Although Gareth Edwards’ situation might not have seemed as dire as, say, J.J. Abrams’ was a year ago, the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story director still carried an immense weight on his shoulders. While the intense pressure of making a Star Wars film at all might make some filmmakers run to a distant star system, Edwards had even more going against him – and I don’t mean last year’s highly publicized reshoots. The Godzilla director didn’t only have to deliver an entertaining, worthwhile addition to Star Wars, he had to make a film outside of the Skywalker saga – the tentpole around which all other Star Wars things revolve.
Sure, Edwards had the advantage that the seeds of his film’s story were planted as bits of exposition all the way back in 1977, but can you really call that a gift from the Force gods? After all, this also meant that Edwards was, for all intents and purposes, making another prequel (a very bad word among Star Wars fans) that had to tie into A New Hope, the most important of the seven films in the series, all while forsaking many of the franchise’s most popular characters.
Now add to that all of the rumors and murmurs surrounding the reshoots, which were said to have changed big chunks of the film and its tone while under the watchful eye of script doctor and director Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy), who allegedly had as much say as Edwards in the final days of post-production.
Yet, despite the insurmountable odds that might make a whole rebel force retreat into hyperspace, Edwards, along with a band of writers (Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz, Gilroy, and uncredited work by Christopher McQuarrie), still manages to deliver an excellent and worthy Star Wars installment that wonderfully defies the rules of a franchise film. Rogue One is indeed a movie that exists within a shared universe, yet it’s not restricted by it, and in that way, it’s a better example of Star Wars storytelling than last year’s The Force Awakens.
The Force Awakens, for all of its memorable characters, exciting action sequences, and cinematic beauty, never quite tells a complete, fully-fleshed out narrative. Instead, it sets up storylines for its sequel, teasing the audience with vague story beats and familiar sights – like a villain clad in black and a superweapon capable of blowing up planets.
Nowhere are The Force Awakens‘ ambiguities more present than in Rey’s story. Who are her parents? Why did they abandon her on Jakku? Why does Luke’s old lightsaber call to Rey? Why can Rey suddenly use the Force in the third act of the film? While we can take educated guesses at many of these questions (Rey’s Force abilities, which had been there all along, were awoken after she came into contact with the lightsaber), we don’t know for sure by the end of the movie. And there are a plethora of other vital things that go without explanation throughout the story. Even the things we’ve learned since the film’s release, such as how the First Order actually functions, have been explained in tie-in novels and comics. Abrams’ Star Wars sequel deals more in implications than actual facts.
Now, I’m not saying the first installment in a planned trilogy should answer ALL questions, but it should at least answer some. You might make the argument that A New Hope suffers from the same problem (Lucas did have a trilogy in mind, even if the 1977 film does feel more complete than TFA) when it comes to its protagonist. Yet, we do at least know a bit about Luke’s parentage – his father fought in the Clone Wars alongside Ben Kenobi. There’s also the matter of how a farm boy with no prior knowledge of the Force could muster the ancient energy to land a precise shot into the Death Star’s exhaust port. But you can superficially explain that to your skeptical friends by pointing out that Luke did get some training from Ben Kenobi in the first film. At least the basics.
The Force Awakens holds up as a worthy successor to George Lucas’ legacy through its captivating characters and stunning imagery, but not on the merit of its story – much of which is a callback to the earlier films, anyway. And we’ll get to that in a minute.
In contrast, Rogue One, despite the fact that it is a cog in Disney’s shared universe machine, doesn’t have to set up the next movie. At least not in the way that The Force Awakens had to create intrigue for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Rogue One takes place almost immediately before A New Hope, and it almost exclusively stars characters we’ve never heard of, yet immediately grab our attention. There are still at least two returning characters in the film, including Darth Vader, whose imposing presence certainly carried at least a portion of the ticket sales on opening weekend. The other character is Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker, who you’ve only really heard of if you watch The Clone Wars animated series. Otherwise, Rogue One is about characters with no ties to the larger Star Wars universe.
Edwards takes risks with these characters and with the story he tells. He isn’t shackled by the prospect of creating a franchise of films about the Rogue One crew or setting up spinoff movies for Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor et al (although that might ultimately be the case if Disney decides to give some of these characters their own spinoffs). The franchise has already been built around his film, which actually gives Edwards a lot of freedom to craft the story he wants to tell. Since there is no precedent for how the mission to steal the Death Star plans is supposed to go, Edwards is free to tell whatever story he wants, as long as it makes sense with A New Hope. The one he chooses to tell is exhilarating, with a couple of great characters and some very cool ideas about the universe as a whole.
Rogue One actually fleshes out A New Hope in some very interesting ways, too. The movie presents a gritty world of insurgents and freedom fighters that does a lot to reveal the grayer areas of a desperate Rebel Alliance as well as the inner machinations of the Imperial bureaucracy. There also tidbits about how the spirit of the Jedi is being kept alive by the Force’s most devout worshipers on Jedha – by far the film’s most intriguing location. It also answers some very interesting questions about the Death Star’s construction, information I didn’t even know I wanted but was happy to receive. Rogue One might actually have a surprising effect on your enjoyment of A New Hope. After leaving the theater, I felt like my next rewatch of A New Hope would be much more informed by its prequel – in a welcomed way, as opposed to the “Darth Vader was once a little boy with a mushroom haircut” scenario.
While there are plenty of nods to the seminal film in this prequel, these references aren’t the story as much as connective tissue to remind viewers that this movie is part of a larger universe. Many of them are even tongue-in-cheek moments meant to make the audience giggle. The Force Awakens, on the other hand, makes references every which way it can. It triples down on nostalgia. Episode VII is not so much a sequel or a reboot as it is a nostalgia-make meant to give fans their childhood back, and it heavily relies on what’s come before in order to do so.
Abrams’ movie doesn’t quite explore the present as much as it looks to the past. Remember when we all fell in love with a farmboy who longed to get off the desert planet he called home? Here’s Rey. Remember the evil Empire and its most sinister agent, Darth Vader? You’ve got the First Order and Kylo Ren. And who can forget the Death Star, a moon-sized battle station capable of destroying a planet with a single press of a button (Rogue One shows that it’s a little more complicated than that)? Bam! Starkiller Base. This obvious use of nostalgia as story, when mixed with the ambiguities of setting up the next film, makes it so that The Force Awakens never really says anything new about Star Wars, and therefore never has to commit to any one thing. Well, besides the death of Han Solo.
Rogue One, on the other hand, is a brand new story in the Star Wars universe with characters free of the Skywalker baggage. It’s tethered to the other films for sure, but in no way restricted by them, as long as point-A ultimately gets to point-B. The journey between the beginning of the film to the eventual theft of the Death Star plans is where Edwards’ story thrives. Rogue One is proof enough that originality, that new stories, still trump pre-fab shared universes, and that Star Wars can still tell interesting, unexpected stories in the age of nostalgia.