swordfights and some top-notch banter between Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban).

Puss in Boots (2011)

This animated precursor to Shrek 2 ditches the big green ogre and his irritating donkey companion, and tells the story of how Antonio Banderas’ Zorro-esque Puss in Boots goes in search of the goose that laid the golden egg.

Along the way he’s joined by slinky feline Kitty Softpaws – played by Salma Hayek, giving Banderas the opportunity to rekindle the chemistry they had in Desperado – and Zach Galifianakis’ Humpty Dumpty.

Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro executive produced the film, lending some of his fairytale feel to the design of Humpty Dumpty. And shorn of the clunky pastiches of modern-day pop culture, Puss in Boots is far more entertaining than the Shrek franchise that birthed it.

Infernal Affairs II (2003)

This prequel to Andrew Lau’s Hong Kong crime drama focuses on the two undercover moles, Lau and Chan, who have infiltrated the police force and the Triads respectively.

Adding layers to the characters – particularly Triad boss Hon and his mole Lau – it does complicate the stripped-back premise of the original with overly convoluted relationships between established characters. Still, it’s an interesting effort if you can look past that – particularly in its depiction of Hon’s growing corruption.