SPOILER WARNING: The below article contains significant spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We therefore recommend reading this post only if you have already seen the film.
Central amongst the many, many well-documented problems within George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy was the writer and director's treatment of Anakin Skywalker as he progressed towards becoming one of the most iconic cinematic villains of all time. Simply put, it was difficult at any point to actually imagine that either Jake Lloyd's pint-sized pod racer or Hayden Christensen's juvenile Jedi-in-training would actually grow up to be the ruthless Sith Lord seen in the original films. It wasn't just a question of dodgy casting either: even if you were on board that Anakin's journey to the dark side was a story which needed to be told, it's fairly likely that the version of that story related through Episodes I to III wouldn't be the one you'd choose.
In choosing to fill in the blanks in Darth Vader's origins, however, Lucas manacled the Star Wars franchise to a restrictive and unsatisfying approach from which J. J. Abrams successfully managed to break it free in Episode VII. Whilst The Force Awakens was undoubtedly nostalgic about the series' past in many ways, that nostalgia was never the driving force behind the narrative. The focus was on new characters continuing the story, with the familiar faces largely there to help them do that rather than steal the limelight.
All of which leaves Rogue One: A Star Wars Story awkwardly caught between Lucas' prequels and Abrams' continuation. The first in what Lucasfilm is describing as the Star Wars Anthology series, Rogue One is by definition a prequel, but as it sits outside the Skywalker saga you might think that it would escape the constraints Lucas brought upon himself during Episodes I to III. In practice, that's frustratingly not the case. This might not be an 'Episode', but it is a lengthy direct prelude to the events of Episode IV, the final scenes of Rogue One taking place literally seconds before the opening moments of A New Hope.
Whilst director Gareth Edwards does his best to create a story which can stand apart from this status, he's ultimately fighting a losing battle. The appearances by key characters from A New Hope vary wildly in their success. Ironically, the scenes involving Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones) are not only the best nostalgic moments but also two of the best sequences in the whole film. Princess Leia's brief digitally recreated appearance at the end of Rogue One only works because it's so fleeting - any longer on screen and the illusion would most likely have fallen apart.
Which leads to the technological resurrection of the late Peter Cushing for the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, a decision that sits far less comfortably. Questions of taste and dignity aside, from a purely aesthetic point of view it simply doesn't work. Tarkin's CGI appearance is so distracting that it jolts you out of the film experience every time he appears, to the point where you'll start to question why Guy Henry (who provides the motion capture performance) wasn't simply allowed to play the part on screen: if he looks and sounds enough like Cushing to be digitally transformed into him, surely a better, more natural job could have been done with prosthetics? The only other option would have been to find some way of artificially writing Tarkin out of the story, or perhaps alluding to his presence without putting him on screen; but, as Rogue One's plot revolves around the construction of the Death Star, it's likely that his absence would have felt just as jarring as his presence in the finished film.
However, the characters who aren't in A New Hope end up casting a far greater shadow over Rogue One than those who are, as it's here that the film's prequel status comes back to bite it most significantly. By definition, none of the new faces can make it to Episode IV, which leads to an awful lot of death in the final act. That in itself wouldn't necessarily be a problem if Edwards managed to make his characters' demises feel warranted. Instead, the majority Rogue One's cast meets their end because logic dictates that they have to, rather than because it fits the arc they've followed, leaving the high body count amongst the film's key players seriously lacking the emotional weight that it should undoubtedly carry.
Rogue One is never a bad film; in fact, it's regularly quite an enjoyable one. But unlike The Force Awakens, which managed to both echo and build upon the characters and stories that precede it, Rogue One is undoubtedly a film continually held back by its inescapable obligation to the legacy of the Star Wars franchise. If those in charge at Lucasfilm wants the iconic sci-fi series to avoid the embarrassing and frustrating lows of Lucas' prequel trilogy as it continues, they need to ensure that both they and the films look forwards far more often than they look back.