Warning: This article contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If you haven’t seen it yet, encase yourself in frozen carbonite and come back when you’ve recovered from hibernation sickness.
A Star Wars film used to be a rare occurrence. George Lucas’ original and prequel trilogies, separated by 16 years of fan theorizing and expanded universe literature, only released their individual episodes at intervals of three years, stretching out the anticipation factor for as long as possible. But since The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 (for the tidy sum of $4.05 billion), the films have been arriving at a fast and furious pace. Just one year after the franchise was rebooted with Episode VII – The Force Awakens, comes the first in the branded Anthology series – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Set between Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV – A New Hope, but explicitly differentiating itself from their space opera mythologizing, Rogue One intends to tell a more grounded and gritty tale within the vast Star Wars universe: detailing the theft of the Death Star plans mentioned in the opening crawl of A New Hope (a crawl which, incidentally, is missing from this non-episodic film). But, as with all things, nostalgia inevitably wins out. Ostensibly meant to open up the franchise and tell stories outside of the Skywalker familial drama, the film’s placement in between the two trilogies actually limits its storytelling potential, turning it into Episode III ½ more than was likely intended.
Opening with the trademark “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” blue text, but without the aforementioned yellow crawl and iconic John Williams score, Rogue One instantly identifies itself as both part of the Star Wars universe and uniquely situated within it. Spending much of its first act hopping from (new) planet to planet, rigorously setting up the narrative, it is a necessarily expository work, taking time to explain things to the audience that the characters should already know. Along the way we meet our new cast of heroes: perennial prisoner Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, continuing the franchise’s penchant for brunettes), Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). In a refreshing change of pace from Lucas’ two trilogies and in keeping with the trend set by The Force Awakens, the only white men in the cast are either in supporting or villainous roles – here exemplified by Aussie Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial director Orson Krennic – with the protagonists played by minorities or (white) women. It’s a progressive step forward for the franchise, even if there’s still work to be done.
Before long, the mission-based plot takes centre stage as the characters fill out their stereotypical roles – the reluctant leader, the spiritual warrior, the sardonic comic relief – leaving little room for development or change. Amusing, however, is de facto protagonist Jyn’s shifting characterization from scene to scene, taking on whatever role is required at the time; one minute she’s a feisty rebel, the next an inspiring commander. It’s not an altogether surprising feature of a cinematic hero, especially one as roughly drawn as Jyn, but it is disappointing after the fleshed-out definition of Rey in The Force Awakens. She’s clearly motivated by a desire to locate her Imperial scientist father Galen (an underused Mads Mikkelsen) – whose secret holographic message drives the plot in much the same way that Princess Leia’s did in A New Hope – but she’s otherwise lacking in recognizable character traits beyond “rebellious” and “determined.” There are no edges to her personality – it’s all simple features.
Of course, Star Wars is not the most popular film franchise in history because of its complex characterizations. It’s the overarching mythmaking, fantastical worlds and creatures, and high-stakes dramatic action that engenders its success. Rogue One is brimming with all of this and more, for as much as producer Kathleen Kennedy and director Gareth Edwards (known for his monster movies Monsters and Godzilla) claim the film is different and separate from the canonical episodes, it certainly moves and feels like a Star Wars flick. X-wings and TIE Fighters engage in aerial dogfights. Rebel Alliance soldiers and Imperial stormtroopers battle on single-environment worlds. The Death Star blows up a planet (or at least part of one). And yes, Darth Vader shows up, although his effectiveness is somewhat muted by our knowledge that underneath that menacing black armour and James Earl Jones voice is a whiny teenager, pining for his lost love. Even more than J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, it is a film fundamentally built on nostalgia, on relying on its audience to remember the smallest details about the originals. And they will. Remember those two aliens who wound up at the wrong end of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber in the Mos Eisley cantina? This film does.
But nostalgia is simultaneously this film’s greatest asset and biggest hindrance. For as much as audiences love understanding the backstory of their favourite films, they love being surprised and captivated by the series’ new direction even more. This is why The Force Awakens grossed more than any of the prequels, and almost as much as all three put together. Rogue One, hemmed in on both sides by the two trilogies, has no room for any surprises, and though it makes a valiant effort at relevancy, it’s ultimately a largely unnecessary film chiefly designed to explain a plot hole in A New Hope. As much fun (and it is fun) as it is to see how Vader and Leia got to the positions that began the entire franchise… is it really needed? It seems as though, with Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and their promise to make a new Star Wars film every year, every untold story within the cracks of the saga will eventually be told, leaving no room for imagination or creativity. It becomes, as with all things, just another corporate product, commodified and packaged for maximum profit – not unlike the Death Star itself.