‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’/Image © Twentieth Century Fox
Prequels are tricky to pull off. For every "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" -- still among the top ten performers at the box office after its mid-December release -- there’s a 2011 version of "The Thing." That prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic cost an estimated $38 million to make but grossed only about $27 million worldwide, according to IMDB. Writers and filmmakers are more than ready to map out earlier adventures of popular characters (such as Gandalf and Gollum from Peter Jackson’s "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), or place new ones in familiar surroundings (an Antarctic research staff finding an alien spacecraft). Audiences just aren’t always willing to watch. We have to wait until March to gauge whether "Oz the Great and Powerful" (with James Franco as the Kansas magician who becomes the Wizard) soars to the hot-air balloon heights of its trailer. Meanwhile, the journey of "The Hobbit" made us think about other prequels with successful payoffs.
"The Godfather: Part II" (1974)
Equal parts prequel and sequel, this mesmerizing chapter of Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia saga won a host of awards, including an Oscar for Best Picture. It deftly mixes flashbacks of the early life and career of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in 1920s New York, mirroring the further corruption of his adult son Michael (Al Pacino) as he expands the family’s crime syndicate. "The Godfather: Part II" grossed about $193 million worldwide.
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)
Set in 1935, a year before the events of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," this adventure lands archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in India with a kid sidekick and a nightclub singer (Kate Capshaw, who later married director Steven Spielberg). Indy pursues mystical stones held by a secret cult, encountering human sacrifice, child slaves, bugs galore, and a feast of eyeball soup and monkey brains. This film and the movie "Gremlins" are generally credited with spurring the creation of the PG-13 rating. It grossed about $333 million worldwide.
"Red Dragon" (2002)
This second adaptation of author Thomas Harris’ novel (the first was 1986’s "Manhunter") occurred thanks to the success of 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," when both filmmakers and audiences were hungry for more of brilliant cannibal killer Dr. Hannibal Lector. After "Hannibal" (2001), Anthony Hopkins returned to the role that won him an Oscar as the not-so-good doctor, aiding retired FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) in catching a serial killer. It grossed about $209 million worldwide, compared to roughly $8 million for "Manhunter." Still, we love the earlier film’s atmosphere, with William Petersen as the haunted Graham and a creepy Brian Cox as the taunting Lecktor (spelled with an extra “k”).
"Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (2005)
Fans and critics who grew up with "Star Wars" and its sequels are divided on George Lucas’ prequels. They’re technologically dazzling but have some of the corniest dialogue on film. Even so, the last is considered the best, with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) finally falling prey to the manipulations of Ian McDiarmid’s Chancellor Palpatine and breaking bad, dueling with former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi and becoming Darth Vader. "Sith" grossed the most of the three prequels, with about $849 million worldwide.
"Star Trek" (2009)
Director J. J. Abrams, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and a spot-on cast led by Chris Pine (as James T. Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (as Spock) managed to reboot the "Star Trek" franchise with this film that -- thanks to an alternate timeline -- offers a new take on the first voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise. “The future begins,” the tagline said. Indeed. It grossed about $386 million worldwide.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)
Andy Serkis (Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" films) won critical kudos yet again for his performance -- translated into computer-generated imagery -- as Caesar, a lab chimp intended to help cure Alzheimer’s disease whose intelligence transforms into an ape rebellion. It grossed about $469 million worldwide.
"X-Men: First Class" (2011)
James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender portray younger versions of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto in this adventure that assembles a group of mutants to stop the Cuban Missile Crisis. The team (including Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifter Mystique), the swinging ‘60s setting, and the action make it great fun. It grossed about $353 million worldwide.
Although not a direct prequel to director Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, "Alien," this film definitely takes place, as the filmmakers said, in the same universe. Explorers following clues to the origins of humankind on Earth reach a distant planet (not the one from "Alien"), only to find a ship familiar to fans of the original movie. Nominated for an Oscar for visual effects, it also boasts great performances by Noomi Rapace as its scientist heroine and Fassbender as an enigmatic android. As of December, it had grossed about $402 million.
Tell us: What prequel are you thankful for?