So, a lot of people are talking about how Rogue One is a better Star Wars prequel than the prequel trilogy. For this week, let's take a step back and see how Rogue One succeeded in fitting in so neatly before Star Wars. I'm not going to rag on the prequel movies in this post. We're just going to look at what Rogue One did right. You can draw your own conclusions about whether the prequel films also did some or all of these things right. So let's again get with the spoiler space.
What Rogue One did first and foremost was tell a good story, and where it succeeded most was where it concentrated on that story. The few times it genuinely failed was when it tried to force its references to the earlier films (earlier in the years they released, not in the universe chronology.) Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba showing up on the same planet as Saw are a good example of perhaps too heavy of a hand.
Don't get me wrong, the story doesn't stand on its own. If you take someone who hasn't seen Star Wars, they will be completely lost, but within the context of the Star Wars universe, this is a good self-contained movie. Apart from minor roles and cameos, all the characters are new. Their struggle is personal and motivated by their own person inner demons.
So instead of a lot of blatant ham-handed connections, they held themselves to just a few ham-handed connections and tried, in general, to keep their prequelism more subtle. They took episode 4, 5, and 6 and they projected back from there. Here are some of the little things they did to help you feel like you were watching the inciting incidents of the original Star Wars Trilogy:
The Movie Ends with the Tantive IV racing away from Darth Vader with the Death Star Plans. Vader is beyond pissed at this moment, explaining why he is at a 10 at the beginning of Star Wars (maybe at an 11), when he rarely gets above a 3 or a 4 at any other point in the films.
Also, we see that Leia is lying to his face throughout the opening of the film, stoking his rage, and they both know it. That scene has always struck me as tonally different from the rest of the movies. That's probably because of Prowse's performance, later dubbed over by Jones, but now we have an in-universe reason.
We now know why the Death Star had the flaw it had. A nice little retcon.
And of course, we now have an full movie outlining the events described in the crawl of Ep 4, so obviously, there's that.
We see Red Five die, making room for Luke. I believe we see Wedge's spot open up as well. According to Sam Witwer, they hired the actor that performed Wedge's voice in Ep 4 to come back and do voiceovers in Rogue One, but then realized that Wedge was the only one who reacts to the size of the Death Star when they approach it in the Battle of Yavin, and he couldn't have been in this movie.
We see that AT-AT's used to have weak armor and a slightly different design, explaining why the pilots tried to shoot at them with normal snowspeeder guns in the Battle of Hoth, and didn't start the battle with a backup plan.
We hear two stormtroopers discussing decommissioning the BT-15s, setting up the line in Ep 4 where two stormtroopers discuss the new BT-16s while Kenobi is disabling the tractor beam.
Red Leader and Gold Leader were in the film. Red Leader, whose actor is no longer with us, was completely built from A roll and B roll from Ep 4. Gold Leader's actor is still alive and returned to perform additional voice work.
They have an analog version of the Dejarik holochess game in Saw's fortress.
K2 Starts to say "I have a bad feeling about this." but gets cut off.
Super Subtle/Pure Fan Service
They have blue milk in their home in the opening scene, like Luke's home in Ep 4.
They mention the Whills, which were mentioned in Lucas's original Star Wars script. They also use the phrase, "May the Force of others be with you," also from the script. Finally, and we're out of prequel territory here, but they wanted to have a blue squadron in Ep 4, but it wouldn't work with the bluescreen technology of the time.
As with every Star Wars film, the Wilhelm scream is heard, this time when Jyn pushes the stormtrooper off the cliff.
Sam Witwer, who worked with the voice actors, reputedly took great pains to make sure the stormtrooper performances fell into line with Ep 4 stormtroopers, who "never went above a 5." Evidently, the stormtroopers in ep 4 were all voice recorded by some LA DJs.
As you can see, they worked hard, on many levels, to make this movie work. Whereas some films (again, not necessarily referring to the prequel trilogy here) do nothing put openly wink at the audience, the Star Wars connections in Rogue One are buried deeply in its DNA. Whereas most movie remakes and prequels wave their arms blatantly at the audience, Rogue One works their magic down into the deepest fabric of the film. Some of it works. Some of it misfires, but as a whole, it comes together into a cohersive and well-made piece of storytelling.
And that's all any of us could hope for.