Before there was A New Hope, there was only Star Wars. Depending on which interview with George Lucas, there was only ever going to be one, then a trilogy, then nine, then only six, and then ‘no there were nine planned all along’, then of course actually there were a pile of spin offs planned, some even with Wookies. If only George knew what I could see back then.
I still remember the conversation I had with my sister in the late 20th century before The Phantom Menace was released.
“Aren’t you excited for the return of Star Wars?” she asked.
“It’ll never be the same.” I said. A tinge of melancholy turned my whole childhood dark when I uttered those words- There was a disturbance in the Force.
This wasn’t some fanboy complaining about his mangled childhood. This was a statement of fact. I knew it in my bones. Sure, any sequel could be entertaining, but Lucas, and perhaps more importantly Lawrence Kasdan, and Irvin Kershner had taken the original “Star Wars” story and done the incredible- woven a space fantasy epic myth the likes popular culture hadn’t seen since Lord of the Rings. And like Tolkien’s epic there is only one simple truth about story making. A truth nobody ever asks.
Does your story universe encapsulate a complete myth or a series of adventurous pulp tales?
Star War’s only space fiction competitor at the time was none other than Star Trek. However while Gene Roddenberry wrote episodic television; George Lucas wrote cinematic serials. The closest thing to a complete mythic tale in the “Star Trek” universe was the unofficial ‘trilogy’ from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But even those movies represented episodic adventures that explored the vague theme of ‘brotherhood’ and not a complete mythic epic. The strength of “Star Trek” is in its episodic structure. This is why it has seen so many successful reboots and spinoffs through its more than fifty years of existence. Who is your favourite hero in Star Trek? The protagonist with whom you first connected.
“Star Wars” on the other hand, has always been the story of Luke Skywalker– the man who would bring balance to “The Force”. No other tale in the Star Wars universe will surpass that myth, in the same way you can not go back and tell another story in The Matrix universe after the first. The Matrix is about Neo finding himself. The myth is complete, when he is. “Star Wars” was doomed.
At least, that’s what I thought.
And then I saw, Rogue One, aptly subtitled “A Star Wars Tale”. I won’t go into the detail that The Story Toolkit Podcast does when describing what makes an effective prequel. However, “Rogue One” succeeds because it tries to tell the tale about the myth we love. What I mean is, that the story of “Rogue One” is about a tiny hidden piece from the original “Star Wars”. Every piece of “Rogue One” draws us ever closer to the beginning of the mythic trilogy. To hammer home this point, director Gareth Edwards, crams the movie with Easter Eggs which all point to our destiny with that lonely, restless, moisture farmer’s nephew on the desert planet of Tatooine.
Contrast the tension “Rogue One” brings against the story of The Force Awakens. Our excitement at being a small part of the greater myth is exchanged instead for nostalgic shadows of the past. We smile through tears at Han Solo and Chewbacca, because they remind us the story they were in- not the story they are in. “The Force Awakens” reminds us that we’re old. “Rogue One” tells us how to be young again.
Even if you consider the Prequel Trilogy (“The Phantom Menace”, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) and cede that is is entertaining, the Prequel doesn’t fill in the past of the original Star Wars myth, as much as add to it with its own complete story. A story that leaves the audience as unsatisfied as the rest of “The Matrix” trilogy.
“Rogue One” does not try to best the original trilogy. Its heroes are not equal to those of the original trilogy. It is their sacrifice to the larger myth that makes them worthy to be part of the mythic tale. The heroes of “Rogue One” have no pretension. Their goal is simply to light the path for those who will come after.
And when you tell a grand story of mythic proportions that can spellbind a generation like “Lord of the Rings”, “The Matrix”, or “Star Wars” you face the stark truth that any other stories live only to light that path for the story you’ve told, or sadly cast shadows in remembrance.
Which begs the question. Do you want to have one single brilliant mythic tale or endless episodic adventures in a large universe without one truly impacting story?
As a writer, both paths are before you. Which ever one you take don’t confuse it with the other.
As for “Rogue One”? It cemented itself clearly as prologue for one of the greatest stories in film!