We’re all excited to see Chewie hit the hyperdrive and test drive the brand new Millennium Falcon, but when the stars turn to streaks of light in Solo: A Star Wars Story, we’ll be in reverse gear. We’re going back: back to 1970s-retro sci-fi aesthetics, back to characters we know better than they know themselves, and back to a story whose intricacies are all but irrelevant since we already know the consequences. You might have been getting this feeling a lot recently. Going to the movies is starting to feel like being Guy Pearce in Memento: instead of forming new memories, we’re discovering what happened before.

From a commercial point of view, prequels make perfect sense. They’re a way of cashing in on brand recognition without messing with the original, and of bringing in fresh meat to replace actors too old, weary or expensive to reprise their roles. As Han Solo, Harrison Ford was all three. He pleaded with George Lucas to kill Solo at the end of Return of the Jedi. And he reportedly only returned for The Force Awakens on the condition that he die. But Solo is one of Star Wars’s best-loved characters. What to do? Prequel!

That is often the answer these days. Harry Potter runs out of instalments? A prequel quintet! (Part two, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out later this year). The Alien franchise similarly U-turned from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley back to Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, stories as murkily convoluted as the original Alien was crystal-clear. Only diehard fans can keep track of where sagas such as X-Men and Terminator are these days but brace yourselves for new instalments of both, since they’ve used time travel to prequelise their stories to death. And I bet you can’t wait for Bumblebee, the 1980s-set origin story of the yellow car-bot from Transformers (chief selling point: it isn’t directed by Michael Bay). It’s not just franchise movies: everyone’s at it. No self-respecting horror misses the chance to go back and explain its villain’s roots: Insidious, Annabelle, The Purge, The Conjuring, right back to Exorcist: The Beginning and Hannibal Rising. Animations such as Monsters University and Despicable Me’s Minions are at it. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones is currently developing five different prequel ideas. Even David Chase is preparing a prequel to The Sopranos, set in the 1960s. It’s not story, it’s backstory. What next? Lady Bird: The Kindergarten Years? Baby Driving School? The Shape of Water: Tadpole Love? Memento: It’s All Coming Back to Me Now?

Solo is effectively the fifth Star Wars prequel. George Lucas’s Episodes I to III remain unloved not because we knew how the saga was going to pan out, but because of the stodgy storytelling and bland characters. Rogue One was at least tangential enough to pull a few surprises. But it’s only the recent Episodes VII and VIII that have moved the story on to somewhere new, even if The Force Awakens had its own deja vu issues.

In any case, prequels clearly work. People flock to see them, as they will with Solo. In theory, the past can hold as many surprises as the future, and a good prequel can add depth: The Godfather Part II was essentially a prequel, so was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Maybe the direction of travel matters less than we think. Maybe characters are more important than stories. Maybe viewers enjoy the feeling of omniscience. But is this a substitute for good old chronological-order storytelling? Where new stuff happens, and we don’t know what’s coming next, and we feel as if we’re moving forwards? Like civilisation is moving forwards? Marvel’s current superhero cycle, culminating in Avengers: Infinity War, has demonstrated how chronological storytelling can generate suspense and surprise, even shock, but most studios don’t have the foresight or ambition to plan that far ahead. More often, they stumble upon a hit they weren’t expecting, then clumsily work out how to cash in on it retrospectively.

If Solo is a big hit, we could be in store for yet more – Alden Ehrenreich revealed he is signed up for three pictures as Han Solo. After that, they could go down the “Young Han Solo” route. And wait: Chewbacca is already 190 years old in Solo; his prequels could run and run. They could spin this out right back to the Big Bang.

Set the hyperdrive!

Solo: A Star Wars Story is in UK cinemas on 25 May

Contributor

Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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