Prequels are a bad idea. From a story standpoint they’re born with a set of flaws and burdens. Let’s break it down.
1. It’s all about setup
You’re writing toward the beginning of a film that already exists. The problem with this is you’re building an entire movie around backstory; something the original felt was so insignificant it either left it out or glossed over it. Everything will be about how that thing happened or how that person came to be that way. In other words, it rarely ends with a cathartic surprise because we’re ending with information we already started with. The audience is in the worst possible place: far ahead of the movie and bored.
2. New characters vs existing and the illusion of jeopardy
Consciously or not your mind will divide the characters into two camps: characters you know and characters you don’t. This is what my mind did while I was watching Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
I know that character from the original = they will not die.
- Anikan Skywalker
- Obi-Wan Kenobi
- Senator Palpatine
I don’t know that character = they will most likely die.
- Qui-Gon Jinn
- Queen Amidala
- Jar Jar Binks
- Darth Maul
Oh and surprise surprise, none of those pre-existing characters died! Of course they didn’t. As I know those characters from the original I will never truly believe any physical jeopardy you place them in. I’m not emotionally invested in their well being because I’m aware of the bullshit. It’s insulting as an audience goer. If anything you’re just waiting for the action to end. Every speeder race and lightsaber fight is purely fan-boy masturbation.
Check out the big brain on Brad. As expected:
Qui-Gon Jinn: dead.
Darth Maul: dead.
Queen Amidala: dead by the third one.
Jar Jar didn’t die, but be honest, we all wished he had.
How to pull off a good prequel
Plot-based stories will always suffer the worst from the prequel burden. We’ll find the most holes in them and they’ll ultimately be the least satisfying. There are two types of prequel that have a slightly better chance at keeping us emotionally invested, and that’s character driven stories and episodic plots.
An example of the character driven prequel would be Cruel Intentions 2. I won’t debate you on how good the movie is or isn’t. It’s still a good example. So… Douch-bag McVey, or whatever the main character’s name was, starts off as a lovable average guy. But through the course of the story undergoes a transformation. By the end he’s well on his way to being the cold-hearted prick we see in the first Cruel Intentions movie. It still suffers from being a story about setup and how-did-he-get-this-way. So it’s not perfect. But since character-based scripts tend to focus less on car chases and more on personalities there’s at least a sense of jeopardy keeping us invested. However in this type of story it’s moral jeopardy not physical.
Episodic prequels are rare. They’re more like TV. The only one I can think of is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If you didn’t know that was a prequel don’t feel bad. Many don’t. They don’t set it up as one. In fact the only thing that makes it a prequel is its timeline. Technically it happened before Raider of the Lost Arc. But who cares? It doesn’t matter. Which is why it works as a prequel. Temple of Doom does not suffer from any of the problems of your typical plot-driven prequel sans one: you know Indiana Jones isn’t going to die. But you already know that! His name is in the title. The point is, where he ends in Temple of Doom has nothing to do with where he starts in Raiders. Not physically, not emotionally, not morally. It’s just another episode.
If you want to see what a typical Indiana Jones prequel would look like just watch The Last Crusade. The entire opening sequence is mindless young Indiana Jones bullshit. More mental masturbation. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie sans the two seconds we “see” his dad researching the Holy Grail; which we don’t need because later they establish he’s the foremost authority on the Grail. Instead the opening nine hours, or however long it was, are simply about showing how Indy got his hat and bullwhip. You know, important character stuff.
It might take a special kind of franchise to warrant an episodic-plot. I certainly wouldn’t want a Bourne prequel but a Bond one would work. Bond is timeless. Who cares where, when, or even who plays him? Each can play as its own story.
Please, dear studio system, don’t make any more prequels. Just make a sequel or reboot the damn thing.
But if you do make a prequel, at least have the balls to say what it is. I’m looking at you, Prometheus!