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“Why are they making another Star Wars prequel?” is not a question anyone seems to be asking about Rogue One.
Disney has strenuously avoided the p-word in all official statements. But make no mistake. Rogue One is a prequel. It takes place right before one of the most successful movies ever made. It features Darth Vader before he attacks the Tantive IV, as well as Mon Mothma before her big Return of the Jedi speech. The film is an origin story—the first Rogue tale, before Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles flew together under that designation.
At the same time, Rogue One is also a sequel. Eleven years ago, Revenge of the Sith ended with chaos throughout the galaxy. The Sith Lord formerly known as Anakin Skywalker looked on as the Empire started building a superweapon capable of ending worlds. Rogue One picks up the Episode III story—and, apparently, carries it right to the beginning of Episode IV.
Now, the Star Wars prequels are controversial. (Let’s understate things, shall we?) They loom large in geek culture as a symbol for what not to do: an excess of green-screen CGI effects, a focus on arcane space politics, a romance with zero chemistry, the Padawan braid, the word “Padawan.” Consensus on J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is that it recaptured the spirit of the original movies— which is to say, it strenuously avoided the spirit of the prequels.
Rogue One represents an even wilder gambit: asking viewers to reconsider their perspective on the whole notion of a Star Wars prequel. The film features an appearance by Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, a key supporting figure in Revenge of the Sith. More impressively, on the level of pure nerd minutiae, the film gives Genevieve O’Reilly the chance to finally play Mon Mothma—as the rebel leader we love, not the silent senator most people didn’t notice in Sith. The prequel canon weaves itself into Rogue One via Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, who first appeared in the Clone Wars TV series.
The open secret about Star Wars is that the future of the franchise is full of prequels: movies set before the original trilogy, with younger variations of beloved characters. Alden Ehrenreich is playing Young Han Solo in a movie . . . or three. Rumors abound of a Boba Fett origin film. So Rogue One is a testing ground of sorts: an attempt to step backward, once again, on the Star Wars timeline.
It may also represent a greater cultural shift. A decade ago prequel complaints ran wild; a common chorus argued that George Lucas had “ruined” childhoods. Now that Star Wars is back, maybe it’s possible to see Episodes I-III with clearer eyes. The allegory was undercooked, but there’s a way of reading Episode III in particular as George Lucas’s response to the Bush era, overflowing with incoherent yet tantalizing ideas about how fascism arises from democracy. Rogue One looks, from the outside, like the anti-Phantom Menace: fewer Jedi, less politics, more guns, more actual wars than stars. But Rogue One honors the spirit of the prequels: with Smits, O’Reilly and Saw Gerrera, and with the very idea of digging into the saga’s past to plot its big-screen future. Rogue One is more than just a spinoff. It’s an attempt to bridge the gap between generations, onscreen and off: between the Coruscant Senate Chamber and the Mos Eisley Cantina, between the original trilogy’s practical effects and the prequels’ digital overload, between the gen Xer who grew up on A New Hope and the young millennial nostalgic for pod races. The Force Awakens saved the franchise’s future. Rogue One wants to save the past.
This article originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly’s collector’s edition of The Ultimate Guide to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on newsstands now.