The problem with prologues
We saw ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ on the weekend and I have thoughts
I know this isn’t technically related to writing, but it is about storytelling. And also – spoilers. Lots of spoilers. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet – and you plan to – come back once you’re full of popcorn and questions.
Disclaimer: I am not by any stretch a Star Wars geek. Between myself, my husband and my son we cover all bases: I’ve seen the movies, but can take or leave them. Mr F watches the movies regularly. Junior knows the movies verbatim, has seen the animated ‘The Clone Wars’ series, reads the books, builds the Lego.
But this isn’t about who wins canon arguments (Junior) or does the best Chewbacca impression (me before a haircut) or who nodded off during one of the many chase scenes in ‘Solo’ (also me). It’s about the problem with prologues, or prequels.
Star Wars began in the middle. The first three movies made – ‘Star Wars’ (later retitled ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’), ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’ have ended up mid-stream as episodes 4, 5 and 6. ‘Attack of the Clones’, ‘The Clone Wars’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’, made some 20 years after the first three, are episodes 1, 2 and 3. ‘The Force Awakens’ (2015), last year’s ‘The Last Jedi’ and the as-yet unnamed release scheduled for next year are episodes 7, 8 and 9.
Then there are the others – Ewok movies, TV series, and the two ‘insert’ prequels ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ – which sits between episodes 3 and 4, and ‘Solo’ – which comes chronologically before ‘Rogue One’.
Personally, I found ‘Rogue One’ hilarious, full of floppy disks to transfer information and big levers at the end of catwalks in the sky that exist only to create obvious barriers to the protagonists’ goals. Mr F and I ended up pre-empting the script: ‘Bet X will happen next’, and it did. ‘Y isn’t actually dead, but they think he is and he’ll come back and make peace with Y and THEN die,’ and he did.
This was the main issue I had with this movie: we knew the ending. We knew Darth would survive, and the Rebels would get the plans off the base – because this is the backstory to ‘A New Hope’. There was no tension, no will they/won’t they/how will they get out of this one because we knew going in that they didn’t.
Enter the new insert prequel, ‘Solo’, which is basically Han’s origin story. And because we’ve seen his life from ‘A New Hope’ onwards, we know about Chewbacca, the Kessel Run and the Millennium Falcon – which we know from ‘A New Hope’ that he won in a card game from Lando Calrissian. So we can expect to see Lando too. We learnt why Lando calls him ‘Haan’ instead on ‘Hahn’. We discovered how he got his name Solo, how he became a rogue, how he and Chewie met, how he became a pilot.
All this made it… predictable. Despite the majority of new characters, again we know who will survive and who won’t. We know that Han and Lando are mates, that Han and Chewie are mates, that Han becomes a pilot and a rogue – because we’ve seen it in the other movies. It’s a difficult thing to build narrative tension when we already know the ending. Who will survive out of Han, Chewie, Beckett, Qi’ra, Lando, and the Crimson Dawn crew? Well, Han, obviously. And Chewie and Lando. And Crimson who? Do Han and Qi’ra end up together? Does it matter when we already knows Han ends up with Leia? Do they survive the Kessel Run? We know he made it in 12 parsecs, so, um, we know the outcome of that narrative arc before it even starts – they make it. In 12 parsecs, give or take for exaggeration. Again, no narrative tension.
Compare these inserts with prequel episodes 1, 2 and 3, which are effectively Darth Vader’s origin story. We know – again from the earlier sequels that Anakin becomes Darth, and is Luke and Leia’s father. What we want to see is how this happens – how does a small fry whose midichlorians are off the scale (Weird Al Yankovic’s The Saga Begins is one of my primary sources of Star Wars info) go from being this here Anakin guy to maybe Vader someday later? They’re not perfect narratives, but the space and distance from the later episodes provides room in the negative hyperspace to add to the backstory with elements including the Jedis creating the clones that would eventually become the first Stormtroopers, and Anakin building C3PO. They also set up an overlay of self-fulfilling prophecies – and the focus is not just on one character or event.
One of the first rules of writing is don’t spell out the backstory, and for me ‘Solo’ was one big backstory. The actors were great and there were some Easter eggs – I missed the Indiana Jones golden idol in Dryden Vos’s office, but apparently it’s there – but the story itself added little, if anything, to the overall franchise. It took everything we already knew about Han – and backsplained it.
But what about the Shock Return at the end? Much has already been written about the appearance of Darth Maul, who apparently died in episode 3, including these by Patrick Lenton at Junkee and Sam Clench at news.com.au. This is how it played in our family:
Me: I didn’t even pick it up.
Mr F: It didn’t make sense – he was chopped in half. He DIED.
Junior: Didn’t you see the mechanical legs? And he survived. He’s in ‘The Clone Wars’ cartoon.
This was intended as a massive plot reveal, but didn’t work and I think we sum up the three camps: didn’t notice, didn’t make sense, didn’t think it was a twist.
I’m a firm believer that any story will play differently across various platforms because each has its advantages and limitations. Prologues in writing come at the start – they set up a filter through which the rest of the book is viewed. If they come at the end they don’t have the same impact. Next time you read a book with a prologue, go back and read the prologue again at the end. Does it work? There’ll be foreshadowing and hints at what you’ve just read, but does it hook you in the same way?
For a prologue movie to work it has to be more than a series of character notes; it must provide a new perspective to an existing story or character – and that’s a tough ask.