Rogue One, hitting theaters next week, is an experiment on the part of Lucasfilm to see if the Star Wars franchise can survive without having a Skywalker starring in a central role. Described as standalone films, they have the potential to tell different types of stories than the backbone films of the saga. But both Rogue One and the as-of-yet-untitled Han Solo film could also run into familiar problem: they’re prequels. And when it comes to prequels, Star Wars has history.
When George Lucas announced that he would be returning to the Star Wars universe with 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace, fans were ecstatic to finally learn how the galaxy got to the the first Star Wars film, 1977’s A New Hope. While The Phantom Menace was highly anticipated, hope vanished as soon as moviegoers left theaters. Critics have since highlighted the many things wrong with the film and its sequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas’s reliance on special effects, the wooden performances of his actors, and a general inability to recapture the used-universe appeal and special effects novelty that was the original trilogy. But the biggest problem may have been the burden of the prequel itself: the movies told a story to which everyone already knew the ending, and ended up feeling as though they existed to explain and justify the original trilogy, rather than tell a story of their own.
Prequels have been a recurring thorn in the side of Hollywood since films like 1920’s The Golem: How He Came into the World or 1948’s Another Part of the Forest, and yet big studios, directors, producers, and writers often fall into the same traps. They focus on characters and storylines that exist to serve other films. They lack stakes, because we know who will survive supposedly life-threatening set pieces. And the journey of a character feels less like progress, and more like a march towards destiny.
Prequels (and reboots) also threaten to overexplain: learning just how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force or how Bilbo ended up with the One Ring are compelling ideas for a film. But sometimes it’s our curiosity about untold backstories that makes characters so rich. Willy Wonka is more interesting in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory than in the 2005 adaptation, for example, precisely because we don’t know the chocolatier’s backstory. The Force has a strange, mystic resonance in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back because it was inherently unknowable; in The Phantom Menace it’s robbed of power by reducing it to a cellular count metric from a blood sample.
None of this is to say prequels are impossible. In fact, Star Wars itself already has a proven track record showing how powerful they can be, stretching from the strongest episodes of The Clone Wars animated show to Expanded Universe novels like Matthew Stover’s Shatterpoint and Karen Traviss’ Republic Commando series. All of these filled the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and accomplished for Star Wars canon what those films couldn’t: tell a compelling and engaging story that surpassed the films they were inspired by.
The trick? Their creators got away from the familiar film series faces, and worked hard to develop compelling characters with their own stakes that fed into the larger story — but largely operated alongside it. Reading Traviss’ Republic Commando novels, we know her characters will be compelled to take down the Jedi during Order 66, but what she does is put her characters in a position where they are absolutely motivated to follow those orders. We know Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan learner Ashoka Tano is out of the picture by Revenge of the Sith, but after five seasons of The Clone Wars, we’re heartbroken when she departs. These are outstanding examples where the creators have fleshed out their own stories, with their own inherent stakes, that stand apart from the demands of setting up another tale that audiences have already seen. They add on to the existing narrative, rather than simply support it.
So, where does this leave Rogue One? We already know the end point for this film: it’ll end sometime before A New Hope kicks off, leading many people — including director Gareth Edwards — to joke that the film’s sequel will be directed by George Lucas. We know the stakes and we know roughly what will happen.
In order to sidestep the issue of being merely a placeholder, Rogue One has to do one key thing: it will have to present a compelling story with a cast of characters that audiences will respond to, but which isn’t reliant on knowing what happens to those plans once they’re handed off to the next group of rebels.
From everything we’ve seen thus far of Rogue One, it looks as though Disney has taken the lessons from the prequel trilogy to heart: we know the stakes that the rebels are up against, and we know that they’ll eventually triumph in the next film. But while the film is setting up A New Hope, it appears to be adding to what we know happened, creating its own unique group of characters with their own struggles for audiences to remember and talk about.