Prequels, by their nature, face an uphill battle in that we know how they are going to end. We know that Logan is gonna lose his memories in X-Men: Origins, we know that Sully and Mike are gonna be best friends (but only one of them a scarer) in Monsters University, and we know that Anakin is gonna become Darth Vader. By explicitly being movies of the stories that came before, we enter into them knowing where they end up, and, well, already being spoiled.
But, if spoilers don't necessarily spoil, then this factor shouldn't necessarily make prequels less enjoyable. Monsters University is still plenty fun, mostly because we want to see how we get to where Mike and Sully are in Monsters, Inc. That the film starts with them in such different spots from where they are in the original. The journey to the familiar is where the excitement of the movie lies. Thing is, it’s easy there for it to quickly become just the retreading of what’s been done before or, at worst, a slow march to the inevitable. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of The Sith doesn’t feel like a character choice so much as a plot point hit because it had to happen.
Revenge of The Sith could have – should have – explored why Anakin opted for the Dark Side. What was it that drove a promising young Jedi to become a Sith lord? But rather than exploring any of that, the movie just trucked along about the ending of the Clone Wars, an Emperor rising to power, and an arbitrary turn to the Dark Side. Essentially, Sith doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s little depth added to the events of the originals, we end up exactly where we started with little change in the narrative status quo – A New Hope has the precise same impact whether or not you’ve seen Sith.
And this is where I talk about Rogue One.
We know the Rebels steal the Death Star plans. The question is how.
So the easy thing to do would have been to have just followed the heist of the plans and let that be that. Rebel spies steal plans. Done is done. Instead, Rogue One contextualizes A New Hope.
For all its grandeur, the original Star Wars showed only a relatively small sliver of the galaxy (a backwater planet, the Death Star, and a Rebel Base) populated by farmers and outlaws, Imperial villains, and a handful of mostly-Rebel pilots. We begin in media res, with all the wheels already well in motion so we can focus on a farmboy from the middle of nowhere. Rogue One expands the scope of the story, showing more of the Alliance part of the Rebel Alliance and further emphasizing the threat of the Empire come A New Hope.
But the movie doesn’t over explain. The Phantom Menace felt the need to explain the mystical Force as microscopic organisms and C-3PO as a kid’s side project. Instead of feeling the need to, say, explain why the Death Star plans are on tape, Rogue One opts instead to fill in some plot holes and expand on things mentioned in the original movies (again: Alliance), but never seems beholden to what came before.
So Rogue One does what a prequel can do best, does what a prequel should do. It tells its own story that feels complete in and of itself, but in turn also adds a layer to the movie that already exists. A New Hope doesn’t feel any different knowing that it’s Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and all that under the helmet, but the final showdown against the Death Star takes on another level of meaning knowing what led to it.
Prequels get a bad rap because, well, a lot of them are bad. But Rogue One is inarguably a prequel (with a sequel already directed by George Lucas), and it’s one that does what those sort of stories can do. I’ve more rants essays to write about this movie, but for now, one thing that this movie does is prove that, hey, prequels can be really good.