While reading this superb Atlantic essay by Katie Kilkenny on Disney's approach to the Star Wars franchise, a thought occurred to me: What if the new movies — Episodes VII-IX and the standalone films — completely ignore the prequels?
The question of who or what established characters and locations will appear in the new movies has been a subject of much speculation since the new trilogy was announced nearly two years ago. Both J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson are old-school Star Wars fans with an old-school approach to filmmaking, who are treating the new trilogy much as if it were being made in the '70s and '80s: real-world locations, massive sets, physical props and puppets, and a relative minimum of CGI. (Or at least, CGI that recreates the look and feel of analog practical effects.) But what if they go beyond simply trying to imitate the grungy aesthetic of the original films, and treat the movies as sequels to the original "Holy Trilogy" only, completely ignoring the continuity of the prequels?
It's pretty safe to assume that we won't be seeing an elderly Jar Jar in these films. Nor do I expect to see any visits to Naboo, Kamino, or Utapau. But what's striking is that the deeper mythology established by the prequels could easily be ignored by filmmakers, in what would amount to a Marvel-style soft retcon-by-omission. The much-maligned midichlorians, the Chosen One, the Balance of the Force; all of these are supposed to inform and enhance our understanding of the original trilogy, but they're not really intrinsic to it. Even the changes Lucas made to the older movies for the DVD release in 2004 don't really alter the story. Sure, Ian McDiarmid shows up as the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back, but he doesn't make any references to midichlorians or the power of the Sith. And Hayden Christensen appears as a ghost in Jedi, but he doesn't say anything along the lines of "The Balance of the Force has been restored!" In a lot of respects the two trilogies could be seen as separate movie series that just happen to share some basic concepts and characters, just as many Westerns or WWII films are superficially similar. It's safe to assume which one owns the hearts and minds of the franchise's new braintrust.
In some ways, you can already see this happening with the abrupt cancellation of Clone Wars and the look and feel of Rebels. Clone Wars was the last original Star Wars project Lucas produced before selling Lucasfilm to Disney, and it is deeply embedded in the world of the prequels. Rebels is set only a short while after the end of Clone Wars and Episode III, but it has no apparent connection to either; rather than serving as a transition between the era of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, it's set entirely in an aesthetic universe that resembles the Star Wars of the '70s. That's not to say that characters from the prequels or the earlier cartoons couldn't show up, but since the show is designed to stir up interest in the new movies, rather than resolving plotlines from the prequel era, it seems highly unlikely. (Ahsoka Tano fans really shouldn't hold their breath.)
Of course, it could be argued that most prequels are by nature inessential, even if the author feels otherwise. You really don't have to read the Silmarillion to appreciate Lord of the Rings, despite what hardcore Tolkienistas say. Maybe the most annoying thing about the Star Wars prequels was that they didn't really add anything to the existing saga, because we really wanted to see what happened to Luke, Han, and Leia next, and didn't need to have the established backstory expanded beyond the simple exposition provided in the original movies. (It's a safe bet that most dedicated fans already had an idea of what the Republic and young Vader and Obi-Wan looked like that didn't resemble the world of the prequels at all.) Prequels invite collective amnesia in a way that even a disappointing sequel doesn't.
So here's my theory: Abrams, Johnson, and whoever helms Episode IX will make movies that will look a lot like the original trilogy and feel uncannily like the old-school 1990s EU novels that just got erased from "official" continuity.* They will have Republic guys, Imperial guys, aspiring Jedi, various scoundrels, classic Star Wars hardware (lightsabers, blasters, X-Wings, the Falcon, AT-ATs, speeders, metal bikinis), stormtroopers, a trip to Tatooine, maybe a scary dude in black or two, but no Art Nouveau planets, no visits to the Senate, no expository dumps longer than twenty seconds, no Sith, no references to Jedi prophecies or midichlorian counts, and no references to economics or political factions besides the Republic or the Empire. Old school fans who grew up with the original movies will love them. But there will be grumblings from the now-adult viewers who grew up with the prequels that Disney somehow betrayed Lucas' vision. As Kilkenny observes:
All of Abrams's and Johnson's affection for the original films drive home how much the new ones will be, at base, unnecessary cash grabs—the equivalent of old action figures sold on eBay, schemes for money and not for art. The prequels seem almost pure by contrast. George Lucas was the guiding creative vision behind the franchise from the beginning, and his vision told him to invest in lush CGI, hire Hayden Christensen, and tell the story of Anakin Skywalker's descent from wee midichlorian-surfeited boy to angsty, lanky-haired Jedi. Lucas found the story touching, even if his viewers didn't.
Eventually, we will probably see Star Wars movies ten or twelve years down the road that reference the prequels heavily — written and directed by second and third-generation filmmakers who grew up with Episodes I-III and the Clone Wars cartoons, who see those storylines as essential to the saga as the original trilogy. (We are already beginning to see critical reevaluations of those movies.) That might seem like heresy to the likes of, say, Kevin Smith, or Abrams or Johnson for that matter. (At that point they should be amusingly middle-aged and grumpy.) But franchises evolve over time. As a notable Sith Lord once put it: It is inevitable. And maybe even Ahsoka might get her moment in the suns, after being frozen in nostalgia carbonite for a decade or so.
*At times like this it's important to remember Alan Moore's dictum about "imaginary stories."