This article first appeared at Den of Geek UK.
NB: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: Rogue One.
Many Star Wars fans have long since learned to be careful what they wish for. Before 1999, the notion of George Lucas not only returning to the saga he created, but also charting the untold story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, sounded like an enticing prospect. While the Prequel Trilogy – which began with The Phantom Menace and thundered to a close with Revenge of the Sith – has its defenders, most can probably agree that the reality was far more disappointing than the anticipation.
Although not without its flaws, Rogue One is a prequel that actually feels like it connects with the film it precedes, A New Hope. The world feels grubby and lived-in; the locations have a depth and patina of age; the technology is both futuristic and quaintly retro. Watch Gareth Edwards’ prequel and A New Hope back to back, and it becomes clear just how effective it is as a prologue to a more famous story. Far from a disposable cash-in, Rogue One – at least in this writer’s estimation – succeeds in complementing the Star Wars film that started it all.
First, and most obviously, there’s the way Rogue One‘s violent coda dovetails with A New Hope. The rumor persisted for months that Rogue One would end approximately 10 minutes before Episode IV begins, and so it happened: we see Rebel soldiers frantically scramble to get the disc containing the Death Star plans onto the Tantive IV as Darth Vader cuts through their ranks. To the din of screams and blaster fire, the Blockade Runner scrambles away from Lord Vader’s Star Destroyer, and Rogue One ends with the plans being handed to a CGI Princess Leia (for brevity, we won’t go into her glassy-eyed countenance again here).
After Rogue One‘s credits rolled, your humble writer scrambled back home and put on the A New Hope Blu-ray, just to see how the experience of watching it would be colored by the intensity of Edwards’ war movie. Having just seen Vader’s Sith-powered rampage, the villain’s dramatic entrance on Leia’s Blockade Runner feels that much more scary; closer, perhaps, to the sense of foreboding audiences must have felt when they first saw that scene in 1977.
That Star Wars is a (nearly) 40-year-old film with a much lower budget than Rogue One inevitably means that it isn’t as fast-paced or effects-filled as Edwards’ prequel, yet they’re tonally similar enough that watching them together feels perfectly natural. Sure, there are things that stand out – wondering just how Ponda Baba and Cornelius Evazan managed to survive the explosion on Jedha and get to Tatooine springs to mind – but the two feel more connected than, say, Prometheus and Alien.
What’s more, the Death Star feels like a scary piece of technology again, having seen what it was capable of in Rogue One. Moff Tarkin, who we’ve just seen destroy his own base on Scarif in order to halt the Rebels’ incursion, takes on an even darker hue. Seeing the destruction of the ancient city on Jedha and the deaths of Jyn and her team on Scarif brings a sense of consequence to Tarkin’s actions that were merely abstract in A New Hope. Leia may have reacted with horror at the destruction of Aldaraan, but because we never spent time on the planet’s surface, we couldn’t grasp the sense of loss. As Gareth Edwards told us recently:
I feel like scale is relative. There’s that phrase, “If one person dies, it’s a tragedy. When a million people die, it’s a statistic.” It’s like that on a visual level; if you want to make people feel something, you’ve got to be with one character, or people you care about. If you’re experiencing it too objectively, you don’t really care. I felt there was a great opportunity in this film to get on the ground level with the characters and have these epic amazing things happen, but you’re in it, and you’re trying to survive.
The clever bit of story retro-fitting, dreamed up by Rogue One‘s writers, is also a masterstroke: the Death Star’s exploitable weakness was put there deliberately by Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the scientist forced to create the superweapon on the Empire’s behalf. The Battle of Yavin, where Luke Skywalker joins the Rebels (as Red Five, no less) is therefore not just self-defense, but an act of revenge. Having watched so many Rebels die to wrest the plans from the Empire in Rogue One, the attack on the Death Star turns into a final, cathartic pay-off.
To return to the Alien comparison, consider Ridley Scott’s 1979 film and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens. Rather than dryly retread the events of Alien, Aliens functions as a second half of the story: Ripley’s shift from survivor to warrior and surrogate mother to Newt. Rogue One and A New Hope complement one anther in a similar fashion, with the desperate struggle of the prequel giving way to the triumphant counter-attack of Episode IV.
The last shot of Peter Cushing’s Tarkin – in profile, staring blandly up at the screen on the Death Star – which once seemed like such a disappointing farewell for the character, also takes on a more dramatic hue. As Luke delivers the one-in-a-million shot to the Death Star’s exhaust port, Galen and Jyn Erso’s sacrifice finally bears fruit: the Empire’s evil weapon is destroyed, and Tarkin, who’d killed thousands of people so coldly with a wave of his hand, goes up with it.
Just as The Empire Strikes Back was the dark yet satisfying bridge between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, Rogue One functions as an introductory chapter to a pivotal stage in the whole saga. Far from a frivolous addition to the franchise, it colors Episode IV in a new, more dramatic light.